For conservatives, it is sometimes hard to know what to make of Elon Musk, the famous billionaire and CEO of Tesla Motors. On one hand, as conservatives are starved for prominent cultural figures willing to question the woke establishment, Musk’s occasional skewering of many woke ideas makes him both entertaining and sympathetic. When liberals insisted on economy- and job-killing lockdowns, Musk was a prominent figure who fought to keep his Tesla factories open.
As the woke look more and more to police speech they don’t like, Musk’s proposal to buy Twitter and permit free speech sent many of its employees into cry rooms and spasms of rage at the thought that Twitter might become less vigorous in silencing conservative voices.
More recently, Musk posted to his Twitter feed mocking one of the Left’s most cherished ideas: that there is a massive overpopulation crisis that threatens the planet itself. After one of his top executives gave birth to his twins, Musk posted to Twitter that he was doing his best to help solve the underpopulation crisis, writing, “Doing my best to help the underpopulation crisis. A collapsing birth rate is the biggest danger civilization faces by far.” Popular entertainer Nick Cannon, who has fathered eight children with a number of different women, posted a supportive reply.
The ensuing meltdown was both predictable and predictably amusing as various media outlets rushed to “debunk” his claims. Interestingly, though, criticism came not only from the Left but from the center. Meghan McCain wrote a lengthy criticism of Musk and Cannon’s Twitter exchange for the Daily Mail. Unfortunately, however, her reply broke little new ground and too often repeated standard modern tropes and cliches.
McCain accused Musk of having an “impregnate the planet” mentality, of wanting us to “act like emotionless rabbits and repopulate the planet,” of wanting us “to have as many children as our bodies are capable of,” and of not understanding how expensive large families are to most Americans. Now, despite this, McCain is no liberal and, to be fair, she does express support for those who are “willing and able” to have many children. Nonetheless, the repetition of standard liberal tropes about “breeding like rabbits” and children being unaffordable render her more legitimate criticisms of Musk and Cannon less effective.
And there is legitimate reason for criticism of Musk, despite the possible temptation to sympathize with him. Conservatives are so tired both of outdated, uninformed complaints about overpopulation and of criticism of those who have large families that there is a real temptation to be supportive when someone, anyone, skewers the tired (and tiring) liberal complaints about overpopulation. Musk’s cheerful rejection of a supposed overpopulation crisis and throwing back in liberal faces the idea of an underpopulation crisis tempts a sympathetic response from conservative and religious quarters.
And Musk is also largely right about where the real danger lies: not in overpopulation but in a declining birthrate. Claims of overpopulation and subsequent disaster trace themselves back to the British economist Thomas Malthus, who lived during the Industrial Revolution. Malthus, perhaps watching the rapid growth of cities, had argued that while the food supply would only increase in a linear way, population growth would increase exponentially. This would lead to inevitable cycles of starvation and disaster. To avoid this and maintain prosperity, he believed that strict limits on population growth were necessary.
Frustratingly, Malthus’ views have remained popular even as they have been proven to be so thoroughly wrong. Population growth has not outstripped food supply, and the world population growth, despite older dramatic estimates, seems to be continuing at a slow, stable pace, and is even likely to shrink by the end of the century.
Indeed, far from growing exponentially, the birthrate in much of the world is on the decline with the reproduction rate in many countries well below replacement level and the birthrate in 2019 about half of what it was in 1950. And the potential consequences of this are severe. Musk is right that lower birthrates have often been disastrous for societies. One thinks of the Roman Empire, which, at the height of its power, underwent a massive underpopulation crisis that led to its downfall.
Rodney Stark, in The Rise of Christianity (1996), detailed how a series of deadly plagues in the third century wiped out as much as a third of the empire and left the empire severely undermanned. Combined with a dim view of marriage, Roman unwillingness to have children, and high rates of infanticide, Rome was never able to recover. And this spelled doom for the empire as it left a smaller tax base and a smaller population still needing to support a massive army to defend long borders. The Romans were forced to allow in Germanic tribes in a bid to make up for this declining population, with disastrous results.
Today, the risks of a low birthrate are equally as serious for our world as for Rome’s. A smaller number of young workers will support a larger number of older ones just as health care costs and retirement costs continue to increase. The burden of these costs will fall increasingly on fewer and younger people just as those younger workers should be marrying and having their own children. This will mean more pressure on women to stay in the workforce in order to pay those higher costs, in turn exacerbating even more the underpopulation crisis.
At the same time, the worst problems of a declining birthrate are not even the economic ones. As society grows older, it will grow less innovative and less able to solve the world’s problems and challenges. Furthermore, an older society without children loses something of optimism and joyfulness. It will grow more pessimistic and lonelier. More and more people will be growing old alone as we place even less value on the lives of the elderly and condemn many of them to lonely, joyless retirements. Society itself will begin to feel old, stale, and hopeless. So far, Musk is right.
Yet, he is also deeply wrong. He is, as McCain points out, no paragon of either Christian virtue or family values. He has fathered 10 children by at least three different women, none of whom he seems to have been married to. Likewise with Nick Cannon, who has publicly supported Musk but has also fathered a number of children by a number of different women. And this points to where Musk is so wrong, a point that McCain seems to largely miss in her own criticism of Musk and Cannon.
Elon Musk is a wealthy oligarch and businessman, and he thinks like one. He objected to economic shutdowns during the pandemic on business grounds, not moral ones. He explained his initial decision to buy Twitter as a good business opportunity. His subsequent attempts to back out of that deal seem to reflect him deciding that the opportunity was not so good as it first appeared. Musk is a businessman who sees things in economic terms. So, too, with the population crisis. He seems to see the low birthrate as primarily or perhaps exclusively an economic problem. A low birthrate is an economic problem, and therefore, to him, the solution must be an economic one. Too few workers for the economy? We should produce more workers.
But as in ancient Rome, a low birthrate was not merely, or even primarily, an economic problem; it is a sign of a cultural problem and a moral one. In ancient Rome, it was the sign of a culture that didn’t value marriage, the family, or children. It was a culture that practiced regular adultery and infanticide, and it was this culture that doomed Rome. One need not overly exert one’s imagination to see elements of Rome’s problems reflected in our own modern society.
Because the population crisis is not mainly an economic problem, it cannot be solved by a billionaire playboy acting like, well, a billionaire playboy. It will be solved only by a moral revolution. The sexual revolution of the 1970s replaced a traditional family morality with another morality—incidentally, the same morality to which Musk seems to subscribe.
We need another revolution. G.K. Chesterton, in Orthodoxy (1908), argued that it was only Christianity that was truly revolutionary because it required a continuous revolution to keep it: “If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution.” Elsewhere, in The Ballad of the White Horse, he wrote, “[I]f ye would have the horse of old, scour ye the horse anew.”
The solution to the present low birthrate is not merely for a man to father many children but for men to be fathers to their children: the kind of father that a man can only be as the husband to one wife, until death do them part. This kind of family solves not only the economic problems but the cultural ones. It keeps parents and grandparents from growing old alone; and it means happier, more joyful retirements and a younger, more hopeful society.
[Photo Credit: Getty Images for The Met Museum/Vogue]