P14. Birth- Rate Economics

[Letter to the Daily Telegraph, 9 April 1937, p. 15]

9 April 1937

Letter from R. F. Harrod, Oxford University Lecturer in Economics Sir--Lord Northbourne throws out, in passing, the remark that "much might be said in criticism of Mr. Harrod's article." [1] Much can always be said. As Lord Northbourne omits to say what he has in mind, we are left to infer its value from the one point that he does vouchsafe.

I take this point up not in a narrow spirit of self-vindication, but because it is a point which intelligent critics are apt to make, and then, after a moment has been allowed for second thoughts, withdraw. Lord Northbourne writes:

  • "I can do no more than allude to his apparent inconsistency in making his proposal for reversing the trend of the birth-rate by means of a redistribution of incomes [not among classes, but between those with and those without children in the same class] so shortly after his statement that `greater affluence is doubtless a cause of the low birth-rate.'"

The inconsistency is indeed apparent only and not real. My scheme makes the "greater affluence" strictly conditional on having more children; those who do not have more children will be less affluent. No class, taking the prolific and un-prolific together, will have more means in consequence of it.

On the one side is the proposition that if people are better off they are not likely to have so many children. On the other side is the proposition that a device for making it financially advantageous to have children and financially disadvantageous not to is likely to induce them to have more children than they would in the absence of such a device. There is no inconsistency.

If you give everyone £x a year more in income it may be that they will be less ready to perform a certain service, provided that the £x is given whether they perform the service or not. But if you make the offer of £x conditional on their performance of the service, it is nonsense to say that having the extra £x will make them less willing to perform the service, because if they do not perform the service, they will not get the £x.--I am, &c.,

R. F. Harrod.

Christ Church, Oxford, April 6 [1937]

  1. 1. Lord Northbourne, "Birth-Rate & Modern Life. Studying Decline in Population", Daily Telegraph, 6 April 1937, p. 14. Refers to Harrod's article on "How National Birth-Rate Could be Raised" ( 1937:6 ), here as press item 13 .

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