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Ross Is Right on Demography

7:15 AM, Dec 6, 2012 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Ross Douthat has gotten himself in trouble for writing about demographics and the latest Pew report on the decline of America’s birth rate. Douthat has the temerity to suggest that having babies is important for public welfare, that Americans aren’t having enough of them, and that the root cause of our birth dearth is a deep cultural transformation:

Beneath these policy debates, though, lie cultural forces that no legislator can really hope to change. 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.

For his trouble, Douthat has been greeted by something of a total, complete freak-out. He is now, as Rod Dreher notes, “History’s Greatest Monster.”

A few items are worth noting:

(1) I suspect that what many of Douthat’s critics are really responding to is the word “decadent.” And I kind of get that, I guess. The truth is, the drivers of our fertility decline are so myriad that they’re innumerable. Some of these developments stem from what most reasonable people would consider social ills—the dissolution of the family unit, the rise of cohabitation and illegitimacy, the stagnation of middle-class wages. But the fertility rate has also been driven down by changes that most people will consider unalloyed goods: Infant and child mortality is a fraction of what it once was; levels of education for both men and women have increased dramatically; and women have been liberated to pursue freely careers in just about every field except the Democratic presidential nominating contest. (Note to Slate bloggers: This is a joke.)

These are all good things and if, for some reason, you judged them as not positive developments, the genies have been loosened from the bottles to such a degree that there’s no way of heading back to the old days even if you wanted to.

But here’s the thing: Just because a particular social development represents a net good, doesn’t mean that it carries no cost. And to pick just one example, the social costs of extending the regime of college education to virtually the entire American middle- and lower-middle class (and especially to women) has been to depress the fertility rate. Observing this effect is not to say that you wish to undo it. But ignoring it does not make it less true, or problematic.

(2) At the deepest, philosophical levels, Douthat’s decadence diagnosis may be accurate. I think he makes a strong case for it, though reasonable people could disagree. But more proximately there are a host of other drivers that are incredibly complicated and worth understanding, from the movement of “ideal fertility” rates in industrialized countries to Ron Lesthaeghe and Dirk van de Kaa’s fascinating theory of the Second Demographic Transition. By total and utter coincidence, I’ve written a book about all of this, which comes out in a few weeks: What to Expect When No One’s Expecting. I won’t burden you with the long version here. But if Douthat had been writing a long-form piece, and not a column, I suspect he would have gotten into some of these other proximate causes. People picking on him for highlighting “decadence” and not detailing the full panoply of fertility drivers in the course of a single column should be more reasonable in understanding the constraints of the medium.

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