It wasn’t always this way. It used to be taken for granted that the best indicator of a nation’s health was its citizens’ desire and capacity to reproduce. And it should still seem self-evident that people’s willingness to have children is not only a sign of confidence in the future, but a sign of cultural health. It’s a signal that people are willing to commit to the most enduring responsibility on Earth, which is raising a child.
But reproduction is also a sign of national health in a more dollars-and-cents way. The more productive people you have in your society, the healthier your country’s economy. It’s an idea that was obvious back in the 17th century, when economist Jean Bodin wrote “the only wealth is people.”
Today we see the problems wrought by the decline in productive populations all over the industrialized world, where polities are ripping each other to shreds over how to pay for various forms of entitlements, especially for old people. The debates play out in different ways in different countries, but in other ways they are exactly the same. That’s because they are ruled by the same ruthless math: The fewer young, productive people you have to pay for entitlements for old, unproductive people, the steeper the bill for the entire society becomes. This basic problem is strangling Europe’s economies. And while the United States is among the least bad of the bunch, it is still headed in the wrong direction.