The One-Child Policy as the Root of All Evil

A rather melodramatic title, perhaps, but I don’t intend for it to be taken likely. To follow up briefly on Matt’s excellent post on the dangers of a bare branches society, the one-child policy has a lot to do with the pervasive dysfunction he describes.

Nicholas Eberstadt wrote an excellent primer on the ills of the one-child policy for The Wall Street Journal. The effort to completely remake Chinese society through coercive population control is high modernism at its worst: its “success” in achieving a narrow, “legible” aim (that is, an aim that a state can understand) masked a deeper failure that was at first only discernible at the ground level (the slow collapse of traditional kinship networks and the corresponding rise in displacement and violence) but is now blindingly obvious even in those all-important statistics that power-hungry elites care about.

So what was the legible aim? It was to create a favorable “dependency ratio,” a concept Malcolm Gladwell explored in considerable detail last year.

In Ireland during the sixties, when contraception was illegal, there were ten people who were too old or too young to work for every fourteen people in a position to earn a paycheck. That meant that the country was spending a large percentage of its resources on caring for the young and the old. Last year, Ireland’s dependency ratio hit an all-time low: for every ten dependents, it had twenty-two people of working age. That change coincides precisely with the country’s extraordinary economic surge.

So far so good, right? But as Eberstadt notes:

Thanks to a decade and a half of sub-replacement fertility, China’s working-age population is poised to peak in size, and then start to decline, more or less indefinitely, within less than a decade. A generation from now, China’s potential labor force (ages 15-64) will be no larger than it is today, perhaps smaller. This presages a radical change in China’s growth environment from the generation just completed, during which time (1980-2005) the country’s working-age population expanded by over 55%.

Meritocratic elites are really good at pursuing legible aims. That’s why they are also so good at juking the stats. What the “meritocratic elite” must do immediately is what a democratic government would have done ages ago: it must reverse the policy. Hopefully it’s not too late to reconstitute at least some of what’s been lost.