Contra Vladimir Putin, Demographics Are In No Way Economic Destiny
(Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
Contra Vladimir Putin, Demographics Are In No Way Economic Destiny
(Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
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If you’re reading this, you’re likely on a computer. You could spend your whole life trying to create the computer you’re starting at right now, and you’d fail. You’d escape the proverbial “mortal coil” without having ever created the machine that you probably didn't spend more than $1,500 to purchase.

What’s been written so far isn’t meant to insult you. If Michael Dell is reading today’s write-up, what’s true for you would be true for him. Brilliant as Dell is at mass-producing computers via employment of a global labor force, he too couldn’t produce the myriad inputs that go into a computer all by himself.

Figure that a pencil’s creation is a marvel of global cooperation, so imagine the countless specialized hands that go into creating what we use to organize our lives around. Love or hate this opinion piece, you’re willfully blind if you don’t think the computer you’re reading it on is a miracle born of wildly sophisticated global connectivity.

All of which is a good jumping off point to a recent report that Russian president Vladimir Putin has “revived a Soviet-era award launched in 1944, to encourage Russians to supersize their families.” The irony of Putin reviving a policy from the Soviet era didn’t seem to register with the reporter, but then the media never understood why the Soviet Union failed in the first place. 

It’s hard not to laugh while typing this, but Putin is bringing back the “Mother Heroine” award for women “who bear 10 or more children.” The Russian government will offer a million rubles ($16,500) to women or families “after their 10th child turns 1 year old – and only if the other nine children have all survived.” To be clear, the simple truth that $16,500 doesn’t come close to the cost of raising a child in today’s world is shooting fish in a barrel. Furthermore, it misses the point.

The point here is that government is very stupid. Which is also shooting fish in a barrel. More realistically, academics are dense. They’ve created this false perception that demographics are economic destiny (Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute is a particularly loud proponent of what vandalizes reason), and it’s apparent they’ve convinced easily gulled political types to turn flawed analysis into policy. Call “demographics” or “low birthrates” the “global warming” or “peak oil” threat of modern times.

The worry about country birthrates is rooted in the rather debased view that countries are autarkic islands of economic activity. If so, there might be cause for worry given the simple truth that work divided is production multiplied.

Of course, it’s not remotely true that countries are independent islands of activity. Every market good we own is the result of billions of individuals around the world engaged in trillions of global commercial relationships.

That the world is so miraculously interconnected is a happy truth that mocks Putin, and birthrate-alarmism more broadly. If we’re all working together, what does the rate of birth matter in Moscow, or St. Petersburg, of for that matter, Seattle?

The answer is that the birthrates do not matter, but economic freedom very much does. Lest readers forget, while Apple’s iPhone is designed in Cupertino, CA, the brilliant gadget generally doesn’t touch an American hand until it’s unwrapped by a lucky American consumer. If American ingenuity weren’t freely matched with global hands, it’s no reach to say that the iPhone wouldn’t exist simply because it’s difficult to design goods and services that only microscopically few can afford.

Yet as we know, Americans are free to produce with the rest of the world. It’s a reminder that birthrates don’t matter as much as freedom to divide up work with other specialized individuals without regard to country very much does matter.

Looking into the future, the miracle that is the globally produced supercomputer will soon enough seem incredibly primitive. Bank on the latter simply because with the commerce of tomorrow it won’t just be the world’s billions of people dividing up work. What’s amazing will be spectacular as billions and trillions of robots working 365 days per year will enter the global workforce only to render the humans they’re working with exponentially more productive than they were without them. Put another way, the babies coming into the world today in smaller numbers will produce at future levels that will make our present production seem 12th century by comparison.

It can’t be stressed enough that the limits to country prosperity aren’t rooted in a failure to subsidize babymaking, or even a lack of babies. Underlying all questions of progress is freedom. If we’re free, birthrates and other overdone threats don’t matter. If Putin really wants to set up Russia for an abundant tomorrow, he should offer fewer handouts while freeing the Russian people to produce in borderless fashion.

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