The Appeal of Childlessness

From Tacitus:

It was next proposed to relax the Papia Poppaea law, which Augustus in his old age had passed subsequently to the Julian statutes, for yet further enforcing the penalties on celibacy and for enriching the exchequer. And yet, marriages and the rearing of children did not become more frequent, so powerful were the attractions of a childless state.

What was going on: around the time of the Empire, it had become apparent in Rome that Roman citizens were not having the large families that had characterized the earlier Republic. For example, when Hannibal fought and won the Battle of Cannae in 216 BC, he killed about 70,000 Roman soldiers, wiping out an entire army. Yet Rome was promptly able to raise a new army of citizens of similar size to continue the war – something possible only if you have plenty of young men handy. This contrasts with the situation under the Empire, where getting an army together increasingly meant recruiting from among the barbarian allies.

So, starting in 18 BC and continuing through the above Papia Poppaea law of 9 AD, the Empire tried to encourage families by heavily penalizing people who remained celibate.

It didn’t work, “so powerful were the attractions of a childless state”.

A couple things have long struck me as obvious that evidently are not, at least to most people. First, that, in the modern world,  population growth has long been curtailed by the powerful attractions of the childless state, not through the ‘selfless’ work of population control organizations. The mythology under which people – usually meaning ‘people other than my friends and neighbors’ – were ignorantly breeding up children by the dozens everywhere one turned and needed outside help such as provided by Zero Population Growth in order to control the otherwise uncontrollable results of their urges seemed nonsensical on the face of it when one looked around at the friends and neighbors people generally had.

By 1960 – before the Pill – it was already true in America that one was much more likely to live among zero, one, or two child households than among families with 3+ kids.  In the Southern California neighborhood of my childhood – the 1960’s, a suburban, child-friendly place with lovely parks – there was our big Catholic family of 9, one other big Catholic family of 8 and one other family with 3. Every other household had zero, 1 or 2 children.  The total number of children in the 3 block-area I considered home turf had far fewer than replacement children.

So, if I were to conclude that the human population was growing out of control, I’d have to base that conclusion on people I didn’t see. This becomes an important feature in population talks – it’s always about people we don’t see, not about my friends and my self.

Next, as illustrated by the lines from Tacitus above, the Romans were grimly delightful in the simple clarity of their thinking, uncluttered as it was by uniquely Christian moral baggage. They did not ask: ‘is it morally OK to invade some country, slaughter as many people as needed, take what we want, subject them to Roman rule, install a military presence whose day-to-day  survival is based on extortion and theft?’ Nope – Gaul, or Germany, or Macedonia or Egypt was there, they had stuff we wanted, so – we take ’em. Tacitus cuts to the chase: Romans are not refraining from raising children because of some higher concern, but because it’s less trouble and more fun in 1st century A.D. Rome not to have them.

We, on the other hand, need Reasons. I suspect this springs from our being a nation founded on a creed, as Chesterton pointed out. Everything we do has to be referred back to some ideal or principle, even and especially when the real reasons are staring us in the face. Manifest Destiny? The Indians had land, we wanted it, we had the army; Inferiority of Blacks? There’s a lot of money in slavery; The threat of Overpopulation? The attractions of a childless state are indeed powerful.

It would seem, based on the records of population growth, that concern for overpopulation is an effect, not a cause, of falling fertility rates. Because people are a relatively long-lived species, it takes generations for the effects of decreased numbers of offspring to show up in population totals – eighty years or so after people in a population  start having below replacement rate numbers of offspring, you’d expect the total population to start falling. Until then, the population total keeps rising as long as the number of kids is more than the number of ‘premature’ deaths.

By 1960 at the latest, it would have been clear that the population of Americans – and Europeans, Russians, Japanese – were starting to peak, net of immigration. For example, say the population average birthrate per woman was 3. But that average of three could be made up of 40 year olds with an average of 4 children, and 20 year olds with an average of 2 children. And those 20 year olds may not have any more, and their children may also only average 2 offspring. In this situation, the population will continue to grow for at least another 40 years, as the children of the 40 year olds and 20 year olds reach child-bearing age – and add their 2 children on average. But the big picture is that the population will fall – that, eventually, there will be more than 2 people dying (old age + premature deaths) for every 2 people added.

So, in the 1960s, an analysis of the trends (this is all trends, after all – it’s possible, if unlikely, that the Duggars will inspire millions to have as many children as possible) would match my analysis of the families in my neighborhood – that, on the whole, there were not enough kids to even replace the people already in the neighborhood, let alone cause an explosion.

But all I recall from the time is the constant bleatings of that anti-Cassandra, Ehrlich, and his minions. As the 7th of 9 kids, this was rather painful – it seemed that the world thought I shouldn’t be here (yea, I was a weird kid who paid attention to such things).

And now, I wonder: the days of population growth are numbered. Every single time over the years that I have compared actual population to projections – you know, like how we were supposed to have 100 billion people by now, unless war, famine and plague took us out – the actual results were at or below (usually below) the low-end estimates. Almost didn’t matter who was doing the projecting. So, now, we have the UN projecting a peak of somewhere between 7.4 and 10.5 billion, to be reached in the 50-60 years, then a gradual decline – maybe. The UN, by international charter, I suppose, is incapable of issuing population numbers without a note of panic*. Current forecasts often go to some lengths to make sure we know that people could change their minds, that people could start (implied: recklessly) having more than 2.1 children again, and we could return to growth – contrary to all experience over the last 70 years, and to Tacitus, and to other historical evidence.

We seem to feel a great need for an overriding moral concern to justify our submission to the attractive power of the childless and near childless state.

* Exceptions are some of the stuff that came out in 2002 – reading this, you might think population growth wasn’t a real problem at all. And that simply won’t do. The UN reverted to form in 2010 and after. And the usual suspects take that and run with it.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

3 thoughts on “The Appeal of Childlessness”

  1. But why is a childless state so appealing? Even in my childhood days, I looked forward to being a father. Sure, the lack of commitments and responsibilities is fun for a few years, but are we really all so shallow and self-centred that we’re incapable of thinking about life at 45 and after with nobody to love and take care of us in our old age…?


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