Is Economic Liberty Driving The World’s Fertility Decline?


There was a moment in my childhood when I was terrified at the idea of overpopulation. I think I had caught a news item in school, or at home, about the earth’s growing population, and I was afraid that one day we’d run out of space. Out of food. Out of everything. There’d just be too many people.

I thought of that youthful fear this week when I learned that the world’s fertility rates are actually declining to a degree that some are now projecting population declines in the future. I’m a little skeptical of these sort of projections. I remember when we were supposed to run out of oil too.

I’ll believe it when I see it.

What is interesting about population trends is that there seems to be a direct link to liberty, and economic prosperity, and fertility rates. More specifically, it seems that the more free we are the more likely women are to be educated and members of the work force. And the more that happens, the fewer babies women have.

From Slate:

The reason for the implacability of demographic transition can be expressed in one word: education. One of the first things that countries do when they start to develop is educate their young people, including girls. That dramatically improves the size and quality of the workforce. But it also introduces an opportunity cost for having babies. “Women with more schooling tend to have fewer children,” says William Butz, a senior research scholar at IIASA.

In 2009, Reason’s Ronald Bailey wrote a very interesting article about the ties between economic freedom and declining fertility rates, entitled “The Invisible Hand Of Population Control.”

In 2002, Seth Norton, a business economics professor at Wheaton College in Illinois, published a remarkably interesting study on the inverse relationship between prosperity and fertility. Norton compared fertility rates of over 100 countries with their index rankings for economic freedom and another index for the rule of law. “Fertility rate is highest for those countries that have little economic freedom and little respect for the rule of law,” wrote Norton. “The relationship is a powerful one. Fertility rates are more than twice as high in countries with low levels of economic freedom and the rule of law compared to countries with high levels of those measures.”

Norton found that the fertility rate in countries that ranked low on economic freedom averaged 4.27 children per woman while countries with high economic freedom rankings had an average fertility rate of 1.82 children per woman. His results for the rule of law were similar; fertility rates in countries with low respect for the rule of law averaged 4.16 whereas countries with high respect for the rule of law had fertility rates averaging 1.55.

Economic freedom and the rule of law produce prosperity which dramatically lowers child mortality which, in turn, reduces the incentive to bear more children. In addition, along with increased prosperity comes more education for women, opening up more productive opportunities for them in the cash economy. This increases the opportunity costs for staying at home to rear children. Educating children to meet the productive challenges of growing economies also becomes more expensive and time consuming.

That last is interesting. As an economy becomes more free, allowing more women to seek out prosperity in the marketplace, the more cost there is in terms of lost opportunity to staying home and raising children.

What happens is that more women simply choose to earn prosperity for themselves in the marketplace rather than stay home and have children and be dependent, to a larger degree, on others.

Is that good or bad? I don’t think you could really say it’s either. It’s simply choices free people are making, and I have a feeling that it’s something that will largely govern itself. Just as there is, as Adam Smith described it, an “invisible hand” in the world of economics I suspect there is an “invisible hand” in this matter as well. Which is to say that there are social and economic indicators that women will respond to if we need more babies, just as they will respond to the same indicators when we need fewer.

Rob Port is the editor of In 2011 he was a finalist for the Watch Dog of the Year from the Sam Adams Alliance and winner of the Americans For Prosperity Award for Online Excellence. In 2013 the Washington Post named SAB one of the nation's top state-based political blogs, and named Rob one of the state's best political reporters.

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  • Hal109

    Yep, that has to be it. The smarter we get, the more we realize just how pesky those children are. sarc. Maybe it has something to do with the destruction of the worldwide economy and prospective mothers are being forced into the workforce whether they want to or not?

  • HG

    Same-sex unions are the most effective population control ever.

  • Damian DeWitt

    Rob, this is excellent. However, there is another aspect to the issue, which is the lack of economic liberty contributes to falling population rates as well.

    In a nutshell, without an economic system in which individuals can flourish married couples can’t afford to have larger families.

    In the US real incomes have been stagnant for several decades. The Baby Boom generation (born 1945-1960) lived in an era when families could afford to raise children rather easily.

    It has gotten increasingly harder to do so with increasing economic demands placed on individuals and businesses by regulation and truly hare-brained retirement and social welfare schemes.

  • WOOF

    Sending women to work is not necessarily freedom.
    ” 25% of all women in the U.S. with bachelor’s or higher degrees never
    have children. The CWLP study found that 43% of women in a sample of
    professionals ages 33 through 46 did not have children, including 53% of
    Asian-American women.”
    Gov’t policies shape nations.

  • cylde

    No, it is not liberty that is causing fertility problems. It is secular humanism with its moral relativity that has led to promiscuity and the rapid spread of STDs.

  • DakotaKid

    I say the fertility decline is due to universal pensions, not education. Without universal pensions, most people need children to support them in their old age. If you have universal pensions, then children are just an expense. Look, at the pension trouble around the world. After about 3(60 to 90 years depending on how you count) generations of universal pensions, there are no longer enough children born to support the system. We saw the collapse of the Soviet Union and now Western Europe.

    • Hal109

      Do you have children? I don’t know how you could look at them as being either an expense or support in old age. I do agree with your conclusion that there are not enough children being born to support a pyramid retirement scam, but fertility has no relationship to pensions. (I think my doctor would agree)

  • borborygmi

    Maybe that and birth control and oops education.

  • borborygmi

    Education, you mean public payed for education. Who would have thought. Or judging by the list I saw Socialism or Communist ie China.

  • tomorrowclear

    Rob, have you ever considered the possibility that that which you label “liberty” runs in inverse proportion to the population of a nation? Is it not more likely that the higher the population, the greater the demand for government services and more of the regulations and restrictions you folks decry? If I were a libertarian, I would be celebrating declines in fertility rates and future populations. Given that the 19th century economic model of replenishing factory workers with each generation is no longer operative, I’d probably be optimistic that our economy can handle smaller populations.

    • Rob

      I don’t define my beliefs based on what others believe. I discern what I believe to be true, and try to be as honest as possible about that.

      You bring up an interesting notion. If we are going to live in a civilized society, rather than in anarchy, we need a certain level of laws and regulation. We both agree on that.

      What we don’t agree on is the degree of government intervention into our lives. You think what we have is ok, and that we even need more. I think the intervention we have already is manifesting itself in a lot of ugly ways that make our lives worse, such as a bubble in pricing for things like health care, and higher education.

      But here’s a question: Did it ever occur to you that perhaps the layer upon layer of laws, regulation and bureaucracy we put in place might actually be creating more problems than they solve? Sort of like a patient who takes medication for an ill, then takes more medication for the side-effects, and so on?

      • tomorrowclear

        You’re avoiding my question because it leads to uncomfortable conclusions that might force you to re-evaluate your position on a sacred cow. What is fairly clear to you from my post is that rising populations have a deleterious effect on your brand of liberty. However, if you accept that, it raises troubling questions. Is it appropriate for the state to take measures to ensure lower population levels in order to guard the liberties of citizens? Does the right to have children, children and more children trump the liberties of others that you imagine? While I’m sure you would have no problem limiting immigration, you would probably have a problem with any state measure to restrict family size, even as you accept that increased family sizes necessarily come at the expense of the liberties upon which you seem to place the greatest value.

        Of course it has occurred to me that over-regulation and layers of bureaucracy is counter-productive. What’s fascinating is that you and other libertarians decry such practices only in the public sector and rationalizing it in the private sector under the silly notion that if it occurs in the private sector, it is not forced upon you. Corporations and other private organizations operate as command economies, precisely the type you oppose so vehemently, with layers of centrally-planned regulations and bureaucracy, the costs of which are passed on to consumers. To use an example, why in the world would someone troubled by command economies support private health insurance companies, the most over-regulated, bureaucratic and inefficient system on the planet, over an extension of Medicare, which preserves consumer choice and operates at a fraction of the overhead?

  • Lynn Bergman

    When people are born into a “natural world” without the trappings of “civilization”, sexual intercourse is one (if not the only one) of a very few “pleasureable releases” from daily survival. As a primitive culture “matures”, sex and related procreation are increasingly supplanted by other opportunities and endevours. Nothing new here.