As with Naomi Wolf’s latest entryVagina: All Women Are, Or At Least Should, Be Exactly Like Me In Every Respect, Ross Douthat’s musings about “decadent” women who believe that breeding shouldn’t be their sole life priority have inspired many critiques far more interesting than the original text. Katha Pollitt is the latest to step up:
Douthat is vaguely aware that it’s not enough to lecture women to lie back and think of George Washington. He acknowledges that US government policy does little to help family stability, and mentions France and Sweden as countries where policies have raised birthrates (slightly). Maybe, he suggests, we could try some of that over here: “a more family-friendly tax code, a push for more flexible work hours, or an effort to reduce the cost of college.”
Would you have an extra baby if you got a bigger tax deduction for it? If your boss let you work ten hours a day four days a week or one afternoon at home? If college was a little less expensive? (And how is that supposed to happen, I wonder, without massive government subsidies? See above: “tax cuts.”) I doubt it. France and Sweden have massive, comprehensive, well-thought-out programs to make motherhood less onerous: generous parental leave (in Sweden the father must take part of it), national healthcare that covers birth control and abortion care, good schools, excellent daycare and preschool, a panoply of family subsidies and worker protections. Higher education is basically free. For the working-class people Douthat focuses on, life is just better. Single mothers—yes, sluts—can manage well. Those countries acknowledge that mothers work, and want to work, and that all children deserve a decent upbringing. According to UNICEF, in France the child poverty rate is 8.8 percent; in Sweden it’s 7.3 percent. In the United States, by contrast, it’s a staggering 23.1 percent.
You know where else support for working mothers and children meant more kids? The Soviet Union and East Germany, both now in severe population decline, thanks to the wonders of capitalism. You know where the birthrate is lowest? Patriarchal countries where having a baby means you stay home forever: Italy, Spain, Greece, Japan, Singapore and that jewel in the crown of Roman Catholicism, Poland. How would you like to be a Japanese or Polish or Italian housewife, Ross Douthat? I thought not.
It’s all that good.
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.
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.