How do you get people to make babies? It’s safe to say that this is not a question the leaders of most human nations have faced. In the past, there was some sense that people have a natural will, not only to survive, but also to create another generation. If nothing else, the desire to engage in sexual relations meant that babies were going to be a natural byproduct.
But today, in an era of birth control and easy access to abortion, the pleasure of sex does not guarantee reproduction. And so now some governments are trying to persuade people that we need a next generation. Most recently, in Sweden, where the fertility rate is 1.8, politicians are beginning to get desperate.
Recently, Per-Erik Muskos, a councilman from the northern Sweden town of Overtornea, proposed offering the municipality’s 550 employees the right to use an hour of the workweek allotted for fitness activities to go home and have sex. Because, you know, sex is good exercise and, well, there are not enough babies.
Muskos has some silly ideas about why it is that people don’t have babies. “I believe that sex is often in short supply. Everyday life is stressful and the children are at home," he said. "This could be an opportunity for couples to have their own time, only for each other.”
There is not a great deal of evidence that couples in Western Europe are having less sex. And even if they were, why would this possibly be the reason? Why is daily life more stressful today in Sweden or Italy or France than it was at any time in the past? The continent that has seen war and devastation and deprivation on an astonishing scale during the past century, but somehow, today, these Swedish parents are too stressed to engage in intercourse? Or they can’t get enough time away from their children?
Of course, nothing creates intimate moments like government bureaucrats encouraging you to use your lunch break for sex.
Last year, following a public backlash, Italy pulled ads for a national “Fertility Day” campaign that was aimed at encouraging Italians to have more babies to boost the country’s dismal fertility rate (1.6). According to one report, the campaign included a poster “picturing a woman holding an hourglass in one hand—the other one on her stomach—next to the words: ‘Beauty has no age limit. Fertility does.’"
Countries like Russia have created financial incentives for women to have babies. And certainly, the generous family leave policies and affordable childcare available in countries like Denmark and France should relieve parents of any potential economic stress that might come from having more children. But those things are apparently not enough.
These policies remind me a little of the “What’s the matter with Kansas?” argument. Policymakers and pundits look at people and wonder why it is that they don’t act in their economic interests? But just like the folks in Kansas, the people in Sweden are not simply rational economic actors. They are people—people who have time to have sex, who are not worried about having enough leave from work to spend with their children, and who know someone will mind these children when they do return to their jobs.
The real problem is a literal existential crisis. In a world where we can achieve total material comfort and satisfaction—the Danes are obsessed with getting cozy, of all things—but are lacking in a more spiritual or religious purpose, the question is why should we have more children? And that is something for which no government bureaucrat has the answer.