P13. How National Birth-Rate Could be Raised. Family Endowment Against Race-Suicide

[Daily Telegraph, 1 April 1937, p. 16]

1 April 1937

By R. F. Harrod, Oxford University Lecturer in Economics

In two letters recently published in "The Daily Telegraph", Sir Walter Langdon-Brown, Emeritus Professor of Physic in the University of Cambridge, replied to criticisms of his Nottingham speech to the National Birth Control Association Conference. [1]

This speech and Sir Walter's subsequent letters presented the case against certain common deductions drawn from falling birth-rate statistics, and attacked the policy of "breeding from the medically unfit."

Mr. Harrod, in the article below, discusses various social arguments which can be brought against Sir Walter Langdon-Brown's justification of the falling birth-rate. [2] Sir Walter Langdon-Brown writes with studied moderation, but he uses certain arguments which, just because they appear sensible and are widely current, require correction.

In the first place it is necessary to get the setting right. The average size of the family has been falling in this country for more than 60 years, and has now reached a level at which eventual extinction and a very rapid dwindling in the comparatively near future are inevitable.

Britain Leading Decline

A similar process has been at work in the other countries of Northern and Western Europe, in the United States and Australasia. In other white lands the position is not yet so bad, the decline in births having begun later; but it is still in process there, and we have every reason to suppose that it will continue on the same lines. It also seems likely that we have not yet reached the limit of family reduction in this country; in that case the dwindling will be still more rapid.

The continued existence of the white peoples is seriously threatened; those who are particularly interested in the relative magnitude of the British population must remember that we have an unenviable lead in this matter, and that in the immediately coming generations we shall have got quite small and unimportant while other white peoples are relatively abundant; in the course of those generations the balance of power in the world will be revolutionised.

Sir Walter Langdon-Brown points out the danger ("the fallacy") of long-term deductions from statistics alone. "If statisticians had computed their curves in population in 1871, when the birth-rate was at its height, they would have forecast an enormous increase by this time, and they would have been wrong."

1871 No Real Peak

But 1871 was not, as this suggests, a great peak; it was the end of a high birth-rate plateau stretching back into the past for many generations. They would, of course, have been wrong. They would have failed to allow for the great changes due to easily available contraceptive methods. But that is not a reason for our being ostriches with regard to the present situation.

The dwindling tendency has been far too widespread and persistent for any reasonable person, looking at the figures, to be justified in neglecting it.

It is possible, of course, that the future may have in store some new factor, comparable in importance with the spread of contraceptive devices, that will set up a reverse tendency to that which followed 1871. But what factor is suggested? We cannot build our policy on such a vague hope. Sir Walter Langdon-Brown makes one suggestion which I shall deal with.

Meanwhile we may notice that he endorses the view that " contraceptive methods were the means and not the cause of the declining birth-rate." This puts the matter too simply. Innate disposition and the environment act and react on each other, and potential tendencies may remain latent in the absence of any means of giving effect to them.

So long as family limitation could only be secured by heroic measures of moral restraint, ambitions, desires and the idea of the "good life" were adapted to the large family, which was taken as a basic assumption. Now all that is changed; with the new means of family limitation we have a different orientation.

A new kind of life becomes possible. Desire feeds and grows on opportunity. Is not this the principle on which modern advertising is based? It is easy to point to the psychological factors which cause the small family. But without the sine qua non of opportunity they would have remained latent.

In this sense of cause, contraception must surely be given pride of place. But it is fair to add that the followers of Malthus in the nineteenth century (of whose speculations modern birth control propaganda is a belated and anachronistic aftermath) did not appreciate that growing affluence would, by offering rival attractions to that of domestic felicity, be inimical to the large family. Greater affluence is doubtless a cause of the low birth-rate. It should be observed that this affluence, like birth control, has come to stay.

Not Due to War Fear

I now revert to the one hope which Sir Walter Langdon-Brown holds out for a reaction against present tendencies. He thinks that the present tendency would pass away "under happier and saner" conditions. This hope is entirely groundless.

It is necessary to remember that it is the mass of the population whose birth-rate has fallen and not merely some narrow class groaning under super-tax. The fall in the birth-rate has occurred in a period (the last 60 years) when the economic lot of the masses, even allowing for the incidence of unemployment, has been better than ever before in human history; and it has become intensified in very recent times, when a still higher level has been achieved.

Nor can the fear of war be called in; for the most spectacular fall occurred before 1931, when most people still cherished the illusion that the world had been made safe for peace.

It has occurred in a period too when the changes of the beloved offspring being cut off by illness have been greatly reduced. It has occurred in fact in a period of greatest progress in increasing the probability that any given children will have a comparatively happy and decent life. Why should we expect further progress along these lines to set up a reverse tendency?

Substantial Endowment

Sir Walter Langdon-Brown writes that "people are not going to be bullied or bribed into having children." I agree that they will not be bullied. But the bribe is a different matter.

All attempts in this direction on the Continent have been pettifogging in the extreme. [3] My constructive proposal is such a generous scale of family endowment that the parents of four or five children will not be worse placed than those of one or two in the same walk of life.

To cover the bare cost of maintenance will not suffice. The endowment must be sufficient to provide the extra children with such education and opportunities as the parents would choose to provide for the first or second; and there should be such provision of excellent collective nurseries available for occasional use, as to leave parents with that degree of freedom, the desire for which in the modern world makes so strongly against the production of the extra children.

If these conditions could be realised, I believe that there is quite sufficient parental instinct left in the world of to-day to put the future of our race on a secure foundation.

These proposals sound very costly. But if the "pooling" or "equalisation fund" system were adopted the burden would not be great. With a birth-rate much higher than ours and sufficient, the average number of dependent children per earning man would not be greater than one. Thus if a certain tax were levied not only on bachelors, but on all heads of families without dependent children, an equal sum could be paid out in respect of each child in excess of one. For the scheme to be effective it would be absolutely necessary to have graduation, the contributors at each level of income having their own equalisation fund. [4]

Room for Propaganda

This is my suggestion on the material side. On the psychological side it is probably quite true that people will not have children for the sake of national considerations.

A man may be patriotic enough to give his life for his country gladly, yet not to make a permanent change in his domestic arrangements. This is where Fascism has gone wrong. All the same, there may be room for propaganda to combat the totally erroneous but widely held views that more children will mean more unemployment, or more wars.

The plain fact is that, with existing birth rates, our country will become rapidly derelict. No economist would support the view that a reduction of numbers would remove the causes of unemployment, and many modern economists hold that the declining birth-rate is a factor making for increased unemployment.

If all these things were done, and the fundamental conditions sound, one would have nothing but praise for the humane work of birth-control clinics. But when one realises what a far cry it is to the realisation of a generous family endowment scheme and the reversal of the process of race suicide, that praise requires qualification.

Danger of "Spacing"

It is one thing when another child endangers the life of the mother. But Sir Walter Langdon-Brown talks of encouraging people to space their children. This may be sound hygiene, but it is possible that it is inimical to the larger family; it may be wiser, given the temperament of women to-day, to encourage the mother to get the tiresome nursery business over and done with quickly. The effect of "spacing" may often be that for one reason or another the postponed children never see the light.

And it must be emphasised that if there is a conflict between what makes for a larger family and a 100 per cent. hygienic standards, the former must have priority. Our ancestors, to whom we owe all we have, could not afford to be too squeamish. Our paramount duty is to see that the torch of human life is not put out upon this planet. Compared with this, the humanitarian feelings of Sir Walter Langdon-Brown must be given second place.

  1. 1. W. Langdon-Brown, "Control of the Birth-Rate. Social Causes for the Recent Decline", Daily Telegraph, 20 March 1938, p. 12, and "Birth-Rate Forecast", Daily Mail, 29 March 1937, p. 8.

    2. For a list of Harrod's interwar writings on population see note 1 to press item 10 . Harrod's article stimulated a reply by W. Langdon-Brown ("Population and Well-being", Daily Telegraph, 9 April 1937, p. 15), Margaret Pyke, the secretary of the National Birth Control Association ("Birth-Rate Decline", Daily Telegraph, 3 April 1937, p. 11), Lord Northbourne (see note 1 to press item 14 ) and a rejoinder from Harrod to the latter ("Birth-Rate Economics", 1937:7 , press item 14 ).

    3. Implicit reference is to D. V. Glass, The Struggle for Population (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1936), p. 85. See, for additional comments, note 9 to press item 12 .

    4. For a more detailed description of Harrod's family allowances plan see in particular "The Problem of the British Birth Rate", 1937:10 , part II, pp. 23-26.


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