Technology and evolving standards have given human beings, at least those who live in the advanced nations, and especially women, levels of freedom that have never before existed. That freedom of choice is pushing downward a couple of major trend lines that cause many conservative thinkers to furrow their (mostly male) brows.
One is the decline in the number of children that women in advanced nations are giving birth to. The other is the falling percentage of adults who are members of any organized religion, a number that has fallen below 50% in the United States for the first time ever.
These developments are intertwined and, if not necessarily advances in the human condition, at least the result of free people making free choices. Choices that are now firmly enough established that many of the proposed responses do not appreciably retract any of that freedom.
Instead they are intent on finding ways to nudge, cajole, even bribe people into making the kind of choices many used to be pinned into making but now won’t choose unless they can be convinced it’s a good idea.
When labor was lifting things and digging stuff up, and the economic success of any family, clan or tribe depended on having enough babies to insure that a few of them would live long enough to take over the lifting and the digging, it seemed logical to have the gender that mostly had superior upper-body strength go to work and the gender that had the uterus stay home.
The fact that a great many women did lifetimes of grueling physical work, on farms and in factories, since forever didn’t change the basic way of thinking. But the information and service economy did. Now we value brains at the top of the income pyramid and basic work ethic at the bottom, and men are superior at neither.
There remain some not-so-logical reasons for the old gender roles, and that’s where the decline of organized religion ties in. Most religious traditions promote, to one degree or another, the traditional family structure, not for overtly economic reasons but because of a belief that it is ordained by the Almighty. As the economic and social reasons for high levels of reproduction lose sway, so does religion. And the other way around.
Into that breech has stepped Utah Sen. Mitt Romney and his Family Security Act. The plan to pay parents a monthly amount to help them support their children is meant to make it easier to raise children, with minimal bureaucracy eating up much of the money or looking over the shoulders of families to make sure they are worthy. That’s good.
But the point is also, and Romney is up front about this, to encourage people to have more children. Which is worrisome.
Romney discussed his ideas in an online conversation sponsored by the Utah-based conservative think tank the Sutherland Institute. That forum that also included Ross Douthat, a New York Times columnist who has also expressed concern about the drop in the First World birth rate.
The discussion is on Sutherland’s website and I recommend it.
Romney (a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) and Douthat (who is Catholic) are members of faith traditions that stress having lots of children. They teased each other about that, with Romney noting that his Family Security Act stops adding to its payments when a household gets to five children, and so can’t be said to be overtly friendly to members of his faith.
Once you move past religious motivations, though, things get wobbly.
Secular arguments for encouraging more children are mostly economic — we need people to do jobs and pay taxes, especially to fund Social Security and Medicare — and imperial — our civilization must survive. Both strike me as pretty thin.
American civilization will survive if it earns the right to survive, not by simple animal reproduction but by deserving the support of people who live here now and those who are clamoring to come here.
As far as doing the work and paying the taxes, a much more welcoming immigration policy would help. So would a progressive boost to the payroll tax so that the rich pay a lot more to support Social Security and Medicare.
A declining birth rate is a universal indicator of a more civilized society, one that is more free, more equal, better educated and, not totally by coincidence, more secular. It is hard to see how, or why, we should push back against that.
George Pyle, opinion editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, is not so full of himself that he thinks he needs to be replaced by someone just like him.