In this article I argue that Western nations are in terminal decline unless they can rediscover the true meaning and value of marriage and of the blessing of children as a gift to married couples and to society in general. To this end, it is imperative to recognize that true justice and integral human development can occur only within a social and economic environment shaped by respect for the rule of law, something which in turn rests upon acceptance of objective moral principles as indicated by the natural moral law.
The European Contagion
The world economy is now caught in the grip of uncertainty and instability. Of particular concern is the ongoing crisis with sovereign debt problems and rising unemployment in the European Union (EU). Member countries of the EU such as Greece, Spain, Ireland, Portugal and Italy are carrying levels of sovereign debt that are unsustainable. Forced to adopt contractionary fiscal policies and austerity measures as a condition of loan financing by the European Central Bank and other financial organisations, the economic policies upon which these countries have been based for the last fifty years are now being called into question.
As part of a rethink about the foundations of sustainable economic growth which the current economic crisis in the developed world has sparked, it is becoming clear that models of development that favour low birth-rates and spiralling consumerism are a recipe for economic and social decline. High divorce rates are another element of this corrosive matrix. This model of development, linked as it is to relativism in morality, has undermined the most essential ingredient in a modern economy, which is human capital and the family based on marriage which sustains it.
Attempts by governments of Western countries to minimise the effects on their real economies of the ongoing global financial crisis are nothing more than band aid treatments. With Western governments now striving to haul in their budget deficits, it is clear that they have overstretched Keynesian economic policy in their attempts to shield their economies against the dangers of prolonged recession. Coupled with this, the attempts over the last five years by the US government and governments in Europe to maintain confidence in their banking sectors by purchasing the toxic debt of failed financial institutions and transferring it to taxpayers, has rightly been branded by one commentator as ‘intergenerational theft’. In effect, banks have been put on welfare.
While in the short-term governments in Western countries can shore up aggregate demand and lend a certain appearance of stability to financial markets, they cannot solve the longer-term problems that will increasingly assail their economies. The underlying problems in these economies are more a consequence of spiritual and moral malaise than anything else.
Ethical Relativism: Social Chaos and Demographic Winter
In 2010, bank workers in Athens were killed when they were trapped in a building set ablaze by hooded rioters hurling Molotov cocktails. Expressing concern over this, the Greek President at the time, Mr. Karolos Papoulias, said: “I have difficulty in finding the words to express my distress and outrage…The big challenge we face is to maintain social cohesion and peace. Our country came to the brink of the abyss. It is our collective responsibility to ensure that we don’t step over the edge.”1 In 2011, anti-austerity protests sparked riots in various parts of the United Kingdom which resulted in several deaths and much destruction of property and heritage assets.
On what basis should the activities of the rioters in Athens or London which caused the deaths of innocent citizens be judged? If there is no objective moral order, meaning no universally binding absolute moral norms that should never be violated, then we cannot say the rioters acted unjustly unless we first consider their motivations and intentions. Indeed, by extension, we would have to say the same about the concrete murderous acts of every tyrant in history, including Hitler, Stalin and Mao. If we embrace relativistic moral perceptions which make individual choice and personal desire the final arbiter of the distinction between what is good and what is evil in concrete human acts, then we have no objective grounds for classifying as immoral the actions of bond or derivative traders who unduly risk the life-savings of superannuants and others in order to maximise possible benefits to themselves.
The connection between instability in economic structures and ethics was referred to by Pope Benedict XVI in a Letter to the British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, on March 30, 2009 for the start of the Group of 20 Summit dealing with the global financial crisis. He said: “If a key element of the crisis is a deficit of ethics in economic structures, the same crisis teaches us that ethics is not ‘external’ to the economy but ‘internal’ and that the economy cannot function if it does not bear within it an ethical component.”
Economic discrimination against married couples desiring to have children
One ethical question regarding economic policies that needs to be addressed is to what extent have the economic policies of Western governments and the lending policies of banks discriminated against married couples desirous of having a relatively large family? Following on from this, we can ask to what extent will demographic implosion in Western countries drag down their economies? Further to which we can ask, how sustainable is Western civilization in its addiction to contraceptive and abortion practices?
The major threat to Western nations is not global warming but rather demographic winter. This question of demographic implosion in Western countries was raised by Mark Steyn in referring to the Greek riots in 2010. After first stating “unlovely as they are, the Greek rioters are the logical end point of the advanced social democratic state: not an oppressed underclass, but a pampered overclass, rioting in defence of its privileges and insisting on more subsidy, more benefits, more featherbedding, more government,” Steyn went on to add:
“The mob is rioting for the right to continue suspending reality until they’re all dead. After that, who cares? Greece has run out of Greeks to stick it to. So it’s turned to Germany. But Germany too is in net population decline. The Chinese and other buyers of Western debt know that. If you’re an investor and you don’t, more fool you. Tracking GDP versus median age in the world’s major economies is the easiest way to figure out where this story’s heading.”2
The problems associated with demographic implosion in European and other developed countries, such as Japan, bears out what the historical record shows which is that population decline is a negative phenomenon. It stifles cultural and economic creativity and it places a heavy burden on the young who have to support an ever growing proportion of dependent elderly. Rather than being a cause of prosperity, population decline causes the rate of increase in demand for goods and services to fall and thus it reduces economic opportunity.
As our population ages and the dependency ratios increase, the per-capita costs of delivering the levels of social security and welfare we have become accustomed to will increase. This implies that workers will have to pay higher taxes or the elderly will have to settle for reduced Government welfare support. Medical personnel now discuss the distribution of health services on the basis of cost effectiveness as distinct from the principle of need. Coupled with this, in many Western countries there is a dual system of aged-care services emerging with one for the relatively rich and the other for the poor. The private health insurance funds in many of these countries seem intent on transferring as much responsibility as they possibly can for the medical care of the elderly to governments. This may place an insupportable burden on public health systems which already have long waiting lists for certain treatments.
One of the most destructive myths of more recent memory has been the widely-accepted notion that population growth necessarily causes poverty and environmental destruction. The causes of underdevelopment can be both internal and external. The internal causes may include poor political and economic administration combined with widespread corruption, exaggerated military budgets in contrast to inadequate spending on health and education, fratricidal wars, over-concentration of productive capacity in urban centres, the unbridled pursuit of profit at the expense of the common good, the heavy burden of foreign debt accompanied by lack of controls on the flight of capital, unequal access to property, restrictive influence of certain religious and cultural practices etc.
Externally, developing nations can be the victims of an inequitable distribution of the world’s resources as well as of international trade agreements and financial arrangements which work against them. Also, due to the lack of solidarity between nations, they are often unable to gain quick and affordable access to the technology they need to further the development process. Problems such as these can only be eradicated through personal conversion for individuals, and through the pursuit of cultural and social transformations which will enable integral development to occur.
The proliferation of population control policies only exacerbates problems of underdevelopment. They undermine authentic human and family values, and they divert attention from the main causes of underdevelopment, resulting thereby in the misallocation of scarce economic resources. Hence, rather than promoting human flourishing in poorer countries, Melinda Gates’ funding of increased contraceptive availability in these countries will undermine it. In contrast to this, Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical dealing with integral human development titled Charity in Truth, located the teaching of Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae (which condemned contraceptive acts as intrinsically evil) as central when he said:
“The Encyclical Humanae Vitae emphasizes both the unitive and the procreative meaning of sexuality, thereby locating at the foundation of society the married couple, man and woman, who accept one another mutually, in distinction and in complementarity: a couple, therefore, that is open to life. This is not a question of purely individual morality: Humanae Vitae indicates the strong links between life ethics and social ethics…The Church forcefully maintains this link between life ethics and social ethics, fully aware that a society lacks solid foundations when, on the one hand, it asserts values such as the dignity of the person, justice and peace, but then, on the other hand, radically acts to the contrary by allowing or tolerating a variety of ways in which human life is devalued and violated, especially where it is weak or marginalized” (n. 15). Consistent with his statement above, Pope Benedict went on in Charity in Truth to condemn as contrary to integral human development population control programs “that often promote contraception and even go so far as to impose abortion” (n. 28). He said that respect for the right to life of innocent human beings “cannot in any way be detached” from programs claiming to be directed at the development of peoples (n. 28).
Historical data supports the view that over the longer-term, population growth is a positive factor in the economic and social development of nations. As Professor Julian Simon pointed out in his 1996 classic work The Ultimate Resource, the key factor in world economic growth is the human capacity for the creation of new ideas and the expansion of knowledge. The more people who live on the planet and who can be trained to help solve economic and environmental problems, the faster we can grow economically and the greater will be the economic inheritance we will pass on to succeeding generations. Simon summarised his ideas on how population growth contributes to human well-being by saying:
“Humanity by now enjoys extraordinary advances in communication, transportation, nutrition, health and freedom from pain, and the general standard of living. Can it be doubted that this is a miracle age of liberation from the bonds in which nature has kept us shackled throughout all our history? The increased size of the human population is a fundamental cause of these gains…A large population influences the production of knowledge through both supply and demand mechanisms.”3
There is ample evidence to indicate that the best nurturing ground for human capital is the traditional family based on marriage between one man and one woman. By having, rearing and bearing children, and by nurturing them in the human virtues, such families fulfil a vital role in building up the economic and creative potential of a nation. Hence, governments should adopt policies that are supportive of stable family life and which encourage married couples to be open to the gift of children.
Liberal divorce laws engender falling birth-rates
The late Professor Gary Becker, who won the 1992 Nobel Prize in Economics, did much to draw attention to the importance of human capital and stable family life in the process of economic and social development. In one of his more important works titled Treatise On The Family, Professor Becker referred to the perennial value of the family in economic and social development by saying: “The family merits the great attention it receives from both scholars and laypersons, for despite major changes over time and enormous variations across social and economic environments, it remains the most influential of all institutions.”4
Professor Becker produced conclusive evidence that “fertility is reduced when divorce becomes more likely” and “that couples who anticipate higher probabilities of divorce have fewer children while married.”5 Also, statistical data from many sources around the world points to the fact that married women have more children than women in de facto relationships. Basically, what this data points to is that there is a link between a married woman’s openness to new life and her sense of the permanence of the marriage bond.
In the broader scheme of things, while fertility decline is related to many factors such as interest rates, changes in real income, rising divorce rates, employment opportunities for married women etc, it is also strongly related to the spread of the contraceptive mentality which sees children as having less value than a career or more luxurious living.
Support the family based on marriage between one man and one woman
Given what has been said earlier about the negative social and economic effects of demographic decline, what are Western nations to do? If it is true that human capital is the most vital resource in a modern economy, then public policy – economic, social, legal, educational and cultural – should be supportive of married couples who wish to have relatively large families. This support for families must be such as to make it easier for married women to remain at home on a full-time basis in order to look after their children if they so wish. Coupled with this, governments should grant privileged status to the natural family based on marriage between one man and one woman, not undermine it by establishing surrogate forms alongside it such as so-called ‘same-sex marriage.’
In order to get the birth rate rising again, it will not be enough to merely increase the number of ‘family-friendly workplaces.’ While valuable in themselves, such initiatives are nevertheless still very much predicated on the notion that women and society are best served by multiplying the opportunities for mothers to hand the nurturing of their young children over to professional carers. Instead, the institutional changes required have to run deep. A first step could be to change taxation systems in Western countries from ones based on the individual to ones based on the family. This would be a practical way for society to recognise the centrality of the family and to acknowledge that the ability to pay tax is related to the number of dependents an income earner has.
To guarantee future prosperity and human flourishing, Western nations have to rediscover and promote the authentic values that underpin stable marital life and its connection to human procreation. Such values are not compatible with liberal divorce laws and a contraceptive mentality, or with avarice and radical individualism in business and economic activity.
1. Times Online, May 6, 2010
2. Steyn, M. “Not just their Big Fat Greek Funeral”, www2.macleans.ca, May 20, 2010
3. Simon, J. The Ultimate Resource: Revised Edition, 1996, Princeton University Press. p. 382
4. Becker, G.S, A Treatise On The Family (Enlarged Edition), Harvard University Press, Massachusetts, 1993, p. 19
5. Ibid. p. 355