Imagine living in a society where the government strictly dictated how many children you could have, and imposed crippling fines if your family exceeded its limit. It is an Orwellian concept, the kind of repressive, intrusive, Big Brother/Big Government run amok plot line that has given rise to countless movies and books about soulless future societies.
Except that such a government and policy actually exists, and has for decades — in China. Since the ’70s, China has limited families to one child, in an effort to curb its population growth. China’s leader at the time, Deng Xiaoping, instituted the policy so that “the fruits of economic growth are not devoured by population growth.” That decision was applauded by some advocates who were urging governments to take aggressive steps to control overpopulation; indeed, the United Nations Fund For Population Activities actually gave China an award for its decision.
As the New York Times reports, China’s one-child policy has had brutal consequences that include forced abortions, infanticide by rural farming families that prefer boys over girls, and a resulting lopsided imbalance in males and females in the Chinese population. And now China is changing its policy — not because it was inhuman and indefensible in the first instance, but because China realizes it has miscalculated. As a result of the one-child policy, China’s birth rate isn’t sufficient to support its rapidly aging population, so now China is declaring that couples can have two children.
There’s skepticism, however, about whether China’s abrupt policy change will work. Even if couples of child-bearing age decide to have a second child, those offspring won’t be part of the Chinese workforce for years. What’s more, China’s population has now been conditioned to accept one-child families, and couples are very sensitive to the economic and emotional costs of having a second child. And even if the birth rate increases as a result of the policy change, China’s population will begin to decline and the imbalance of young workers versus old pensioners will continue to grow.
Those who advocate aggressive government decisions to address perceived social problems would do well to consider China’s one-child policy, which shows that governments not only can be brutal, but they can also be dead wrong. And if you were an older member of Chinese society, how comfortable would you be with your position in the face of bad demographic statistics and the economic burdens of supporting a growing number of retirees? Would a government that enforces a one-child policy in an effort to control its economy hesitate to take steps directed at the other end of the age spectrum to restore what it considers to be a proper balance to its population?