This post is a good example of what I wrote at the start of the year. I got an interesting idea that would require a lot of research to actually flesh out properly, but I don't have the time to acquire that kind of expertise right now. So I don't write the post, bury the idea, forget about it, and the world loses a half-assed good idea.
But, you dear readers told me that you can't get enough of half-assed good ideas, so here it goes. All this adds to what I commented here at Land's.
Yes, yes, people are not having babies. People in developed countries, that is. We don't know why exactly, and everybody has its pet theory, but what we do have is a lot of data which we can run correlations with.
Low fertility is most severe in developed countries, but it doesn't correlate cleanly with development. Moldova is as poor as any country in Africa, and it has low fertility. Spain is poorer than Sweden yet has lower fertility. Saudi Arabia is richer than Nepal yet has higher fertility.
One of the best correlations out there is female education, but again that doesn't map neatly. Swedish or American women go to grad school in much higher rates than Japanese women, yet they have higher fertility.
The obvious answer to this melange of messy correlations is that there's no one big factor. It's like the genetics of height or IQ; hundreds of small factors that add-up, and possibly affect each other in quirky ways.
But that's no fun, isn't it? You aren't going to impress your friends at dinner by talking about hundreds of factors that we don't understand well. You need a compelling Narrative to sound smart and impressive. Well, listen up, I got something for you.
When you think about it, the assumption when talking about fertility rates is that people should breed more, and it's a problem that they don't. We assume that Malthus was right and humans automatically have more and more children even if they can't feed them. Now of course Malthus didn't exactly say that; and he did point out about mechanisms to limit fertility such as late marriage and property standards to be allowed to take a wife. But he thought that was a proof of how farsighted and civilized were the English in comparison with everyone else, the default state of mankind being to breed like rabbits until they food ran out.
But the historical record disproves that. In East Asia, marriage was early, and spinsterhood quite unheard of; but property standards for men to be allowed a wife were as high as everywhere else, and most importantly female infanticide was very common. Depending on the region or era, up to 40% of newborn girls in China or Japan were exposed at birth. Well actually they strangled them and made them drown in the amniotic water. Japan had the same population, 30 million, during the whole Edo period, 1600-1868. The Japanese also called infanticide "weeding".
This was also quite common in Greece and Rome. Of course to modern eras this sounds awfully cruel, and if you tell your wives and sisters they'll cry and say "how can mothers kill their own babies?!". But it was common practice, and there's no reason not to assume that this didn't go back to Neolithic times.
Now things like infanticide or late marriage do have the result of lowering population growth; that's not why people did it. People in pre-modern China didn't strangle their newborn baby girls thinking "oh, a girl, we must kill her for the good of the nation". And there were no government laws mandating it or encouraging the practice. If anything, from time to time governments wanted to stamp out the practice because they actually wanted more manpower.
No, what made people kill their babies; or put off marriage until an acceptable suitor proposed, were all family considerations. Jane Austen characters didn't marry early because they weren't allowed to, and they didn't marry down because that was bad for the family's reputation. And Chinese mothers killed their baby girls because having a girl is "watering your neighbors garden", i.e. they marry, leave and bring no honor to the family. Having a boy is riskier but it has a potentially higher payoff.
So flipping the issue; why did people have children in the old days? Well mostly because you couldn't avoid it; you had sex and more often than not you eventually got pregnant. But the rationale for raising kids and not exposing them was that children were good for the family. Boys were better than girls for the family, so boys were always raised, unless handicapped, and girls were often not. But the whole business of childrearing was done for the benefit of the family's social standing. More boys meant more manpower for your clan, boys who would grow up to do things, possibly increasing your wealth or reputation. It quite often went the other way, but in a clannish society, family are your only friends, and everybody can use more friends. Should anything happen, you are always better off with a larger family to defend the clan.
Fast forward to today: why do people have children? Certainly not for the benefit of the family. What's a family anyway? The man has his job and his friends, the wife has her job and her friends; some of these friends like kids, some don't. If a woman is very invested in her career and social circle on her job, having kids is quite detrimental to her status. If you have friends with children, having children is beneficial; but only as many children as everybody else has. Having 6 kids in NYC won't make you any friends, especially if they cause you to stop attending all those parties that people invite you to.
If you know your history, you may have noticed that the size of human groupings hasn't been stable through history. Hunter-gatherers lived in clans, which in time and places built larger tribes. These tribes went on for quite some time until states were formed. State administration in West and East proceeded to dismantle the tribes, and make people more obedient to state power. The Catholic Church famously dismantled the Germanic kindreds through draconic outbreeding norms. In China, Shang Yang and the other Legalist reformers dismantled the tribes through land reform and the state monopoly of farming tools; but after the Han collapsed, big landowners accumulated clients which evolved into a clan system not unlike the ancient tribes.
The State attack on family size meant that the tribes were dismantled in favor of nuclear families; and the progressive state has gone one step further and dismantled the nuclear family in favor of the individual. Now think about this for a minute. People in the old days had children for the good of the family, the clan, or the tribe. One can see evidence of this at the sky-high fertility rates of places like Afghanistan, where intra-tribal conflict has been going on for decades. The tribe needs boys to defend the tribe, and so boys are produced. Large kin groups, and a state of conflict are very good predictors of birth rates.
Now if what drives the birth rate is the interest of the family; well people in developed countries have no family to defend. To the extent that you have a family; your children leave the house never to come back; they don't follow your culture, don't inherit your accent; won't take over your job or business. For any functional understanding of "family", families today do not exist. Hence people have no incentive to have children. There is nothing to defend. And there's nothing to defend against anyway; modern state administration has eradicated tribal conflict for quite some time. Especially in the West; which explains the low fertility in Western Europe. You didn't need any manpower to defend against your neighbors.
Now of course the fertility rate now isn't 0, people do have children. But absent the tribal motivation, all that is left is the female biological clock, the cuteness of babies, and the natural cementing function that childbirth has to a newly married couple. Add all those up and you get 1.5 kids per couple, which is the average in the developed world. But after having 1 or 2 kids, most people feel absolutely no urge to have more than that; which surely means that the motivation is lacking.
Darwinian analysis of behavior is on the vogue today, and that's generally a good thing; but people tend to somehow fall into the fallacy that evolution hard-codes adaptive behavior in the genes. But that's not necessarily so; evolution only produces things that barely work, and once they work they leave it there. Much of human behavior is based on very flimsy software adaptations. Incest-avoidance doesn't depend on binary olfatory clues; it works through the Westermarck effect, meaning that if a girl didn't live in the same house with her father during the first 6 years of her life she's quite likely to end up screwing him. Sexual attraction in humans also works to a stupid degree on visual clues; put a burka on a woman and no men will approach her.
And reproduction in humans works through a myriad of small motivations, some of which are hardware urges, but many others are software cues depending on the social environment. That means that low fertility isn't a biological characteristic of liberals which will go extinct as conservatives replace them; it's a cultural trait that depends on a social organization which is enforced by the modern state. Peter Frost wrote a great post on how the Parsis are going extinct, mostly through a lack of tribalism. Well states have been cracking down on tribalism for quite some time, and that's not going to stop anytime soon.
If we can't have tribes, the only solution is having the second best thing, i.e. synthetic tribes. Now, where I have heard about this before...