The root cause for low fertility rates is zoning

I stumbled upon an article by in Financial Times: Birth rates are falling in the Nordics. Are family-friendly policies no longer enough? (29.01.2024)

”Finnish demographer Anna Rotkirch assesses how young people view having children and suggests we may need a societal rethink”

So far I’ve not been certain if people wanting less children is a societal problem or not, hence I’ve never given the topic too much thought, but this time the gears of problem solving turned nevertheless.

If you would give this problem to economists, they would solve it by creating incentives, e.g. with welfare, parental leave and so forth. The economists master key to most problems is bribing them to do what ever is expected of them.

But true problem solving does not take this easy way out, it tries to search for root causes – people used to make more children in the past even if they were not bribed to do so, why?

The bridge to this root cause can be found by trying to sell the idea of having more children, and the method can be found from an excellent book Propaganda by Edward Bernays, on the page 55 to be specific:

As with pianos, in order for many people to want to have children, they require an empty room that needs to be filled with something. For some it might be gym, a man cave or even a music room. But for many, it is children. And if there are no empty rooms to fill, there is no room to dream – literally.

But why don’t people have empty rooms as they used to? One could argue, that the reason is that people are moving to cities, which have less space. This is in principle true, but humanity has been moving to cities for the past 5000 years already, and yet fertility rates started to plummet only 50 years ago (World in data):

And do note that the above is the average number – developed countries are below the average, and developing countries are above. So what really changed ~50 years ago?

In reality, the change started in the early 1900’s in the United States, and it is called Exclusionary zoning:

”Exclusionary zoning was introduced in the early 1900s, typically to prevent racial and ethnic minorities from moving into middle- and upper-class neighborhoods. Municipalities use zoning to limit the supply of available housing units, such as by prohibiting multi-family residential dwellings or setting minimum lot size requirements.”

The above is now the dominant method of urban development in most cities in the world, with the exception that racial and ethnic minorities are replaced with in practice everyone – citizens use all available means to block new neighbors, which makes their own houses appreciate more in price. By limiting urban development, cities have created artificial scarcity, which makes housing expensive and empty rooms a dream, resulting in less children.

The solution to this problem (if we choose to call low fertility rates a problem we wish to solve) is straightforward:

Change the laws so, that no power can limit the amount or size of houses that can be built on a lot which is intended for building.

In practice this would mean that cities would grow upwards, and it would not mean that building codes should no longer be followed. Dwellings would still follow the same quality & safety standards as today.

The writer is a liberal philosopher

PS. one could argue, that in the past decades statistically the amount of square meters per person has increased instead of decreased, which would imply more empty rooms. This is factually correct, but in practice all of those empty rooms are in the households of people who are beyond child bearing age.

Liberaalipuolue Helsinki
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Olen 41-vuotias ohjelmistotuotannon diplomi-insinööri, jolla on takana 14 vuotta suomalaisessa teollisuuskonsernissa sekä parissa ohjelmistostartupissa. Viimeisten hallitusten kyvyttömyys vähentää työttömyyttä muuten kuin julkissektorille työllistämällä sai minut mukaan maailmaa parantamaan.

Suomi on todella syvällä suossa, ja ihmettä ei ole varaa enää odottaa.

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