China’s coercive policy is often held up as a great success of the power of government to change from on high. But did you see the world population growth correction in the early 1960s? That was China. If you don’t know what was going on in China then, read books (hint: if you don’t know much about the history of China, you don’t know much about the history of the world). My point is that China’s solution was in part a reaction to a pro-natalist drive encouraged by one of the most powerful crazy men in the history of the world. On pure pragmatic grounds one may say that China had to do something, but their actions in the early 1980s did not occur in a vacuum, and were a consequence of a sequence of earlier events particular to that nation.
Contrast China with South Korea, a culturally similar nation, which went through decades of authoritarian rule, but never imposed coercive family planning policies of the sort common in the People’s Republic. Like Japan and Taiwan South Korea’s fertility and population growth rates declined naturally through economic development. With abundant human capital (high literacy) to start out with these nations replicated, and in some ways exceeded, the trajectory of the European demographic transition concomitant with an increase in economic productivity and urbanization. In fact, their fertility rates are lower than that of China, probably because they’re economically more advanced. If it wasn’t for China’s three decade long dance with crazy Communism the coercive policies in relation to reproduction may never have been necessary.
Economic development isn’t the only way to staunch population growth. Iran has taken a different, and less optimal, but still not grossly coercive, path. Because of the lack of economic opportunity in Iran’s society there was an understanding at both the commanding heights and the grassroots that large families were simply not sustainable, at least not using the quality of life which people had become used to in the 1970s as a reference point.
As I noted yesterday, the problem within India is that there is a wide region-to-region variation. The southern cone of India is already verging toward sub-replacement fertility. A major difference I see between China and India though is that the economically and socially most backward area is the cultural heart of the latter. There may be vague analogies to Italy, where Rome is a government town in the center, while northern Italy is the economic motive force, and southern Italy serves as a vote-bank which reliably backs the party which makes the biggest cash transfer promise. A big difference between Italy and India: the backward region is numerically dominant in India, while it is not in Italy.
Here are two bubble plots which show the divide in India. The size of the bubbles are proportion to the population size of the state. The two ones to the top left are Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
The fact is that South Asia is low on the human capital scale:
The only long term solution is to leverage the fact that other parts of the world are higher up on the human capital ladder, and still producing innovation and generating new ways to increase productivity. Matt Yglesias has a post up about Japan, from which I got this chart:
Because Japan’s population is shrinking its economy will decline over time. Additionally, because of the unfavorable demographics, with more older people than young workers, it will go through some decline in quality of life. But the average Japanese still consumes at a very high level, it’s not dystopia. Ultimately the Japanese are relying on innovation to buoy their economy. And that’s the real long term solution: without innovation we’re f**ked. Period. Demographic adjustments are really epiphenomena on the margins. That’s why the media can report on both sides of the ledger as if they are both positive and negative. It’s about quality of human capital and the innovation they’re producing, not the quantity of humans.
Image Credit: Wikimedia