Monday, July 07, 2008


Alas, the structure of our politics makes it increasingly difficult to address the plight of those for whom race and poverty have become inexorably intertwined. For example, even though we know that children of married parents are significantly less likely to have trouble in school or to wind up poor or in prison, politicians on the left continue to oppose programs to encourage marriage. -Stephen L. Carter

The developed world is experiencing a wave of pro-natalist sentiment that threatens to bully the childless, tax the single, and reorient states toward the production rather than the protection of citizens. In most developed nations with below-replacement fertility, governments are attempting to align incentives so that women will use their bodies for the purpose of childbirth. [....] Modern fertility panic stems from a desire to reshape polyglot cultures, to regain control over women’s reproductive choices, and to locate a single, easy-to-understand culprit for disparate social problems. As they have for hundreds of years, societies are projecting their deepest anxieties onto empty wombs. -Kerry Howley, via

Technically, marriage and childbirth are two separate issues. That said, in reality, there's a connection between the movement to encourage marriage and the push for asking women, ever so gently, to push out 2.1 or more. If you disagree with that statement, then don't read on, since that's the assumption on which the rest of the post is based.

I'm incapable of discussing this issue as articulately as I'd like, so above, you have two quotes that roughly sum up the two sides. (See also this debate.) On the one hand, there's the idea that, all things equal, marriage is better than all other arrangements, children (within the context of marriage) are a positive good for society, the more the better. What's ignored is whether, once you look at society family by family, where all things are not equal, individuals might have good reasons not to be married, not to have kids. What's also ignored is whether, good reason or not, there's any inherent, unquantifiable value in letting people make their own decisions. Take the clichéd single woman of a certain ago who wishes she'd married and reproduced two decades earlier. Social conservatives point to this and say, aha, we should encourage women to do what they will later come to wish they'd done. Social liberals (well, this one, at any rate) would say, a woman has many over-18 years to decide these matters for herself, and that it's better to be childless and regretful as the result of one's own choices than living with children you may love and a husband you may not who've been hoisted upon you by the government.

For social liberals, the point is not to say, all studies that say marriage is good for kids, kids are good for society, etc. have no validity. Rather, it's important to keep in mind the drawbacks--for all involved--to unwanted marriage and unwanted children, as well as the positive good that is letting people sort their personal lives out without government encouragement one way or the other. Just because name-the-social-ill might be fixed by encouraging marriage does not mean that encouraging marriage is the only way to address a given problem; it's certainly got to be among the most intrusive. The micro-example I've already addressed--natalism in American Judaism--is clear enough. If the goal is more Jews, this can be accomplished either through urging Jews to inmarry and have tons of babies, or through improving Jewish education, making it easier to convert in, or any number of measures that do not ask anything special of women in general and uteri in particular. On a broader scale, one can debate American pro-natalism with similar arguments.

What I have yet to see addressed is the new, or newly popular, social conservative argument: promoting marriage-and-kids is not about Christianity or tradition or patriarchy, or even about, in some generic sense, what's best for our children. Rather, promoting traditional values just happens to be our best way of helping the poor and the lower classes. One can find this argument in Grand New Party and elsewhere (via). The idea is, social liberalism disproportionately hurts all but middle and upper-middle-class families. This is, I would say, social conservatism's strongest argument. It's not one I find convincing, but it's one social liberals (especially those who are also all-around liberals) will have the toughest time addressing. It's conservatives, not liberals, who, traditionally, feel comfortable saying Thing A is superior to Thing B, and that's that. So while there will always be those who declare that traditional family life is better because it's traditional, and now there are those why say traditional arrangements are better for reasons having to do with statistics and social justice, there's no one out there arguing that birth control and reproductive choice are superior to the alternatives, and that's that. Or, such people exist, but they are either libertarians or conflicted, unconvincing liberals. Which is to say, conservatives are free to defend 'tradition' whether or not it can be shown that doing so helps the poor, whereas liberals, that is, those who are defending the Sexual Revolution, now have a tougher, but important, case to make.


FuzzyFace said...

It seems to me that you have conflated a few issues here: fertility, marriage, and government incentives.

You take a very strong line against incentives, to the point that you seem to suggest that it amounts to coercion attempts - yet there is not only no coercion for women to marry (nor is there any serious proposal to change it), what incentives we have - at least for poor women - actually runs the other way. Welfare pays benefits to women only if they have children and no husband. Any proposal to encourage marriage would merely be countering the incentives already in place.

The fertility push - and you are seeing it all over the developed world - is about societal preservation. Yes, individuals should be permitted to choose whether to reproduce, no question. But there can come a time when an aggregate set of individual choices has a deleterious effect on society at large. Any society which fails to keep up its numbers, especially while rival societies are increasing theirs, faces a serious prospect of fading out of existence whether via attrition, conquest, or simple population changes. Western societies, which rely on younger workers to support benefits for retirees, face a more immediate problem in which there will quickly be an insufficient supply of workers to pay for those benefits. A society which does not address this - most likely via encouraging reproduction in no-coercive fashion - is committing suicide.

Anonymous said...

Here is Roissy sneering at Martha and Alexis Stewart:
and the article about Alexis:,,20151378,00.html
Alexis is reasonably self-aware - now - and says "[We] get distracted because now we have jobs, and now we have other things to do. Medicine seems miraculous – you can do anything you want. Movie stars have babies late. It seems all possible, but you don't hear the stories of the people who can't have a baby."
I'm with Fuzzy - we have a system set up which is in effect, if not in purpose, anti-natalist. The math is daunting: graduate college at 22 or 3, grad school, maybe you find a gent reasonably promptly, save to put money down on a house, and MAYBE it all comes together before you are infertile. You can go a long way in changing some of these factors before you have put in place Lebensborn clinics.
We had our children late - I don't recommend it (I mean, life with our kids is wonderful and I love it that we succeeded, but I'm not one of the hero soccer dads) - earlier is better, for the kids and for the parents, I think. And we know a number of women whom time passed by and they found themselves infertile and wistful. dave.s.