Goodness me, we are becoming a divided nation aren’t we? Rich v poor (admittedly an old one, that). Boomers v Gen Z. Unions v bosses. Bosses v consumers. North v south. Remainers v Leavers. Red Wall v Blue Wall. Democrats v populists. Raabites v Opera goers. Trans v TERFs. Woke v unwoke. Vegans v veggies v omnivores. Anti-abortion v pro-choice. It’s everywhere, thanks to social media, and it’s wearisome.
No sooner has Pride outraged people who don’t like other people putting their intimate bits where the hell they like, we’re about to set the childless against the childed. Or the child-free against parents: we usually cannot even agree on the language with interminable culture wars.
There’s a demographer called Paul Morland who has revived an idea that emerges every so often, and, thankfully, usually collapses under the weight of its own contradictions: let’s make more babies.
The idea isn’t so preposterous. We’ve a labour shortage, a severe one that is contributing to inflation. The ratio of the working population to the retired is set to worsen, raising many social as well as economic questions. But the British – or at least some of them, well represented by the present government – have a profound dislike of immigration, broadly speaking, and have rejected free movement of workers from/within the EU. Refugees are criminalised and to be deported to Rwanda. We have a restrictive “points based” migration regime which cuts off lower skilled or unskilled labour, and discourages settlement.
So the obvious answer is for the British to breed. Morland, an academic at St Antony’s College, Oxford, obviously knows his stuff and I hesitate to criticise such a distinguished figure, but here goes.
Here’s his plan: “Introduce a ‘negative child benefit’ tax for those who do not have offspring. This may seem unfair on those who can’t or won’t have children, but it recognises that we all rely on there being a next generation and that everyone should contribute to the cost of creating that generation. Use the funds to fix the UK’s broken, expensive early years care system.”
At this point, I should declare an interest as one of those people who haven’t got kids. Naturally, I’m disinclined to pay more than my fair share of tax, like everyone else, but I do recognise that we need, for example, an educated workforce and I pay taxes towards paying for the schooling of other people’s offspring. The same goes for child benefits, child care subsidies, and the remaining general costs of further education. But that’s already an unfairness in the system right there, and a substantial one. I don’t really see why I should actively incentivise people to have more children, not just on what might be perceived as selfish grounds, but because it’s a daft policy.
First off, surely no one takes on the responsibility of parenthood just for the tax breaks? If they do, I doubt that they’d make very good parents. Modest tax breaks won’t make up for the cost of finding a house with a garden and sufficient bedrooms, or the reality of the costs of rearing a child, from toys and food to needing a bigger car and an extra fare for holidays.
Second, what is a “childless family” for tax purposes? Is it anyone who’s never had a kid? Or just not in possession of one of school age? Is it a couple or single people too? Does it include those who medically cannot have children or who risk poverty if they start a family or expand an existing one?
Third, what happens to all these babies when they get to 60 or 70 years of age and wish to retire? Unless we constantly boost the birth rate, at some point the natural laws of demographics in wealthy societies will prevail, but with the overhang of old folk relative to working age adults even heavier than it is now. It’s like a demographic Ponzi scheme – unsustainable. The restless toddlers of today are the decrepit pensioners of the 21st century.
Fourth, it will take between 16 and 20 years plus for the new generation to enter the labour market. It’s utterly irrelevant to the present shortages. We could and should plug these gaps by importing more labour, either on a temporary or permanent basis. Rather than trying to intercept the refugees on boats and deport them, we should be sending ferries to France and get them over here ASAP. Otherwise, we will just have to settle for a smaller economy and lower living standards. The post-study visa system for Indian students suggests one way forward for the UK economy to become competitive again.
Besides, according to so many anti-migration groups, isn’t Britain “full”? So why do we want to increase the population by boosting the birth rate? What about pressures on resources and climate change?
But if we’re serious about increasing the population and supporting stable families, I’ve got a much more radical plan than Morland’s piffling parental payouts. How about big state pre-marital loans to couples? These can pay for their weddings and maybe housing in order to encourage them to marry. On top of this, each new child they produce is used as a credit to cancel out part of the marital loan. Heroic men with six or more children can also become exempt from taxation, and be given statutory preference for promotions at work, ie over their single, childless co-workers.
For women, they will be awarded a “Mother’s Medal” as national recognition for their contribution to the scheme, provided they produced more than the state’s target of five children per family. The likes of Boris Johnson would never have to pay tax again.
I joke, as you might have guessed. Although it reads like something Jacob Rees-Mogg (dad of six) would dream up, I’ve actually described the family boosting plan launched by Benito Mussolini in 1927 in his “Battle for Babies”, and such fascistic plans fit in well with pernicious contemporary conspiracy theories about “the Great Replacement”.
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This is the dark side of the debate. Mussolini made no secret of the paranoid reasons for his plan for a bambino boom: “Cradles are empty and cemeteries are expanding… The entire white race, the western race, could be submerged by other races of colour that multiply with a rhythm unknown to our own”. Mussolini, by the way, had six kids we know about; Hitler, on the other hand, who operated similar policies had none.
What usually rescues nations from unpromising demographics is increasing the productivity of the economy. That translates as substituting capital for labour, ie machines for people, and this is going to happen anyway as the economy adjusts to Brexit, de-globalisation and protectionism, the advances in AI and other technologies.
Some commodities that cannot be mechanised will be dearer to buy but enjoy higher wages (social care, for example) – rationed by price. Others, such as personal transportation, will be cheaper and far better, think of autonomous cars. There will continue to be demand for, and a general trend towards, a more leisurely, home-based society. If we allow market forces to work then they will help alleviate the coming demographic crunch. In other words, we really shouldn’t need that many babies and everyone can get a good night’s sleep.