Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A sentence

I read a sentence today. A sentence I feel needs sharing with the world, along with my views on why this sentence is so wrong.

First, though, let me point out the context of this sentence. It was in the final paragraph of this book review - a review that for the most part was even handed, interesting and led me to be vaguely interested in the book. Unfortunately, it ended with what I can only presume is the reviewer's own pet cause which apparently isn't mentioned in the book, that of "population control". Alarms bells should already be ringing - rare is the person who thinks it is themselves, their family, and their friends who need "controlling" as they, of course, are responsible citizens whose impact on the environment is either sustainable or at least justified by the worth they bring to society. It's a slightly jarring shift, from sympathetic discussion of changes in human society (which is what the book is about) to a sudden polemic on a contentious issue which he feels the books should have addressed. Whether a book review is really the place to air one's political opinions is another moot point, but not one I have strong opinions on either way.

Also, I'd like to point out in fairness that I don't know whether the reviewer does indeed hold these opinions, or whether he was merely espousing a possible argument or pointing out the rational, but hardly ideal, conclusion. Indeed, it would be strange for someone to refer to something they support as "draconian". Maybe it's all a terrible editing error, but regardless I want to address this one particular sentence just in case someone is wondering what is so repellent about it.

So, to the sentence.
In order to stem population growth, governments should close international borders to migration and impose a draconian policy of family limitation like China's where it is needed.
I cannot argue against the aim of stemming population growth, although some would, as the impact of an aging population in developed countries begins to make itself known. However, history seems to suggest that better education (especially for women), less poverty, lower infant mortality and accessible birth control will all tend towards people choosing to have fewer children. This certainly has happened in Europe - a few years ago, Italy introduced financial incentives for women to have more than one child in an effort to boost its population as birth rates had fallen so low. As better education, for men and women, less poverty, lower infant mortality and greater freedom of choice in planning families all seem like laudable goals in and of themselves to me, a side-effect of reducing population to a more sustainable level is just a bonus. So my issues with this sentence are not necessarily with the stated goal, but the suggested means.

Firstly, "close international borders to migration". Aside from the fact this smacks of xenophobia more associated with the likes of the BNP than anthropologists, I fail to see how this would help. Common sense says that the movement of people around the world has little impact on global population (unless I missed an important part of sex education). In fact, all a lack of migration would achieve is to ensure that the overpopulated parts of the world stay overpopulated, and people in poor countries with no food, education or jobs are stuck there. Unless of course that's the idea - famine, war and other such things will "self-correct" the too big population.

Secondly, enforced family limitation, while certainly having the potential to be very effective, is a horrendous violation of human rights. I'm not sure I can present a rational argument against it, it's just so obviously a gross invasion of privacy to have the government decide something as basic as the size and shape of one's family. Problems with China's programme are many and varied, not least an increase in abandoned children (predominately girls). It's hard to imagine a scheme which would, in practice, be both effective and humane and even if one were to agree with the idea of government dictating how many children a family should have, a "draconian policy" is, pretty much by definition, not an agreeable one. More telling is the phrase "where it is needed" - in other words, only in countries with high birth rates, which just happen to be the poorer ones of course. It's true people do tend to be more in favour of "draconian" laws if they don't apply to them.

In conclusion then, this sentence is several shades of stupid. The kind of jaw-droppingly stupid that means I've spent a good part of the day thinking about how stupid it is and pointing it out to other people so they can see how stupid it is too. That it isn't the stupidest thing I've encountered today is a story for another time, however.

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