Monday, September 17, 2007

Misguided Conservative Attack On China's One-Child Policy

Today's WSJ op-ed page features a piece attacking China's "one-child" policy as a "tragic and historic mistake." The author, Nicholas Eberstadt, is a "resident scholar" at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, of which the Journal is a regular outlet.

Eberstadt's argument is that China will, in about 25 years, face a crisis because it will have too many old people and not enough young.

Let's examine the argument, which we suspect is really a front for conservatives who object to China's policy because it includes abortion as a component and doesn't sit well with libertarian ideals.

In 1968, Paul Ehrlich wrote a bestseller, The Population Bomb, predicting impending doom for mankind if it didn't stop out of control human procreation. Ehrlich's gloom and doom proved wrong because mankind adapted by initiating the green revolution--a massive expansion of food productivity.

Still, there is an outer limit to human population expansion on this earth, especially if you want humans to live in the lifestyle to which we Westerners, and especially we Americans, have become accustomed.

A good microcosm of what happens when there are too many people and not enough resources is Rwanda, where ethnic warfare between Hutus and Tutsis took over a million lives in a short period of time, most killed by very simple weapons such as machetes. While on the surface the senseless slaughter looks like ethnic tension, it was, in fact, brought on by years of population growth that steadily decreased the average size of Rwandan farm plots to the point that there was not nearly enough food and land for everyone. That then sparked the reprisals that escalated quickly into civil war.

Today, the world has roughly 6.7 billion people, with projections of 9 billion by 2050. Can we get to 15 billion, or 20 billion, without destroying the planet? Not likely, especially if most of those people live like we do: drive personal cars, live in fossil-fuel heated and cooled abodes, consume massive quantities (per capita) of steel, minerals and wood products, etc.

Now, let's look at what Eberstadt has to say. He really makes the same mistake as Ehrlich, which is not to give humans credit for adapting. China is hardly the only society that is aging rapidly and that will have to face the demographics of a large gray population supported by a smaller youth population. Japan is the starkest example of this, and it is likely that Japan will show the way in innovation that makes just such a society possible--even successful.

Eberstadt worries about the social fabric of a future China: "It is no secret that China is already a 'low trust society': Personal and business transactions still rely heavily upon guanxi, the network of personal relations largely demarcated by family ties. What exactly will provide the 'social capital' to undergird commercial and economic development in a future China where 'families' are, increasingly, little more than atomized households and isolated individuals?"

The answer is pretty simple. Most Western nations have already evolved family oriented networks to successful models of growth and economic development in societies of small households and "isolated individuals." China has plenty of models for this transition, which will be facilitated by modern telecommunications and the internet. There is no evidence that China is having difficulty with this transition--quite the contrary, younger and middle-age Chinese (those future old people) in the cities are adapting quite nicely to the modern age.

Eberstadt also points to the large disparity in Chinese birthrates between boys and girls. This is a problem, in both China and India, and it will have some adverse effects down the road. But Eberstadt should read his own prose here: "the Chinese people, like people elsewhere, are rational, calculating actors." This imbalance will correct itself over the long run, because eventually girls, in short supply, will be highly valued and Chinese society will adjust its views.

Eberstadt worries that the older Chinese will have no one to take care of them because there will be four grandparents for every grandchild, and some of those grandparents won't even have a patriarchal grandson to take care of them. Chinese society has already evolved past the point of expecting that only a son can take care of the grandparents. Women in China--freed from constant childbearing--are as involved in the economy as in many Western nations. Furthermore, China will realize that it needs to put in place systems that take care of the elderly, and the elderly will, of course, demand just such.

We don't see the Chinese government simply walking all their elderly out to the frozen tundra and leaving them there to starve.

So, yes, China has some issues to work through. And the Chinese have, indeed, begun to gradually relax the one-child rules. As the Chinese population stabilizes, more liberalization can be expected such that China eventually reaches a plateau of sorts.

Eberstadt's solution--just scrap one-child--would be extremely risky for China. China is trying not just to grow for growth's sake, but to raise the standard of living of it's people to that of other advanced societies in our world. The Chinese government, unlike governments in many other developing countries, is not trying to make an elite few rich at the expense of the many.

But for China to be able to raise the living standard across the board, it has to stabilize it's population, otherwise it will always be playing catch-up. Conversely, the AEI model of economic growth based on an ever-expanding population of younger people to support an ever-larger group of older people is nothing but a population pyramid scheme. And we all know how those schemes ultimately end.

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