Yesterday I ran across another mention of our birthrate plummeting. This seems to be a predictable side effect of more government control, one that neither side has ever adequately explained.
Oh, sure, when you look at terminal-stage communism, like the late unlamented USSR (well, unlamented by us, of course) or the mess that is North Korea, you can wrinkle your brow and go “Well, really, honestly, who wants to bring a child into that?” (Which is why late-stage communism tends to have restrictions on contraception and abortion – because at some point the people who prefer to reign in hell than to serve in heaven realize they’re going to be left with nothing to reign over.)
But any country that installs enough of “socialism” – a controlled economy from above – past a certain point experiences significant birth rate loss.
When I was a kid in the seventies people used to puzzle about the problems Scandinavian countries had having children, even though they are the “showcase of socialism” – the place where it supposedly all works. Of course no one associated birthrate and socialism, then, and all sorts of stuff like “the close genetic relation of Scandinavians” was mooted to explain it.
Now we know better. Country after country, after it crosses an invisible line, enters a place where people just won’t have enough babies. Look, socialism has managed to give Italy and Portugal a birthrate that’s falling so dramatically that if continued the countries will be extinct in 50 years. (Which might not be reflected statistically, since both countries are magnets of immigration from countries with even less functional economies. Portugal has received a large number of … Russians?)
The question is why? We’re not talking late-stage hell-holes. We’re talking countries that, by historic standards, (i.e. no one starving to death) are still pretty good (in Portugal the big argument was whether those on government support should get 13th month – ie Holiday bonus – paychecks) and in Scandinavia arguably cleaner, safer and more prosperous than mankind has been for most of its existence. (Though the worm is there – and we’ll go into it.)
So why this sudden collapse of faith in the future and – usually, possibly tellingly – of all creative endeavor? The USSR had military might. It could field athletes that dwarfed those of the free world in achievement. But creative endeavor, scientific (or even artistic) was always short. I understand Scandinavia before socialism had a vibrant scientific industry (for the time. And I’ll admit this is based on a book on the history of science read years ago.)
What is it about socialism that curbs endeavors that amount to betting on the future: having kids or creating anything that requires a lot of work up front on the chance of a big pay off.
Conservatives are fond of saying the birth rate collapses because “The government substitutes for the family, so you don’t need children to take care of you in your old age.” Respectfully, I’d like to say that’s bunk. No sane person, even in medieval times when children would be your only insurance, would choose to have kids because of economic considerations. (Note I said no sane person. I’m not saying some people didn’t do just that, but no one sane.) It’s too risky an activity. You’re raising someone who might or might not turn out to be someone who can support you/someone who’ll live to adulthood/someone who might or might not be a burden on you your whole life.
Having kids, like writing books, like creating something new in science, is a process that can’t be explained by purely rational considerations. NO one sits down to write a book and expects to make millions, unless they’re young, naïve and deluded. No one has kids to ensure that they’re looked after. No one spends years in scientific discovery because “it will pay off big.”
Most of us who do any of those things do them because we’re driven to them. We feel we have to. But also, because, at some level, all three of those are acts of faith: faith in ourselves; faith in humanity and ultimately faith in the future.
Regardless of religious considerations – which I’d like to leave out of this, because they’re another order of mental process – anyone having a kid is saying “I believe the future is worth it my investing time raising this person and sending my genes forward to live in what I think will be better.” Anyone writing a book – particularly book after book to no marked (or no) success – is saying “I believe in the future my art will be appreciated.” Anyone creating a new scientific process/a new machine/a new medical treatment is saying “I believe in the future there will be a use for this and it’s worth it.”
And that’s when we get to socialism’s flaw. Marja (who is in Finnland) has said many times something along the lines of “Life is pretty good under socialism, but—“ The but is that (Marx’s misguided and even in his time blinkered obsession with early-industrial-revolution conditions caused this) socialism’s division of humanity into owners of means of production and proletariat and decision to punish one and elevate the other as means to paradise never fit anything very well. (Factory owners were NOT all crooked and heartless and in fact Marx had to lie and use 50 year old reports to give the impression all capitalists were naturally exploitative and the system itself was bad. They were even less aliens, dropped down from the stars.) But it fits our age worst of all.
In our age, when literally knowledge (or an innovative mind) is power and all someone needs in the ways of “means of production” to create something that can be sold to millions is a few laptop computers and one or more willing minds, the engine of creation is – still – the business founder. This can be just a guy with a computer in his garage. But at some point he’ll need to hire manpower.
Under most socialist regimes, at that point he becomes an evil villain who must be forced by his government to NOT work his employees to death in smoke and link filled rooms from sun up to sun down. (Most of you in computers will identify with sun up to sun down, but hey, that’s big companies already established who give big to political campaigns and can get away with everything.)
At that point, the government does everything possible to prevent the formation of a company. (Either that or it subsidizes it which can be JUST as bad. Look up perverse incentives, sometime.)
Every socialist society seems to generate a mass of disengaged young people. They either can’t find work, or they don’t know why they should.
In essence what socialism promises people is “A future just like this, only smaller and more controlled.”
Socialism, even when it works, as arguably (very arguably) Scandinavian countries do to an extent, is sacrificing the future on the altar of the present. Because the whole idea is to eliminate uncertainty and create society in the image of a 19th century machine, where every piece is where it should be, forever.
Look, when you buy a lottery ticket for a dollar, you know you’re almost certainly throwing that dollar away. But if the jackpot is big enough, you do it, anyway. Why? Because for two or three days you can dream of all you’d do with 200 million dollars. Would you do it if the prize were a 30k salary for life? Don’t be ridiculous. While that would ease our crunch, it’s not enough to dream on, and if I can’t dream, I don’t throw away money.
Same thing. We have kids, we create, we try in the face of often overwhelming odds, because we can dream of the big jackpot. “My kid will be the first man on Mars.” “My book will show people a whole other way of looking at things.” “My invention will push back old age and death fifty years.”
We know chances are we’ll fail and we’ll throw our lives away on it, but it gives us something to reach for: the dream. It makes everyday struggles and mountains of diapers worth it.
Change that. “My kid will have a secure existence as a mid-range functionary.” “My book will be one of many echoing received wisdom.” “My invention is too expensive to push back old age and death for everyone, and besides old people are a drain on the state. But people will have fewer colds in their seventy some years of life.”
Exciting? Worth giving up your present comfort to obtain? Don’t be ridiculous. Most people choose instead to sleep later, have more fun, live a stress free existence, even if devoid of future.
Not me, of course. I’m in the business of believing in the future. I’m in the business of selling dreams.
And I think betting on the future despite all odds is the way we defeat the futureless blight of socialism. The way we win the future for humans. The way we bet on us and our children, and everyone world without end. Because if you bet enough, eventually some thing will win. Someone will get to Mars, someone will come up with cheap anti aging treatments, someone will bust society wide open and too big for the petty souls of bureaucrats who would control us all.
So, have another kid. Write another book. Go mind those test tubes.
And dream the impossible dream.