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An Embarrassing Truth

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A few years ago, in Budapest, I delivered a paper at a major conference convened to find the best programs to increase fertility rates. All Europe was grappling with below-replacement fertility levels, some dire. Low fertility rates lead to labor force shortage which leads to economic slowdown. It is a serious issue and is changing the make-up of nations and driving migration patterns across the developed world, despite governments best efforts.   Cabinet-level ministers and top civil servants of Western and Central Europe all spoke on “what each country had done to make it easy for mothers to exit the marketplace to give birth and reenter sometime later”, admirable, but the answer to a different problem. None of the countries had achieved replacement levels (nor has any nation since).

My paper focused on levels of religious worship and intact marriage, the two factors that deliver above-replacement fertility. Married couples have more children, and those who worship weekly even more. I finished speaking and their response? Not a single comment, challenge, or disagreement: only an embarrassed silence.

Their embarrassment stemmed from the form of family these countries have chosen, the secular family: married, remarried, divorced, out of wedlock parent, and cohabiting.  This family is source of the fertility crisis. The “embarrassing solution” is the always-intact-weekly-worshipping family. Not only does it outdo the modern secular family on fertility, it thrives on every other measure that concerns government: education, health, longevity, care of the elderly, good citizenship and tax revenues.  It is by far the least troublesome and least costly family, on crime, abuse (physical and sexual), addiction and long-term health care costs.

Since the always-intact-weekly-worshipping family is the solution, how should a democratically elected government treat it?  The answer is simple: protect it. Ensure it has the same resources as the secular family but with the freedom to use them their own way. It’s simple justice.  This minority (the always-intact-weekly worshipping family) delivers the most in human and social capital outcomes. So, investing in their freedom makes economic and social policy sense.  

But what differentiates them from the majority is their sexual morality, which they are intent on passing on to their children.  This is big when it comes to education, for sexual norms are implicit in the teaching of literature, history, art, economics and about religions and moral codes.  Thus, though the minority delivers the most, it is alien to the majority in its need to educate its children in its own ways.  

Decent governments and the ‘traditional family’ both need to persuade the majority that freedom in education for this minority benefits everybody. 

[1] Singapore is one of the most telling examples.  Though a market-based economy with free elections, Singapore had a draconian two-child policy decades ago, in which the whole family lost all social welfare benefits, including free education, if they had a third child. The policy worked — too well.  Fertility rates dropped but too much. The government then reversed course and worked to stimulate fertility. It has failed miserably. Singapore’s present fertility rate  is 1.16 or 42% below replacement, and its labor force shrinkage intensifies. This trend is well advanced in all the  economies of the world.

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