fbpx
01 / 05
Removing Government Barriers to Fertility

Blog Post | Health & Medical Care

Removing Government Barriers to Fertility

Larger populations of free people create more economic prosperity through innovation, so policymakers shouldn’t make it harder for people to become parents and raise children.

The world’s population has never been bigger, yet rates of poverty and hunger are at historic lows. How is that possible? It turns out that population growth can fuel resource abundance and economic prosperity through innovation. Contrary to popular belief, resources have become more plentiful as the global population has increased. Analyzing historical data, the authors of “Superabundance: The Story of Population Growth, Innovation, and Human Flourishing on an Infinitely Bountiful Planet” discovered that in recent decades resource abundance outpaced population growth, a phenomenon they call “superabundance.” This counterintuitive relationship arises from the fact that more people generate more ideas and inventions, leading to economic growth and improved living standards.

In other words, on average, free people produce more than they consume. Perhaps that is not so surprising, because human ingenuity is what transforms raw natural materials into valuable resources in the first place. A remarkable example is Hong Kong, which underwent a rapid free market metamorphosis from a barren island to a prosperous metropolis in the 1950s and ’60s.

However, it’s crucial to note that simply having a large population is insufficient to create abundance. The poverty experienced in China and India before their liberalizing economic reforms serves as a stark reminder of that. Merely having a large population is not enough; it is freedom that unleashes human potential and transforms living standards. Free societies foster innovation by granting individuals the liberty to explore new ideas, debate, trade and profit. And the more people do those things, the more opportunities arise for specialization, collaboration and technological breakthroughs. Under conditions of economic freedom, more people mean more entrepreneurs, more innovators and more creators.

Demographic Dilemmas

If it is true that free individuals engaged in idea generation and market exchange are “the ultimate resource,” as the late University of Maryland economist Julian Simon called them, then the more, the merrier. In a free society, fears about so‐​called overpopulation and resource depletion are baseless. Moreover, population growth rates are decreasing globally, with many countries now experiencing shrinking populations as fertility rates fall. Fertility is lowest in the high‐​income countries, in many cases at record lows and in most instances “below replacement” (i.e., lower than needed to keep the population from shrinking).

Many middle‐​income countries, including Brazil, China, India, Mexico and Russia, also have fertility rates below the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman. It must be noted, though, that smaller family sizes often relate to positive developments such as increased education for women and declining rates of child mortality. (More children surviving to adulthood decreases the incentive to have additional children as an insurance policy against a high likelihood of childhood death.) Moreover, many commentators celebrate the possibility of population decline for a variety of reasons, often believing that a smaller population will benefit the environment.

Others, however, fear that a smaller population size could come with various challenges. If a larger population has the potential to increase the rate of technological advancement and economic growth, then a smaller population could conversely slow the rate of progress. Such risks may be manageable through automation or immigration (although if birth rates continue to decline globally, then migration alone cannot counteract depopulation in the very long run). Thus, many thinkers across the ideological spectrum, such as Matt Yglesias and Ross Douthat, have expressed concerns about subreplacement fertility and possible attendant tradeoffs.

Irrespective of whether or to what extent their worries are substantiated, such fears have motivated a variety of policies intended to help families and boost birth rates in countries from South Korea to Estonia. Unfortunately, such “pro‐​natal” policies often take the form of expensive new government programs and subsidies that increase the burden on taxpayers while having little or no effect on fertility. In a recent Cato policy analysis I co‐​authored with Vanessa Calder, we found that in almost all cases, countries with pro‐​natal policies tied to explicit fertility targets failed to meet their stated goals. That conclusion fits with a larger body of research showing that the effect size of fertility initiatives is often small and comes at an enormous fiscal cost.

Ultimately, it is not the government’s place to encourage or discourage any particular family size, and past government attempts to alter fertility rates have sometimes even resulted in tragic human rights abuses. So, rather than embarking on new initiatives that are costly, are questionably effective and risk wading into the territory of social engineering or worse, policymakers should take a “first do no harm” approach to fertility. Instead of replicating costly efforts that have proven ineffective abroad, U.S. policymakers keen on supporting families and concerned about fertility decline should consider repealing the various government policies that can act as artificial barriers to fertility and raise costs for parents. In other words, policymakers should make sure that government policies do not interfere with individuals’ freedom to form the families they want to create.

Family‐​Friendly Policies

First, consider policies affecting family budgets and work. By some estimates, housing is the greatest expense associated with raising children, and regulations that limit the housing supply, including land use and zoning regulations, make housing less affordable. Meanwhile, tariffs raise the cost of construction materials and push the cost of housing even higher. The cost of food, the second‐​greatest expense associated with children, is inflated by subsidies that backfire, regulations and restrictive trade policies. Studies suggest that reforming such policies could reduce the retail price of milk, a staple among families with young children, by 15% to 20%.

Then there’s education: Increasing school choice would increase incentives for schools to meet the needs of students and their families. Next, consider child care. Various regressive regulations limit the supply of child care and push up prices. For example, Washington, D.C., adopted a licensing law requiring many child care workers to have a college degree. When it comes to child‐​to‐​staff ratios, requiring even one less staffer per infant reduces child care costs by up to 20%. In fact, many countries such as Denmark, Spain and Sweden have no government‐​mandated maximum ratio at all. Removing laws that discourage telework and flexible work can also make life easier for parents. For example, pandemic‐​era reforms removing barriers to telemedicine not only increased patient convenience but made balancing parenthood and career easier for some workers in medical fields by allowing for remote work.

Further, some healthcare policies excessively limit parents’ options regarding the way their children are conceived and born. Several government policies—including certificate‐​of‐​need laws restricting the creation of new birth centers and various state laws restricting vaginal birth after cesarean attempts to hospital settings and banning them at smaller clinics or birth centers—make it needlessly difficult for mothers who want to avoid cesarean sections to do so. Such restrictions not only disrespect mothers’ autonomy but can make having multiple children medically risky and, research suggests, may depress fertility, all without improving health outcomes.

Policymakers worried about families and fertility should similarly avoid overregulating the field of reproductive technology, which can help many couples struggling with infertility challenges. Policymakers should also avoid imitating Hungary, which nationalized its fertility clinics and subsidizes fertility treatments, resulting in fewer treatment options and lengthy wait times that have prompted many Hungarians to seek treatment in neighboring countries. Such policies not only diminish individual liberty but make bringing new children into the world unnecessarily difficult.

Finally, there are some well‐​intentioned but excessive child safety policies that make raising children more expensive and time‐​consuming. For example, one study found that extended‐​age car seat requirements were associated with only 57 car crash fatalities in 2017 but with a reduction of approximately 8,000 births in the same year. Speaking of safety, Utah (2018), Oklahoma (2021), Texas (2021), Colorado (2022) and Virginia (2023) have passed “reasonable childhood independence” legislation that pushes back against overly burdensome and intensive parenting norms. More states should pass these laws so that children benefit from increased independence and parents benefit from reduced stress levels.

Those are just a few of the reforms to labor, trade, healthcare, education, housing and safety policies that would reduce the regulatory cost of raising children and help families. Although I am skeptical of the idea of expensive new government policies aimed at increasing fertility, believing them to be misguided and possibly beyond the proper scope of government, at the very least, any expansion of spending on families should be paired with deregulation of the goods that parents demand most and reform of policies that artificially and needlessly make family life harder.

If free people are the ultimate source of societal abundance—if people themselves are “the ultimate resource”—then we should reconsider overly burdensome regulations that potentially frustrate fertility aspirations. The work that parents do raising the next generation of human beings is important—and arduous enough without the government making it harder. To increase abundance, families must be free.

This article appeared in Discourse Magazine on August 15, 2023.

Blog Post | Population Growth

People Are the Ultimate Existential Resource

Even if technological advances help mitigate the problems with a shrinking population, young people are an irreplaceable existential resource.

Summary: The decline in global birth rates has shifted concerns from overpopulation to potential economic and existential crises. Economist Julian Simon posited that humans are the ultimate resource due to their abilities to solve scarcity problems, but it’s also their need for meaningful existence that drives societal progress. As birth rates fall, it’s crucial to recognize the profound role of family and social connections in providing purpose and motivating efforts that enhance human flourishing and ensure a better future for coming generations.


Birth rates dropping below replacement level in much of the world has become a growing concern. However, this is a relatively recent worry. For a long time, the rapid growth of the world’s population led many experts to fear the depletion of our natural resources and the potential collapse of civilization. The late economist Julian Simon did not share these overpopulation concerns. Instead, he argued that humans are the ultimate resource, proposing that more humans would actually help solve our scarcity problems. His reasoning was that more humans means more brain power, which in turn leads to more discoveries, creations, and innovations. This insight is crucial. As Marian Tupy and Gale Pooley detail in their excellent book, Superabundance, our species has demonstrated a remarkable ability to leverage our cognitive capacities to solve scarcity issues throughout history.

However, there is another crucial factor to consider when thinking about what makes humans the ultimate resource. The cognitive capacities that make us an intellectual species, combined with our distinctly human self-conscious emotions, also make us an existential species driven to find and maintain meaning in life. We don’t merely seek to survive; we want our lives to matter. We aspire to play a significant role in a meaningful cultural drama that transcends our individual existence. This deep-seated need for meaning is a fundamental aspect of the human experience, shaping our goals, decisions, and actions. Critically, our need for meaning plays a central role in individual and societal flourishing.

Meaning is more than a feeling; it is a self-regulatory and motivational resource. When we find meaning in life, it provides us with a compelling reason to get up each day and strive to do our best, even in the face of challenges and setbacks. Inevitably, we will encounter failures, make mistakes, and have moments of weakness when we act impulsively or allow bad habits and patterns of living to shift our attention away from the goals and actions that would make life more fulfilling. We may also let our character flaws derail us from time to time. However, when we perceive our lives as meaningful, we are more likely to believe that we have a strong reason to work harder at self-improvement, to course correct when needed, and to persistently pursue our potential while prioritizing what matters most to us. Indeed, research has shown that the more people view their lives as full of meaning, the more they tend to be physically and mentally healthy, goal focused, persistent, resilient, and successful in achieving their objectives.

Crucially, our need for meaning is inherently social. No matter what specific activity we are engaged in, we derive the greatest sense of meaning from it when we believe that it has a positive impact on the lives of others. 

Years ago, I was invited to give a presentation to professors on how to improve their public outreach efforts. During the Q&A session, a math professor expressed his doubts about the relevance of my presentation to his field. He said that it’s easy for me, as a psychologist, to engage the public because people are inherently interested in the topics psychologists study. However, he wondered how he could get people interested in hearing about math. He noted that most people find it boring. I asked him why he became a math professor. He responded that he finds the work intrinsically interesting and really enjoys sharing that passion with eager students. I then asked him why that matters – why is it important to mentor the next generation of mathematicians? He replied, “Because math is fundamental to the continuation of civilization.” As he said those words, I could see the realization dawn on him that my presentation was, in fact, applicable to his field. The central theme of my talk was that for academic scholars to succeed in public outreach, they need to be able to articulate the social significance of their work to non-experts. 

However, being able to identify the social significance of one’s work isn’t just about public outreach; it’s also crucial for one’s own ability to find personal fulfillment in their work. I believe that one of the reasons people lose passion for their work, even if they are highly successful, is that they don’t believe it makes a real difference in the world. Regardless of the nature of their work, whether paid or unpaid, people are most likely to derive meaning from it when they recognize its social significance. For instance, research shows that employees are more likely to find their work meaningful when they focus on how it positively impacts the lives of others, rather than on how it advances their own career goals. 

I’m emphasizing the social nature of meaning because it is essential to understanding why humans are the ultimate existential resource. The motivational power of meaning is derived from our connections with other humans and the impact we have on their lives. They are the existential resource that inspires us to tackle significant challenges and advance human progress, ensuring that future generations can enjoy a better life than we do today. 

In an article published earlier this week by USA Today, I discuss this issue in the context of the current birth rate decline, focusing on the special role that family plays in our search for meaning. Individuals can certainly live meaningful lives without having children or close family relationships. There are many paths to achieving social significance by making contributions through entrepreneurship, science, art, education, mentorship, leadership, service, and philanthropy. However, for the majority of people, family remains an essential component of a meaningful life, providing a deep sense of belonging and continuity that extends beyond one’s own existence.

Current conversations about the baby bust are largely dominated by concerns over the economic and policy challenges it presents. As our population ages, we may face worker shortages, increased strain on social safety net programs, and economic stagnation. While these challenges are very important and demand our attention, it is equally crucial that we do not overlook the profound personal and existential consequences of this demographic shift.

Even if you believe that advances in automation, artificial intelligence, or other technological innovations will help mitigate the problems caused by a shrinking population, it is crucial to recognize that young people are an irreplaceable existential resource. They are the reasons we care about the future, providing us with the opportunity to achieve a level of social significance that transcends our brief mortal lives. No machine can replace the profound sense of meaning that raising the next generation of humans provides.

While human intelligence makes the creative, innovative, and industrious activities that lead to abundance possible, it is the meaning in life we derive from mattering to others that gives us the fundamental reason to pursue these activities in the first place.

This article was published at Flourishing Friday on 6/7/2024.

Morocco World News | Population Demographics

Morocco’s Remarkable Progress in Reducing Child Mortality

“According to the report, the under-five mortality rate in Morocco has declined by an impressive 4.8 percent, dropping from 81 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 52 in 2000, and further to 17 in 2022.

The report also reveals that the infant mortality rate in Morocco has decreased from 64 deaths per 1,000 infants in 1990 to 15 deaths in 2022. Additionally, the neonatal mortality rate has declined by 3.9 percent, falling from 37 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 29 deaths in 2000, and reaching 11 in 2022.”

From Morocco World News.

Blog Post | Urbanization

Lessons From Adam Smith’s Edinburgh and Paris

Examining the places where major advances happened is one way to learn about the conditions that foster societal flourishing, human achievement, and prosperity.

Summary: Amidst the turmoil of modern times, evidence reveals significant progress across various metrics, from rising life expectancy to declining global poverty. Cities have emerged as epicenters of innovation and progress throughout history, fostering collaboration, competition, and freedom of thought. By exploring the unique environments of cities like Edinburgh and Paris, where intellectual liberty thrived, Chelsea Follett uncovers the vital role of peace, freedom, and population density in driving human achievement and societal advancement.


This article appeared in Adam Smith Works on 2/8/2024.

Has humanity made progress? With so many serious problems, it is easy to get the impression that our species is hopeless. Many people view history as one long tale of decay and degeneration since some lost, idealized golden age.

But there has been much remarkable, measurable improvement—from rising life expectancy and literacy rates to declining global poverty. (Explore the evidence for yourself). Today, material abundance is more widespread than our ancestors could have dreamed. And there has been moral progress too. Slavery and torture, once widely accepted, are today almost universally reviled.

Where did all this progress come from? Certain places, at certain times in history, have contributed disproportionately to progress and innovation. Change is a constant, but progress is not. Studying the past may hold the secret to fostering innovation in the present. To that end, I wrote a book titled Centers of Progress: 40 Cities that Changed the World, exploring the places that shaped modern life.

The origin points of the ideas, discoveries, and inventions that built the modern world were far from evenly or randomly dispersed throughout the globe. Instead, they tended to emerge from cities, even in time periods when most of the human population lived in rural areas. In fact, even before anything that could be called a city by modern standards existed, progress originated from the closest equivalents that did exist at the time. Why is that?

“Cities, the dense agglomerations that dot the globe, have been engines of innovation since Plato and Socrates bickered in an Athenian marketplace,” urban economist Edward Glaeser opined in his book The Triumph of the City. Of course, he was hardly the first to observe that positive change often emanates from cities. As Adam Smith noted in 1776, “the commerce and manufactures of cities, instead of being the effect, have been the cause and occasion of the improvement and cultivation of the country.”

One of the reasons that progress tends to emerge from cities is, simply, people. Wherever more people gather together to “truck, barter, and exchange,” in Smith’s words, that increases their potential to engage in productive exchange, discussion, debate, collaboration, and competition with each other. Cities’ higher populations allow for a finer division of labor, more specialization, and greater efficiencies in production. Not to mention, more minds working together to solve problems. As the writer Matt Ridley notes in the foreword he kindly wrote for Centers of Progress, “Progress is a team sport, not an individual pursuit. It is a collaborative, collective thing, done between brains more than inside them.”

A higher population is sufficient to explain why progress often emerges from cities, but, of course, not all cities become major innovation centers. Progress may be a team sport, but why do certain cities seem to provide ideal playing conditions, and not others?

That brings us to the next thing that most centers of progress share, besides being relatively populous: peace. That makes sense, because if a place is plagued by violence and discord then it is hard for the people there to focus on anything other than survival, and there is little incentive to be productive since any wealth is likely to be looted or destroyed. Smith recognized this truth, and noted that cities, historically, sometimes offered more security from violence than the countryside:

Order and good government, and along with them the liberty and security of individuals, were in this manner established in cities, at a time when the occupiers of land in the country, were exposed to every sort of violence. But men in this defenceless state naturally content themselves with their necessary subsistence; because, to acquire more, might only tempt the injustice of their oppressors. On the contrary, when they are secure of enjoying the fruits of their industry, they naturally exert it to better their condition, and to acquire not only the necessaries, but the conveniencies and elegancies of life. That industry, therefore, which aims at something more than necessary subsistence, was established in cities long before it was commonly practised by the occupiers of land in the country. […] Whatever stock, therefore, accumulated in the hands of the industrious part of the inhabitants of the country, naturally took refuge in cities, as the only sanctuaries in which it could be secure to the person that acquired it.

Of course, not all cities were or are peaceful. Consider Smith’s own city: Edinburgh. At times, the city was far from stable. But the relatively unkempt and inhospitable locale emerged from a century of instability to take the world by storm. Scotland in the 18th century had just undergone decades of political and economic turmoil. Disruption was caused by the House of Orange’s ousting of the House of Stuart, the Jacobite Rebellions, the failed and costly colonial Darien Scheme, famine, and the 1707 Union of Scotland and England. It was only after things settled down and the city came to enjoy a period of relative peace and stability that Edinburgh rose to reach its potential. Edinburgh was an improbable center of progress. But Edinburgh proves what people can accomplish, given the right conditions.

During the Scottish Enlightenment centered in Edinburgh, Adam Smith was far from the only innovative thinker in the city. Edinburgh’s ability to cultivate innovators in every arena of human achievement, from the arts to the sciences, seemed almost magical.

Edinburgh gave the world so many groundbreaking artists that the French writer Voltaire opined in 1762 that “today it is from Scotland that we get rules of taste in all the arts, from epic poetry to gardening.” Edinburgh gave humanity artistic pioneers from the novelist Sir Walter Scott, often called the father of the historical novel, to the architect Robert Adam who, together with his brother James, developed the “Adam style,” which evolved into the so‐​called “Federal style” in the United States after Independence.

And then there were the scientists. Thomas Jefferson, in 1789, wrote, “So far as science is concerned, no place in the world can pretend to competition with Edinburgh.” The Edinburger geologist James Hutton developed many of the fundamental principles of his discipline. The chemist and physicist Joseph Black, who studied at the University of Edinburgh, discovered carbon dioxide, magnesium, and the important thermodynamic concepts of latent heat and specific heat. The anatomist Alexander Monro Secondus became the first person to detail the human lymphatic system. Sir James Young Simpson, admitted to the University of Edinburgh at the young age of fourteen, went on to develop chloroform anesthesia.

Two of the greatest gifts that Edinburgh gave humanity were empiricism and economics. The influential philosopher David Hume was among the early advocates of empiricism and is sometimes called the father of philosophical skepticism. And by creating the field of economics, Smith helped humanity to think about policies that enhance prosperity. Those policies, including free trade and economic freedom that Smith advocated, have since helped to raise living standards to heights that would be unimaginable to Smith and his contemporaries.

That brings us to the last but by no means least secret ingredient of progress. Freedom. Centers of progress during their creative peak tend to be relatively free and open for their era. That makes sense because simply having a large population is not going to lead to progress if that population lacks the freedom to experiment, to debate new propositions, and to work together for their mutual benefit. Perhaps the biggest reason why cities produce so much progress is that city dwellers have often enjoyed more freedom than their rural counterparts. Medieval serfs fleeing feudal lands to gain freedom in cities inspired the German saying “stadtluft macht frei” (city air makes you free).

That adage referred to laws granting serfs liberty after a year and a day of urban residency. But the phrase arguably has a wider application. Cities have often served as havens of freedom for innovators and anyone stifled by the stricter norms and more limited choices common in smaller communities. Edinburgh was notable for its atmosphere of intellectual freedom, allowing thinkers to debate a wide diversity of controversial ideas in its many reading societies and pubs.

Of course, cities are not always free. Authoritarian states sometimes see laxer enforcement of their draconian laws in remote areas, and Smith himself viewed rural life as in some ways less encumbered by constraining rules and regulations than city life. But as philosophy professor Kyle Swan previously noted for Adam Smith Works:

Without denying the charms and attractions Smith highlights in country living, let’s not forget what’s on offer in our cities: a significantly broader range of choices! Diverse restaurants and untold many other services and recreations, groups of people who like the same peculiar things that you like, and those with similar backgrounds and interests and activities to pursue with them — cities are (positive) freedom enhancing.

The same secret ingredients of progress—people, peace, and freedom—that helped Edinburgh to flourish during Smith’s day can be observed again and again throughout history in the places that became key centers of innovation. Consider Paris.

As the capital of France, Paris attracted a large population and became an important economic and cultural hub. But it was an unusual spirit of freedom that allowed the city to make its greatest contributions to human progress. Much like the reading societies and pubs of Smith’s Edinburgh, the salons and coffeehouses of 18th‐​century Paris provided a place for intellectual discourse where the philosophes birthed the so‐​called Age of Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment was a movement that promoted the values of reason, evidence‐​based knowledge, free inquiry, individual liberty, humanism, limited government, and the separation of church and state. In Parisian salons, nobles and other wealthy financiers intermingled with artists, writers, and philosophers seeking financial patronage and opportunities to discuss and disseminate their work. The gatherings gave controversial philosophers, who would have been denied the intellectual freedom to explore their ideas elsewhere, the liberty to develop their thoughts.

Influential Parisian and Paris‐ based thinkers of the period included the Baron de Montesquieu, who advocated the then‐​groundbreaking idea of the separation of government powers and the writer Denis Diderot, the creator of the first general‐​purpose encyclopedia, as well the Genevan expat Jean‐​Jacques Rousseau. While sometimes considered a counter‐​Enlightenment figure because of his skepticism of modern commercial society and romanticized view of primitive existence, Rousseau also helped to spread skepticism toward monarchy and the idea that kings had a “divine right” to rule over others.

The salons were famous for sophisticated conversations and intense debates; however, it was letter‐​writing that gave the philosophes’ ideas a wide reach. A community of intellectuals that spanned much of the Western world—known as the Republic of Letters—increasingly engaged in the exchanges of ideas that began in Parisian salons. Thus, the Enlightenment movement based in Paris helped spur similar radical experiments in thought elsewhere, including the Scottish Enlightenment in Edinburgh. Smith’s many exchanges of ideas with the people of Paris, including during his 1766 visit to the city when he dined with Diderot and other luminaries, proved pivotal to his own intellectual development.

And then there was Voltaire, sometimes called the single most influential figure of the Enlightenment. Although Parisian by birth, Voltaire spent relatively little time in Paris because of frequent exiles occasioned by the ire of French authorities. Voltaire’s time hiding out in London, for example, enabled him to translate the works of the political philosopher and “father of liberalism” John Locke, as well as the English mathematician and physicist Isaac Newton. While Voltaire’s critiques of existing institutions and norms pushed the boundaries of acceptable discourse beyond even what would be tolerated in Paris, his Parisian upbringing and education likely helped to cultivate the devotion to freethinking that would come to define his life.

By allowing for an unusual degree of intellectual liberty and providing a home base for the Enlightenment and the far‐​ranging Republic of Letters, Paris helped spread new ideas that would ultimately give rise to new forms of government—including modern liberal democracy.

Surveying the cities, such as Edinburgh and Paris, that built the modern world reveals that when people live in peace and freedom, their potential to bring about positive change increases. Examining the places where major advances happened is one way to learn about the conditions that foster societal flourishing, human achievement, and prosperity. I hope that you will consider joining me on a journey through the book’s pages to some of history’s greatest centers of progress, and that doing so sparks many intelligent discussions, debates, and inquiries in the Smithian tradition about the causes of progress and wealth.