The retreat from child rearing is, at some level, a symptom of late-modern exhaustion — a decadence that first arose in the West but now haunts rich societies around the globe. It’s a spirit that privileges the present over the future, chooses stagnation over innovation, prefers what already exists over what might be. It embraces the comforts and pleasures of modernity, while shrugging off the basic sacrifices that built our civilization in the first place.
Have you ever noticed how conservatives always just look at population numbers and naively assume that bigger is better? Yet at the same time that they’re whining about needing more babies to keep ahead of the competition, they’re complaining about all those welfare queens pumping out babies (out of wedlock, no less!) while sucking at the public teat. You’d think that sometime they’d be able to bring those two misbegotten concepts together in their head and realize that maybe the problem isn’t how many babies your country has, but what you do with them. That maybe the Duggars aren’t the model for a progressive, rational, technological society that we’re looking for.
Maybe the best solution is to have fewer children but invest more in making their lives productive and happy — quality, rather than quantity.
I don’t call that decadence. People have fewer babies when they do all the things Douthat praises: they are thinking and planning for the future better, they are investing in a better life, and they are preferring a new world where women have other purposes than living as incubators and diaper-changing machines.
There’s also the economic argument, which I would have thought a Republican would love. Not having babies isn’t decadence, it’s sound and conservative fiscal planning.
I agree that this is a problem with decadence. But the decadent thing is having children, not remaining kid-free.
Last year, the Department of Agriculture estimated a middle-income couple spent $12,290 to $14,320 a year per child. More recently, the Times’ Nadia Taha published her calculations of how much it would cost her and her husband to have a child: A safer apartment. A better health-insurance plan. Lost wages. College. Total lifetime tab? $1.8 million.
How is it, again, that not having babies is the decadent choice?
But no. Instead, Douthat is playing the pious faux-feminist game.
Can it really be that having achieved so much independence and autonomy and professional success, today’s Western women have no moral interest in seeing that as many women are born into the possibility of similar opportunities tomorrow? Is the feminist revolution such a fragile thing that it requires outright population decline to fulfill its goals, and is female advancement really incompatible with the goal of a modestly above-replacement birthrate? Indeed, isn’t it just possible that a modern culture that celebrated the moral component of childrearing more fully would end up serving certain feminist ends, rather than undermining them — by making public policy more friendly to work-life balance, by putting more cultural pressure on men to be involved fathers rather than slackers and deadbeat dads, and so on?
Wait. So you’re a feminist. And according to Douthat, you’re living in something approaching the feminist utopia. So now, instead of living your ideals and maximizing the opportunities for your small set of beloved children, you should instead begin feeling your uterus quiver with desire to squirt out more babies? For some reason, I’m picturing the queen monster from Aliens with its gigantic egg-factory abdomen writhing in peristalsis as Douthat’s version of a feminist ideal. Yes, they shall spew out hordes of feminist minions who will take over the world!!!
By the way, as one of those liberals who does celebrate the moral component of childrearing, I would argue that an important component of that involves valuing individual children more, taking more time and care for each one, respecting their desires for autonomy more, and not rushing to just make more. There’s a responsibility involved in parenting, and it is not served by greater volume.
It also kind of makes me sick to see a religious conservative like Douthat trying to make an argument for something he desires, more babies, by claiming it will promote something his ilk generally oppose — liberal and progressive improvements in public policy. It’s just too dishonest.