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.
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.
Just for measure, I’d also add that we shouldn’t romanticize childbearing. Nearly all of the data shows that parents are less happy than non-parents, no matter how you control for the samples. As Jennifer Senior explained at length in her excellent 2010 New York Magazine essay “All Joy and No Fun,” part of the problem in our culture is that we’ve gotten to a slightly mixed-up place where happiness and fulfillment have been conjoined in ways which—how to put this delicately—run counter to the Aristotelian ideal. This might well be “decadence;” but it also might be something slightly more complicated. And to be frank, more worrisome.
(3) Part of the difficulty in discussing demographics is that it’s often difficult for people to see beyond their own parochial borders. If you live in New York City or Washington D.C., your everyday experience tells you that the world is too crowded and that there’s nothing wrong with having a huge segment of the population decide to forego childbearing. After all, Brooklyn works just great without too many babies.
But people often fail to realize that it’s a big world out there. If you put everyone into an area with the population density of, say, Paris, they’d fit in an area the size of the combined acreage of Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. That’s not a particularly useful fact—it says nothing about available arable land, for instance—but it does give you a sense of scale. The bigger questions are about our environment. And on this score, there’s no serious evidence that the world faces resource scarcity. Prices for commodities have dropped steadily over the last several decades because, as economist Ester Boserup demonstrated, population increases tend to deliver simultaneous increases in human innovation. Which is why, despite the doom-saying of the last hundred years, we never hit the mass-starvations and resource shortages that have been predicted since Thomas Malthus was in short-pants.
Other environmentalists worry about pollution. That’s a valid concern. But again, the evidence suggests that human innovation has helped with this challenge. Think about the terrible environmental problems America suffered from in the 1970s—acid rain, floating trash, smog. In many respects, America’s environment has gotten healthier since then, despite our increase in population. That’s not an accident—it’s the result of conscious efforts to innovate and improve the environment.
Which leaves us with climate change, about which I’ll merely say this: If you believe that climate change is absolutely certain, man-made, and will be highly destructive, then you should also believe in the danger of depopulation. Our demographic future isn’t being projected based on ice samples and weather station readings. It’s basic math. We know how many people there are now; we know the size of the child-bearing cohorts and the fertility rates. Just as a matter of science and contingency, the chance of radical population contraction is greater than the chance of radical climate change. And as for the effects, we can already see them in countries such as Japan, Italy, and Greece. You don’t need to do much guessing. In other words, you need even less faith to believe in the dangers of population contraction than you do to believe in the dangers of climate change. Anyone who worries about the latter, but dismisses the former, is interested in something other than science and research.
Is it possible that population increases could contribute to climate change? Sure. But if you’re willing to take the leap and be worried about the ill effects of climate change, then you should also be worried about the ill-effects of population shrinkage, which are both more certain and more immediate.
(4) It’s a little strange that some parts of the American left are so hostile when Douthat brings up our fertility problems. Over in Europe—the source of all things enlightened and sophisticated—everyone left, right, and center is worried about population and fertility, too. The Nordic countries were the first segment of Europe to see radical fertility decline and they made radical policy adjustments to try to stem it. France has been working hard on pro-natalist policies since 1938, when the country first began worrying about its fertility rate. From Italy to Germany to Hungary, the liberal and conservative parties have been trying to out-bid one another in their attempts to stimulate baby-making. (In the policy, not the literal, sense.)
That’s because Europe is further down the demographic slope than we are and they see the inherent danger of their situation. The real mystery about the reaction to Douthat’s column is why the American left doesn’t also think that their European counterparts are patriarchical, troglodytic monsters, too.
(5) Liberals concerned about the future of Liberalism (by which I mean the capital “L” Western civilization stuff that both Democrats and Republicans love) seem to not understand that like it or not, the future is going to be inherited by someone. And if people with good Liberal values—again, I’m speaking of everyone on the non-autocratic/theocratic side of the equation—don’t make enough babies to populate the world, people with decidedly less Liberal values will.
The New America Foundation’s Phil Longman—who’s a liberal in good standing and one of my heroes—made precisely this point a few years back in a widely admired essay titled “The Return of Patriarchy.” Longman’s point was that if the sorts of people who read the New York Times and Slate choose not to replace themselves, then the world will eventually be run by the sorts of people who do not read the New York Times and Slate. And he wasn’t talking about NASCAR fans.
All of which is why the criticism of Douthat from the left seems to be motivated less by a serious study of the available data and literature than it is by a kind of knee-jerk oppositionism. Which is too bad. If America is going to work its way out of the demographic trap it’s in, we’ll need our liberal, Democratic friends to have some babies, too.
Jonathan V. Last is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard. His book What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster (Encounter) is forthcoming in February.