On Ross Douthat, More Children, and Less Decadence
Decadence: “moral or cultural decline as characterized by excessive indulgence in pleasure or luxury”—Oxford English Dictionary Online.
Douthat tries to rebut critics of his Sunday column. The original article is full of dubious claims and ill-considered connections, as is Douthat’s prerogative as a newspaper columnist. But in following up on his earlier meditations on modernity and birth rates, Douthat has allowed a certain narrowness on this issue to persist.
Douthat proposes that America’s dangerous decline in procreation isn’t due to hard economic factors alone. It’s not just the financial crisis and ensuing recession that has stymied America’s previous baby-making prowess, explains Douthat,
“Among the native-born working class, meanwhile, there was a retreat from child rearing even before the Great Recession hit. For Americans without college degrees, economic instability and a shortage of marriageable men seem to be furthering two trends in tandem: more women are having children out of wedlock, and fewer are raising families at all.”
The New York Times columnist then notes a third and “final” factor, “[T]here’s been a broader cultural shift away from a child-centric understanding of romance and marriage.” Without explaining just why exactly a drop in fertility is de facto bad (besides casually linking it to American imperial decline), Douthat wastes no time in, of all things, suggesting that the government *does* have an important part to play in all of this (a conservative, who doesn’t trust the government to effectively regulate health insurance exchanges, happens to have no problem using every economic tool at its disposal to increase aggregate baby production).
And here is the key take-away from Douthat’s Sunday column. It’s a contradiction that demonstrates just how confused the author is on this issue: for Douthat entreats the government to use tax incentives and government funded programs to make child bearing and rearing more attractive and sustainable for working class families…while at the same time lamenting the cultural decadence that leads birth rates to stagnate so precariously in the age of modernity.
“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.”
With the definition of decadence lodged at the top of this post firmly in mind, one becomes hard-pressed not to read Douthat’s critique as an extremely narrow and misguided one. On the one hand he feels that the government has a responsibility to make raising children more sustainable for working class families. On the other hand he is frustrated with decadent families, those most able to afford having children, who have decided to pursue short term pleasures instead of the long term work for which they are implicitly responsible as sexual organisms. Too much money is bad for reproduction. Not enough money is bad (working class-wise) for reproduction.
For Douthat It has nothing to do with higher levels of education, greater freedom in defining one’s sexual and gendered identity, or a number of women preferring to have a fulfilling career (as men have historically chosen) rather than raising several children.
And as I mentioned at the beginning, Douthat does himself no favors in his follow-up. First, he does nail one thing that seems rather self-evident,
“But others — many millions of others, in Europe and North America and Asia — are actively creating their own situations, and deciding that children (or more than one child, or more than two) don’t fit with their ambitions or desires or preferred consumption patterns.”
It is good that we can agree, at least to a large degree, that when people of a certain standard of living decide not to have children, it is because they just don’t want to, and not something altogether more subversive. Here, we can reconcile the earlier contradiction in Douthat’s approach if we understand that he’s addressing two different groups. Government assistance is needed to help the pre-modern working poor make babies, while social dialogue (one presumes) is required to convince the educated and well-off that their current values and desires are misguided.
As Douthat points out, we need not reject the values of (presumably) 21st century liberal American culture wholesale. “Children,” he writes, “are not the only good in life.” As an aside, what a relief this revelation must be to all of those who are not capable of having children!
But still, “the modern path has many possible endpoints, and it seems like an abdication of moral judgment to just practice determinism and assert that wherever a given developed country’s birthrate ends up — slightly above replacement level, slightly below, or in the depths plumbed by countries like Japan — must represent the best of all possible worlds.”
Douthat follows this up with a misleading sleight of hand, “After all, if children are not the only good in human life, they do seem like a fairly important one, no?”
After a construction like this, I can almost guarantee that whatever the person says next will not be justified by what was argued earlier. And without doing any of the heavy lifting, Douthat goes from suggesting that children might be “a” good, to suggesting that they are an important and essential one. This shift from being “a” good to a necessary part of “the” good is seismic. But Douthat knows it will be so unconvincing if argued explicitly, that he immediately moves to dress it in a utilitarian concern for the well-being of future generations. Which would be fine if he weren’t mixing completely different moral frameworks, grounded in irreconcilable ontologies.
For Douthat, the fact that other values have crowded out our capacity to fulfill this one moral duty (the duty of providing a sustainable future for future generations), is evidence of decadence. And yet he has still not explained at all why decadence is a bad thing! Especially since a much less intensely procreational regime than the one Douthat is advocating could satisfy these concerns. Instead, he’s using decadence-as-dirty word to hide from the fact that, for some reason or other, he has no interest in actually defending having children (lots of children) as a profound and essential part of the “good life,” or explaining why raising three or four children is more important than writing poetry, or doing medical research, or helping to educate other people’s kids, or, hell, just trying to reconcile one’s own existential crises (or make peace with them) before bringing more of them into the world.
But no—according to Douthat only whackos (read environmentalists, pro-human extinctionalists, and “true” (WTF?) misanthropes) will find his analysis a non-starter. And then this:
“If conspicuous consumption is morally dubious when it substitutes for sacrifices on behalf of strangers, as most good progressives seem to think, why isn’t it morally dubious when it substitutes for the more intimate form of sacrifice that made all of our lives possible in the first place?”
“Can it really be that having achieved so much independence and autonomy and professional success, today’s Western women have no moral interest in seeing that as many women are born into the possibility of similar opportunities tomorrow?”
If Douthat could rigorously demonstrate the moral good in (“dare” I say: moral necessity of?) creating more life so that it too can feel fulfilled—he should stop writing columns for the Times and start writing his treatise, ASAP. I don’t think he can though, or even has the faintest clue what he’s talking about, at least when he dives headlong into these weeds.
These rhetorical gambits only invite the inevitable question: why not have as many children as we could possibly sustain then? At least this is the question that pops into my head when Douthat goes on about maximizing the utility of those who *could* be born, by making sure that they *are* born. Correct me if I’m wrong, but this kind of reasoning appears to open the utilitarian floodgates, making us responsible for an infinite amount of utility of an infinite number of unborn entities. See Freddie’s web comic for more on how ridiculous this is.
Douthat ends by standing his ground on decadence:
“But it’s also the nature of decadent societies to deny that the category of “decadence” exists. And what Yglesias calls nuttiness still looks like moral common sense to me — a view of intergenerational obligation that human flourishing depends on, and whose disappearance threatens to sacrifice essential goods and relationships on the altar of more transient forms of satisfaction.”
Unfortunately he has done precisely nothing to justify his characterization of decadent modernity. The space between sustaining the future for future generations, and having children at a rate that maintains or exceeds the current population, is still there. And for many that space consists of a vast freedom toward personal fulfillment, as well as the fulfillment of others (partners, friends, current family). It is not self-evidently the void of hedonistic waste which Douthat archaically ascribes it. He must address the real trade-offs involved—not the illusory ones he imagines between: expensive cheeses and diapers, eating out and pre-K education, extended vacations and a minivan to shuttle kids to school and extra-curriculars.
And let’s not forget what sparked this whole debate: people whining about how to fix entitlement programs which largely benefit the non-working elderly. Arguing that an in-debt government is too in-debt to sustain social spending on the elderly, and should instead spend those resources to encourage the growth of families instead, all while maintaining the specter of leftist elite cultural decadence and the need to curb it in order to get more kids to pay more future taxes to sustain more spending for entitlements—is truly confused. Especially if you are conservative. Though maybe not, in so far as conservatism is built on a reactionary politics that seeks to maintain the status quo in whatever way it can and at whatever cost.