I’m frequently puzzled by the line of argument Daniel McCarthy quotes (from Joseph Schumpeter) regarding individualism and fertility:

As soon as men and women … acquire the habit of weighing the individual advantages and disadvantages of any prospective course of action—or, as we might also put it, as soon as they introduce into their private life a sort of inarticulate system of cost accounting—they cannot fail to become aware of the heavy personal sacrifices that family ties and especially parenthood entail under modern conditions and of the fact that at the same time, excepting the cases of farmers and peasants, children cease to be economic assets.

This is unquestionably correct – but so what? Good china isn’t an economic asset either, but people buy it. Neither is that vacation home – for which you sacrificed a great deal of money to buy, and now have to spend time and money to maintain, and have to drive through traffic to get to, etc. Talk about personal sacrifices!

The conventional wisdom now is that experiences, rather than assets, are what give us the most satisfaction. And experiences are entirely ephemeral – they depreciate to zero immediately. Well, children provide a wealth of experiences – and they don’t depreciate anything like as fast as a skydiving adventure. So why aren’t they exceptionally rational investments, from a utilitarian perspective?

Silas Marner, before the little blonde girl shows up, was certainly maximizing something with his hoard of gold under the floor boards, but he wasn’t maximizing utiles.

Most people in developed societies want children. Most people want more children than they feel they can afford. They are not reluctant to make very substantial personal sacrifices – but most are status-conscious and reluctant to risk downward mobility.

And there’s little evidence that modern societies with “thicker” family bonds have higher fertility rates than those within more attenuated bonds. Indeed, the most recent evidence goes the opposite way. Remember that chart of European family structures? The weakest family ties were the “absolute nuclear” families, where new couples leave home to found their own homesteads and primogeniture undermines filial piety. That would, on the surface, appear to be the family structure least-oriented towards treating children as economic assets – workers in a family business, for example – and it predominates in England, Denmark, southern Sweden and the Netherlands. By contrast, the other family types – “stem,” “incomplete stem,” and “egalitarian nuclear” – that dominate elsewhere in Europe create stronger economic bonds between the generations.

So: how does total fertility vary across European countries?

UK: 1.91 children/woman
Sweden: 1.67 children/woman
Denmark: 1.74 children/woman
Netherlands: 1.78 children/woman

Spain: 1.48 children/woman
Italy: 1.4 children/woman
Germany: 1.4 children/woman
Greece: 1.39 children/woman

Either the relationship is the opposite of what the Schumpeter quote would suggest, or some other factor overwhelmingly predominates.

By the way, if you look beyond Europe you see:

Brazil: 1.82 children/woman
Iran: 1.87 children/woman
South Korea: 1.23 children/woman
South Africa: 2.28 children/woman

None of these are countries with weak family ties. Iran’s government actively enforces traditional religiosity. South Korea has a fierce Confucian tradition of filial piety. But they both have below-replacement fertility.


Ethiopia: 5.39 children/woman
Afghanistan: 5.64 children/woman
Yemen: 4.45 children/woman
Philippines: 3.15 children/woman

These countries have different predominant religions and different predominant ethnic groups, but they are all less-urban and less-economically-developed than the prior group of countries, and have not made a similar commitment to promoting family planning.

The overwhelming drivers of female fertility are urbanization and female literacy. Urbanization makes children more expensive. And literate women exercise more control over their fertility. Once you’ve made the transition to a modern, predominantly urban, literate society, the key variables that affect how many children women have relate to expense: the cost of housing, the cost of childcare, the cost of education. Make those cheaper, and fertility goes up – to a point. Make them more expensive, and fertility goes down – even way down. France, a European country where medieval family type varied by region, has one of the highest fertility rates in Europe – 2.08 children/woman. They’ve also got a longstanding pro-natalist bent to government policy.

And, by the way, this was true in medieval days as well. Age of first marriage went up and down with economic conditions – because there was no other reliable way to control fertility except to remain unmarried. Back purportedly before people weighed “individual advantages and disadvantages of any prospective course of action” parents were very concerned to make sure that a prospective husband could provide for his bride before they would agree to a match.

I think the mistake is in assuming that modern people don’t engage in a true process of self-creation – that all they do is shop. No, children aren’t free farm hands anymore. And yes, if that means children are now a consumer good, then they are a pretty risky consumer good to take on. They’re hugely expensive, there’s no quality control, and you can’t even sell them at a loss if you don’t like how they turn out, the way you can with a vacation home.

But if raising children is more like tending a garden, or learning to play the oboe, only much more demanding and much more rewarding, then I don’t see why there’s any reason to assume a rational individualist would decide to be childless. Unless that particular individual specifically didn’t want children. And most of us, several generations into modernity, still do.