China’s 1980 one-child policy, 2016 two-child policy, and 2021 three-child policy provide almost unparalleled illustrations of the folly of government overreach. They will cry out for the attention of students of politics and defenders of liberty for generations to come. These policies could have served as exhibit A in Adam Smith’s characterization of the “man of system” in The Theory of Moral Sentiments as one who is “often so enamored with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it,” and imagines that he “can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chessboard.” Sadly, the pieces in China’s misguided efforts at population control were real human beings whose lives were prevented, ended, distorted, and in far too many cases ruined by a government with little appreciation of its own limitations. Having sown the wind, China will be reaping the whirlwind.
The one-child policy responded to several rapid changes in Chinese society beginning in the middle of the 20th century, including declining infant mortality, increased life expectancy, and rapid economic growth. The Chinese population more than doubled in less than two generations to over 1 billion people. Concerned that the nation would be overrun by its own citizens, whose numbers it would lack the capacity to support, China’s leaders moved in the 1970s to contain its population explosion. They would limit many urban families to one child, with a looser policy for rural families, who would be permitted a second child if the first were a girl, in effect promulgating a “1.5-child” policy. Soon other exceptions were introduced, such as families whose first child suffered from a disability. Most importantly, the policy had teeth. Those who exceeded the limit could be fined or lose their jobs, and women were often forced into contraception, sterilization, and even abortion. The policy was widely promoted through billboards and broadcast propaganda trumpeting such slogans as “Kill all your family if you don’t follow the rule” and “If you escape sterilization, we will hunt you down.”
For decades, the Chinese government insisted that the one-child policy was succeeding. It has publicly claimed that 400 million births were prevented. Of course, this is certainly a gross underestimate, at least to the extent that each birth prevented by the policy prevents many additional births in subsequent generations. The government has also claimed advantages for girls and women. When a family’s only offspring is a girl, it argues, they are more likely to invest in their offspring’s education and preparation for a career, and when a woman bears and raises one child, she has more time and energy for pursuits outside the home. Purported economic benefits include a more favorable market for laborers, who face less competition, augmented by government policies that favor giving jobs to the offspring of one-child families. In addition, families with one child were rewarded monetarily by the government, though only to a modest degree.
Yet the one-child policy is rife with problems. For one thing, many demographers doubt that it made a difference. Other nearby countries such as Thailand, which had similar fertility rates in the 1970s, experienced a similar drop in birth rates over the succeeding decades, despite the absence of any one-child policy. And Taiwan, which today may have the lowest fertility rate of any nation on earth, achieved even greater reductions in birth rates without imposing any limits on family size. It seems likely that the key factor in declining fertility rates was not government policy but economic development and improved standards of education and living. This idea is supported by the fact that, even as the one-child limit has been raised to two and now three children, fertility rates are hardly increasing. Pointing to the amount of time, energy, and costs associated with raising a child, many Chinese women report that they would not want more than one offspring, no matter how many the government allowed them to have.
Even if China’s one-child policy achieved its goals, it did so at the cost of many unintended and unforeseen consequences. In years to come, the number of Chinese people of working age will fall sharply and the number of pensioners will mushroom to 40% of the population, with a decrease in the number of workers supporting each retired person from a ratio of about 5 to 1 to 1.5 to 1. As a result, China will cease to reign as the world’s preferred manufacturer. Family life has also been transformed, taking on a “4-2-1” structure in which each grandparent and parent has only one grandchild, and most offspring are only children. Uncles, aunts, and cousins, who traditionally played important roles in family life, have become endangered species.
In a culture that places a premium on leaving a male heir, many families resorted to birth tourism, choosing to bear children abroad, while others sought assisted reproductive technologies to have twins and triplets, which were not prohibited. Others made use of sex-selective abortion, using ultrasound to determine sex in utero and aborting female fetuses. Especially if a family’s firstborn was a girl, there was a strong desire, particularly in rural areas, to ensure that she would not have a sister. As a result, China experienced a huge increase in the ratio of male-to-female births, which is normally close to 1 to 1 but increased to nearly 1.2 to 1. In a nation as populous as China, this means that there are between 30 and 45 million Chinese men who will not be able to find a female mate. In some regions, this gender imbalance has helped to spawn increases in sex-related crimes of various types, including kidnapping and sex trafficking. For example, there are reports of girls and women from Myanmar being sold as brides to Chinese families for sums ranging up to $13,000. Some of these women report that they have been allowed to return home, but without the children to whom they have given birth.
The one-child policy has proved disastrous at many levels, and the government admits as much by the accelerating pace at which it is backpedaling from it, having waited 35 years to go from a one to a two-child limit and only five years to go from a two to three-child limit. But the deepest tragedy of the one-child policy lies less in statistics and demographic consequences than in the erroneous view of society it implies. China’s rulers have forgotten that it is neither possible nor appropriate to reinvent human family life in the same way that it engineers large public works projects or rewrites history. The pain and suffering of each family member it has impacted lies much closer to the core of human existence than any demographic profile or economic projection. In acting as though they were chess masters moving pieces around a board, China’s rulers have failed to appreciate that they are tinkering with matters beyond their ken, let alone their control, and their subsequent modifications to the one-child policy only reveal their continued incomprehension. Like the man behind the curtain in Oz, their true dimensions have been revealed.
Some in China’s leadership might see the one-child policy as a technocratic failure. If only they had enjoyed today’s more sophisticated technologies of contraception, surveillance, and propaganda, their policy would have succeeded. But this is the wrong conclusion to draw. The real problem here is not one of competence but moral vision. China’s totalitarian effort to control its population, like the eugenics programs of the 20th century, was fundamentally immoral. They put abstractions, such as population and economic performance, above the rights and needs of human beings. People are not tools of social policy. On the contrary, social policy is meant to serve people. Knowing their own life circumstances better than anyone else on the planet, individuals are the best judges of when to have children, how many to have, how they should be raised, what kinds of families to build, and so on. When a government presumes to make decisions about family life for its people, it necessarily errs, because it is mistaking the incredibly rich and complex panoply of each person’s life for a simple abstraction akin to a chess game.