CHINA’S ODIOUS one-child policy, already carrying asterisks, is to be further modified. The ruling Communist Party announced Nov. 12 that it would “persist in the basic national policy of birth planning” but begin to allow parents to have a second child if one of them was an only child. Previously, both parents had to be only children.

The one-child policy began to be enforced with Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms at the start of the 1980s. It was an ill-conceived response to the overpopulation fears that had circulated in the West. The architects of the policy thought population growth would outpace China’s resources, leading to economic and environmental disaster. The policy was strictly enforced at first, with widespread effectiveness in the cities. After strong resistance grew in the countryside, rural couples were allowed to apply for permission to have a second child if their first was a daughter or suffered from a disability. The policy resulted in millions of forced abortions and coerced sterilizations. No other nation in the world has taken population control to such extremes and for so long.

The one-child policy may have averted 200 million births over three decades. But the tragedy is that the pain and suffering was probably unnecessary. Deng’s market reforms led to phenomenal economic growth, and rising living standards by themselves changed childbearing preferences. Fertility rates were already falling in the 1970s and fell more in the two decades that followed — partly because of the brutal population-control policy but also as a result of decisions by parents to have fewer children.

Yet the thinking behind the one-child policy has survived: the arrogance of power, the notion that the state’s judgment is superior to the individual’s. Having created an economic superpower on the sweat of hundreds of millions of workers who labored for skimpy wages in coastal factories, China now faces the reality that the lower birthrate could weaken economic growth. So the party is fiddling with the population controls again, as coldly as did the original architects of the policy.

The legacy of the policy lingers in many ways, such as a warped distribution of the sexes, with more men than women. One can only guess at the social impact of so many lone sons and daughters. And China will be the first country to grow old, demographically, before it becomes wealthy.

The one-child policy was a stake driven through individual freedom. Rather than continue to tinker with this misguided philosophy, China should abolish population controls altogether and unleash the ingenuity and energy of its people by allowing every one of them, individually, to make life’s most important decisions.