Sex Ratio Signaling

Nicholas Eberstadt on a “Global War Against Baby Girls“:

An ominous and entirely new form of gender discrimination, … skewing the sex ratios for the rising generation toward a biologically unnatural excess of males, … sex-selective abortion has assumed a scale tantamount to a global war against baby girls. … From a collision of three forces: first, local mores that uphold a truly merciless preference for sons; second, low or sub-replacement fertility trends, … and third, the availability of health services and technologies. … The total population of the regions beset by unnaturally high SRBs [= sex ratio at birth] amounted to 2.7 billion, or about 40 percent of the world’s total population.

Matt Ridley agrees, and is “pessimistic” about this “distortion.” But neither of them object to the lower fertility that is a contributing cause, nor to the morality of the act of abortion. So what exactly is the problem? A simple supply and demand analysis says that selective abortion both expresses a preference for boys and causes a reduction in that preference as wives become scarce. In South Korea this process is mostly complete, with excess boys down from 15% in the 1990s to 7% today (with ~5% as the biologically natural excess).

Eberstadt elaborates:

The consequences of medically abetted mass feticide are far-reaching and manifestly adverse. …[This] establishes a new social reality that inescapably colors the whole realm of human relationships, redefining the role of women as the disfavored sex in nakedly utilitarian terms, and indeed signaling that their very existence is now conditional and contingent.

What “new social reality”? A preference for boys was there and clear to all before selective abortion came on the scene.

Moreover, enduring and extreme SRB imbalances set the demographic stage for an incipient “marriage squeeze.” …  Unmarried men appear to suffer greater health risks than their married counterparts. …. A steep rise in the proportion of unmarried and involuntarily childless men begs the question of old-age support for that rising cohort.

But these are all about things getting worse for men, which is exactly how supply and demand solves such a “problem.” Finally, Eberstadt invokes some externalities:

The “rising value of women” can have perverse and unexpected consequences, including increased demand for prostitution and an upsurge in the kidnapping and trafficking of women. … Such trends could quite conceivably lead to increased crime, violence, and social tensions — or possibly even a greater proclivity for social instability. All in all, mass sex selection can be regarded as a “tragedy of the commons” dynamic, in which the aggregation of individual (parental) choices has the inadvertent result of degrading the quality of life for all.

Now more voluntary prostitution in such a context is not obviously a bad thing. Yes, kidnapping and crime are bad, but there is little mixed evidence such things are increasing due to having more males. There is, however, good evidence that males now compete more by increasing their savings rate, which is overall good for the world.

This topic offers a good example of a conflict between sending desired signals and getting desired outcomes. Since parents who selectively abort girls show favoritism toward boys, it can feel quite natural to signal your opinion that women have equal value by condemning such parents, and favoring policies to discourage their actions. Not doing so can make you seem anti-female. Yet since via supply and demand the abortions chosen by these parents directly increase the value of women, then all else equal discouraging their abortions reduces the value of women. So if you want women to have higher value, your signal is counter-productive.

Of course it is far from clear that the relative value of males and females should be the main consideration here. One might instead argue that if male lives are more pleasant overall, it is good that we create more of them instead of female lives. Yes, supply and demand may eventually equalize the quality of male and female lives, but until then why not have more lives that are more pleasant?

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