Viktor Orban, the president of Hungary and man-crush of more than a few traditionalist Christians, recently announced a series of measures designed to reverse his country’s demographic decline. The one that got the most attention exempts women who have four or more children from paying income taxes.
The problem Orban is trying to solve is real. Hungary is one of the ten fastest shrinking countries in the world. Its current population of 9.7 million is projected to be 8.28 million in 2050. Every year it “loses” 32,000 people.
The primary reason is its low fertility rate: 1.45 births per woman, which is ten percent lower than that of the European Union as a whole.
This low fertility rate is compounded by Hungarian attitudes toward immigration. As a recent book, “Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline” put it, when it comes to immigration, “Hungary is as Hungarian as Japan is Japanese.”
Thus, during the announcement of the new measures, Orban told his countrymen that “In all of Europe there are fewer and fewer children, and the answer of the West to this is migration . . .” They want as many migrants to enter as they are missing kids, so that the numbers will add up.”
In contrast, “We Hungarians have a different way of thinking. Instead of just numbers, we want Hungarian children. Migration for us is surrender.”
It’s this kind of rhetoric that has made Orban a hero among some conservatives, including some Christians who buy into his talk about “defending Christian Europe,” while overlooking the fact that only 12 percent of Hungarians regularly attend church and only 15 percent say that religion is “very important in their lives,” which is about the same results you see in France.
The fact is that Orban’s “different way of thinking” is every bit a sham as is his claim to be defending Christian Europe, something that reading “Empty Planet” would make clear, provided he didn’t dismiss it out of hand as George Soros-funded propaganda.
“Empty Planet,” written by Canadians Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson, tells readers that “The great defining event of the twenty-first century—one of the great defining events in human history—will occur in three decades, give or take, when the global population starts to decline. Once that decline begins, it will never end. We do not face the challenge of a population bomb but of a population bust—a relentless, generation-after-generation culling of the human herd.”
To say that this is not what nearly all of us have been taught to believe is an understatement. Within my lifetime, the global population has more has more than doubled from three to more than seven billion. Yet, by the end of “Empty Planet,” you wonder if the authors are being too optimistic.
Their account of the history of human demographics is worth the price of the book (or at least its e-book edition) all by itself. For virtually the entirety of homo sapiens’ sojourn on Earth, human populations grew very slowly, that is, when they were growing at all.
Historian Will Durant famously said that “civilization exists by geological consent, subject to withdrawal without notice.” Actually, until about 300 years ago, our existence was a lot more precarious than that.
It’s estimated that around the time of our Lord’s birth, there were three hundred million people in the world. It took another 1300 years to reach four hundred million, in part because the “Plague of Justinian,” caused by Yersinia pestis, killed between one-eighth and one-quarter of us in the sixth and seventh centuries.
And Yersinia pestis wasn’t through with us. In the 14th century, it struck again, killing between 16 and 40 percent of the world’s population. It took more than two centuries for the world’s population to recover to pre-Black Death levels.
Until about 1700, humanity was in “Stage One of the Demographic Transition Model,” which is characterized by high birth and death rates and “slow and fluctuating” population growth. Then things changed: Between 1700 and 1800, “the earth had added more people in a single century than in the previous four centuries combined.”
Why? Improvements in agriculture and public health reduced death rates. The “Columbian Exchange,” in which the New World gave the Old World things like corn, potatoes, squash, and tomatoes in exchange for pathogens from which it had no immunities, made famine less likely. And innovations such as “improved sanitation and the introduction of the smallpox vaccine,” helped people live longer.
This combination of high birth rates and a “gradually declining death rate” is Stage Two. When the world entered Stage Two in the 19th century, its population began to take off. Between 1851 and 1900, Britain’s population almost doubled. Sweden’s population grew from 2 million in 1820 to more than 5 million in 1900.
This scenario repeated itself throughout Europe and much of Asia. As a result, whereas it took several hundred thousand years for the global population to reach one billion (in 1800), it only took an additional 125 years or so for it to reach two billion.
Sometime in the early twentieth century, most European countries began the transition to Stage Three, which is characterized by falling birth rates as well as falling death rates. While populations continued to grow, their rate of growth slowed.
According to Bricker and Ibbitson, “the most important factor [for these declining rates] was urbanization . . . as societies become more economically developed, they become more urban, and once a society urbanizes, fertility rates start to decline.”
Part of the reason this is so is economic: As people moved from the countryside to the city, children stopped being an economic asset, i.e., additional labor, and became an economic liability, i.e., an additional mouth to feed.
But there’s another reason why urbanization results in lower birth rates: the way it changes women’s ideas about what is possible. Some of it is cultural: As Ilan Shrira of William & Mary put it, “family members encourage each other to have children, whereas non-kin don’t.” Thus, the large-scale move from the country to the city, leaving family behind, could not help but reduce fertility rates.
It also made the widespread education of women possible in a way that wasn’t possible in rural areas, and, for women, more education means fewer children.
By the 1930s, Europe and the West had entered “Stage Four,” a kind of “Goldilocks Zone” characterized by “a stable birth rate along with increasing life expectancy.” In Stage Four, fertility is high enough (2.1 births per woman) to sustain the population. Absent large-scale immigration, which few Western nations desired, populations would remain steady.
Stage Four didn’t last very long. Sometime in the 1960s and 1970s, countries in Europe and East Asia entered Stage Five, which is characterized by very low fertility rates and increasing life expectancy. Hungary, like the rest of the European Union (with the possible exception of France), Russia, Japan, Korea, China, and, arguably the United States, are now in Stage Five.
You probably know this or at least something like it. What you probably don’t know is that much of the developing world or the “Global South,” as it is sometimes called, has gone from Stage One to Stage Three in a fraction of the time it took Western nations, and many countries in Asia and Latin America are on the cusp of Stage Four.
Even in Africa, the seeming outlier and source of Emmanuel Macron’s nightmares, there are signs that the forces that led to declining fertility rates in the rest of the world, urbanization and the education of women, are at work. Fertility rates are projected to drop from about 5 births per woman in 2015 to about 3.25 by mid-century.
While this is still well above replacement level, the reduction when combined with below-replacement fertility rates in the rest of the world will most like result in the global population decline Bricker and Ibbitson write about.
That brings us back to Viktor Orban and his “different way of thinking.” Ironically, he is probably correct about Hungary’s demographic problems not being solved by immigration. Even without his rhetoric and policies, Hungary is an unlikely destination for immigrants. It’s much poorer than its Central, never mind Western, European neighbors and its non-Indo-European language is one of the most difficult in the world to learn.
Add the decreasing number of potential migrants from the developing world and Hungary’s only chance is to use policy and politics to increase fertility rates.
I don’t like Hungary’s — or anyone else’s — chances of succeeding on this score. Why that’s the case is the subject of my next column.
Roberto Rivera is a Senior Writer for BreakPoint
Have a Follow-up Question?
Want to dig deeper?
If you want to challenge yourself as many others have done, sign up below.