World

China’s Population Problem

A worker on the production line at a truck factory in Hefei, China, in 2014. (Reuters)
It’s running short of workers, which surprises no one but its central planners — and the American Left.

China has a problem: not enough people.

If you didn’t see that one coming, you haven’t been paying attention.

More precisely, China’s problem is its shrinking work force.

According to Beijing’s official numbers, China’s work force has declined by 25 million workers — about the combined work forces of California and Ohio — since topping out in 2011. Everywhere in China’s industrial belt, help-wanted signs hang outside the factories.

After years of officially restricting couples to one child, the cabal that rules China — never forget that this is a one-party police state — relaxed that policy a few years ago. But Chinese people did not start having more children. They’re having fewer, for the same reasons many Western societies have seen declining birth rates: Would-be parents dread the expense of children, and women delay motherhood as they pursue professional goals rather than maternal ones. The Communist bosses want Chinese couples to have more children, but Chinese couples are not obliging.

Some Chinese officials blame the declining work force for the country’s declining economic growth. The Chinese economy is still growing, and growing quickly by many standards — its 6.6 percent growth last year is more than twice what President Trump dreams of, with his unfulfilled promise of sustained 3 percent growth — but, long-term, the Chinese forecast is normalcy, at least as far as economic growth is concerned.

For a regime that has based its legitimacy on dramatic economic growth, normalcy is a crisis. And a national crisis in China is a serious thing. The future is unknowable, but the wise man would not bet very much on Xi Jinping’s career coming to an end because of an election. A Chinese recession might very well end in a Chinese revolution.

Governments always operate in ignorance, and authoritarian governments suffer from this more than the governments of liberal societies. That is because in liberal societies, the spontaneous orders of markets, civil society, and open intellectual life help to organize and deploy useful knowledge in ways that centralized bureaucracies cannot.

(Of course that applies to corporate bureaucracies as well; that’s why an intelligent society allows businesses to die quickly, with as little disruption as possible. That’s a lesson we Americans keep failing to learn with our “too big to fail” superstitions.)

You might expect that state of ignorance to produce some kind of random distribution of errors, which could in theory be partly self-correcting in the same way that big crowds are, on average, pretty good at guessing how many jelly beans are in a jar. But that isn’t how things actually work.

Political actors — not only elected officials but also career bureaucrats and expert managers — do not err randomly or in ways that are entirely unpredictable. That is because political actors, even the most intelligent and well-meaning of them, are not the dispassionate philosopher-kings of the progressive imagination. Political actors have incentives, and they act in accordance with those incentives. This produces biases that are mostly predictable: bias toward bigger budgets and bigger staffs, bias toward settlements and procedures that minimize institutional accountability, bias toward relying on metrics of progress that are easy to measure and likely to obscure or minimize ongoing problems (you can tell a great deal about an institution by what questions its managers choose not to ask and which metrics they choose not to measure), etc. Among central governments, the bias tends to be toward centralization. Among local governments, the bias tends to be toward localizing power and delocalizing funding. Police departments are predictably biased against civilian-review boards. Public-school teachers’ organizations are biased against measuring performance rather than relying on criteria such as seniority in decisions relating to compensation and advancement.

The Communist bosses in Beijing have certain ideological biases that have evolved over the years. Unsurprisingly for an authoritarian ideology with its roots in agrarian and pre-industrial social arrangements, the Chinese long regarded themselves as having a population problem. The peasants may have been lionized as the vanguard of the revolution, but there were countless millions of them, and the Communist planners regarded them as liabilities rather than as assets — mouths to be fed rather than a productive work force. Central planners are reliably unable to cope with the organic pace of change as it happens in the real world — which does not operate on a series of five-year plans — and, among their other errors, the authorities in Beijing continued believing that they had a population problem long after it was plain that they did not.

The Chinese are not alone in this. In the West, progressives have been for many years hostage to the deathless superstition of “overpopulation” and all of the predictable Malthusian errors that go along with it. Paul Ehrlich, the wrongest man in the history of modern American thought, captivated a generation with his Population Bomb and his predictions that the world would soon run out of . . . everything, really: food, energy, industrial metals, etc. In 1970, he predicted that “in ten years, all important animal life in the sea will be extinct.” He predicted that the United Kingdom would cease to exist, that hundreds of millions would die in inevitable famines, etc. Subsequent prophets from Al Gore to Greta Thunberg have offered variations on the same theme. Thank goodness we were not persuaded by their forebears back when they were insisting that we were on the verge of a “new ice age” and drawing up plans to cover the polar ice caps in coal soot in order to warm up the planet and thereby prevent . . . climate change.

This kind of thinking exercises powerful influence over the thinking of progressives, from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s enthusiasm for abortion as a means of reducing “populations that we don’t want to have too many of” to Senator Bernie Sanders’s recent invocation of taking steps to “curb population growth” — where? — “especially in poor countries.” The “Planned” in Planned Parenthood is very much like the “planned” in “planned economy.” Remember that many so-called liberals in the Western world celebrated China’s one-child policy as the height of wisdom even as they shed a few tears, some of them possibly sincere, over the brutality of its implementation.

Central planners are always fighting the last war. Even as the world’s population is projected to peak and then decline in the not-so-distant future (only 20 or 30 years) “population control” remains a going concern among progressives. It isn’t about population: It is about control. The same is true of gun control and “putting the economy under some measure of democratic control,” as Jamelle Bouie recently put it in the New York Times. In the progressive imagination, the perfection of society — and the perfection of man — is only a matter of control, and choosing the right controllers. This is how you end up with a callow young bartender with no relevant experience or knowledge drawing up grand plans to reorganize the entire world economy, which is understood to be a fundamentally moral question — ask young Miss Thunberg or Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — with the technical details to be addressed by a bureaucracy to be organized later.

Moral imperatives are attractive in that they do not rely on any particular verifiable expertise or measurable outcome. Millions were starved to death in the Holodomor by those who were whitewashed as being nothing more than “liberals in a hurry.” That, too, was an economy under some measure of political control by people who said they were acting in the interests of the majority of the people.

The American Left is at the moment engaged in a peculiar assault on American liberalism, especially its protections of individual rights and the interests and rights of minorities. The First and Second Amendments both are under attack, as are the Senate and the Electoral College, and other counter-majoritarian institutions that form an important part of the American constitutional architecture. The everything-is-racist campaign of the past few years is intended largely to discredit these institutions. Representative Ocasio-Cortez has judged the Electoral College both “racist” and a “scam,” a common view among progressives. Paul Krugman and Will Wilkinson, both writing in the New York Times, have insisted that projects ranging from liberalizing regulations to defending the Bill of Rights are, somehow, racist enterprises. Michelle Goldberg, also writing in the New York Times, dreams of “an end of the GOP” for the crime that Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg describes as conspiring “to stop the New America from governing.” Greenberg dreams of an unchallengeable Democratic monopoly on power “liberated from the nation’s suffocating polarization to use government to advance the public good.”

Polarization is what happens when there are two opinions about something. What happens when there is one opinion — one permitted opinion — about something is: China, roughly.

The main reason the modern United States has not, for all its errors and failures, pursued something as destructive as China’s one-child policy is that no one actually has the power to do so. Those dusty old terms from the long-forgotten civics textbooks — separation of powers, federalism, unalienable rights — have saved us many times from the worst kinds of tyranny. And, as our founders knew, the worst forms of tyranny very much include majoritarian tyranny. One might think that the Trump presidency would cause progressives to think twice about what William F. Buckley Jr. dismissed as “the authority of political truths arrived at yesterday at the voting booth.” But they cannot endure such a thought. That is why they remain unable to intellectually progress from November 2016 without convincing themselves that the election was somehow illegitimate.

To face the facts would be to understand themselves to be devotees of another god that failed. They may believe that they are not followers of the same god that has failed in China, but that is only a matter of comparing Zeus to Jupiter. They are slowly beginning to understand what’s happening in Beijing, if only because the bosses there have no other choice but to accept reality or risk a fate a good deal worse and more bloody than mere electoral defeat.

But Beijing’s errors are not so different from our errors, which will become more apparent the farther down the same road we go.

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