Fecundity comes at a price

The last article I linked to in these pages was atrocious. This one is not:

Immigration is only one part of a complex story. Another reason why the labour supply in the US went up in the 19th century is, not to put too fine a point on it, sex. The native-born population was growing at what were, at the time, unprecedented rates: a 2.9 per cent growth per year in the 1800s, only gradually declining after that. By 1850 there was no available farmland in Eastern Seaboard states. Many from that ‘population surplus’ moved west, but others ended up in eastern cities where, of course, they competed for jobs with new immigrants.

This connection between the oversupply of labour and plummeting living standards for the poor is one of the more robust generalisations in history. Consider the case of medieval England. The population of England doubled between 1150 and 1300. There was little possibility of overseas emigration, so the ‘surplus’ peasants flocked to the cities, causing the population of London to balloon from 20,000 to 80,000. Too many hungry mouths and too many idle hands resulted in a fourfold increase in food prices and a halving of real wages. Then, when a series of horrible epidemics, starting with the Black Death of 1348, carried away more than half of the population, the same dynamic ran in reverse. The catastrophe, paradoxically, introduced a Golden Age for common people. Real wages tripled and living standards went up, both quantitatively and qualitatively. Common people relied less on bread, gorging themselves instead on meat, fish, and dairy products.

Much the same pattern can be seen during the secular cycle of the Roman Principate. The population of the Roman Empire grew rapidly during the first two centuries up to 165AD. Then came a series of deadly epidemics, known as the Antonine Plague. In Roman Egypt, for which we have contemporary data thanks to preserved papyri, real wages first fell (when the population increased) and then regained ground (when the population collapsed). We also know that many grain fields were converted to orchards and vineyards following the plagues. The implication is that the standard of life for common people improved — they ate less bread, more fruit, and drank wine. The gap between common people and the elites shrank.

This puts my previous encouragement of fecundity in a dimmer light. Natalism is a stance I first came around to only a few years ago, and I support it in fits and starts. I’ve never found a satisfactory way to reconcile the virtues of abundant family life with the vices of overpopulation and poverty, which, even if antinatalist elements on the left exaggerate them, are very real. The best accommodation I can envision between these conflicting interests is one in which a relatively small number of parents raise large families and bring their larger number of childless friends and relatives into the fold as real or honorary aunts, uncles, and grandparents. Arrangements like this are a lot more common than one would guess based on the handwringing of alarmed natalists on the right. I see examples of it in my Facebook feed all the time, and I’m something like an honorary uncle to two boys in Orange County and, more tenuously, to two younger boys near Seattle, although I’m not great about bonding with toddlers who rhythmically whack me on the thigh when I’m half asleep. (I don’t hold it against them; it’s just that that isn’t the kind of company that I’m thrilled to keep.)

Pay close attention to what Peter Turchin has to say about fatal pandemics. It’s impossible to adequately convey their sheer gruesomeness in a concise survey of economic history. Plagues like the Black Death are really, truly fucking ugly. For people who have lived their entire lives in peace, prosperity, and good health, the specters of war, famine, and plague are usually vague shorthand conventions for something not very good in the distant past. The specter of war brings out armchair hawks who, because they have never experienced its horrors, wax eloquent about what a beautiful thing it is and fantasize about how it turns boys into men and reinvigorates a nation. This is a stupid, dangerous, vile worldview. There were American GI’s who came home from the Second World War ruined for life. They tried to be stoical and were ashamed to call attention to their plight, but they were human wrecks. Some of them were maimed or disabled, some of them were psychologically ruined, and some were ruined in body and in mind. No amount of high public morale or gratitude for their service could erase what the war had done to them. If Tom Brokaw hasn’t interviewed them, it’s probably because the war that they lived has left them permanently off-message, unable to properly commemorate the war that Tom Brokaw would like to remember. There is no sunny side of life for them to inhabit after the war. Mr. Brokaw will have to enjoy it for them.

Plague is a living hell in its own right. To get an idea of its horrors, take a look at coverage of the recent Ebola outbreaks in West Africa. Just realize that the public health systems in these countries, despite being dysfunctional by Western standards, would have been world-class by the standards of medieval Europe. Famine is probably the least destructive of the three in its own right, but even in its early stages it breeds war and disease.

This is why I get disgusted with affluent people who get up on their high horses about the evils of contraceptives. Braying about the awfulness of abortion is something that I can mostly accept, even in the context of its truly hideous, if delayed-action, alternatives, but fatwas against condoms, IUD’s, oral contraceptives, or, most appallingly, vasectomies are a bridge too far. I’ve read about these pathologies that consume societies when population outstrips the material, technological, and organizational capacity to support it. I’ve contemplated them. They’re untenable.

Mark my words, war, famine, and plague are worse than separating the unitive and procreative functions of the marital sex act. Far worse. They are far worse than most of the weird, decadent sexual proclivities that take hold in advanced societies. To complain about these relatively innocuous sexual eccentricities while willfully disregarding pathologies that bring large number of people to early, gruesome deaths is a vile, almost profane sort of White Whine. I have a perfectly clean conscience in saying all of this.

How to square these concerns with the interests of healthy family life and maintaining a society that doesn’t look like One Foot in the Grave, where the youngest people in the village are two baffled thirty-something constables? Beats me. I wish I had a better idea of it.

Maybe we can learn something useful from Japan without our population of ablebodied shut-ins with virtual girlfriends proliferating in Japanese fashion. Japan has managed to keep immigration at exceptionally low levels for a wealthy country with a graying population. The dysfunction of its government services looks less intractable, paradoxically, in the context of its being systemically corrupt, deliberately inefficient, and in the vise grip of an electoral gerontocracy. This means that the impediments to its reform are mostly political, not structural. Whether any of this is worth a pot of shit to a given disaffected Japanese young person is a matter of personal taste.

I still believe that the poor being receptive to children while the middle and upper classes are cautious about childbearing to a fault is a major driver of inequality and a really worrisome state of affairs. This dynamic appears to be part of a nasty positive feedback loop. As long as the wealthier classes value cutthroat social climbing–that is, inequality at the macro level–their barrenness will endure, and so will their hostility to the fertile poor. At the opposite political extreme, it can’t be a coincidence that contraception-for-me-but-not-for-thee politics masquerading as pro-life virtue moved from the most wacked-out, disreputable fringes into the mainstream of the American right wing at a time when socioeconomic inequality was already growing in the United States. The Great Compression ended circa 1973; pro-life natalist celebration of other women as single mothers has been picking up steam since maybe the mid-eighties, with a big boost around the turn of the millennium (I’m fuzzy on the dates, and it’s been a pretty gradual process in any event). Pro-life activism targeting unmarried women on the part of women who micromanage their own reproductive tracts is treacherous and duplicitous. Mainstream mid-century Americans would have been aghast at the discovery of such a position, and probably amazed that anyone came up with it.

If you’re thinking Wow Much population Very confuse, you’re not alone. I can’t reach my own consensus. There are, however, some assholes I would encourage to honor us with holy silence until they have something decent to say. At least Peter Turchin isn’t one of them.



3 thoughts on “Fecundity comes at a price

  1. “I’ve never found a satisfactory way to reconcile the virtues of abundant family life with the vices of overpopulation and poverty, which, even if antinatalist elements on the left exaggerate them, are very real…I still believe that the poor being receptive to children while the middle and upper classes are cautious about childbearing to a fault is a major driver of inequality and a really worrisome state of affairs.”

    Exaggerated? A “scientist” by the name of Paul Erlich ( I think he’s still living) wrote a book published in 1968 called “The Population Bomb” predicting “mass starvation” in the US in the 1970’s and 1980’s due to overpopulation.

    I don’t think exaggeration quite captures that. Hysteria is more like it.

    There’s something mysterious about population growth and how it all works over the long haul. Demographers seem to think the world population will top out at some point and then decline. I can’t remember why they think that, but then I never was able to figure out the “Ancestor paradox” either.

    But Malthus was demonstrably wrong. No mystery there.

    Once having children becomes as optional as we have decided to make it blaming the poor for having children naturally follows. I suppose poor people breeding does exacerbate wealth inequality, but nowhere near so much as women in the work force entitled to “equal pay for equal work”*, to pick just one example, and I don’t suppose we’re going to do anything about that.

    (* When I was a naval officer we were several years along the great influx of women into the military, and of course the natural thing occurred and romances developed, and then marriages. But officers didn’t marry enlisted, they married other officers. See the problem? You’re doubling the high earners per family. It’s not rocket science to extrapolate from that and find implications for social wealth distribution.

    It works pretty much the same way in the civilian world (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie marry each other, not some obscure nobodies).)

    Anyway, what healthy married couple is not “receptive” to children?

    I don’t deny that there is an association between poverty and having children – obviously, caring for children is a burden, financial and otherwise. But maybe, socially speaking, our allocation of resources to responsibilities needs adjustment in many ways and this is just one of them.

    You’re onto something when you recoil at natural family planning fanaticism, but I submit that at bottom what you’re objecting to is the decidedly unnatural control-freak approach to having children; but of course that can apply to either facilitating them or preventing them.

    They’re flip sides of the same coin.

    • The essence of Malthusian demographic projection, as far as I can tell, is to extrapolate existing demographic trends onto finite resource bases, the assumption being that these resource bases will remain finite and substitutions won’t be brought online. This assumption has proven to be erroneous over Ehrlich’s lifetime, and with a couple centuries’ retrospect it looks erroneous in Malthus’ case as well.

      The cornucopian arguments I’ve seen leveled at Malthus, however, look pretty shaky. One of the most common is that he was proven wrong by the Green Revolution. Malthus published his population treatise more than two decades before construction started on the Stockton and Darlington Railway, and he’s faulted for not foreseeing major advancements in crop science more than a century and a half into the future. London in his day was filthy and disorderly to a degree that few modern Englishmen (and fewer foreigners) can imagine, Logistically, it was about as close to the Late Middle Ages as it was to the late Nineteenth Century, and the state-of-the-art medicine of the time was a quack-ridden nightmare.

      So I really can’t fault the guy for not being Nostradamus. Even today, agricultural productivity is contingent upon natural resources that are in short or unstable supply, especially irrigation water and petroleum to fuel equipment and provide fertilizer feedstock. Depletion statistics from the Oglalla Aquifer are scary, and those from the San Joaquin Valley are really, really scary. Then there are black swans in the form of crop diseases, like the Ug99 wheat stem rust. The logistical capacity to isolate such diseases and the scientific capacity to develop treatments or alternative strains are as robust as they’ve ever been, but modern agriculture is more susceptible to pandemic plant diseases than its precursors because it has been so aggressively focused the high-acreage monoculture of a relative handful of plant species and cultivars. This is a brittle system in which one cereal crop disease outwitting the world’s plant scientists for a season or two could cause a catastrophic drop in worldwide crop yield.

      What makes this even worse is that the United States, a world leader in crop science, has been defunding public agricultural research programs and progressively moving agricultural R&D from federal labs and land grant universities to rapacious private stock companies like Monsanto. If world agriculture’s bacon ends up getting pulled out of the fire by, say, some Bolivian or Ethiopian crop science institute, it will likely be because the state and federal governments of the United States were too corrupt and otherworldly to refrain from throwing away the institutions that enabled their country’s best scientific minds to serve the public interest.

      On top of this, humanity today is in a historically anomalous state in which mass-casualty pandemics have been practically wiped from the face of the earth. The London city fathers of the Middle Ages would have killed for present-day Liberia’s public health system.

      The center is holding so far, but the questions are how long it will hold and, if it doesn’t, how catastrophic the failure will be. There are lot of variables at play here; I’m just speculating as best I can. One thing I’m confident about, however, is that I’d much rather see gradual declines in population driven largely by the deaths of the elderly than the reemergence of war, famine, and plague. This is an especially good outcome if a country can avoid wasting the talents of its youth.

      Here things become trickier, as Japan and the United States sadly show. Their young people are asexual shut-ins and Sex and the City spinster wankers; ours are incarcerated in numbers that would make Stalin proud.

      You’re absolutely right to say that “socially speaking, our allocation of resources to responsibilities needs adjustment in many ways.” Much of the pathology is the result of pervasively antisocial attitudes that have a sort of fractal effect at various levels from the nuclear family to national policy, often in unexpected ways. For example, there are all these shitheads who unabashedly want to “go Galt.” In the manosphere, they usually appear as misogynists who want to deny basic social welfare benefits to single mothers (and to their children, in a sort of corruption of blood) because they’re slutty, used-up cum dumpsters who had the gall not to save their virginity for marriage to men who hang out online calling them truly vile names. (These guys seem to be in earnest, for the most part; many of them repeat the talking points like a sort of liturgy, showing none of the critical thinking that I’d expect from pranksters.) Meanwhile, there are all these people who have no compunction about breaking up their extended families in order to move far out of town for reasons that are basically frivolous, like they wanted to retire to a country club in the Tampa suburbs even though their kids and grandkids are all up north, or their hometowns don’t offer the kind of high-power careers that give them a prestige boner. There are the yuppie power couples, who are disproportionately childless.

      The common thread uniting all of these constituencies is a sort of selfish disregard for anything to do with family, community, or civics. It’s not even as if they devalue civic life in favor of family life or something like that. They’re just selfish, if not also cutthroat.

      This selfishness is a huge driver of assortative mating. Assortative mating will always exist to some extent, but it’s been in overdrive since the Baby Boomers entered the dating market. There was a similar selectivity among Victorians. The WWII generation and early Silents, by contrast, were relatively laid back about the socioeconomic backgrounds, educational attainment, and career tracks of their prospective spouses. But these were people who showed some real interest in family, community, church, and civic life, to varying degrees, certainly, but at least they weren’t just a bunch of loudmouthed, self-important wankers of the sort who have been driving culture and policy since Woodstock.

      I suspect that a lot of these pathologies, affecting everything from family life to public policy to penology, will spontaneously abate if people stop abusing their marriages and careers for cutthroat self-aggrandizement and start giving a shit about basic virtues again. The devil is in the details about when or if this will actually happen. I certainly don’t expect much help from our major institutions–media, church, government, etc.–as they exist today.

  2. > The best accommodation I can envision between these conflicting interests is one in which a relatively small number of parents raise large families and bring their larger number of childless friends and relatives into the fold as real or honorary aunts, uncles, and grandparents.

    Yes that might work. A bit like the medieval Catholic setup with significant numbers of people (priests and religious orders) committed to lifelong childlessness – except now it would have to be a larger proportion, and include the married childfree. You might be interested in my exploration of natalism and historical non-natalism in this recent book:


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