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China's missing women

By Wendy McElroy
web posted September 6, 2004

China has announced a "Care for Girls" program with financial incentives for those who produce daughters.

According to China's official news agency, 119 boys are now born for every 100 girls; the "natural" ratio is 103-107 for every 100. By 2020, it is estimated that China may contain 30 to 40 million restless bachelors. Unfortunately, the proposed "cure" merely continues the process that helped create the crisis: namely, social engineering.

Social engineering occurs when a centralized power tries to manipulate or override people's preferences to make them behave according to a social blueprint. It is the opposite of allowing a culture to evolve naturally according to the preferences of individuals. Rules are imposed, sometimes by dangling carrots but usually by wielding sticks.

In the early '80s, the one-child policy was selectively imposed upon the Chinese people as a way to override the popular choice to have two or more children. Additional pregnancies were subject to coerced abortion. The one-child policy did not seek to disproportionately reduce the female population; it aimed at a general reduction. But the state's vision of "a family" did not factor in the preferences of parents.

Generally speaking, the Chinese have favored sons over daughters, partly because the culture has undervalued women. But there are also practical reasons. In rural areas where hard labor means survival, sons are usually stronger. Moreover, daughters leave home upon marriage and their adult labor enriches the husband's family. Thus, when rural families are forced to limit their families, they may act to ensure the birth of sons. If an ultrasound reveals that a fetus is female, the woman may abort. (Improved technology has also contributed to the sex imbalance.) If a female infant is born, she may be killed or sent away for foreign adoption.

Thus, the latest Chinese census shows that the rural provinces of Hainan and Guangdong have sex-birth ratios of 135.6 and 130.3 boys to 100 girls respectively. The sex imbalance is what the social theorist Friedrich von Hayek called an "unintended consequence." Every act has unforeseen and unintended consequences that may determine its impact far more than the act's intended goal.

Hayek saw at least two practical problems with social engineering, both of which involve unintended consequences. The first problem speaks to the nature of a healthy society. If left to the labor and ingenuity of individual members, society tends to evolve answers to the problems confronting it.

Hayek used language as an example of both problem-solving and unintended consequence. No one sat down to plan the development of language. Human beings evolved a sophisticated and standardized form of communication because they wanted to trade and establish intricate social relationships. Language was an unintended consequence a tool that evolved — as people individually pursued the intended goal of socializing. Or, Hayek would phrase it, language is "the result of human action but not of human design."

To Hayek, when a government oversteps its proper function of protecting freedom and begins, instead, to dictate choices, it damages the dynamics of a healthy society. It prevents individuals from adapting and evolving solutions.

The second practical difficulty with social engineering was "the knowledge problem." In accepting the Nobel Prize in Economic Science for 1974, Hayek explained, "The recognition of the insuperable limits to his knowledge ought [to guard] the student of society … against becoming an accomplice in men's fatal striving to control society — a striving, which makes him not only a tyrant over his fellows, but which may well make him the destroyer of a civilization which no brain has designed but which has grown from the free efforts of millions of individuals."

In terms of China, Hayek would argue that a centralized bureaucracy could not successfully design the choices or determine the outcomes for hundreds of millions of people with whom it has not even consulted. This becomes especially true as circumstances change over time. All the bureaucracy can do is to attempt to control people by limiting their options. And, the longer it imposes social control, the more unintended consequences stack up.

Part of what China faces now are the unintended consequences of a two-decade long attempt to socially engineer the Chinese family.

The proposed remedy is to introduce yet another program of social engineering this time with the seemingly benevolent goal of increasing respect for girls. But Chinese social control does not have a benevolent history. Those who view the "Care for Girls" program in such a light should remember that the one-child program was first applauded as progressive and voluntary by many Westerners.

The ultimate folly of the "Care for Girls" program may well be that it is unnecessary. Simply by becoming scarce, girls have become more highly valued. The issue of "the missing girls" has social commentators speculating wildly about China's future. Will roving gangs of young men overrun the nation, or will China declare war in order to siphon off her "surplus" sons?

With a new appreciation of their importance to society, the role of women in China seems poised for redefinition. The Chinese government can best help that process by getting out of the way.

Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, "Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century" (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.

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