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Die demographische Zeirenwende: Der Bevolkerungsruckgang in Deutschland und Europa. .

Die demographische Zeirenwende: Der Bevolkerungsruckgang in Deutschland und Europa. By Herwig Birg (Munich: Beck, 2001. 226 pages. DM 24.90/paper).

As a contribution to public policy, this work will interest historians less for its prognostications concerning twenty-first-century populations than for what it reveals about pre-occupations at the opening of that century. To be sure, historical figures dot these pages: Karl Marx, Adam Smith, Johann Sussmilch, Bernard de Mandeville, Friedrich List, David Hume, Joseph Schumpeter, even Polybius. Yet while taking account of classic theories, Herwig Birg stresses the novelty of low reproductive rates in contemporary Germany and Europe. Depopulation is imminent, not thanks to war, plague, or famine as in the past, but rather in the midst of peace and prosperity.

Birg recognizes that it is already too late to avert a downturn. Three decades of fertility below replacement levels have left too few adults in this generation to make good the losses. A rebound in birth rates now could take hold only when and if those children themselves produced more offspring. Birg's present hope then is to replenish the population after 2050. That long-range goal requires breaking the silence and ignorance in which party politicians have enveloped population policy, out of fright at the spectre of Nazi eugenics.

What is it the good citizens don't want to hear? Currently, German women average 1.4 live births each, well under the 2.1 that would keep the population stable. Birg straightforwardly traces the shortfall to the one third of German women who now remain childless. Migration at recent levels cannot make good the deficit quantitatively--nor qualitatively, as immigrants and their offspring tend to remain less educated than natives, he maintains. Moreover, immigration only temporarily mitigates the aging of the population brought on by low fertility. Birg foresees polarization, between young and old, between domestic and foreign, between childless and fruitful. Conflicts will break out over whether to dismantle social security to American levels, perhaps by raising the age of entitlement, or to impose massive increases in the contribution (currently two-fifths of production) able-bodied workers make to the burgeoning retired population. Meanwhile, the constitutional right of all refugees to asylum will have to be replaced by realistic quotas. Even then, the danger will remain that the German nation may disappear from history, with less than a third as many members to face the dawn of the twenty-second century. (The ranks of Spaniards and Italians will also dwindle rapidly, although the French and British will linger a while.)

It is not difficult to hear in all this echoes of the rhetoric of race suicide. Birg is fonder of a different discourse, that of the social contract. He regards it as scandalous that only to-day's elderly have lived up to the three-generation compact by which adults care for the aged and sacrifice for the offspring who are to aid them in turn. The reasoning is reminiscent of a tale Gluckel of Hameln related to her progeny. Young birds who promised direct reciprocity to a parent labouring on their behalf were drowned as liars; the only fledgling spared promised merely to extend such care to the following generation. Birg, it seems, shares Gluckel's fears for the elderly, but not her realism.

Childless sceptics who wonder where this three-generation contract binding them is recorded can now be referred to a 2001 decision of Germany's constitutional court. Influenced in part by an expert opinion from Birg, the judges ruled that public pension schemes were unconstitutional if their working in practice systematically conveyed disproportionate benefits to the childless. It is not enough that they themselves pay taxes; they must also raise future taxpayers.

In his account of the psychology of these shirkers, Birg comes closest to questions of direct interest to social historians. He calls attention to the paradox that, across countries and across eras, higher real incomes coincide with lower reproductive rates. In general, those who can afford larger families have fewer children. Although Birg does allow for exceptions, notably Africa, Russia, and the United States, he sees this pattern spreading and intensifying worldwide.

That belief in global convergence is just part of Birg's larger insistence that, when it comes to fertility, economics trumps culture. The anti-authoritarian values of the 1960s did not bring the baby boom to a halt, for the couples who failed to reproduce had actually been socialized decades earlier. Likewise, worldviews inimical or indifferent to birth control have failed to stem its use as capitalism and democracy bestride the globe. At their feet, human beings respond rationally to the incentives and risks created for them by economy, government, and society. For example, from its Bismarckian origins, the welfare state lowered fertility, Birg asserts, by reducing parents' need for children to support them in o11 age.

Nowadays likewise, values are not autonomous. Of course, children are not consumer durables, and income is not an end in itself. Rather, Birg speculates, individuals adapt to market competition by minimizing risks, in particular by preserving flexibility in the volatile labour market by avoiding irrevocable long-term commitments such as childrearing.

Aside from stylized biographies, Birg makes no detailed attempt to document such hedging. Instead, the conclusion turns from history to philosophy. Quick epistemological polemics demolish relativism. Birg then focuses his attention on ethics. Despite his sympathy for a philosophy of responsibility, Birg detects conceptual gaps in Hans Jonas's notion of a duty to reproduce. In the end, Birg rests content with the Kantian dictum that one's reproductive behaviour should take a form that all could adopt as a rule. From this, he derives a moral norm of zero population growth, as any positive or negative rate applied universally would either over-crowd the environment or abolish humanity.

Implicitly and explicitly, Birg appeals to others to assist in constructing a bridge from what is, or is projected to be, to what ought to be. Historians will learn more from observing the builders than from the bridge itself--unless those historians join in to raise the quality of the construction.
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Author:Benz, Ernest
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2002
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