So, what would it take to persuade you to have another baby? A big tax break? A monthly stipend? Free child care? A big house?
“I wouldn’t do that again for all the money in the world” is a perfectly reasonable answer. But be prepared: At some point, your government is going to pitch you on a larger family.
We have entered the age of the fertility panic. Country after country is discovering that smaller families are causing the population to shrink, which means more old people, and therefore higher government expenses and lower tax revenues. And many of those countries are then jumping to the wrong conclusion: that they should persuade people to have more kids.
The latest victim is the United States, which until recently was proud of its big, corn-fed families, but discovered last year that the economic crisis and constricted immigration have pushed its average family size down to 1.9 children, below the 2.1 needed for population stability.
This has led a number of American voices to propose what European countries have been doing for more than a decade and what Quebec has tried since the 1980s: attempting to create larger families through policy.
This theme has been seized upon most dramatically by the conservative author Jonathan Last, whose book What to Expect When No One’s Expecting created alarming headlines across America this week. He is not satisfied to warn of rising pension and health-care costs. “Declining populations have always followed or been followed by Very Bad Things. Disease. War. Economic stagnation or collapse. And these grim tidings from history may be in our future,” his first chapter warns. (He follows this by reassuring us that unlike the population-growth scaremongers of the 1970s, “I’m not selling doom.”)
The Economic Toll of Islamic Law: Timur Kuran’s provocative diagnosis of a region’s malaise – and a possible cure
Right now, the Islamic world is in the midst of a grand experiment. After decades facing an unappetizing choice among secular dictatorship, monarchy, and Iranian-style theocracy, nations across the region are grappling with how to build genuinely modern governments and societies that take into account the Islamist principles shared by a majority of voters.
As they do, a shadow hangs over their prospects. Islamic nations in the Middle East on the whole have underperformed their counterparts in the West. Asian nations that were poorer than the Arab world at the beginning of the Cold War have overtaken the Middle East. And promising experiments with democracy have been few and far between.
The question of why is a contentious one. Has the Islamic world been held back by its treatment at the hands of history? Or could the roots of the problem lie in its shared religion—in the Koran, and Islamic belief itself?
A provocative new answer is emerging from the work of Timur Kuran, a Turkish-American economist at Duke University and one of the most influential thinkers about how, exactly, Islam shapes societies. In a growing body of work, Kuran argues that the blame for the Islamic world’s economic stagnation and democracy deficit lies with a distinct set of institutions that Islamic law created over centuries. The way traditional Islamic law handled finance, inheritance, and incorporation, he argues, held back both economic and political development. These practices aren’t inherent in the religion—they emerged long after the establishment of Islam, and have partly receded from use in the modern era. But they left a profound legacy in many societies where Islam held sway.
Islamic partnerships and inheritance law limited the ability of merchants to pool capital and build competitive enterprises with long life spans. Islam’s emphasis on fairness and a division of assets among children had the unfortunate effect of preventing large-scale businesses from taking root. Meanwhile, the primary vehicle for organizing institutions—the Islamic trust—placed severe limits on the development of civic institutions such as universities, guilds, and charities. Over time, the result was a stagnant economy and an enfeebled civil society with no way to challenge the established political order.
NOWHERE IN the world have the latest shocks to the Old Order been more powerful than in the Middle East and North Africa, where massive civic turmoil has swept away long-entrenched leaders in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, toppled a despot in Libya and now challenges the status quo in Syria. Over the past sixty years, the only other development of comparable game-changing magnitude was the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union.
It isn’t clear where the region is headed, but it is clear that its Old Order is dying. That order emerged after World War II, when the Middle East’s colonial powers and their proxies were upended by ambitious new leaders stirred by the force and promise of Arab nationalism. Over time, though, their idealism gave way to corruption and dictatorial repression, and much of the region slipped into economic stagnation, unemployment, social frustration and seething anger.
For decades, that status quo held, largely through the iron-fisted resolve of a succession of state leaders throughout the region who monopolized their nations’ politics and suppressed dissent with brutal efficiency. During the long winter of U.S.-Soviet confrontation, some of them also positioned themselves domestically by playing the Cold War superpowers against each other.
The United States was only too happy to play the game, even accepting and supporting authoritarian regimes to ensure free-flowing oil, a Soviet Union held at bay and the suppression of radical Islamist forces viewed as a potential threat to regional stability. Although successive U.S. presidents spoke in lofty terms about the need for democratic change in the region, they opted for the short-term stability that such pro-American dictators provided. And they helped keep the strongmen in power with generous amounts of aid and weaponry.