P11. We Must Have Larger Families

[Evening Standard, 29 September 1936, p. 7. © Atlantic Syndication for the Evening Standard]

29 September 1936

Recent figures showed a rise in the number of births in England and Whales over the preceding year. Mr. Harrod, Lecturer in Economics at Oxford University, points out that these figures are misleading, and that the birth rate is actually declining at an alarming rate.

The subject of population [1] is understood by very few. Published figures do not tell their lesson in plain language; they need to be interpreted by complicated statistical methods.

For instance, at the end of the nineteenth century the birth-rate was far higher than it is now. Hence there is to-day an unusually high proportion of women of the child-bearing age. But as time goes on this proportion will decrease, and the birth-rate figures are scheduled to decline accordingly.

Most English people, thinking of unemployment, the shortage of houses, the congestion of great cities, the disappearance of the countryside, thinking also of demands for colonial outlets and warlike preparations to secure them, rest content in the view that any diminution in the number of births is a good thing. Few realise the implications of the decline in the birth-rate that has already taken place.

The women of England have chosen in recent years to have a number of children which is only sufficient to replace three-quarters of the present population. This means that unless our desire and willingness to have children alters, we shall lose a quarter of our population in each generation, i.e., approximately every thirty years.

Nor is this the worst. Modern ideas about small families have not yet fully permeated the poorer sections of the community. Thus an even more rapid decline in our numbers is probable.

It has been calculated, on this basis, that the population of England in a hundred years' time might only amount to six millions, as opposed to forty-five millions to-day.

What is true of Great Britain is true also of all north-west Europe, including Germany. [2] Contrary to general belief, the impending decline in the French population is not so great, but it is substantial.

In other sections of the white races the decline has not gone so far. But it has been proceeding steadily, and will probably continue, as Western European notions with regard to the family spread.

Thus a prodigious shrinkage in the number of white people in the world is due to occur within a comparatively short space of time.

Some foreign countries have already taken alarm--Italy and Germany, France and Belgium. Italian mothers are still bearing enough children to maintain the Italian population, but there has been a rapid decline in the Italian birth-rate in recent years, despite propaganda and measures taken by the Government to stimulate it.

In Germany, where the rate of reproduction has sunk more lower, there has been some revival since the advent of Hitler. But this is insufficient to maintain the German population intact. Moreover, it appears to have been caused by precipitating marriages which might have occurred later in any case, and not by any disposition on the part of parents to have larger families.

Yet only such a disposition can save the situation.

It is too early to predict the consequences of recent measures in France and Belgium.

Different people will view this situation in different ways. Some will be most concerned at the immediate prospect of a great shrinkage of the British people and of the white races in general by comparison with the coloured races, and at the shift of power which that must entail.

Power and leadership cannot be preserved if numbers become really small.

It is quite a mistake to suppose that a small population would be a cure for unemployment. Less specialisation would be possible. More primitive industrial methods and a lower standard of living would result. [3]

Even those who are broad-minded enough to entrust the torch of civilisation to the Indians and Chinese must not lull themselves into facile indifference to present tendencies.

If conditions in those sub-continents improve, there is every reason to suppose that the ideas and practices which have undermined the birth-rate here will permeate them also at a later date.

This means that no less a thing than the future of the human species itself is in jeopardy.

Some may take the view that the future can look after itself, and refuse to be disturbed. They neglect the immense interval which must elapse between the conversion of thoughtful people to a new point of view and its putting into effect by the majority.

The prevalent view of one, two, or at most three children as a nice size for a family is inconsistent with the continued existence of humanity. How is the prevalent view to be changed? It may be possible to operate economically. But action on these lines in other countries has been far too niggardly.

Something much more drastic is required. Things should be so arranged that the father of a large family feels himself as well off as the father of a small one.

To be effective, measures would have to be on so great a scale as to sound at first altogether wild. Yet they are demanded by our perilous situation.

It would be possible to have a self-financing scheme, by which every income-tax payer with no dependent children would pay annually into a fund an amount equal to his income-tax (up to a maximum of, say, £300). Out of this fund it would be possible to pay to parents an equal sum in respect of each dependent child in excess of one. Family wages would be provided for non-income-tax payers on a similarly generous scale.

But even such a bribe might not be sufficient.

Parents avoid large families from a selfish motive and an unselfish one. The selfish motive is that its responsibilities are inconsistent with the kind of life they wish to lead. The unselfish motive is an exaggerated sense of what is due to the child.

What is really needed is that people should once again be attracted by the pleasures of a large family. [4]

It is useless to hark back to Victorian ideals. What prophet of this generation will re-create a sentiment favourable to the large family consistent with our modern thoughts and ways?

Our novelists and film-makers seem singularly lacking in edifying themes. I present them with this one.

Not that anything could be more offensive and nauseating than large family propaganda produced to order. But, perhaps, when these facts become widely known among men of enlightenment and good will, someone will be found with imagination enough to bind his spell upon the people.

The unselfish motive, the desire of parents to limit the number of their children so as to give them the best, is laudable and humane. But it is necessary to keep a sense of proportion. The human species has had to make unbounded sacrifices in the past in order to preserve its existence. To-day the most poverty-stricken among us have more comforts than our ancestors.

We must not become too squeamish. Humanity is only at the beginning of its achievements. If we refuse to perpetuate it now, our forefathers will have lived and suffered in vain. [5]

  1. 1. For a list of Harrod's other interwar writings on population see note 1 to press item 10 .

    2. Harrod later gave figures on the decline of the reproduction rate, as calculated by R. R. Kuczynski: see "Population and the Future" ( 1938:7 ), pp. 192-93, "Population Trends and Problems" ( 1939:1 ), p. 12, and "Modern Population Trends" ( 1939:18 ), pp. 5-7.

    3. This argument was not taken up in Harrod's only somewhat extensive discussion of the economic effect of a declining population in the inter-war years, in "Modern Population Trends" ( 1939:18 ), pp. 16-20.

    4. Harrod, however, was of the opinion that "children are an awful nuisance" (letter 408 , [jump to page] ).

    5. This article stimulated some correspondence, from friends who joked on the subject (letter 586 R), from Amellorie von der Goltz, a German baroness who expounded the Nazi population policy (letters 588 R, 591 R), and from two publishers (Faber and Thorton Butterworth) who invited Harrod to write a popular treatise on the subject (see letter 587 R, and in particular note 1 ). More offers of publishing a book came after publication of a further article on population in the Spectator, "The Population Problem" (Harrod 1937:1 ): see note 10 to press item 12 .


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