are needed today (only about 2.1 per woman in modern societies) to avoid population
loss. Birthrates are falling far below replacement levels in one country after the next --
from China, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea, to Canada, the Caribbean, all of Europe,
Russia, and even parts of the Middle East.
Fearful of a future in which the elderly outnumber the young, many governments are
doing whatever they can to encourage people to have children. Singapore has sponsored
"speed dating" events, in hopes of bringing busy professionals together to marry and
procreate. France offers generous tax incentives for those willing to start a family. In
Sweden, the state finances day care to ease the tension between work and family life.
Yet, though such explicitly pronatal policies may encourage people to have children at a
younger age, there is little evidence they cause people to have more children than they
otherwise would. As governments going as far back as imperial Rome have discovered,
when cultural and economic conditions discourage parenthood, not even a dictator can
force people to go forth and multiply.
Throughout the broad sweep of human history, there are many examples of people, or
classes of people, who chose to avoid the costs of parenthood. Indeed, falling fertility is a
recurring tendency of human civilization. Why then did humans not become extinct long
ago? The short answer is patriarchy.
Patriarchy does not simply mean that men rule. Indeed, it is a particular value system
that not only requires men to marry but to marry a woman of proper station. It competes
with many other male visions of the good life, and for that reason alone is prone to come
in cycles. Yet before it degenerates, it is a cultural regime that serves to keep birthrates
high among the affluent, while also maximizing parents' investments in their children. No
advanced civilization has yet learned how to endure without it.
Through a process of cultural evolution, societies that adopted this particular social
system -- which involves far more than simple male domination -- maximized their
population and therefore their power, whereas those that didn't were either overrun or
absorbed. This cycle in human history may be obnoxious to the enlightened, but it is set
to make a comeback.
The Conservative Baby Boom
The historical relation between patriarchy, population, and power has deep implications
for our own time. As the United States is discovering today in Iraq, population is still
power. Smart bombs, laser-guided missiles, and unmanned drones may vastly extend the
violent reach of a hegemonic power. But ultimately, it is often the number of boots on the
ground that changes history. Even with a fertility rate near replacement level, the United
States lacks the amount of people necessary to sustain an imperial role in the world, just
as Britain lost its ability to do so after its birthrates collapsed in the early 20th century.
For countries such as China, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Spain, in which one-child
families are now the norm, the quality of human capital may be high, but it has literally
become too rare to put at risk.
Falling fertility is also responsible for many financial and economic problems that
dominate today's headlines. The long-term financing of social security schemes, private
pension plans, and healthcare systems has little to do with people living longer. Gains in
life expectancy at older ages have actually been quite modest, and the rate of
improvement in the United States has diminished for each of the last three decades.
Instead, the falling ratio of workers to retirees is overwhelmingly caused by workers who
were never born. As governments raise taxes on a dwindling working-age population to
cover the growing burdens of supporting the elderly, young couples may conclude they