Prosperity, Freedom, Fertility

When it comes to reproduction, are individuals who strive only for personal gain—as Adam Smith stated in The Wealth of Nations—”led by an invisible hand […] to promote the public interest”?

In The Tragedy of the Commons, ecologist Garrett Hardin suggested not and called for further government intervention to help control rising populations.

Recent studies, however, are suggesting that the current laissez-faire approach to reproduction in developed and economically ‘free’ countries does lead to an optimal population. (As always, there are caveats.)

In 2002, Seth Norton, a business economics professor at Wheaton College in Illinois, published a remarkably interesting study on the inverse relationship between prosperity and fertility. Norton compared fertility rates of over 100 countries with their index rankings for economic freedom and another index for the rule of law. “Fertility rate is highest for those countries that have little economic freedom and little respect for the rule of law,” wrote Norton. “The relationship is a powerful one. Fertility rates are more than twice as high in countries with low levels of economic freedom and the rule of law compared to countries with high levels of those measures.”

Norton found that the fertility rate in countries that ranked low on economic freedom averaged 4.27 children per woman while countries with high economic freedom rankings had an average fertility rate of 1.82 children per woman. His results for the rule of law were similar; fertility rates in countries with low respect for the rule of law averaged 4.16 whereas countries with high respect for the rule of law had fertility rates averaging 1.55.