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Caylan Ford: Canada has a fertility crisis. Enfranchising babies could be the solution

Commentary

Canada has a fertility crisis. Last year, the average number of children born to Canadian women dropped to a new low of 1.4. That’s a steep decline from 1.47 children per woman just one year earlier, and far below the natural replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman.

Figures for 2021 are not yet available, but early indicators don’t give much cause for optimism: the uncertainty of the Covid-19 pandemic has led about one in five Canadians of child-bearing age to adjust their parenting intentions, either by delaying children, having fewer than previously planned, or abandoning the idea altogether.

To reverse these trends, we will need to create social rewards for responsible parenthood, incentivize families that have more children, and encourage public policy that serves the interests of families and the next generation.

A good place to start would be to give children the vote.

I don’t mean something silly like lowering the voting age to 16 or 14 or some other arbitrary figure, as a new Senate private members bill proposes to do. I mean the enfranchisement of children, and even newborns, with their vote being exercised by their custodial parents until they reach the legal age of majority.

This is, admittedly, a novel approach. On the rare occasions that policymakers talk about our cratering fertility rate, the problem is framed almost exclusively in economic terms: without enough children, we won’t have the future workers and taxpayers needed to support our public healthcare system or pay for the vast unfunded liabilities of our public pension schemes.

Large-scale immigration is offered as the solution: a way to compensate for, or at least temporarily paper over, the problem of an aging population. But its impact has been oversold. Immigrants and their children quickly adapt to the country’s dominant fertility patterns, meaning they don’t have substantially more children than native-born Canadians. Many newly arrived Canadians are also accompanied by their own aging parents, and all of them will grow old themselves.

More importantly, international migration does not solve the underlying issue: that too many Canadians—including new Canadians—are either unwilling or unable to replace themselves. As a people and a nation, we don’t seem to have the will to carry on.

This is not primarily an economic problem. It is a spiritual problem, reflecting some combination of civilizational exhaustion, pessimism about the future, growing atomization, a myopic fixation on personal autonomy and material enrichment at the expense of abiding social commitments or inter-generational obligations, and a faltering belief that life is good and meaningful and worth passing on.

For those of us not destined for sainthood, infamy, or literary greatness, having children is our best shot at immortality. As the philosopher Leon Kass writes, children provide “an opening to the future beyond the grave,” and a means of overcoming the finitude of perishable human existence. “A hope-filled repayment forward of the debt we owe backward for our own life and rearing, our children represent also our share in the perpetual renewal of human possibility.”

A culture that does not want children is, in some sense, one that has ceased to hope. It has either forgotten or repudiated its past, and so has no sense of obligation to the future.

There are other factors at work besides existential malaise. A dearth of romantic partners who are interested in commitment and children may be another factor—whether caused by a breakdown in sexual norms, the loss of cultural scripts for effective family formation, a growing academic and professional achievement gap between men and women, or something else. Our culture’s relentlessly competitive, careerist orientation doesn’t help either; a society that esteems mobility and geographic rootlessness is unlikely to provide parents with the kind of social and familial support networks that young families rely on.

Whatever the causes, low fertility is a problem that compounds exponentially with each generation. It is also self-reinforcing: the fewer children Canadians have, the less child-friendly the country is liable to become, leading to even more depressed fertility.

Some governments have tried to induce people to have more children by offering paid parental leave, tax relief or income splitting, and cash benefits. In Hungary, for example, married couples who remain together and have children are given cash benefits, and women with four or more children are exempt for life from paying personal income tax.

Such transfers of wealth from childless to child-raising people are entirely justifiable. After all, the benefits that childless people expect to enjoy in their old age will be paid for by the children that other people sacrificed to raise. But while potentially good in themselves, financial benefits and tax arrangements for parents aren’t enough to substantially alter fertility patterns.

One could argue that this is because financial supports to parents are simply inadequate: tax credits and child benefits in Canada don’t come anywhere near covering the practical and opportunity costs of having children, and they should be raised. But as demographer Paul Demeny warned, applying more of the same medicine and “trying to buy children on the cheap” won’t work unless we also change the deep institutional structures, and the values embedded therein, that inhibit family formation. These problems cannot be altered by tinkering with household finances.

Moreover, some ostensibly pro-family policies can actually undermine children and families. Consider the Liberal government’s new childcare plan: over the next five years the federal government, in partnership with provinces, plans to fund universal daycare across the country at a projected annual cost to taxpayers of between $17 billion to $36.3 billion.

Although presented as a family policy, universal public daycare is fundamentally anti-natalist. It is not designed to maximize the well-being of small children, whose health and non-cognitive development suffers the more time they spend in institutional daycare settings. Nor does it strengthen families: the introduction of universal daycare in Quebec was correlated with declines in parental satisfaction and more strained and inconsistent parental relationships. The Liberal plan disincentivizes stay-at-home parenting, as well as community and kin-based childcare arrangements. Its purpose is to encourage parents—specifically mothers of young children—to re-enter the workforce as soon as possible. It reinforces the message that children are a burden and a distraction from parents’ true vocation, which is to be wage-earners. Calling it a childcare plan is disingenuous: it is an economic policy pretending to be a family policy.

Which brings us back to the vote.

It may strain the limits of our political imagination, but the idea of children voting by proxy is not new. Called “Demeny voting,” after Hungarian-born demographer Paul Demeny (mentioned above), the idea resurfaces every few years in advanced, industrialized countries, including Japan, France, Austria, Germany, Hungary.

In 1923, a proposal to assign votes to women and children was endorsed by the French National Assembly but never implemented (the extra votes would have been exercised by male heads of households). It was also discussed with some seriousness in Germany in the 1990s, and in 2011 a version of Demeny voting was proposed by Hungary’s ruling party (the idea met resistance, in part because it would increase the electoral representation of the Roma people). In 2013, the concept was promoted by the left-leaning Canadian economist Miles Corak, and described favourably in a New York Times column by Canada’s now-Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland.

For centre-left proponents, Demeny voting is appealing as a way to address intergenerational inequality. As societies age, they become susceptible to gerontocracy. Older generations use their electoral clout to shift policy and public resources in their favour—for example, by ratcheting up the national debt, or promoting unsustainable environmental practices, at the expense of younger generations. Assigning votes to children, via their parents, could restore some generational balance. (And, if we’re being cynical about it, it’s also a way of reducing the relative electoral clout of older voters, who typically lean conservative).

The cause of childhood enfranchisement-by-proxy has also been advanced as a civil rights concern. Earlier this month, a group of Canadian youths sued the federal government to remove the minimum voting age, arguing that the systematic exclusion of children from the right to vote violates aspects of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is premised on the idea that children have distinct interests, as well as essential rights to freedom of expression, conscience, and assembly. But, recognizing the limits to their maturity, competence, and responsibility, it stipulates that parents have a role in directing and guiding the exercise of those rights. If you squint hard enough, the convention could be read as an endorsement of Demeny voting.

For conservative advocates, such as U.S. Senate candidate and author J.D. Vance, Demeny voting is a way of recognizing that parents have a direct, biological stake in the future health and sustainability of their societies. They also make enormous personal sacrifices to raise the next generation, on whom all of us will one day rely. Not only does society fail to adequately reflect the interests of younger generations at the expense of older ones, it also increasingly reflects the priorities of the childless over the child-raising.

Vance noted that leading figures in the American Democratic party, including Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Pete Buttigieg, were all childless. His caricature of the “childless left” is not reliable as a heuristic—Nancy Pelosi has five children, Joe Biden had four, and Buttigieg has since adopted—but it does contain a kernel of truth: self-identified progressives are significantly less likely than conservatives to be married (67 percent vs. 39 percent), and they have far fewer children than conservatives do. (Relatedly, progressives are also much less likely than conservatives to say they have meaning in their lives). But despite having “no physical commitment to the future” of their country, progressive activists exercise disproportionate influence, dominating virtually all major political, cultural, educational, and corporate institutions. The childless are increasingly determining the kind of world that other people’s children will inherit—and pay for.

But for Demeny voting’s progenitor, the concept is simple a pro-natalist policy: a way of stemming or reversing declining fertility rates by revalorizing parenthood, affirming the value of children, and ensuring that political systems are responsive to the needs of families.

Giving children a proxy vote is not a solution to the deeper spiritual crisis that childlessness both reveals and exacerbates, but it is the beginning of one. This is not only because parents are likely to vote for policies that support family formation for others but because it amplifies the voices of people who have a direct physical commitment to the future. Parents have faced all the disincentives our society throws in their way and decided that, for all its uncertainty and pain, life remains worth living and passing on.

Opinion: Want to combat populism? Innovation and positive-sum politics are key

Commentary

When the two of us write about innovation and technology, we tend to mainly focus on its economic implications, including how it influences competitiveness, growth, and productivity. We’ve published various articles and papers in recent years (including a forthcoming one on an advanced research projects agency for Canada) that broadly make the case for greater public investments in applied industrial research in the name of cultivating more domestic firms that can scale and ultimately compete in the global economy. 

There’s good reason for this. The interrelationship between innovation and technology and key economic outcomes is quite strong. It’s often observed, for instance, that productivity is the main driver of long-run economic growth, and technology-enabled innovation is a major spur to productivity growth. The two essentially go hand-in-hand. As economist Paul Krugman famously put it: “Productivity isn’t everything, but in the long run, it’s almost everything.”

Yet, as important as the interrelationship between innovation and technology and productivity growth may be in basic economic terms, it actually understates the broader cultural, political, and social consequences of the sense of dynamism and optimism that’s derived from widespread innovation and technology adoption. 

The greatest benefit of innovation and technology may not even be that they make us wealthier and improve our material lives. It’s that they can contribute to a positive socio-political psychology in which people feel good about their condition and hopeful about the future. We can underestimate these political economy effects of progress. 

One could argue in fact that the entire liberal project is predicated on a set of growth assumptions that are a crucial ingredient for a positive-sum form of democratic pluralism. Our individual and collective understanding of human welfare and human flourishing necessarily depends on a sense of progress and development. 

Economist Benjamin Friedman recognized these political economy effects of economic and productivity growth in his 2006 book, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth. As he wrote

“The value of a rising standard of living lies not just in the concrete improvements it brings to how individuals live but in how it shapes the social, political and, ultimately, the moral character of a people… How the citizens of any country think about economic growth, and what actions they take in consequence, are therefore a matter of far broader importance than we conventionally assume…” 

One of Friedman’s major insights was that while broad-based growth can foster “social and political progress,” a collective sense of stagnation can induce the opposite reaction: what he describes as a “retreat into rigidity and intolerance.”

Contemporary evidence of this correlation tilts in the negative direction. It’s between what’s been characterized by economist Tyler Cowen as the “great stagnation”—that is, a slowing of economy-wide innovation, productivity, and living standards in recent decades—and our modern socio-political malaise marked by anxiety, pessimism, and political polarization. There is in short a crucial yet oft-neglected inverse relationship between progress and populism. 

Canadian academic and journalist, Andrew Potter, touches on this link in his recent book, On Decline, in which he aims to connect the dots between various economic, political, social, and technological trends in modern society. His analysis highlights how economic stagnation has come to manifest itself in populist politics and declining social trust. As he explains in a new Hub Dialogue: 

“This points to the other key factor in what is going on, in addition to the ‘great stagnation’, which is almost a downstream effect, which is the rise of conservative populist politics. Right-wing populist politics is, in many ways, a consequence of economic stagnation, including in household incomes.” 

Understanding this interrelationship between innovation, technology, and progress on one side and people’s feelings about their own circumstances and the society’s overall health and vitality on the other side is key for policymakers. We must properly diagnose the cause of our current socio-political malady if we’re to successfully treat it after all. 

While there’s certainly scope to pursue an equal opportunity agenda including various human capital and social welfare policies, an overemphasis on distributional considerations can underestimate the broad resonance of a political culture committed to growth, progress, and development. Even innovation and technology with narrow distributional returns but broad-based application (think for instance of the Apollo project) can contribute to a positive feedback loop of dynamism and optimism. 

The key point for policymakers is that innovation and technology have huge and underestimated political economy effects. People need to feel like the economy and society are progressing and their quality of life is improving. Innovation and technology are indeed major parts of such a political culture, but they’re still only means to an end. The fundamental goal is to cultivate a collective sense of progress—a new, different, and aspirational vision of the future. That is ultimately how we can replace today’s zero-sum politics with something more inclusive and positive. 

The good news is that Cowen and others anticipate that the “great stagnation” may indeed be coming to an end. Progress in a number of promising areas—ranging from energy to biotechnology to artificial intelligence—may soon provide a massive jolt to our economy in the form of lower costs, greater efficiency, and rising productivity. 

But the most significant gains may not come in an economic form at all and instead be reflected in a renewed commitment to aspiration, optimism, and positive-sum politics. That would be a true breakthrough development.