the coming anomie


via Megan McArdle I saw this Nicholas Eberstadt essay on Chinese demography and the one child policy. The two most remarked consequences are the abortion and infanticide of many millions of girls and the pending catastrophic dependency ratio of a society where retirees outnumber able-bodied young people by a decent ratio. The thing that most interested McArdle was that it is rapidly creating a system where a child has parents and grandparents but no siblings (and for that matter only a few second and third cousins). In the near future, the only intra-generational tie a Chinese man is likely to have is marriage (and that only if he’s lucky, given the 1.3 sex ratio). But this marriage will not link him to any brother- or sister-in-laws and is a dead-end as far as the intra-generational kin network goes. So in the very near future, within any given generation, familial ties among the Chinese will consist entirely of isolates and dyads. You see a phase transition to much larger network components when mean degrees per node is greater than 1 and with only marriage to tie them to their own generation (and marriage not being universal), the Chinese are below 1, therefore falling well below this threshold. This implies that a historically family-oriented society will soon have no families.

While neither McArdle nor Eberstadt mentioned it, low fertility is also an issue for every rich society, ranging from near-replacement for the United States, France, and Scandinavia to deathbed levels for Russia, Japan, and Southern Europe. So does this imply that everything I said for China applies to Spain as well? Kind of. First, many low fertility countries have equally small numbers of boys and girls (probably because they have public pensions) so they’ll probably avoid the crime wave that the Chinese have coming. Second, the unique thing about China is that it has low mean and variance for fertility, with a theoretical range of 0 to 1 (though in fact 3 baby families are not uncommon in rural China). In contrast, most other low fertility countries have low mean and high variance, so households with no babies and with two babies are more common than they are in China. Spaniards may have even fewer babies that the Chinese, but paradoxically a Spanish baby is more likely to have a sibling than is a Chinese baby. The upshot is that while intra-generational family ties are going to disappear in China, they will only weaken (a lot) in Europe. More technically, I’m making a confident prediction that in 30 years mean component size for kin networks will be appreciably higher in Spain or Italy than in China.

Well, so what? Who needs brothers, sisters, brother-in-laws, sister-in-laws, nieces, nephews, and cousins? It’s not as if we can’t substitute non-familial friends. There are two problems with this. First, family ties are unique in that they can’t be replaced (you can stop talking to your brother, but you can’t recruit a new brother to replace him) and this makes them very important in low trust societies. It could be that a lack of relatives could drive people to trust strangers of necessity and you’ll have a decline in corruption, or it could be that they just won’t trust anyone, transaction costs will go way up, and nothing will get done. Second, in the United States non-kin strong ties are rapidly disappearing as people are basically discussing serious issues only with their spouses and parents. While I’ve seen no evidence that this change is also occurring in low fertility countries, if it is then the “mass society” nightmare scenario of atomized individuals wasn’t wrong, just ahead of its time.


Written by GR

October 17, 2007 at 6:11 am

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  1. […] the lively academic blog, I found the work of Nicholas Eberstadt, a scholar based at the American Enterprise Institute. Writing at […]


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