Posted Monday, Feb. 4, 2013, at 2:45 PM
Photo by Toby Canham/Getty Images
Ever since it became less socially acceptable to argue openly that women—at least white, middle-class women—owe it to men to curtail our professional ambitions in favor of a life as our husbands' support staff, conservatives started to panic about declining birth rates. If women don't start making more babies, they dimly warn, the country is headed for catastrophe as the workplace empties out of workers and retirees suck up all the money and people stop caring about the future. (Because we can't care about the children we do have unless we have more of them, for some reason.) To save America, women, especially those aforementioned pesky middle-class, white women, are going to have to start having more babies at a younger age, the argument goes. That this demand means that women will end up curtailing their ambitions and moving into the support-staff role is simply a coincidence, of course. Nothing to see here.
The latest installation in the declining fertility rate commentary series is from Jonathan Last, a Weekly Standard writer and author of a new book on "America's Coming Demographic Disaster" and who is far better than say, Ross Douthat, at presenting this claim in a way that makes it sound reasonable. His piece in the Wall Street Journal is impressive particularly for deigning to take seriously liberal reactions to this argument, such as the environmentalist concerns or the tendency of liberals to argue for a better social safety net so women can both work and have more children. Here's a good example of Last's tagged-on nod to liberals:
There's a constellation of reasons for this decline: Middle-class wages began a long period of stagnation. College became a universal experience for most Americans, which not only pushed people into marrying later but made having children more expensive. Women began attending college in equal (and then greater) numbers than men. More important, women began branching out into careers beyond teaching and nursing. And the combination of the birth-control pill and the rise of cohabitation broke the iron triangle linking sex, marriage and childbearing.
This is only a partial list, and many of these developments are clearly positive. But even a social development that represents a net good can carry a serious cost.
Most tellingly, Last's argument rests on the assumption that women's income-drawing work doesn't count. He dismisses the French approach of offering cheap day care, because "France, for example, hasn't been able to stay at the replacement rate, even with all its day-care spending." But wait: If the goal is to have more people earning money, innovating and creating, and paying taxes, then the policy does work, unless you think, for some reason, that the women who are freed up by cheaper day care to earn income, innovate and create, and pay taxes don't count because the only economic contribution women can make is to make more men.
What really galls me about Last's piece (and most like it) is the underlying assumption that human beings exist to serve society and not the other way around. Oh, sure, Last mentions a few conservative-friendly policy ideas to help people afford kids—such as reducing the number of kids who go to college, attacking Social Security, and pushing people to move to the suburbs—but if reducing day care costs doesn't do it, there's no reason to think these tweaks will either. The reader is left with the feeling that the only solution to save capitalism is to clip the wings of half of the population so they can spend more time laying eggs.
I'd argue instead that if the system is set up so that it fails if women don't start popping out more kids, then it's a broken system and should be reworked to account for the reality of America today. If women don't want to have more children, then instead of abandoning women's equality as a goal, we should rework our economic system so it doesn't rely on a steadily growing population to function. After all, the point of society is to serve the people in it, not to reduce us to cogs in a machine that serves no one at all.