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From the 3rd century BC, Polybius warns us about demographic collapse

11 June 2008

From Polybius’ Histories, 202-220 BC

The fact is that the people of Hellas had entered the false path of ostentation, avarice and laziness, and were therefore becoming unwilling to marry, or, if they did marry, to bring up the children born to them; the majority were only willing to bring up at most one or two, in order to leave them wealthy and to spoil them in their childhood; and in consequence of all this the evil had been spreading rapidly before it was observed. 

Where there are families of one or two children, of whom war claims one and disease the other for its victim, it is an evident and inevitable consequence that households should be left desolate and that states, precisely like beehives, should gradually lose their reserves and sink into impotence.

On this subject there is no need whatsoever to inquire of the gods as to how we are to be saved from the cancer.  The plain man will answer that, first and foremost, we must save ourselves, either by changing our obsession or alternatively by making it illegal not to bring up every child that is born.

Please share your comments by posting below. Brief! Stay on topic! Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling). 

Other posts on this topic

  1. Another front in the geopolitical struggles shaping our world  (3 June 2008)
  2. “The Return of Patriarchy“ – a classic article about demography   (5 June 2008)
  3. More news about Russia’s demographic collapse  (6 June 2008)

For a wide range of studies and articles see the new archive of major reports about demographic change.

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. plato's cave permalink
    11 June 2008 3:49 pm

    It’s purely fanciful to apply the model of an elite ancient society to our complex middle class modern one — unless you believe that anyone below the educated professional or corporate class doesnt really count in determining our history.

    Maybe that is our destiny, as we look more and more like third world states like Brazil and Argentina, but it hasnt happened yet.

    The choice of contemporary American women to have children later and have fewer isnt just a personal moral choice, a leaning toward narcissistic luxury, but a response to economic conditions in which having and educating children is almost economically prohibitive. Similarly, young peoples’ apparent irresponsibility and lateness in starting a career is less a sign of personal moral weakness than a response to the vanishing of attractive economic opportunities.

    Perhaps we are moving toward the world of the “Handmaids’ Tale” (Margaret Atwood), where lower class women bear children and provide sexual release for ruling class men, but such a world is the result of a concentration of political and economic power, not personal moral failure.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Historical analogies seldom rise to the level of precision of a “model.” On the other hand, human nature being the great constant of history, we should be wary of the “this time it is different” excuse. History provides lessons and warnings, neither to be lightly ignored.

    Many societies were unable to achieve the basic components for surrvival: sufficently high fertility rates, raise and educate new generations, sustain themselves, and fend off enemies. Failure at any one of these leads most commonly to extinction.

    Like

  2. Drsteph permalink
    11 June 2008 4:29 pm

    Nice historical quote worth keeping.

    I’ll paraphrase an earlier post :

    Why have children when there is no advantage to do so? There is no survival advantage to the individual as substitutes for children exist in old age (social security, Medicare, retirement accounts). There is no economic advantage to do so, as most children do not contribute to family businesses & impediments such as child labor laws, mandatory schooling, prevent children from contributing economically to the family (not necessarily bad, but let’s state it for the record).

    In fact, there is an economic disadvantage for parents of children making them less economically competitive than those who do not reproduce (child care costs shouldered by the individual, more mouths to feed, less job mobility through a need for stability, unable to spend as many hours at work than their single counterparts thereby being passed up for promotions, education, training, etc… And for affluent parents with high hopes for their children, limited access to elite institutions require great expenditure and energy (private schools, tutoring, college, graduate school, expanded adolescence, etc…) in order for those children to be competitive with other such children.

    Irrespective of the abortion debate, the mere raising of which is usually enough to stifle any intelligent discussion from any viewpoint, our society will only have more children when it decides it values children as members of society. Shifting tax burdens away from marrieds w/childrens and to means-tested singles would provide good incentive! Societal stigmata re-appearing for the unmarried and childless (remember terms like barren and spinster?) might also be helpful. But coming so soon after the sexual revolution of the 60’s, the N.O.W. and abortion rights debates, I would not expect it anytime soon. Another 40 year horizon, maybe. But our population demographics in this country of retiring baby boomers will not have any interest in voting higher taxes to support the younger generation, although they will not have any compunction about taxing that generation further for their own social security and medicare entitlements. Bad scenario.

    Finally, an interesting consideration was raised by Wooldridge and Mickelthwait in their book “The Right Nation” noting that in such adverse circumstances to child rearing, only those who truly love children or feel it is their religious duty to raise children will tend to do so, and by instilling their (typically conservative) values in their progeny, may cause a rightward shift in politics in the future.

    Fabius Maximus replies: Thank you; these are all relevant and valuable points.

    We can only speculate about these things. Perhaps our culture — individualistic, relatively equal gender roles, etc — is a cultural dead end, our only inheritance to the world being our philosphy, art, and science. Our replacement by what we consider lessor cultures — opressing women, esteeming superstition as the highest level of normative truth, etc — may be the primary lesson we leave to future generations.

    Who knows? Only by intellectual openness to consider all alternatives can we peer forward in time.

    Like

  3. pluto permalink
    11 June 2008 4:42 pm

    I agree with Plato’s Cave. I’d also add that unlike the people of Ancient Greece, we’ve got a perfectly acceptable pool of people to keep the population demographics up through immigration. We are very fortunate that the definition of an American is not a person born in a particular place but a person who is loyal to a particular set of ideas.

    Although we are an aging population, we are considerably better off than the Japanese, Italians, or Russians. We have another advantage in the fact that our people can (and sometimes have to) work longer than ever. FDR set the retirement age at 65 because life expectancy was something like 63 at the time. Now that life expectancy is more like 81, our workers can continue working until they are 70 and still enjoy a better retirement than their parents (assuming a bare minimum of financial literacy and self-control).
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    Fabius Maximus replies: (1) I admire your confidence that all new folks that enter America will consider our way of life superior to their own. However, that seems to me just a guess — one on which I am not willing to gamble the American experiment.

    Note that we faced this choice before, and shut the gates to allow assimilation. The following 50 years were among our most prosperous, and saw the development of a middle class in size and wealth probably unique in history. Opening the gates may have undermined its economic foundations.

    (2) Yes, the boomers can work until 81. They may have to do so. Too bad the government promised them retirement at 65, like their parents. When will they be told of this “New Deal”? How will they react to this unpleasant news? You can experiment. Find some blue collar workers and give them the news. Please report back to us your findings.

    Like

  4. Cam Hui permalink
    11 June 2008 8:02 pm

    I agree with the earlier comment about extrapolating comments from an ancient society to a modern one. To wit:

    In an agrian society (which Hellas was) children are units of production. The more children you had, the more productive workers you have, assuming that infant mortality rates are about the same across competing agarian societies.

    In an industrialized society, children are no units of production (child labor laws) but units of consumption. In that case, it becomes less economic to have children. Moreover, infant mortality rates tend to fall as societies industrialize so some (but not all) of the different birth rate effects are mitigated.

    That’s why birth rates tend to fall as countries become industrialized and more affluent. You can see this around the world in the last 10-20 years as the emerging market or Third World countries have become more affluent from the effects of globalization and open markets.

    Nevertheless, this does not address the problems that the West has of falling birth rates and aging populations. Nor are these problems isolated in the West. For example, China has an aging population demographic that was the result of her one-child policy. That policy has also created a generation of “little emperors” who expect that things will be handed to them, which will in the end make China less productive in the long run.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I do not understand your point. If children were an asset to the agrian societies of Greece and Rome, why did they experience low fertility? Could it be that economic deterministic factors are not the full explanation for human behavior?

    If you look through the studies listed on the “Demography” reference page, you will see ample evidence that this is in fact a problem facing all modern (aka industrial) societies. The time and rate differ among cultures.

    Like

    • Derryl Hermanutz permalink
      28 April 2012 9:18 pm

      Greek and Roman agricultural workers were slaves, not citizens. Polybius is writing about the citizen population, the owner-manager class, not the working class. Large families are economically beneficial to peasant farmers who enjoy the fruits of the additional labor. But this is not the case with Greek and Roman citizens, whose children were consumers and not producers.

      Like

    • 28 April 2012 9:26 pm

      Thank you for this valuable additional context. The ancient world’s demographics and economics differ greatly from ours, so we cannot take Polybius’ warning too literally. Still, there are useful insights that apply to us, IMO.

      Like

  5. plato's cave permalink
    11 June 2008 8:42 pm

    I like the way the above comments have eliminated the moral implication (if it was actually intended in Fabius’ original observation — i.e. that declining birthrate is a sign or moral laxity or social irresponsibility), and I like the sense that this is not a problem that can be fixed by political exhortation or some legendary American “can-do” approach, but is more like an external condition (like peak oil) that we have to adjust to.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: So far as I can tell, there is no moral component to history. As others have said, Mother Nature does not give a damm. A culture can survive or not; future generations will not care.

    Demographics is like gravity. A society can work with it, but not ignore it. It is the very opposite of an external condition (like Climate), but an expression of a society’s innermost nature and core economics. We ignore it at the risk of cultural extinction and replacement.

    Like

  6. 11 June 2008 10:28 pm

    Note that family loyalty is a big component of 4th generation warfare.

    If the modern, industrialized folks are saying, “Children are units of consumption” and the working poor are saying “Children are arrows in our increasingly full quiver,” the smart money is on the poor global guerrillas.

    Like

  7. 11 June 2008 10:33 pm

    Recall that Phil Williams is saying that the planet is going FROM THE NEW MIDDLE AGES TO A NEW DARK AGE: and that there is THE DECLINE OF THE STATE AND U.S. STRATEGY to deal with.

    Which forces will have an advantage in a new middle ages — the consumers with one kid, or the ancestor-worshipping traditionalists who value family more than personal life? If you’ve got one billion ultra-poor, four billion working poor, and several billion comfortably civilized people, how do you deal with the one poor infiltrator who slips past your borders and sees your country as an orchard by which to feed his family? Prepare to lose the low-hanging fruit!
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    Fabius Maximus replies: It was a fun report to skim. Like reading Kipling’s “Just so stories.”

    Not a serious work, but a mildly interesting polemic. Mentions none the incredible positive trends in the world today, such as the fantastic growth of many emerging nations. Does not mention Martin van Creveld nor his great work in this field. Completely devoid of numbers to put any of the factors he describes in an overall global context. No assessment of the odds of his scenario vs. alternatives

    But fun, like watching “The Towering Inferno”. I might post about this next week.

    Like

  8. OldSkeptic permalink
    12 June 2008 10:42 am

    I have been arguing the economic aspect for a long time now.

    Now I will add reductio adsurdum to the equation: when is enough .. enough.

    The population declining crowd forget the other side of the argument. Right we all breed. Lets all have children, lots, 10 each we as we are all such Christians, we will all breed for .. Spengler. So when is the population too high. Take the US, 400 million, 500, a billion, a trillion, 10 trillion . hey lets go for a googleplex?

    At any point in this argument here has to be a drop or levelling off in population (even just by starving). When that process start there will be a bulge in older people for a while (the maths are so simple). Then you get stability.

    OK Spengler (who is whipping up this nonsense) what should the population of the Angolo Saxon (Christian of course .. though what about us Athiesists) nations be .. a billion? 10 billion? A trillion? What (rhetorical question of course)?

    Fabius Maximus replies: You must have fun conversations with your Doctor.

    Doctor: “You have a fever. Take an asperin, rest in bed, and call me in the morning.”
    Oldskeptic: “You are recommending that I sit in the freezer until my blood turns to ice. I’m calling my attorney!”

    Maintaining a working society requires a balance. Population change must be slow enough to not destabilize the economy, and allow the society to maintain itself against external pressures. Absorbing folks from other cultures is difficult, and requires both planning and work. That’s just life.

    Like

  9. pluto permalink
    12 June 2008 1:39 pm

    Fabius Maximus replies: (1) I admire your confidence that all new folks that enter America will consider our way of life superior to their own. However, that seems to me just a guess — one on which I am not willing to gamble the American experiment.

    Note that we faced this choice before, and shut the gates to allow assimilation. The following 50 years were among our most prosperous, and saw the development of a middle class in size and wealth probably unique in history. Opening the gates may have undermined its economic foundations.

    (2) Yes, the boomers can work until 81. They may have to do so. Too bad the government promised them retirement at 65, like their parents. When will they be told of this “New Deal”? How will they react to this unpleasant news? You can experiment. Find some blue collar workers and give them the news. Please report back to us your findings.

    I find myself in the unenviable position of strongly disagreeing with you.

    1) By choosing to immigrate to this country the people are stating that they generally agree with our ideas. Very few people immigrated to Stalinist Russia after the handwriting was on the wall.
    Also, our American experiment should not, and CAN NOT stay static. It needs to evolve with time and adjust to world conditions or it will become a bug splattered on the windshield of history.

    Your comment that our large middle class was a result of slamming the door on immigration is a false one for the current times. As you’ve already noted, we’re not quite meeting our replacement reproduction rate so need to reach outside our borders to replace retiring people or face a shrinking middle class due to attrition. I happen to live in a culturally diverse community and find that I prefer the company of the quiet hard-working immigrant middle-class citizens who save like crazy to that of the whiney native sons who are members of the middle-class but live paycheck to paycheck.

    2) I’ve already tested your theories about the boomers not knowing about the coming retirement crunch. As a matter of fact, I test it every chance I get because this is one of my major concerns for the future. The boomers, on average, KNOW they are in trouble when they retire but have two false expectations that keep them in denial:

    a) The federal government will bail them out because they are such a large group of voters. When I ask where the government will get the revenue, they tell that isn’t their problem. My cynical laughter tends to shake their self-confidence.

    b) Sticking their head in the sand and figuring the future will take care of itself. There is nothing to be done for these people except pity them when the hammer falls.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Few people migrated to Stalinist Russia because it offered no oppportunities. Folks come here for many reason, but primarily economic (there have been many studies of this). That tells us nothing about their willingness to adopt our culture, which is primarily imo a matter of numbers. Tiny minorities must adapt. Larger groups have the ability to both retain aspects of their cutlural identity and shape the overall society.

    You have not addressed my second point. They disagree with you, and I doubt they find your cycnical laughter a definitive rebuttal. The question is not how they react to discussions about such things at a cocktal party, but how will they react when reality hits.

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  10. E. Casais permalink
    12 June 2008 2:15 pm

    The fear of demographic collapse because of a reluctance to procreate, and the ensuing disappearance of a civilization are typical fantasies of elites facing the dilution of their supremacy after exhausting themselves in conquests that turned them minorities facing huge crowds of “alien” subjects in their own empire.

    So for the Greeks of the 3rd century BC in their vast Hellenistic realm, so for the true Romans, a minority in their huge empire of the 3rd century AD, so for the Western nations of today, which wrought globalization and get dizzy as they realize how puny they are compared to Asia. I am quite sure we could find ancient Chinese historians deploring the low fertility of Hans compared to the hordes of Mongols, Manchus, Tibetans and other peoples making up the Empire.

    When considering historical cases of demographic collapses, they invariably turn out to be caused by the usual quartet — war, famine, pestilence, death. Let us limit our view to the American continent, whose native populations experienced various demographic collapses, the last one exceeding 90% between the 15th and the 20th century:

    * The Mayan (9th century) and Anasazi (12th century) societies collapsed because of many reasons, mainly ecological (deforestation, overuse of land).
    * The Moche culture (8th century) collapsed because of major climatic turbulences — a series of El Niño/La Niña resulting in decades of torrential rains followed by decades of drought.
    * The Aztec and Inca civilizations (16th century) collapsed because of a merciless war against European invaders and their local allies, pandemics (germs imported by Europeans), attrition because of slavery (mines and encomiendas), and poor diet after being dispossessed of their best farmlands. * The North American indians suffered the same fate during the 18th and 19th centuries. The only cases of collapse by low fertility I have heard of (without corroboration) are of some Amazon tribes that left themselves die out, despairing about their lack of future in a modern world.

    On a more philosophical note: civilizations live, evolve and die. Besides, think hard about what you cherish and would like to salvage from your culture, should the feared demographic-collapse-because-of-lack-of-babies come true: the constitution of the USA? The works of Edgar Allan Poe or of Shakespeare? The writ of habeas corpus? These are all great achievements of societies so remote and different from today that they actually constitute radically different cultures from your own; the issue is therefore not the preservation of culture, but of specific, entrenched present social positions and privileges in the face of competition…

    Fabius Maximus replies: So fears of cultural death were “typical fantasies of elites” of ancient Greece and Rome. I am glad to hear that, as I always wanted to visit them. Where do I buy tickets?

    As you note, civilizations live and die. Societies live longest who fight to survive despite the certainty of death. They are the ones that leave the greatest inheritances to humanity. Our culture would be gone in a century if all Americans had your philosophical attitude. Disillusionment and self-knowledge are poison to the myths that tie together a people and allow them to function as if daily life is meaningful. Hence Hegel’s observation that “”the owl of Minerva flies only at night.”

    The ecological collapses you list are dramatic but exceptional — and of little relevance to this issue. Most soceities fade away due to slower and less violent causes.

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  11. plato's cave permalink
    12 June 2008 3:02 pm

    Too many interesting points in this thread to take up here. Fabius said earlier:

    “Many societies were unable to achieve the basic components for surrvival: sufficently high fertility rates, raise and educate new generations, sustain themselves, and fend off enemies. Failure at any one of these leads most commonly to extinction”.

    The fault of a purely theoretical approach is that it overlooks completely the actual situation of America today, that of an economicall vulnerable and over-extended global hegemon trying to subdue the rest of the world to its outmoded agendas. “Fend off its enemies” makes no sense in 2008 as a criterion for the survival of our society. In fact, preoccupation with it is more a sign of what’s causing our decline.

    Contrary to Fabius’ statement Polybius’ argument is explicity a moral one, stating that declining birth-rates in his society are due to an ignoble pre-occupation with luxury. We hear the same arguments today, by people who feel threatened by popular entertainment, youth culture, changing sexual mores, etc., and see themselves as defending a traditional moral order.

    Fabius Maximus replies: You ignore what I specifically said: “So far as I can tell, there is no moral component to history.” Polybius’ has his views. I have mine. As to which is correct… I suggest asking a priest or philosopher. Although I disagree with Polybius, imo his view cannot be ignored.

    One way to reconcile them: survival of the society and its culture is morality. From this view: “The traits he describes weaken the culture, and are therefor bad.”

    Like

  12. pluto permalink
    12 June 2008 4:39 pm

    Fabius Maximus replies:
    “Folks come here for many reason, but primarily economic (there have been many studies of this).”

    My response:
    That tells us nothing about their willingness to adopt our culture, which is primarily imo a matter of numbers. Tiny minorities must adapt. Larger groups have the ability to both retain aspects of their cutlural identity and shape the overall society.

    “You have not addressed my second point. They disagree with you, and I doubt they find your cycnical laughter a definitive rebuttal. The question is not how they react to discussions about such things at a cocktal party, but how will they react when reality hits.”

    My response:
    You are right in your first point but I still maintain that the US can and will survive regardless of the country of origin of large groups of immigrants. Our founding fathers didn’t set standards such as “English is our national language” or “We are a christian nation” primarily because they didn’t envision such challenges however I would argue that this omission is accidentally wise and we would do well to keep it.

    Your second point is even more accurate but there’s no way to know until the day occurs. That’s why it is one of my biggest concerns about the future because I doubt they’ll take it quietly.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I often find quite odd assertions of our ability to assimilate. Past performance is no guarantee of future performance.

    Esp as our past performance resulted from strong efforts to assimilate (often “strong-arming” folks to assimilate) — efforts which we now consider unworthy. Oddly, we still expect the same result (assimilation), but without making the effort to see it happen. Magic? Divine intervention?

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  13. pluto permalink
    13 June 2008 5:50 pm

    Fabius Maximus replies: I often find quite odd assertions of our ability to assimilate. Past performance is no guarantee of future performance.

    Esp as our past performance resulted from strong efforts to assimilate (often “strong-arming” folks to assimilate) — efforts which we now consider unworthy. Oddly, we still expect the same result (assimilation), but without making the effort to see it happen. Magic? Divine intervention?

    The secret of assimilation is actually fairly easy to understand: it’s the immigrants themselves.

    This group usually either has marketable skills or an incredible amount of determination to improve their lives. Anit-immigrant commentators argue that its easy to get into this country because the borders aren’t sealed. They are right millions of people successfully get into this country illegally but very few of these illegal immigrants found it easy to do so and it is getting harder all the time. This means that only the smartest, toughest, most flexible and most determined make the trip without getting caught.

    As you’ve noted earlier, these people do so for the economic advantages. But they quickly realize that most of those advantages are still out of reach without learning English or learning how to work within our society. This is a barrier that a lot of immigrants have troubles with and quite a few of them lead restricted lives simply because they are afraid to leave their homes for fear of accidentally getting run down by a car because they don’t even understand our traffic laws. Historically the immigrants tended to settle into sub-communities where their language was more frequently spoken (the many local Chinatowns, for example). Some of them learned English and some measure of communication was achieved. But these smart agressive people KNEW that they were being held back by weak communication skills and integration with the rest of the US so they insisted that their children learn the skills that they lacked and eventually integration was achieved.

    That is still happening today in several different ethnic communities where I live. The Politically Correct resistance to assimilation cuts both ways, showing less tolerance of sub-communities and “ghettos” than ever before. I’ve got a lot more to say on the topic but I’m running out of time and space.

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