fbpx
01 / 05
China’s Fertility Flip-Flop Shows the Folly of Legislating Family Sizes

Blog Post | Pregnancy & Birth

China’s Fertility Flip-Flop Shows the Folly of Legislating Family Sizes

Keep central planning out of family planning.

Summary: Recent attempts by the Chinese government to encourage higher birth rates have raised concerns about government interference in personal matters. These new measures continue the pattern of authoritarian regimes enforcing coercive family policies. State intervention in family planning has often resulted in human rights abuses. While some policymakers advocate for incentives to boost fertility rates, a cautious approach that prioritizes individual freedom offer a more effective and ethical solution to addressing declining birth rates.


This article was published in National Review on 1/18/2024.

After decades of the disastrous policy of limiting family growth by force, China, according to news reports, is now pestering its women through text messages and social media to have more babies. This meddling by the state, like past coercion, is counterproductive. China should stop telling couples how many children to have. Keep central planning out of family planning, and families will flourish.

Not content to regulate life outside the household, authoritarians have a long history of intervening in family affairs. The Chinese Communist Party’s recent family-policy flip-flop is unsurprising. Throughout history, communist countries have alternated between coercive measures aiming to produce larger families and ones intended to shrink the average family size. China’s one-child policy, for instance, was in force for 36 years (1979–2015).

Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union financially penalized those without children, enacting a so-called “childless tax” that the country enforced from 1941 to 1990 in various degrees. The tax punished childless men between the ages of 20 and 50 and childless women between the ages of 20 and 45. A decree in 1944 expanded the childless tax to also penalize parents who had merely one or two children.

Communist Romania and Poland (post–World War II) implemented similar taxes modeled on the Soviet law. Those taxes, like their inspiration, lasted until the collapse of the USSR bloc in 1991. Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Romania went furthest of all, enacting strict prohibitions on birth control that resulted in a large number of abandoned children whose parents often could not afford to raise them.

The conditions in the communist nation’s overcrowded orphanages — nicknamed “child gulags” — were nightmarish. Yet signs at the inhumane institutions mockingly boasted, “The state can take better care of your child than you can.”

If communists are consistent on one point, it is that the state knows best. Always. Even when it comes to how many children each couple should bring into the world. Where communists have been inconsistent, though, is on whether that number ought to be higher or lower.

Starting in the 1960s and 1970s, it became fashionable among intellectuals around the world to worry about “overpopulation,” a concept that overwhelming evidence has since called into question. The resulting panic had its darkest manifestation in China’s one‐​child policy, which saw more than 300 million Chinese women fitted with intrauterine devices modified to be irremovable without surgery, over 100 million sterilizations, and over 300 million abortions, an unknown share of which were coerced.

China’s official Xinhua News Agency has boasted that the one-child policy prevented 400 million births. “Excess birth” fines could reach up to ten times a family’s annual disposable income.

Revenue-hungry local officials continued to fine families and enforce childbearing limits even after the country loosened its one-child policy to a two-child policy (2016–2021) and then loosened it further into a three-child policy. As China’s officials grew increasingly concerned about the population’s aging and shrinking, the three-child policy was, at last, rendered merely symbolic in 2023.

Yet China’s vast population-planning bureaucracy remains in place and could easily be reoriented toward attempts to coercively engineer the size of the country’s population upward. In a CCP-run paper, some Chinese academics have called for a tax on childlessness.

And China is not alone. Some Russian politicians also would like to reinstate a childless tax (Russia’s leaders have been toying with the idea for more than a decade).

Today, while unfounded overpopulation fears retain popularity in some circles, plummeting global birth rates have led the pendulum of policy-maker opinion to swing toward the idea that the world might benefit from more, rather than fewer, children. The number of countries with “raising fertility” as an explicit policy objective keeps rising.

Thankfully, in most cases such initiatives do not involve coercion. From South Korea to Estonia, various countries have tried offering government subsidies, expensive new state programs, cash bonuses, or similar incentives to encourage their citizens to have larger families. But an overview of past efforts to alter birth rates, whether upward or downward, shows that such efforts have had lackluster results at best and resulted in tragic human-rights abuses at worst.

Rather than pursuing new initiatives that are costly and questionably effective, and risk wading into the territory of social engineering or worse, policy-makers concerned about birth rates should take a “first do no harm” approach to fertility.

As my colleague Vanessa Calder and I outlined in a recent policy paper, removing government rules and regulations that disproportionately affect families would enhance families’ freedom of choice and may reduce the cost of child-rearing enough to boost fertility. In other words, policy-makers can make it easier for parents to form the families they desire by simply stepping back and removing government barriers to fertility and family life.

The state’s thumb shouldn’t be on the scale of intimate family decisions, one way or the other. Reforming policies that artificially make family life harder offers a better way forward. Hopefully, policy-makers in China and elsewhere will come to recognize that.

Washington Post | Health & Medical Care

FDA Authorizes AI-Driven Test to Predict Sepsis in Hospitals

“Bobby Reddy Jr. roamed a hospital as he built his start-up, observing how patient care began with a diagnosis and followed a set protocol. The electrical engineer thought he knew a better way: an artificial intelligence tool that would individualize treatment.

Now, the Food and Drug Administration has greenlighted such a test developed by Reddy’s company, Chicago-based Prenosis, to predict the risk of sepsis — a complex condition that contributes to at least 350,000 deaths a year in the United States. It is the first algorithmic, AI-driven diagnostic tool for sepsis to receive the FDA’s go-ahead.”

From Washington Post.

BBC | Conservation & Biodiversity

How AI is being used to prevent illegal fishing

“Global Fishing Watch was co-founded by Google, marine conservation body Oceana, and environmental group SkyTruth. The latter studies satellite images to spot environmental damage.

To try to better monitor and quantify the problem of overfishing, Global Fishing Watch is now using increasingly sophisticated AI software, and satellite imagery, to globally map the movements of more than 65,000 commercial fishing vessels, both those with – and without – AIS.

The AI analyses millions of gigabytes of satellite imagery to detect vessels and offshore infrastructure. It then looks at publicly accessible data from ships’ AIS signals, and combines this with radar and optical imagery to identify vessels that fail to broadcast their positions.”

From BBC.

Blog Post | Communications

The Forgotten War on Beepers

Before smartphones, beepers were in the crosshairs of parents, schools and lawmakers.

30 years before parents and lawmakers sought to save youth from smartphones via age limits and bans in schools, a similar conversation took place about a pre-cursor to the cellphone: pagers.

Through the 1980s pagers became increasingly popular with teens, and also: drug dealers. This fact would eventually drag the gadget into the existing moral panic about adolescent drug use of the era.

The pager panic began with a 1988 Washington Post report on the gadgets prevalence in the drug trade, quoting DEA and law enforcement officials. The piece was syndicated throughout the US under headlines like “Beepers flourish in drug business,” “Beepers Speed Drug Connections” and “Drug beepers: Paging devices popular with cocaine dealers.

The spread of the story stoked concerns that beepers in the hands of youths weren’t just a distraction – a common complaint from teachers – but also a direct line to drug dealers. One school district official told The New York Times: “How can we expect students to ‘just say no to drugs’ when we allow them to wear the most dominant symbol of the drug trade on their belts.”

How can we expect students to ‘just say no to drugs’ when we allow them to wear the most dominant symbol of the drug trade on their belts

The New York Times, 1988

In response schools, towns, states and even the Senate would pass rules against beepers. New Jersey prohibited beepers for under-18s entirely, possession could result in a 6-month jail-term – a law proposed by ex-policeman and Senator Ronald L. Rice.

A city ordinance in Michigan mandated 3-month jail terms for children caught in possession of one within school grounds. Chicago passed a ban that its Public Schools Security chief said would also reduce prostitution:

We’ve got girls 11 years old. They get a call and they’re out of school to turn a trick.

George Sims, Chicago Public Schools Security Chief , Associated Press

Other states proposed community service, fines and 1-year drivers license bans as punishment. Thousands of of young people were victims of these heavy handed prohibitions – some of which made headlines:

Some schools regularly referred students found with pagers to police, one 16-year-old – Stephanie Redfern – faced a disorderly persons charge. A 13-year-old was handcuffed. Chicago was particularly aggressive in its enforcement: over 30 children were arrested and suspended for ‘beeper violations’ in one police sweep at a school – many parents couldn’t locate their kids for more than 6-hours. This was just the start:

According to Police Lt. Randolph Barton – head of the Chicago public school patrol unit at the time – by April 1994 there had been 700 beeper arrests in Chicago schools, with the prior school year seeing 1000. Some still felt these numbers were too low:

Right now I don’t think enough people are being arrested for wearing or bringing beepers into Chicago schools.

Ald. Michael Wojcik (35th)

In 1996 a 5-year-old in New Jersey was suspended for taking a beeper on a school trip, outrage ensured – catching the attention of Howard Stern, leading to calls for the laws to be amended or repealed.

Even young adults didn’t escape the beeper prohibition: 18-year-old Anthony Beachum feared a jail term after trying to sell a beeper to a student on school grounds. State prosecutors sought a criminal conviction for Beachum – that would have barred him from his hopes of joining the military. The judge settled for probation and 10 hours of community service.

Hampton University required students register beepers with campus police, even though there was no evidence of them increasing drug access. VP of student affairs at the time would admit as much:

There is not a single case where I can make a connection between beepers and drugs.

Hampton University, VP of Student Affairs

Big Beeper Fights Back

The beeper backlash was a BIG problem for Motorola who had 80% of the pager market at the time. The company had a hit on its hands – that was introducing the brand to a whole new generation – so in 1994 it fought back, partly by rallying youth. A move reminiscent of TikTok’s recent lobbying tactics.

Motorola enlisted children of its employees to help design pro-beeper campaigns, emphasizing the importance of pagers as legitimate communication devices for the young. “Who better to help plan for the battle than teens themselves” one report on the efforts would say. At a week long event, one attendee came up with the slogan “Pages for All Ages.”

The company ran television ads promoting pagers as a tool for child parent communication and in 1996, partnered with PepsiCo to offer 500,000 pagers to youths at a low price.

The promotion angered lawmakers – like State Senator Ronald Rice – who’d been a leading player in the war on beepers. Around this time moves to over-turn bans emerged, by other lawmakers calling them outdated – partly fuelled by the suspension of a 5-year-old alluded to earlier. New Jersey would amend the law in 1996, but not repeal it.

Three decades later, the New Jersey law was still on the books. The original sponsor of the bill – Senator Ronald Rice – sought to repeal it in 2017 saying “Fast forward almost three decades and it’s no longer an issue.”

There is little evidence it ever was an issue, in-fact – the subsequent rise of cellphones in schools coincided with a massive reduction in youth drug taking, while causation has been suggested by some – it certainly serves as stronger evidence against the idea of mobile messaging increasing drug access.

Senator Ronald Rice passed away in 2023 – the New Jersey Pager ban still in place – months later The Washington Post editorial board would call on schools to ban cellphones entirely – part of a new moral panic about kids and digital devices, many of whose parents were once prohibited from bringing pagers to school.

Nod to Ernie Smith of Tedium.co the only other person to cover the beeper bans, a piece that helped highlight a few fun examples included in this piece.

This article was published at Pessimists Archive on 4/10/2024.

Blog Post | Economic Growth

Measuring Freedom and Flourishing | Podcast Highlights

Chelsea Follett interviews Leandro Prados de la Escosura about the long term trends in wellbeing, inequality, and freedom.

Listen to the podcast or read the full transcript here.

Let’s discuss your latest book, Human Development and the Path to Freedom.

I have spent many years working on economic performance in the long run, and while I don’t have anything against GDP, I was always uneasy with the idea of using GDP per head as a shortcut for wellbeing. GDP is a good indicator of output but a very deficient indicator of wellbeing.

Most economists say, “This is true, but it’s highly correlated with non-economic dimensions of wellbeing.” There is also a tendency to produce a dashboard of indicators, basically GDP and some additional measures that create a more nuanced picture.

I was unhappy with that. Then I realized that, since the beginning of modern national accounts in the 1950s, there have been attempts to produce alternative measures. More than 30 years ago, the United Nations Development Programme produced the Human Development Index. I was very interested, but at the same time, I was frustrated when I saw that countries with no freedom at all ranked very highly in the index.

For example, in the first report in 1990, they had a retrospect going back to 1975, and I found that Spain, under Franco’s dictatorship, ranked very highly in human development. How come? It wasn’t satisfactory to rank a nasty dictatorship so highly. And then I read the literature accompanying the report and found this very candid assertion: “The purpose of human development is to increase people’s range of choices. If they are not free to make those choices, the entire process becomes a mockery.”

This is an important philosophical point: Human development is not just about living longer or having a higher material standard of living. You can get that in a high-security prison in Norway. Choosing between alternative ways of life is what makes the difference.

To make a long story short, they have tried time and again to introduce freedom, but they never managed to do so because of strong political opposition from country members of the program. So, as an independent scholar, I thought, “Look, nobody is going to read it, but I have the freedom to introduce the freedom dimension.”

Tell me about what you found.

Perhaps what makes sense is to compare what I found to what you would get on the basis of per capita income. If you look at the average increase from 1870 to 2020, the growth in income and wellbeing is very similar.

But if you look closer, you realize there are large differences across different periods. During first globalization before 1913 and between 1970 and 2000, they are relatively close. During the last two decades, the difference is huge in favor of material living standards measured by per capita income. The first part of the 20th century is just the opposite.

What next? Well, try to provide an explanation.

I went in two steps. One was asking, “Why has this growth in human wellbeing happened? What is the intuition?” The intuition is that if you get richer, you’re going to become better fed, healthier, better educated, and freer. But you can also have different levels of wellbeing at the same income level, and the most important finding from a historical perspective is that at any point of income, you have higher wellbeing today than in the past.

If you compare 1870 to 1913, you see that for most of the income levels, you get the same association between health and income, but at high levels of income, you get higher levels of health. Improvements in health techniques and medical knowledge were restricted to the most advanced countries. But if you look at the 1950s, at any income level, you get higher levels of health than in 1913 or 1870. You also find this for education and freedom. If you move to 2000, there is another upward shift.

Of course, there are reversals. There have been four moments in time in which the progression, the positive progression of human development stopped or declined. One was the Great Depression. The second one was during Mao’s Great Leap Forward. Then there were the oil shocks in the early ’70s, but the most damaging one has been COVID. COVID is the first period in which wellbeing measured in terms of augmented human development has declined

However, over the long run, for any income level, whether you are rich or poor, nowadays you have higher wellbeing than in the past.

Those findings are fascinating. What would you say is the biggest implication of your work?

The first thing is that wellbeing, broadly defined, has expanded worldwide more steadily than per capita income.

Secondly, the phases in which we conventionally associate improvements in wellbeing are not necessarily the same as those in which actual wellbeing improved. For instance, there was an important improvement in the so-called interwar period, even though economic growth stagnated. In 20th-century India, before independence, there was a stagnation in real average income but a remarkable improvement in health. This was because of the discovery of the germ theory of disease, which brought simple hygienic practices like washing your hands before eating and not sleeping near animals.

We also tend to forget that the association between wellbeing and income is not fixed. There are movements along the function: if you are richer, other things being equal, you’re going to be healthier, more educated, and freer. But this is not the whole story. There are also upward and downward shifts.

For instance, you could say that in terms of freedom in 2020, we are worse off than we were 20 years ago. This doesn’t mean that people were richer 20 years ago—we’re richer now—but at the same income level, 20 years ago, people were freer than we are today.

So, it’s a nuanced picture. Overall, things are improving, but there are also worrying declines in freedom.

Exactly.

Can you talk about inequality?

In 1870, in the case of wellbeing, inequality was high, and it increased up to the end of the century, then went down. Then, because of World War I, it increased again. But from the late 1920s to the present, with the exception of a reversal because of World War II, there has been a steady decline in inequality of wellbeing.

In the case of per capita income, inequality increased until the end of the 20th century, around 1980, and only began declining after 1990.

Here, I’m referring to relative inequality. If we increase wealth by 10 percent everywhere, inequality in relative terms doesn’t change. Some people are a bit pickier and think, “If my income increases 10 percent and my income is 100, I get 110. If your income is 1000, you now get 1100.” This is absolute inequality.

Relative inequality in per capita income increased until 1980 and has declined since 1990. But absolute inequality in per capita income, the distance between rich and poor, continues growing.

Absolute inequality in wellbeing has declined since 1960. Today, it is similar to what you would find in 1938, 1913, or 1900, but higher than in 1870.

It’s also important to look at what happens to different parts of the distribution. Who are the winners and losers? Broadly speaking, the middle class of the world gained the most, and the lower classes and those at the top won relatively less. If you look at absolute gains, those who were at a higher level of wellbeing got more. But that changes for different dimensions. Those at the bottom, for example, were the main winners in terms of education, while those in the middle were the main winners in terms of health.

I know that your current focus is on freedom. Could you tell me a little bit about that?

I became interested in human development after reading Amartya Sen, who emphasizes what Isaiah Berlin would call positive freedom. Freedom to. But he also emphasizes negative freedom, the absence of coercion and interference. And I think this is interesting because many people think there is a trade-off between negative and positive freedom.

At the end of the day, everybody wants to have negative freedom, but there are those who think negative freedom has nothing to do with income, that would be Hayek, and those who think negative freedom can only be reached as a second stage once you provide for those who don’t have access. For some, positive freedom is a socialist lie to reduce negative freedom. For others, they are two faces of the same coin.

As an economic historian, I find this is an interesting topic for research. If you look at the world, and you can see this in the Human Freedom Index that Cato publishes, you see the countries at the top in terms of negative freedom are also at the top in terms of positive freedom. For instance, Denmark is at the top of the list in terms of economic freedom, but also in terms of education and health.

My question was, well, maybe this trade-off is only a short-run phenomenon. Maybe if you look at the long run, the trade-off doesn’t hold or only holds for a certain period. So why not construct two alternative sets of estimates, one for positive freedom and the other for negative freedom? And this is what I’m trying to do now.

My main discrepancy with the Fraser Institute economic freedom index is that I don’t take into account the size of government. I know this is a contentious issue. People say, “the larger the government, the less room for private initiative.” At a point in time, this is true. And if you look at similarly developed countries, this is true.

But if you take a cross-section at a point in time, you can see that there are countries in which the size of government is much, much smaller, that are not necessarily freer, in terms of absence of coercion and interference, than countries with larger governments. Look at, for instance, Latin American and Sub-Saharan African countries. Think of Somalia. Or think of my own country under Franco. It was a right-wing, but, in many aspects, very socialist dictatorship in which the government was everywhere. But the size of government was very small.

In 1980, do you know what percentage the income tax contributed to the revenues of the central government in Spain? Give me a figure. You would say 40 percent?

Sure, 40 percent.

2 percent.

Wow.

Nobody paid income tax. So, there was no redistribution.

My point is that the size of government matters less than the nature of government. Perhaps Denmark would have more economic freedom with a smaller government, but if you compare Denmark to other countries, you can see that even though the Danish government is larger, Denmark’s degree of economic freedom is higher. Why? Because the nature of government action is different. It doesn’t interfere as much as another government that is less intrusive in quantitative terms but more intrusive in qualitative terms.

So, if you are looking at a point in time, it makes sense to say, “mutatis mutandis, if a rich country nowadays has a smaller government, this country is going to be freer.” That is true. But the action of government varies from one case to another.

Get Leandro Prados de la Escosura’s book, Human Development and the Path to Freedom: 1870 to the Present, here.