Thursday, December 06, 2012

Sigh, natalism

I can now add to my list of minor achievements that I was telling Ross Douthat he was wrong about natalism before it was cool. I am now, it seems (thanks Conor! welcome new readers!) a genuine authority on the subject.

But I'm not sure I have it in me to slog through all of the latest round of this, especially now that others (Katha Pollitt, etc.) have done so. There are two issues with natalism. First is the obvious - does the world need more people? More as in any additional people (yes) or as in a greater number than we've got now (not necessarily, perhaps the opposite)? Obviously if humans were not making more humans, if Keanu-bots had replaced human men, rendering the sperm-producing variety obsolete, and our species were really grinding to a halt, there would be cause for alarm. But that does not seem imminent. Natalism is never about the species, but whichever subset whichever thinker/politician wants to make more (or fewer - we're talking pro-natalism, and I believe natalism's the shorthand) of. In this case, Douthat wants more Americans. (The "Jewish babies" tag isn't because Douthat wants more Jews especially - no reason to think this - but to direct readers to my posts on natalism in the Jewish community.)

That we need an at-least-replacement birthrate at all times, and that the state is justified in intervening, are things Douthat basically assumes. His brilliance (yes, brilliance) is in reframing the debate, so that it's not about whether we need more 'merican babies (of course! it's a given!) but rather, whether the fighting-word of "decadence" properly captures the reason birthrates aren't skyrocketing. He's changed the terms of the debate, acting as though anyone who doubts we need more American babies/that it's OK for the state (or a NYT op-ed writer) to demand this holds some kind of fringe position.

The problem with natalism is obvious if one considers biology: there is very nearly no way to ask that more babies come into the world that doesn't disproportionately burden women. Child-support laws, DNA testing, social pressure to marry the woman you've knocked up, whatever, none of this compares with actually having said uterus.

The only way to encourage baby-production without burdening half the species is to remove whichever obstacles currently prevent women (and maybe girls) who do want children from having them. As in, if there were more maternity leave, if it were socially acceptable to have a child under 25, or, heck, at any point past puberty, then yes, there'd be more babies around. And I suppose we could encourage the tiny minority of the population who are transmen with the original plumbing to do their patriotic duty - this would be the only possible way a natalistic demand would burden men.

There are, in other words, a handful of ways to increase the birthrate that don't involve asking/ordering women to have more children, but once you go down the road of MORE BABIES, routes inoffensive or even beneficial to women are the exception. Instead, maybe you'll restrict family planning. If it's difficult to track down birth control and illegal to get an abortion, then guess what, you're more likely to procreate. Natalism's immorality comes from the fact that it's about prioritizing non-existent beings over ones who already exist, namely women. Not fetuses, who are or are not babies depending your views on this. Entirely theoretical offspring of people who went out on a date this one time and didn't really click but by putting their own preferences over immediate procreation revealed their profound, selfish decadence. Reproductive decisions arguably make the biggest impact of any such decisions in a person's life, especially if that person is a woman. Individuals' decisions should not come down to whichever minuscule (and dubious) benefit for the country an additional child would confer.


caryatis said...

You write as if having children were always a burden (and just a burden) for women. What if you said, yes, there are costs to raising children, but people (women) don't recognize how many benefits there are? Would that be an acceptably feminist natalist argument?

I'm thinking of Bryan Caplan's argument for having lots of children, which is, basically, the costs of having children are overestimated and the benefits underestimated. (And he goes into an argument that we have a Duty to reproduce because it is better for potential people to exist than not exist, and somehow we have an obligation to potential people. Seems like bullshit to me.)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

I'd say it's more that I write as if having children is always a burden for women who don't want any or more children. Which is, yes, how I see it. I don't think women who want children merely think they do, but have been brainwashed by society. I give women credit for knowing what they want in either direction. I mean, individuals are no doubt overestimating the benefits and obstacles alike, and in a free society, anyone can write about either. The problem comes when the state attempts to shift things - in either direction.

And while I suppose there's some contrarian anti-helicopter-parenting argument about it being easier to have four kids than one (what I remember reading this Caplan believes), I can't imagine a single mother of four is putting her feet up, thinking how great it is she didn't just stop with the one.

caryatis said...

We do see that parents are very unlikely to say that they wish they had fewer children, while people who reach a certain age without children are much more likely to say they regret it. But can we trust the parents who say they don't regret it...?

I guess I don't really believe that women "know what they want in either direction." Some do, but there are many who are undecided, who can't decide between two and three kids, who lean in one direction but could be urged in the other. And I don't think it's necessarily sexist to urge more childbearing, as long as women still get the ultimate decision.

Incidentally, Caplan just posted a recap of his argument:

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

"I guess I don't really believe that women "know what they want in either direction.""

Agree to disagree time, I think.

Britta said...

I have a hard time reading this as anything other than MOAR white (and East Asian) babies (even though there is apparently concern about Latinos reproducing less, maybe because it means fewer Catholics?) We're projected to hit over 9 billion people by 2050. That's over 2 billion (about the world population in 1950) people added in 40 years, not exactly a birth dearth. Of course, the babies are mostly being born in places which Conservatives are not interested in encouraging immigration from, i.e., Muslim and African countries. Beyond the problem of supporting an aging population--a temporary problem which seems solvable through technology and government policies if the political will exists--I'm not sure where there's a problem with a smaller human population, and certainly it would put less stress on the planet.

On the more micro level, yes, in addition to the standard feminist arguments, there's the issue that having children is expensive and getting more so. I wouldn't be opposed to having kids now in my life, except, I'm not in a great place in my program to reproduce, I'm dating another grad student, and I find a potentially $30,000 maternity bill kind of offputting. Ironically, Douthat points at natalist policies in socialist Sweden and France, but I doubt he really supports universal healthcare and years of mandatory maternity and paternity leave.

PG said...

What if you said, yes, there are costs to raising children

But natalism isn't about *raising* children, it's about *bearing* them. If you adopt a kid from another country (I personally plan to adopt from India, where unfortunately it's almost intolerably difficult to be an unmarried mother, yay conservative patriarchal society!), that kid becomes an American citizen, so it does increase the total number of young Americans who will ultimately keep Social Security and Medicare going by becoming part of the productive workforce. And *raising* children need not burden women at all (hello, gay dudes with kids).* But if you're saying that people in America right now need to shove out more kids, then thanks to our decadent policies of allowing single women to keep their kids and making it almost economically feasible to do so, you're saying that women who are already having all the kids *they* want to have should have *more*. And until we figure out how to decant babies, that burden falls entirely on those with a uterus. It simply cannot be borne at all by those sans-uterus.

I also disagree with Douthat's factual claim, that there's a "retreat from child rearing." If anything, our decadent society has fallen face-forward obsessively into child rearing.
I compare how my parents reared their children to how our family friends now rear kids, and the amount of thought and effort expended has increased dramatically. Play-dates, allergies, having to watch the kid in time-out instead of just walloping him when he's bad. And my parents were very generous with their resources; they quit having kids at the number after which they weren't sure they could pay the full way through private colleges.
I would guess that people who aren't rearing each kid so exhaustively probably feel more able to have more children. (This ties into Conor's point about what seems to Douthat like selfish short-sightedness may actually feel to the individual like being responsible and forward-thinking.) The whole "how much can I pay for her to go to college?" is much less of a concern if you don't plan to pay at all.

* Really, evidently someone needs to introduce such dudes to Douthat. In 1990, 65 percent of Americans told Pew that children were “very important” to a successful marriage; in 2007, just before the current baby bust, only 41 percent agreed. (That trend goes a long way toward explaining why gay marriage, which formally severs wedlock from sex differences and procreation, has gone from a nonstarter to a no-brainer for so many people.)

Children can be important without procreation being important.

Petey said...

I'm agnostic on the birth rate.

But if one were a birth rate 'hawk', one might want to consider ways to make having babies economically more attractive.

As Britta noted, universal cheap healthcare, long paid paternal leave, subsidized by the Feds. Better Fed subsidized child care. Investment in cheap public universities. That kind of stuff, and some more.

In short, if you want to increase the birth rate in some manner other than forcing lousy choices on females, you might want to advocate for policies that make in economically non-disadvantageous for those who want to have babies. Of course, Ross ain't genuinely interested in that kind of policy direction, even though he makes such a rhetorical head-fake in that direction in his column, but it'd still be the correct way to attack the problem, if you see it as a problem. (And even if you don't see low birth-rates as a problem, it'd still be excellent policy.)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I'm not at all opposed to heightened-sense-of-awareness readings, and am well aware of coded racism existing on the right, but I didn't see this as racist, and I think the best way to criticize the ample amount of definitive material-to-criticize is to be generous re: what's much less present in the piece itself. Let's say Douthat wants more white, East Asian, and Latino babies. That doesn't, to me, scream racism, especially when we have no reason to think he's opposed to black babies. (Natalist arguments that are race-based generally find a way of sneaking in which babies they do and don't want. Douthat really does seem to want American ones.) I'd be inclined to stick with the feminist angle, given that it's indisputable uteri are involved.

As for affordability of childbirth, part of me wants to say that Douthat would say either that it's decadent to go to grad school, or that you could totally afford to have kids, given that (and this is indisputable) plenty of not-as-upscale Americans do on the joint income of two grad students. But my impression from other stuff he's written is that Douthat isn't opposed to some social-welfare programs, ones that are especially there to up the birthrate.


"I also disagree with Douthat's factual claim, that there's a "retreat from child rearing." If anything, our decadent society has fallen face-forward obsessively into child rearing."

I think he means from child-producing. It's like Caryatis says above - the notion that if you have tons of kids, you're not fussing over whether to buy the organic broccoli at Whole Foods.


What I said to Britta. Not sure Douthat opposed programs that increase the birthrate.

Britta said...

Well, I was being a little flippant, but there is a very easy and obvious way to get more Americans without making American women have more children, and that is to let in more people and make getting citizenship easier. There are plenty of people who want to immigrate to the US, but we don't let them, and, since Douthat didn't propose that as a solution to our supposed future shortage of Americans, then I assume he's not a fan either. Again, we have absolutely no shortage of people on the planet, and if there are too few in one area, what's best globally is to redistribute the ones already here, not produce more. I doubt Douthat would say he wants more white babies per se, but I'm sure he would bring up issues of "culture" if anyone proposed letting in large numbers of Muslim Nigerians.

On natalist policies, like Petey notes, you really need to make children cheaper the whole way, and that includes things like universal health care and affordable public education through the tertiary level, plus mandatory maternity and paternity leave. You also need to make people feel financially secure, which involves rebuilding the middle and working classes. Maybe Douthat is willing to do token measures, like requiring insurance companies to cover births better, or pushing for more maternity

Anonymous said...

Well most liberals aren't acquainted with the notion that intelligence is hereditary in nature. Dougat is simply concerned with the underclass outbreeding the elite.

Personally I don't see why we can't solve this by having the top 10% can donate some of their reproductive material in return for tuition. It may not work in multicultural America, but it would it a homogenous country like Japan where citizens are more passionate about their countrymen because they share a common background. Americans can donate to couples of a similar background. Maybe you could give your eggs to the jewish agency.

Agreed that society is way too child obsession for my liking