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doug saunders

So, what would it take to persuade you to have another baby? A big tax break? A monthly stipend? Free child care? A big house?

"I wouldn't do that again for all the money in the world" is a perfectly reasonable answer. But be prepared: At some point, your government is going to pitch you on a larger family.

We have entered the age of the fertility panic. Country after country is discovering that smaller families are causing the population to shrink, which means more old people, and therefore higher government expenses and lower tax revenues. And many of those countries are then jumping to the wrong conclusion: that they should persuade people to have more kids.

The latest victim is the United States, which until recently was proud of its big, corn-fed families, but discovered last year that the economic crisis and constricted immigration have pushed its average family size down to 1.9 children, below the 2.1 needed for population stability.

This has led a number of American voices to propose what European countries have been doing for more than a decade and what Quebec has tried since the 1980s: attempting to create larger families through policy.

This theme has been seized upon most dramatically by the conservative author Jonathan Last, whose book What to Expect When No One's Expecting created alarming headlines across America this week. He is not satisfied to warn of rising pension and health-care costs. "Declining populations have always followed or been followed by Very Bad Things. Disease. War. Economic stagnation or collapse. And these grim tidings from history may be in our future," his first chapter warns. (He follows this by reassuring us that unlike the population-growth scaremongers of the 1970s, "I'm not selling doom.")

The apocalypse notwithstanding, population shrinkage is indeed a difficult policy challenge. Canada, whose average family size is 1.59 children, would be confronting it if we did not take in some 300,000 immigrants per year (which is only a temporary fix, because immigrant fertility rates fall to the national average within a couple generations). Even so, projections made by the Library of Parliament show that Canada's aging population will force its public-pension costs to quadruple over the next 23 years, and health-care costs to rise from 7 per cent to as much as 12 per cent of Gross Domestic Product.

This leads countries to believe that the solution is to pay for more children – and to discover how fruitless this can be. Germany spends 200 billion euros a year, equivalent to two-thirds of its federal budget, on a web of benefits meant to encourage people to have babies. But Der Spiegel magazine has just published an internal government report, accurately billed as "an indictment of 60 years of German family policy," which shows that a decade of this spending kept millions of women out of the labour force without raising Germany's average family size above 1.39 children.

Quebec, which has given as much as $8,000 to women for having extra children, has had similarly dire results. The only place to have pulled it off is France, and then only barely – it raised its fertility rate from just shy of 2 children per family to 2.1. What did it entail? Most famously, in 2005, France started giving $1,000 a month for a year to any mother willing to stay at home and have a third child.

That helped somewhat. It was enough money, as several French parents told me, to add an extra bedroom. But what really worked was the less glittery part of the policy: heavily subsidized daycare for all children under the age of 3, and free all-day schooling from the child's third birthday. Those policies allowed French women to have three children without completely destroying their careers and returning to the 19th century, and helped immigrants enter the labour force, creating tax revenues.

The problem in the United States is that the people who are freaking out about fertility are those who tend to oppose immigration, working mothers and state spending. Mr. Last, the American author, squares this ideological circle with proposals that include raising university tuition fees to as much as $100,000 a year as a deterrent (because "higher education dampens fertility in all sorts of ways"), building highways so people can live in big suburban houses, and encouraging more religion, because the faithful are fecund.

This is all a tortured way of evading the real issue: economic health, which not only makes population shrinkage more affordable, but causes people to have more babies. Working women and higher education aren't obstacles to solving the fertility problem – they're major parts of the solution.

The original print version and earlier online versions of this column incorrectly said that projections made by the Library of Parliament show that over the next 23 years, health care costs will rise from 7 per cent to as much as 12 per cent of provincial budgets. In fact, that percentage of health care costs should have been attributed to Gross Domestic Product and not to provincial  budgets.

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