Feminism as Natalism

Michelle Goldberg wades into the debate I’ve been having with various people about the macroeconomic implications of population decline with an observation I definitely agree with:

get why liberals have shied away from this discussion, since there’s so many uncomfortable issues involved. But they really shouldn’t, because the only solutions to the problem are liberal ones! Basically, the societies where birthrates have plunged to dangerous levels — Russia, Catholic countries like Poland, Spain and Italy, as well as Japan and Singapore — are all places that make it very difficult for women to combine work and family. In countries that support working mothers, like Sweden, Denmark, Norway and France, birthrates are basically fine — they’re either just at replacement, or shrinking in a very slow, totally manageable way. (The United States is the exception, for a whole host of reasons — some intuitive and some surprising — that I’ll elaborate some other time.) That’s why the Tory MP David Willetts, in a very smart 2003 report on the threat low birthrates pose to Europe’s pension systems, wrote that “feminism is the new natalism.”

I actually agree with both of the points here. It’s clear that very low birthrates imply cuts in pay-as-you-go pension systems, and I also think it’s clear that the most reasonable policy response to low birthrates is basically an agenda of family-oriented feminism. As longtime readers will know, I’m a great admirer of the social policy framework in place in your small northern European countries, hence I have a photo of a school in Finland on hand with which to illustrate the point. That said, “X makes it easier to avoid cuts to pay-as-you-go pension systems” and “X promotes higher overall levels of well-being” are not equivalent claims, and I remain fairly skeptical about the latter.

Now, the more I write about this the more I don’t really know why I’m writing about it. Not only do conservatives think low birthrates are a problem, but the smarter brand of liberals recognize that family policies that are necessary for reasons of justice and equity are probably the best solution to the problem. So everybody wins! But I’m still not sure it’s true. Indeed, Goldberg’s post seems to implicitly indicate that modestly paced population decline is perfectly fine. And I think it’s easy to see why extremely sharp demographic shifts of any kind would be problematic. So perhaps we’re not really disagreeing at all.