A review of Fewer. By Ben Wattenberg.
Ivan R. Dee, 2004.
World depopulation has become the most important, and alarming, new demographic trend to emerge in the past few decades. While the world has experienced low fertility rates before, they have been due to great social disruptions such as war, famine, depression or plague. But the rates always went up afterwards.
Things are different now. The global downward trend in fertility is both long-term and pronounced. The numbers are alarming. There are now 63 nations with below-replacement fertility. The replacement level is a Total Fertility Rate of 2.1 children per women. Yet everywhere TFRs are plummeting. Today all 44 modern nations, with the exception of Albania, are below the 2.1 replacement level. America is just on that level.
And consider this incredible statistic: European TFR has fallen for fifty consecutive years. Many European nations have a TFR of 1.2, such as Italy, Greece, and Austria. Spain’s level is down to 1.1. The UN estimates that Europe’s population of 728 million people today will shrink to 632 million within 50 years.
The trend in the developing world is even more staggering. In 35 years the TFR there has fallen from 6.01 to around 2.8, and it continues to spiral downwards. South Korea, for example, has a TFR of just over 1.1, while China’s rate is 1.8. This is down from 6.06 for China in the late 60s.
Fertility rates are falling rapidly in Arab and Muslim nations as well. For example, forty years ago the TFR in North Africa was 7.1 children per woman. Today it is 3.2 and still falling.
Now Wattenberg has written on these issues before. In 1987 he wrote The Birth Dearth. So why another book? What really shook up Wattenberg, and spurred on this newer book, was the fact that the UN made a major readjustment of its population projections in 2002. For decades prior to this date the UN had been predicting upward population trends for the developed world over the next half century.
But in March 2002 it made a major revision of thinking on the trends in the developing world. Before this time it assumed that the TFR in the poor countries would fall to just 2.1 children per woman. It now changed that figure to 1.85, a full quarter of a child per woman. That meant that world population in the future would go down, not up. It is this new demographic that has really set off the alarm bells.
Wattenberg gives us plenty of statistical information. And he points out that the US is one nation that seems to be bucking the trend. American TFR has actually risen lately, mainly due to immigration. But around the rest of the world the picture is bleak indeed.
The causes are all the usual suspects: urbanisation, education, women in the workplace, contraception, abortion, etc. But the real question is, what will be the effect of this world-wide population implosion? We just do not know because it has never happened before, at least on such a large scale. How will economies fare? How will societies change?
We do know that we are experiencing aging populations. But with a shrinking supply of babies, and therefore taxpayers, real crises are and will develop in simply meeting the needs of the growing elderly population. Who will pay for their pensions and medical care? These problems will be pronounced in all of the West, but especially in Europe and parts of Southeast Asia.
Wattenberg looks at a number of implications of the New Demographics, including the geopolitical situation. Concerning the issue of freedom and democracy, the trends up until recently had looked grim. The free Western world (with the exception of America) was experiencing population decline. In the meantime, the non-democratic Muslim world was growing. Now most populations are in decline, including the Muslim world. With shrinking populations go declining defence budgets. America is the last remaining Western democracy that still has the numbers to sustain a viable defensive structure. In a world threatened by international terrorism, that defence capability is welcome indeed.
But how things will progress in the future is an open question. For America to maintain its role as leader of the free world, it will have to keep its population levels up. Can immigration do this? As to immigration in general, he thinks this is mainly a healthy thing, and disagrees with those like Patrick Buchanan (The Death of the West), who describe it in worst-case scenario terms. In the short term America and the world should continue to benefit from immigration. The long term gets a bit unclear however.
Wattenberg also looks at the issue of illegal immigration. In total, illegal immigrants make up only about 3 per cent of the US population. He thinks that overall their presence is not an overwhelming problem, with potential positives often out-weighing the negatives.
He concludes by noting that the Less Developed Countries could in fact experience a “demographic dividend”. He notes that poor countries with falling fertility rates are growing wealthier quicker than are the rich modern nations. In the meantime the New Demography is bad for most Western nations. Thus the need to spread the vision of freedom and democracy around the world, lest non- (or anti-) democratic nations win by default, by simply taking over due to sheer force of numbers.
No one really knows where these trends will take us. Much of Wattenberg’s book could be called speculative. But it is important that good minds pay close attention to these changes. This book is a very helpful contribution to that effort.