Empty Planet: Part Two


Roberto Rivera


In 1934, Gunnar and Alva Myrdal published “The Crisis in the Population Question” (Kris i befolkningsfrågan). The book, which helped to create the modern Swedish welfare state, was occasioned by a rapid decline in Swedish fertility rates: from 4.0 births per woman in 1900 to 1.7 by the early 1930s.

While the Myrdals were not unique in expressing concern about declining fertility rates, they were unusual in doing so from a left-wing perspective. They were Social Democrats. In their book, they argued “that population levels could be sustained . . . only if women were fully equal partners in the home and in society.”

In response, the Swedish government “implemented reforms that offered free health care for pregnant mothers and generous family allowance payments. It became illegal to fire a woman because she was pregnant or a mother. Swedish women became increasingly comfortable with the notion of combining career and family.” While it’s difficult at best to disentangle correlation and causality, we know one thing for sure: “The Swedish birth rate gradually rose to about 2.5.”

Then, “in the 1970s, the [Swedish] birth rate began to fall, as it fell everywhere else.” Why? In their book “Empty Planet,” Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson suggest that part of it was the availability of contraceptives and abortion, plus the stress of both working and being almost solely responsible for taking care of children and the home.

In response, the Swedish government “expanded daycare and launched campaigns that encouraged men to do their share of the housework and child raising. By 1989, maternity leave had been extended to one full year at 90 percent of income, and the fertility rate had ticked back up to 2.1.”

In the 1990s, in response to a severe economic downturn, the government cut many of these pro-natalist programs and the fertility rate tumbled to 1.5. The government restored the cuts; it turned maternity leave into parental leave and extended to it 480 days and required both spouses to take at least four months off.

It didn’t stop there. There’s also an unimaginably — at least to Americans  — generous family and child allowance program. There’s free public transportation for people pushing strollers, etc. Today Sweden’s fertility rate is around 1.9, up 26 percent from the start of the 21st century, but still below replacement level.


In Part One, I expressed doubts that Hungary and other countries could “solve” their demographic problems solely through incentives. The Swedish experience is why but not for the reason you have been conditioned to suppose.

As Bricker and Ibbitson write, Sweden has “a decades-old obsession with preserving higher fertility rates.” One of the legacies of that “obsession” is, as I have described, unimaginably high, at least by our standards, levels of financial support for families with children.

But it’s more than that. Sweden is committed, like few other nations are, to promoting the fullest possible equality for women both in the home and in the workplace. Sweden is addressing the issue of “work/life balance” more aggressively than any nation I can think of. Its efforts go far beyond the crass “Do it For Denmark” or the utilitarian Singaporean speed dating, or even lifetime income tax exemptions.

Yet, as Sweden has learned, while “extensive support programs aimed at encouraging parents to have children do have an impact,” and “can move the needle . . . they don’t move it a lot, and such programs are very expensive and hard to maintain in an economic downturn.”

The lesson is not that “incentives don’t make a difference” or that we shouldn’t try to incentivize child-bearing and child-rearing. Do nothing and the problem will get worse. A lot worse. Read enough about the subject and it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that you can be a pronatalist or a classical libertarian “drown government in the bathtub” type of conservative but you can’t be both without substantial cognitive dissonance.


What about religion and culture? It’s true that religiosity correlates with higher fertility. More religiously-observant societies, on average, have higher fertility rates. The same is even truer of groups, e.g., Orthodox Jews both in the U.S. and Israel, and Mormons in Utah.

But if religiosity alone produced higher fertility rates, then Poland should have a higher fertility rate than its much less religious neighbors. Instead, its fertility rate of 1.32 births per woman is among the lowest in Europe.

Similarly, the United States, for all the talk about “nones,” is still much more religious than countries such as France and Sweden. But its fertility rate, approximately 1.75 births per woman, is lower.

A more accurate way to describe the relationship between religiosity and fertility is to say that a certain kind of religiosity is associated with higher fertility rates. That kind of religiosity was described by Phillip Longman in his 2009 Foreign Affairs article, “The Return of Patriarchy.”

Longman, whose book “The Empty Cradle” was one of the first to sound the alarm over demographic decline, argued that “patriarchal” societies “in which a patriarchal God commands family members to suppress their individualism and submit to father,” are the most likely to reproduce in sufficient numbers, whereas their more egalitarian and secular contemporaries will one-kid-and-done themselves into extinction.

That doesn’t sound like Christianity as it is practiced by even the most devout, at least in the West. If people like the Duggars, the “Quiverfull” folks, and people who belong to parishes associated with the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) come to mind, it’s because they are outliers. The vast majority of Christians have egalitarian attitudes towards women’s rights and roles, even the ones who call themselves “complementarians.”

Stay-at-home moms stay at home because they want to, not because their alternatives are, in Longman’s words, “be a nun, be a prostitute, or marry a man and bear children.” (Any resemblance to Charles Taylor’s definition of “secularism” in “A Secular Age” is strictly intentional.)

While there will always be large families and these families will almost always be religious, this is not a realistic strategy for halting or even slowing down the demographic decline. There are simply not enough of these families.


In 1896, a barely-25-year-old Canada was “in danger of failing.” Why? Not enough people, especially in the cold spaces between Ontario and British Columbia. Native English speakers in the eastern part of the country seriously considered joining the United States.

Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier made Clifford Sifton his interior minister. Sifton, in turn, made finding more Canadians his primary, if not exclusive, task. Since the supply of British migrants was pretty much tapped out, Sifton did the previously unthinkable: He aggressively went after Eastern European immigrants.

Then, as now, the natives hated the idea. The worried about diluting culture, the loosening of national bonds, unfamiliar religious practices, lack of English fluency, etc. As Bricker and Ibbitson write, “Sifton didn’t care; he needed bodies and he needed them now.” He flooded “Scandinavia, Germany, the Balkans, Ukraine, and everything in between with leaflets in every language.”

It worked. Millions of Eastern Europeans migrated to Canada over the next few decades and, instead of diluting the culture became an integral part of it. As one person put it, “Without Clifford Sifton, we never would have had Wayne Gretzky.”

It also defined Canada as a nation of immigrants. Today, the percentage of foreign-born in Canada’s population stands at around 20 percent.

By way of comparison, the percentage of foreign people in the U.S. stands at around 14 percent, which is near the all-time high of 14.8 percent set in 1890. Since 1965, immigrants, their children, and their grandchildren have accounted for more than half of our population growth.

This pattern has been repeated throughout the “Anglosphere.” North America, the U.K., Australia, and, to a somewhat lesser extent, New Zealand, are exceptions to the pattern of decreasing populations in industrialized countries.

What they all have in common besides English is high levels of immigration ranging from around 14 percent foreign-born residents in the U.K. and USA to around thirty percent in Australia and New Zealand.


At literally the last moment (or page) Bricker and Ibbitson insist that the “Empty Planet” they predict is not necessarily “predestined.” Given the portrait they meticulously paint, this “assurance” rings hollow, especially since it is almost impossible to imagine scenarios that reverse the factors that contribute the most to declining fertility rates: urbanization and the related phenomenon of expanded opportunities for women.

Even if we could imagine such scenarios, would the outcomes be desirable? I don’t think so, and I suspect that the vast majority of you don’t think so, either. After all, even the most committed Christians I know are “secular” in Charles Taylor’s definition of the word: someone for whom their belief in God is one option among many.

Policy can make a difference, but the difference isn’t very large and most countries whose natives’ names don’t end in “-son” or “-sen” aren’t willing — I’m looking at you, USA — or can’t afford to try.

That leaves one alternative to national extinction and as Bugs Bunny told Eddie Valiant “I don’t think you’ll love it.” I’m speaking of course of immigration.

To put it mildly, this is a controversial option. Some people, like Orban’s Hungary and Japan, rejected this option out of hand for reasons of ethnic purity and homogeneity. They would rather adapt to their demographic decline in gruesome and absurdly counterproductive ways than countenance increased (or any) levels of immigration.

Others try to convince themselves that the problem is a kind of “fake news” and a globalist plot of sorts.

My Spanish forebears were obsessed with “Limpieza de Sangre,” i.e., blood purity. They went to absurd lengths to assure themselves that their lineage was free from the taint of “Jewish blood,” even going so far as holding Teresa of Avila’s and John of the Cross’s Jewish ancestry against them.

When they got to the New World, they created a complex and bewildering racial hierarchy known as “Casta,” from which we get the word “caste,” all in the name of blood purity.

Then in the late 20th and early 21st century, la Madre Patria, faced with a looming demographic crisis, remembered that it had an alternative to immigration from Africa and the Middle East: hundreds of millions of native Spanish-speakers who were at least nominally Christian.

It didn’t matter that most of these people were descended from people who would have ranked at or near the bottom of the Casta system. Limpieza de Sangre was a luxury Spain could no longer afford if it ever could. Spanish law was amended to make it very easy for people like me to obtain permanent residency and citizenship on an expedited basis.

In a world where the available pool of potential, never mind “desirable,” immigrants is shrinking, the anxiety of high levels of immigration, while understandable, is an emotional luxury we cannot afford. That’s not to say that there are better ways to handle the flow of immigrants and mitigate the dislocating effects of their arrival. There definitely are.

But Orban’s “different way of thinking,” which regards immigration as “surrender,” has a predictable consequence: fewer and older Hungarians.


Roberto Rivera is a Senior Writer for BreakPoint


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