Popular Science Monthly/Volume 55/September 1899/Remedies for the Depopulation of France

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1402262Popular Science Monthly Volume 55 September 1899 — Remedies for the Depopulation of France1899Jacques Bertillon



FRANCE is on the way to become a country of the third rank. It is perishing for lack of births. Its population remains stationary, while that of all the other great countries has largely increased since the beginning of the century. This points ultimately to a certain growing inferiority in military strength, economical prosperity, literary prestige, and scientific repute; and finally to a progressive diminution of French influence upon the march of civilization. This depreciation of France comes partly from political causes and partly from its low birth rate.

In the examination of the remedies which have been proposed to antagonize this evil, we shall begin with a rapid review of those which appear to be least efficacious. Then we shall present those which figure on the programme of the Alliance Nationale pour l'accroissement de la population française, a society which should include all French people who care for the future of their country.

The reforms for which the depopulation of France has served as the vaulting board may be divided, notwithstanding the great variety of them, into four categories: (1) Various social reforms; (2) increase in the number of marriages; (3) diminution of involuntary sterility; and (4) reduction of mortality.

We have a word to say with respect to each of these:

I. Social Reforms proposed for the Hypothetical Purpose of increasing Natality.—Nobody has ever shown that the emancipation of woman, selection in paternity, the suppression of voice, or, the contrary, laws facilitating divorce, would augment natality. Nobody has ever given a proof, or the beginning of a proof, in support of these fancies.

Would socialistic reforms leading to a diminution of the share of capital, and a corresponding increase of the share of labor, have any effect upon natality? I can not pronounce upon this question, because I have not sufficient data; nevertheless, the remuneration of capital has not ceased to diminish since the beginning of the century—we may even estimate that it has diminished nearly one half, for the nominal interest on money has fallen from five to three per cent. This has not prevented natality from decreasing in our country. Would it be augmented if capital should come to have no remuneration at all? I have not examined this difficult and very hypothetical question, for, if such a thing should happen, it could be only in an extremely remote future. But the supreme struggle of which our country has always to think will have taken place long before that.

The revival of religious ideas, if it should come about, might have some effect on natality. Demographic studies have shown how great an influence religion has on habits and on phenomena of moral pathology (on the frequency of suicides, for example), and prove that men put the prescriptions of their religion into practice more than one would believe. All religions direct man, more or less imperatively, to have as numerous a posterity as possible. There may therefore exist a relation between natality and the degree of sincerity of religious convictions. But it is manifest that, whatever we may do, we can not change our age nor prevent its growing more and more incredulous.

II. Summary Examination of Measures having in View the Increase of the Number of Marriages.—Nuptiality is nearly the same in France as it has been. It has, however, diminished during the last twenty years, falling gradually from eight marriages to seven marriages a year per thousand inhabitants. For seven years past it has gained a little, and is now 7.6—a fairly satisfactory rate. It is not here that the saddle galls us.

It has been proposed, as a measure for increasing the number of marriages, to simplify the required formulas. I believe that these formulas are indeed too long, too many, and too expensive. The countries which have been so foolish as to copy our civil code have taken pains to strike out this chapter, and they have done well. But he is greatly mistaken who believes that the number of marriages could be perceptibly increased by suppressing unpleasant formulas. When one wants to marry, he generally does so in spite of the obstacles which maladroit legislation may have piled up. In case of need, the matter is settled by an irregular affiance, and natality loses little.

The violent suppression of convents has also been proposed as a measure for promoting the increase of marriages. A person who has reflected much could not speak of such a thing. To what extent does any one suppose that might augment natality? The convents at this time contain about sixty thousand women. Suppose they were all as ready as other women to marry—which is not the case, for the fact that they have retired to a cloister proves that family life has few attractions for them—a simple calculation shows that they would afford forty-five hundred births a year. So France needs six hundred thousand infants every year, and a plan is advanced to give it four or five thousand at most—and that by means of a violent measure, unworthy of an age of freedom!

Next are the measures proposed for diminishing involuntary sterility. Is involuntary sterility as frequent as it is supposed to be? Our respected master, Jules Rochard, was surprised to find two million sterile families recorded in the census reports. But the number does not appear excessive. We can not compare it with similar returns abroad, for France is the only country, except in the case of a few cities abroad, in which items of this kind are inquired into by the census takers. But, according to different gynæcologists—chiefly German—cited in the Academy of Medicine, the number of sterile families should be sixteen per cent. Now, this is the exact proportion found in France in the enumeration of 1896. The really surprising thing about the matter is not the number of sterile families, but the limited fecundity of the fertile families. There are other figures to show that absolute sterility is not the cause of the low rate of French natality. An inquiry respecting sterile families was made in 1856, at a time when French natality was a little higher than it is now, a comparison of the results of which with those of the enumeration of 1886 shows that the number of fruitful families had not diminished (83.6 per cent of the families having one or more children then, to 83.3 in 1886). The factor that has diminished is the fertility of the families. It is only necessary to cite the measures that have been suggested to counteract this supposed excessive sterility to make their inanity apparent. Among them are reform of the abuse of tobacco and alcohol and war upon syphilis. Do not these scourges exist among other nations than us? Nothing could be more salutary than to war upon them, but to connect their existence with the depopulation of France is a singular exaggeration of their importance. More than this, the physician of a benevolent institution in Paris has told me that the large families who resort to his dispensary nearly all have a drunkard at their head. The families that issue from such parents are not necessarily degenerate. This curious observation ought not certainly to make us partisans of drunkenness, but it demonstrates to us that the suppression of alcoholism is not what will restore French natality. Rather the contrary.

III. Examination of Measures prorosed for diminishing Mortality.—As the question of the population of France has been more especially discussed by the doctors, it has done great service as a vaulting board for medical theories. Doctors are very ready to reason as if they could dispose of human life at their will. It is very hard to keep a man from dying. The most skillful doctors have not reached that point; but it is very easy to have a man born, and is within the reach of the latest-made young practitioner. It is very doubtful whether the proposed measures will be efficacious or practical. See how much trouble we have had, after a century of experiments, in realizing the benefit of vaccination, the only nearly infallible remedy we have against disease. Surely a country ought to guard itself as much as possible against sickness and death, and should do everything that will conduce to that end, as we do all that is possible to cure a man ill with pneumonia or any other disease. But we should not delude ourselves with illusions, and we have to confess that the efficacy of the measures which we take to satisfy our conscience is very doubtful. The failures of hygiene are almost as numerous as those of medicine.

Mortality has not increased in France. It is rather less there than in other countries in the same latitude, and even less than that of some of the countries situated farther north. So we can hardly hope to diminish it very much.

The effect of mortality on the whole is, moreover, not to diminish natality, but rather to favor it. The death of an adult leaves some position vacant, and makes room for the institution of a new household and the birth of other children. So when a rich old man dies, the money he leaves helps set up his children in life; and when a poor old man dies, a burden is taken away from his descendants, who had to support him and who can now marry and have children. Some of the parallelisms in the movements of population which statisticians have observed may be explained thus. We might compare a human society to a tank so arranged as to be always full of water. It has a supply pipe (natality and immigration) which opens and operates only when the discharge pipe (mortality and emigration) is also open; or to a forest of definite extent, in which, when a clearing is opened, a new growth appears in the cleared space, unless some cause exists to prevent it, which cause it will be the forester's business to find and remove. He would not think, however, of stopping the cutting of the old trees, for that would be to prevent the essential condition of the new growth's getting a headway. The law of all living societies, in forests and in nations, is the perpetual renewal of the stock.

IV. Of Measures that will be Effective.—The evil must be fought in its causes. These causes are detestable family customs, dictated by pecuniary considerations. These being the things to be reformed, and money being the cause of them, the beginning should be made with money. We have a right to demand energetic measures, severe if necessary, against the evil that is eating France. Those which we shall ask for here are only equitable. They shall fully respect individual liberty, and in some cases augment it. Their purpose is to teach the French people who do not know it the immense wrong which their mistaken selfishness is inflicting upon the country. They aim especially to modify customs, and to invoke for reasonably numerous families the profound respect and protection that are due them. And they seek to harmonize general with particular interests, a thing to which the present laws have precisely the contrary effect.

It is just as much every man's duty to contribute to the perpetuity of his country as it is to defend it. This is a moral truth which the French have forgotten, and it will have to be inculcated in them. The case is beyond the reach of the most eloquent sermons, and will have to be met, if the mass of men are to be convinced, by palpable facts that will touch all personally. This leads to the principle, which seems, moreover, self-evident, that the fact of bringing up a child should be considered a form of tax payment. The payment of a tax is, in fact, the imposition of a pecuniary sacrifice for the profit of the whole nation. This is what the father accepts who rears a child.

A family, to be acquitted of the tax, should rear at least three children. It takes two children to fill the place of the parents, and there should be a third in addition, for one in three families, on an average, will have no children. Hence the family which, does not rear three children will fail of imposing sufficient sacrifices upon itself for the future of the nation. It is free to do this, but should pay damages for it. He, on the other hand, who rears more than three children imposes supplementary burdens upon himself, for which he should be recompensed every time occasion offers. The principle of a reduction of taxes proportioned to the number of children was applied in June, 1898, at the instance of the Alliance Nationale, by the city of Lyons. It has been adopted, very timidly at first, and then a little more broadly, by the Minister of Finance.[1] But it would be easy, and even necessary, to go considerably further in this direction.

To accomplish this reduction without the treasury losing anything, it is only necessary to charge the less prolific families with one fifth additional tax. The demographic condition of France is, in fact, so deplorable that families of more than three children form only one sixth part of the whole number, or are 2,122,210 out of 12,127,023; hence, in order to clear fully from liability for taxes these two million families, it is enough to charge the other ten million families with supplementary taxes of twenty per cent—a thing that is entirely practicable. It may, however, seem more expedient to scale the supplementary impost, so that it shall fall in inverse proportion to the number of children. Thus, let bachelors more than thirty years old pay fifty per cent; households without children, forty per cent; families with one child, thirty per cent; families with two children, ten per cent; families with three children, the present tax without addition; while families with more than three children should be wholly exempt. A simple calculation will show that the treasury would gain by such an adjustment. It would lose 2,122,210 contributors of taxes, and would gain, against these, 2,456,112. Furthermore, families with more than four children are usually poor and hardly able to pay even light assessments, while those we propose to tax supplementarily are mostly wealthy, whence the tax against them would be generally productive.

These scalings and exemptions might be applied to all the various kinds of direct taxes, so that the state should say, in effect, to the infertile families: "You have done a wrong to your country. "We have no thought of punishing you for it, but it is not right that you profit by it. You must pay damages for it."

The plan actually followed by the state, instead of making lighter the meritorious burden which the head of a numerous family assumes, does everything to make it harder. All the direct and indirect taxes seem to fall higher upon families having many children. It would not be exact to say that the law is indifferent to natality. It would be more just to say that it does all it can to discourage it, and that every Frenchman is officially invited, in his own interest and that of his posterity, to limit it as much as possible. The contrary is what should be done. There are wealthy families which are in a position to contribute most liberally to the perpetuity of the nation, and yet, strangely, they are the most abstemious. It would not be fair to tax them according to the number of servants they have, for this must increase as children multiply; but the tax might be adjusted to the excess of servants over children.

As an objection to our plan, it may be asked if we really believe that those "neo-Malthusian" families who have only one or two children will decide to have four in order to save themselves from some taxes? We do not cherish this illusion; but the sordidness of the family customs of the country should not be exaggerated. Most of the families sin through selfishness, while they do not realize that their selfishness is culpable, harmful, and ignoble. This must be made clear to them, and no method of publishing the fact is as imposing and effective as the tax-collector's schedule. The reform in direct taxes which we propose will therefore have an educational influence.

The same principle might be applied in the military service by expediting the discharge of soldiers who are married. A bill to this effect has been introduced in the French Senate, and an amendment has been proposed extending the favor to the eldest son of a family of five children.

The inheritance tax is a particularly fitting form of impost in which insufficiently fruitful families might pay the indemnity which they justly owe the state on account of their sterility; for the prime object of the neo-Malthusians is to forestall the necessity of dividing their fortunes among too many children. The laws of succession are so framed now that only sons pay less than others; not only are the expenses of notarial acts less for them than for families with several children, but the latter are liable to pay the tax several times, for when one of the heirs dies his brothers and sisters will have to pay new succession taxes. In all cases of this order the treasury burdens numerous families, and spares neo-Malthusian ones. The institution of heritage stimulates industry, and is one of the chief reasons for it. A great many men, we are sure, would work less and would certainly save less except for the prospect of leaving the fruit of their labor and economy to their children—or, too often, to their only child. But as the institution of heritage becomes under these conditions one of the prime factors of depopulation, it will have to be modified.

The state is as much interested in the fecundity of families as it is in their industry and thrift. To stimulate the latter virtues it guarantees them the right of inheritance. It might withdraw it or diminish it to its own profit, if their fertility was not judged sufficient for it. For such a measure to be effective its application should be severe enough to touch sensibly the fortunes of families which have given the country only one or two children. The state, for instance, might reserve to itself the disposable part of the inheritance—half, for instance, in the case of families having only one child; a third, of families where there are two children; and waiver of the extra tax where there are three children. The principle might be approximately expressed as that of treating single children as to their inheritance portions as if they had brothers. But as a proposition so worded would have but little chance of immediate adoption, we should have to be satisfied with a less radical reform. If it is objected that such measures would be too revolutionary and too much opposed to existing ideas and habits, the answer is that anodynes would be without effect upon so profound and inveterate an evil. French families must cease to have an evident interest in limiting the number of their children, and something more than half measures will be needed to achieve such a result.

Our principle is equality of burdens. "We say to the French: "You have three chief duties toward your country: to contribute to its perpetuity, to its defense, and to its pecuniary burdens. We affirm that you have failed in the first of these duties. This being true, you must accept the other two with a supplement. With this principle severely applied, and with some other reforms, we hope to bring back to the country the idea of the respect that is due to numerous families and of aversion against the detestable habits that are destroying France."

The sums derived from the increased succession taxes which we have proposed to assess upon families that have given the country only one or two children might be reserved for the education of poor children or for the realization of some such plan as has been proposed by M. Raoul de la Grasserie for the pensioning of a retreat in old age for the parents of large families.

Another means of encouraging parentage may be found in instituting special honors and marks of esteem for the fathers and mothers of numerous children. Thus the General Council of the Drôme gives a gold medal on the 14th of July to each of the two women in the department who excel in this respect. A fund has been created at Nantes for providing rewards to those who have the most children under fifteen years of age. A system of rewards also exists at Meaux for those who have contributed most to the population.

The French law requiring the equal division of estates among all the children operates as a deterrent to parentage. A father

  1. France is not the first country that has started on this course. The spirit of justice has suggested similar reforms in countries which have no questions of depopulation to deal with. Reductions of taxes proportioned to the number of children have been granted in Prussia, Saxony, most of the secondary states of Germany, Servia, Norway, Sweden, several Swiss cantons, and Austria.