An Experiment in Population

FRANCE is trying an experiment, and the nations are looking on. France is keeping down her population, reducing her birth-rate, considering the quality, as well as the number, of her citizens. It is what Americans call “race suicide,” premeditated race suicide. What does it mean, for present and future, to France and to humanity? Does it portend national decay and death, or does it usher in a new era for mankind ? France, so often the leader of the world, is trying the experiment, and the nations are lookingon.

The experiment is with the third child.

A third living child means a large increase in population; two living children merely replace their dying parents. In France less than a third of all families have a third child. The two-child system is a national institution. Paternity and maternity on a large scale have gone out of fashion. The appearance of the third child becomes yearly less frequent. From 1801 to 1905, one hundred and five years, we have statistics of the number of children born in France. During all that period, no year has produced so few children as the last. Not only in cities, but in all parts of the country, in towns and villages, on the coast and in the mountains, the birth-rate falls. The contagion spreads through the land.

There are men in France who dread this contagion. Strongly nationalist in tone, they believe that France is decadent, that the low birth-rate means low vitality, that the nation, unless it speedily recovers, will be overrun by fecund Germans, as the Roman Empire was overrun fifteen centuries ago. To them the fear of the child, the dread of maternity and paternity, portends the downfall of the French Republic, the dissolution and extinction of the French race. “Obey the divine command to increase and multiply,” they say, “ or the nation will disappear and the country become a huge graveyard.”

But for new ways of saving life, this analogy of France to a graveyard might be pertinent. If the average Frenchman lived no longer than did his grandfather, the population would rapidly have dwindled. The progress of medical service has not left France untouched. Year by year, new discoveries by Frenchmen and others render the chances of life greater. Pain is banished, illness cured, early death, once inevitable, averted. Decade by decade, the new-born child plants his baby feet a little firmer on the planet; unceasingly mortality decreases. In France the death-rate is one of the lowest. Yet though decreasing, it does not fall as rapidly as does the birth-rate. A hundred years ago there were in France many tens of thousands of births in excess of deaths; the christenings enormously exceeded the burials. Fifty years ago, the excess had diminished; twenty years ago, it had decreased still more; at the present time, the two are almost equal. The birth-rate maintains a small precarious lead over the death-rate. Soon perhaps, fear the partisans of the third child, soon the balance will change. The population, at first wavering about a constant point, will diminish, at the beginning slowly, then more rapidly, finally at a fatally accelerating speed. Then, France will be doomed. It will be the beginning of a catastrophic end.

Compared to other nations, France already declines in population. Every year it increases by a few tens of thousands, while Germany in a decade gains seven millions, and Austria-Hungary four millions. France has already fewer inhabitants than Russia or Germany, than the United Kingdom or Austria-Hungary. Soon it will be threatened by Italy, which, despite its enormous emigration, continues to increase in population. In the midst of fecund Europe, France finds herself the only sterile nation. The increment in population acquired by France in a year is gained by Germany in a fortnight. For every additional citizen added to France’s population, three new subjects come to the King of Italy.

Nor does the population of France lose by emigration, as is the case with Italy, Germany, and England. The Frenchman does not emigrate. The magnificent French territories in Algiers and Tunis are overrun, not by French, but by the hardy sons of Italy and Spain. “In France,” according to a current expression, “ one emigrates only in the government offices.” Nor does the Frenchman emigrate to America or other foreign lands. “ Why should I travel? ” a Parisian asked me. “ We have everything at Paris.” In fact the migration is in the opposite direction. Year by year, Belgians, Germans, Italians, and Spaniards infiltrate the near-lying French departments. These men, attracted by higher wages or better opportunities, flow from their denser home populations to the more rarefied population of France. Moreover Paris, la ville Lumière, attracts its yearly tens of thousands, some of whom “ to business, some to pleasure take.” There are over a million aliens in France. But for this influx of foreigners, France would feel the effect of its low birth-rate still more acutely.

In many departments, the lessening birth-rate is felt poignantly enough. The small increase in the national population is absorbed entirely by the cities. Though France is not a nation of great cities, in the sense that England, Germany, and the United States are, such urban centres as the country possesses attract the villagers with irresistible force. France is highly centralized, and to Paris flocks a growing proportion of a growing army of officials and functionaries. In the cities are the great schools and universities, and every year the on-coming rush of students leaves a deposit in the sterile towns. Universal army service has the same effect. The peasant soldier, living in city barracks, forms connections which tie him permanently to the city. The population of many departments declines. During the last decade, over two-thirds of all departments, including over two-thirds of the territory of France, actually lost in the number of their inhabitants.

“ What is the matter ? ” asks the French nationalist. “ What cancer is eating at our vitals ? ” The disease is plainly not racial. The French in Alsace-Lorraine contrive to increase their numbers; the people of French origin in Belgium are fertile. As for the French in Canada, they belong to the most fecund of races. No race is physically barren. It is a question of psychical or social sterility. Whether or not the French population increases, depends upon the individual determinations of ten millions of families. Yet each of these families decides according to conditions which are general throughout the length and breadth of France.

Some of the alleged causes for the barrenness of the French are puerile. Many authors maintain that the low birth-rate is due to the frivolity of the upper classes. The society woman, la mondaine, does not wish children. She prefers her social career, her nervous, enfeebling life, to the joy of holding an infant in her arms. She submits to maternity, if at all, with a bad grace, and then but once. Upon her single child she lavishes an affection which should have been distributed among many. The child grows up, weak, spoiled, without tenacity or virility. His seat at the dinner of life is prepared; the silver spoon is in his infant mouth, an obsequious servant stands behind his chair. The sole heir of a fortune leads an idle, useless life, and after a few years of ostentatious dissipation, declines into matrimony to repair his shattered fortunes.

This is true in France as elsewhere, but it is beyond the mark. The upper classes, so far as wealth determines social classes, might commit suicide each generation without seriously affecting the numbers of the population. It is the rank and file, the great body of peasants and artisans, who have obstinately refused to bear large families. For every rich family in France with a lazy fils unique, a hundred hard-working, hard-saving families, living from wages or the product of small farms, limit their children to one or two. The problem of the depopulation of France lies deeper.

Comparisons between the population of France and those of England, Belgium, or Germany are misleading. The situation of France is special. The country is largely agricultural, self-supporting, industrially independent. The land is not rich in mines of iron or coal, not well adapted to the creation of a large export of staple commodities.

Commerce does not and cannot develop in France as in England and Germany. What other countries attain by foreign commerce is secured in France, as in America, largely without foreign commerce. France must look to its own territory to support its population, instead of relying, as do Germany and England, upon the commerce of the world. As the city of New York, enjoying free trade with all parts of the United States, can draw upon that vast territory for the support of its population, so the commercial countries can draw upon the world. In proportion to area, France is very much less settled than Germany, England, or Belgium. Yet the populations of these three countries may grow without endangering their prosperity, while France, relying, as agricultural countries do, upon its own soil for its support, would more quickly feel distress, if its numbers increased with excessive rapidity.

Yet even relying upon its own territory, France is not overcrowded. Therein consists its experiment in population. Many countries, once densely settled, have lost their population through war or pestilence. A change in the current of trade obliterates a nation; a transformation in industry causes even the name of a once thriving city to be forgotten. Misery, famine, persecution, war, all destroy nations. But France is faced by no such conditions. Never was the country more prosperous; never was that prosperity laid upon so firm a foundation; never were the ties which unite the various sections of the country so close as at present. This very prosperity is, in a large sense, responsible for the low birth-rate. It is this prosperity which the hard-working, hard-saving peasant has determined not to put to the touch.

It has often been noticed that the more provident a nation or a group of people is, the lower, other things being equal, is the birth-rate. In the rich wards of a city the birth-rate is usually lower than in the poor wards. The members of provident societies seem universally to have smaller families than the average. The French are proverbially provident. From the millionaire, not daring to risk his fortune in hazardous enterprises, to the wife of the small shopkeeper, keenly testing each sou that crosses her counter, the watchword of the nation is thrift. It is perhaps an excess of caution; the unco’ thrifty has his ugly side. But in any case it is prudence— hard, cold, far-seeing prudence —that acts upon the average Frenchman through his entire economic life.

The conditions under which the mass of Frenchmen live, and the laws regulating their mutual relations, reinforce this prudence a hundred-fold. Put a man on a frontier, where land is valueless and labor invaluable, where a man’s fortune consists of his children, and he will increase and multiply without let or restraint. Put the same man in an upgrowing factory town, where there are wages for all, and his family, though smaller, will be still large. Place him in the position of the French small proprietor, and he will think twice before he indulges in the luxury of a large family.

Pierre has a little farm of twelve acres. Upon his right hand is Neighbor Jacques, upon his left, Neighbor Jean, both as hard-working, as avaricious, as land-greedy as Pierre. The land has remained in the same hands for generations. It will not stretch, it will not produce more than a given amount; it is hard, inelastic, inalienable. Pierre knows the difference between twelve acres and six; he knows exactly how much labor is required to give his farm the fine, finished, intensive culture which it possesses. He knows that all that he has, all that he will ever get, all that he can devise, lies in these smiling acres, inexorably bounded by the acres of Neighbor Jean and Neighbor Jacques.

If Pierre has two children, a son and a daughter, the one will inherit, and the other receive her dot, and things will remain as they are. Perhaps the son will marry Neighbor Jean’s daughter, and the daughter, Neighbor Jean’s son. If there are two sons, there must be a division, but the dot of each ekes out the land inherited. With three children, the question becomes more difficult, with four it becomes harassing, with six or eight, insoluble. In case of intestacy, the law gives the right to all the children to inherit equally; there is no favoring of the first born. Nor is there an outlet for the other sons. The Frenchman, with an inheritance and a dot in expectation, does not emigrate; the call of the city is not so strong for the landed as for the landless; there are no great export industries willing to absorb an unlimited number of adventurous children. The professions are overcrowded; government service, so beloved by the French, is intolerably congested. Pierre comes back to the land. His narrow acres must support his family. Generation becomes a problem in short division, and the dividend being constant, the life-giving quotient must be smaller, the larger the divisor. The logic is inexorable. Pierre has but two children.

What is the effect of this abstention upon the welfare of France? The pessimists assert that as a consequence, the French nation loses ground in literature, science, music, art, industry. They claim that the intellectual influence of a nation is bounded by the currency of its language, and they point out that while French was once the most widely-spoken European language, it is now greatly exceeded by both English and German. This contention is of doubtful validity. Greek was not widely spoken in the days of Plato or Aristotle, and the influence of Jewish thought has extended far beyond the bournes set by the knowledge of Hebrew. In these days of translation, when Ibsen has a greater vogue than Hauptmann or Shaw, one may well doubt whether the intellectual influence of the French must decline because other nations exceed it in the number of children. The culture of the world rapidly becomes cosmopolitan. What one nation gives is received by all; what one nation produces is consumed by all. There seems no reason to believe that French influence, if really declining, is being lost because of the low birth-rate.

For many years now the evils of depopulation have been dinned into the ears of the French. The discussion has left them rather callous. ”Tant pis!” says the shopkeeper or workman, when he is told that unless France has more children, Germany will eat up France, like the wolf who ate Red Ridinghood’s grandmother. But the shopkeeper does not increase the size of his own family.

Of late years, clerical, reactionary, and royalist writers have made capital of the so-called depopulation. One nobleman ascribes the evil to the pernicious liberal principles of 1789; others lament the materialism, the egotism, the unbounded religious indifferentism of the people. “ What is needed,” says one author, “ to build up again the French population is the three-fold blessing of poverty, reformed inheritance laws, and a revival of faith. The French must not wish their children to be rich; they must be content to have them Christians. The parents must obey the law of Moses and multiply; the women must be content to be mothers and housewives; the authority of the father must be reëstablished; the people must resign themselves to the conditions under which their ancestors grew to be a great and populous nation. For its part, the government must pass laws giving special advantages to the fathers of many children, and laying special burdens upon celibates and childless married men. Generation must be recognized as a duty, and he only must be rated a good citizen who gives his country patient laborers and obedient soldiers. Only so can the population grow, and France be reformed.”

But France does not wish to be reformed. If it must choose between poverty and restriction of population, it will choose restriction. The whole mass of literature favoring an increase of population, from Zola’s Fécondité to the last screaming brochure, meets with only the eloquent Gallic shrug of the shoulders. France has made up its mind to be content and happy, and as it looks abroad and sees the swarming, breeding poverty of foreign lands, it determines to guard itself as well as may be against any such contingency.

The students of poverty have shown the curve along which run the fortunes of the poor. The first years of marriage, before the advent of children, form a period of comparative prosperity. Then, as children come, one after the other, the situation of the family grows steadily worse. During this formative period, when the conditions are the worst, the seeds of physical and moral disease are sown. The children grow; those who survive the misery of the early years are put to work and earn a pittance, and the fortunes of the family revive. Then, as the children marry, the old people again fall into misery, and the new couples prepare for the same cycle of comfort, misery, comfort, misery, the cycle which means privation, child-labor, overcrowding, disease, death, the workhouse, and a pauper’s grave. So it is in London, York, and many other English cities; so, if the French can prevent, it shall not be in France. France is not to share the fate of the fabled old woman who lived in a shoe.

Many French observers believe that economically, politically, and socially, the experiment is a success. They believe that as the population grows in prosperity, it grows also in intelligence, in humanity, in consciousness of its own ends. They believe, and statistics seem to bear them out, that the other countries in Europe and America are slowly preparing to follow in the path which France is blazing. They believe that every progress made in saving life, in conquering disease, in increasing longevity, means an intensifying of the need of restricting population. As the years go on, as the standard of living increases, as the quality of men becomes more important as compared with the mere number of men, as the principle becomes recognized as practicable of giving each man a right to lead a well-rounded, full, active, and satisfying life, the policy of limiting population will become more active. It may only be temporary; the increasing intelligence and the technical and social knowledge of the next generations may make place for, and may even make necessary the presence of, new hundreds of millions of men. But the principle must steadily gain ground. The sum total of human happiness must depend more upon quality than upon number. Forty millions of cultured Frenchmen are better than a hundred million starving French helots.

But in the mean time there is a danger in progressing too rapidly. In his ascent, man dropped his claws and developed finger-nails. It was a useful and a beautiful evolution, but it would have been fatal had he lost his claws and donned his gloves prematurely. If, as a result of her weak population, France succumbs to the stronger nations of Germany or Russia, the beneficent effect of her experiment will be lost.

This is held to be the great danger. But there are other facts to be considered. In the first place, the strength of Germany, and the population of Germany, really depend in the last analysis upon her great manufacturing resources, resources denied to France. If France is unable to cope with Germany now, it is by no means sure that she would have been better able to cope with this formidable rival, had she been poorer and more populous. Warfare is a matter of money as well as of men. England conquered Napoleon with money. No country in Europe could stand up against certain hostile combinations; with favoring combinations, any country, even Belgium or Switzerland, can maintain its independence.

Moreover, it is possible that the other nations now hostile to France may themselves slacken their rate of increase, and it is also possible, even probable, that present conditions of hostilities will cease. New York could easily conquer Connecticut, or Pennsylvania Delaware; but the thought even of such a conquest is now absurd. Before France is overwhelmed by hostile neighbors, it is probable that the feared hostility will be a thing of the past.

The rising democracy is clamoring for an evolution of the individual in a free, conscious, developed society of his fellowmen. The democracy demands for the man freedom from the burden of providing for excessive families; for the woman, freedom from the burden of bearing many children; for the child, the care and attention that limit inevitably the number of his brethren. That is one side. The new democracy does not want an army of unemployed men; of useless and unusable men and women to fill the gutters, to swell the ranks of criminals, and to promote decay in the social body. Finally, it does not want human food for powder. The development of the race is away from bloody international conflicts; away from poverty, ignorance, disease, and crime; away from excessive families and excessive populations, to which these human miseries have always been linked.