How to Think About the Birth Dearth

In various lectures and publications, I’ve had occasion to call attention to the problem of the “birth dearth,” the fact that the birth rate has dropped below–often well below–the rate of replacement in just about every prosperous and high-tech country.

The relevant facts are laid out for our country (if hardly for the first time) in Jonathan V. Last’s thoughtful and accessible What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster. I can’t resist immediately making the point that American “disaster theory” is going in two different directions. One pole is all about climate change (warming) and the ecological disaster. The other is population change (declining) as the disaster for “social” (as opposed to natural) ecology. There’s obviously something unnatural or “manmade” about both disasters. And in both cases, the claim for disaster might slight the singular capacity of our species to ingeniously adapt to change of all kinds.

Every time I say “birth dearth,” I get an astounding array of spirited and even angry reactions. I can’t help but think there’s some truth in all of them. The best way to display this not-unreasonable variety of opinion is to present the options in a version of the self-help quiz as invented by the philosopher-novelist Walker Percy (see his Lost in the Cosmos).

What’s the right way to think about the birth dearth? Please choose the best answer:

1. Many evolutionary psychologists tell us not to worry. Human techno-evolution will always be limited by our natural desires as social animals. It’s natural for us to want to have kids, therefore we can be counted on to do so. The birth dearth doesn’t exist as some kind of natural catastrophe, because it can be accounted for on a Darwinian basis. The families of sophisticated Americans are actually getting more stable, and the number of children is actually what you’d expect given the requirements for flourishing in our free society.

2. A particular Darwinian conservative, Hayek, predicted that our natural desires will be liberated once communism and socialism are defeated by human nature. But it turns out that the fall of communism and the discrediting of socialism didn’t cause us–us Westerners–to start reproducing like rabbits. So, despite some evidence to the contrary, we must remain more socialist than we think we are.

3. So some conservatives (following the prediction of legendary social scientist Gunnar Myrdal) say the birth dearth is caused by the welfare state–by Social Security and so forth. Why have kids when you can depend upon the government to take care of you in your old age? So if the birth dearth implodes the welfare state by making our entitlements unsustainable, the birth dearth will disappear. Problem solved.

4. Some libertarians applaud the birth dearth as just rational choice. People reasonably choose a world of choice over being saddled with kids. The best new birth of freedom we’ve had in our time is our contraceptive separation of sex from birth and death. Fewer kids is the consequence of living more and more reasonably as free individuals, and not as social-animal suckers who understand themselves as parts of “wholes” greater than themselves. Because transhumanists promise at least indefinite longevity when the Singularity comes, we likely won’t need to be replaced. So why generate replacements? Are there problems? Sure. All human progress has its downsides. But they really won’t be so hard to handle. The history of our species is inventing techno-solutions to the techno-messes our inventions have made.

5. Other libertarians–mainly of the feminist variety–say that even mentioning the birth dearth is playing the blame game with women. Women, just as much as men, are free to define the mystery of their own existences as autonomous beings. They can’t be blamed for not being moms, for choosing personal freedom over alleged biological imperatives. If the species dies out as the consequence of our freedom, so be it. Or, better, we have the duty to develop techno-innovations that keep the burden of having babies from falling on women.

6. Libertarians of a less feminist variety make the same point in more gender-neutral ways. We’re all free individuals. It’s unjust to treat anyone as other than a free individual. So government has no right to be concerned with the birth dearth. Even tax exemptions for those who choose to breed are unjust. Even “the family” shouldn’t be a legal category under a Constitution that doesn’t treat people as members of some class. The Constitution doesn’t say anything about families, parents, or children.

7. We’re having so few kids because the requirements of the 21st-century competitive marketplace make parenting harder than ever. Both parents have to work, making a large family virtually impossible. Say what you will about unions, they made the “family wage” possible for lots of ordinary Americans. So we need pro-family public policy to counter the dynamism of the market. We should, through tax credits and related measures, support this principle of justice: Some people contribute to our future mainly through money, others through having kids. Both contributions are indispensable.

8. Our society is increasingly shaped by the requirements of a meritocracy based on productivity. One result is caregiving of all kinds is valued less than ever. So it’s harder than ever for a mom to be merely a mom, not to mention more risky (given the unreliability of men) for a mom to be merely a mom. We all know we need to upgrade the status of being a parent, even if we don’t really know how to do it. Our health care system would collapse without a huge role for voluntary caregiving, which even now is done mainly be women.

9. As Theodore Roosevelt and the old national-greatness progressives used to say, the real problem is that Americans have become selfish. They need to think of themselves more as citizens, as part of a civic whole. In the civic mode or mood, they can see clearly that the most fundamental form of national service is making new citizens. Before you can “make men citizens,” in the words of one civic theologian, you have to have made men. And we never will stop needing men to be soldiers; the drone will never greatly supplant the warrior. We conservatives sometimes forget how “natalist” some of those allegedly evildoing progressives were.

10. Religious conservatives note that it’s only the religious observant Americans who are reliably reproductive, who actually think we have a duty to be fruitful and multiply. Those Mormons and Orthodox Jews and traditionalist Catholics are magnificent breeders. Where would we be without them? So the birth dearth is caused by the decline of religion, and it could be remedied by its resurgence. What’s the connection between religion and reproduction? Some Darwinians say it’s because religion is a powerful instrument for social bonding. But some Christians say that the absence of religion–in, say, post-Christian Europe–means that people consciously or unconsciously despair in the absence of God. So they have no concern for their future beyond the imperative of avoiding personal extinction. Beneath the happy-talk of our pragmatism lurks, as Solzhenitysn wrote, the howl of existentialism.

12. We, the religious also say, have so few children because we no longer think of them as unique, irreplaceable, and lovable persons made in the image of the loving, personal God. We no longer think of children as the most wonderful gifts imaginable. That’s why we are so indifferent to abortion, especially to the near-disappearance (through abortion) of Down Syndrome and other allegedly defective children. In our post-religious time, we too readily think of babies, like everything else, as commodities manufactured for our convenience. That’s why we’re on the cusp of the era of designer babies.

13. Well, we’re not existentialists. We’re haunted by death and even convinced that one’s own extinction is equivalent to the end of being itself. But we’re not reconciled to our fate of absurdly existing for a moment between two abysses. We’re all about sensibly “calculating probabilities” in avoiding the risk factors, about making our moment last as long as possible. We’re so addicted to the unrisky business of safe sex that we’re increasingly unable to loosen up enough to have unprotected sex and hope and pray for the best. Safe sex is bourgeois sex, as opposed to casual sex. Married people open to children have casual or spontaneous sex. They do what comes naturally.

14. Sophisticated Americans have flat souls. They’re surprisingly unmoved by love and death and are pretty content with being bourgeois bohemians and with losing themselves in the virtual world of the computer (and smart phone etc.) screen. The only reason to have kids is out of love. The more you subject reproduction to calculation, the more you’re bound to choose against it. We have so few kids because we live in the most unerotic time ever.

15. The occasional astute liberal is alarmed by the fecundity of the religious observant. Do we really want to hand the future over to the Mormons? The future of liberalism–the future of a humane and sophisticated society devoted to personal autonomy–depends on liberals perpetuating themselves. But is it possible to convince liberals to do such an irksome and enduring personal duty to save liberalism?

16. From a “social justice” perspective, the birth dearth is a blessing. There are a huge number of poor and hungry kids throughout the world. If there were fewer of them, we could minister better to their needs. Besides, obsession about the birth dearth is racist; it really is whining about a shortage of white children from privileged countries. If we Americans want more kids, we should be welcoming them in all colors from the rest of the world.

17. The environmentalist, of course, says there’s no birth dearth. The world is still way overpopulated, and all life on the planet is imperiled as a result. Or if there is a birth dearth: It’s the result of being responsibly concerned for the environment. The best way to ease up on the carbon footprint is to reduce the number of human footprints. The closer the human population gets to zero, the better off nature will be. Nature, in fact, would cheer if we were to disappear.

18. The inconvenient truth is that we’ve already trashed the planet. Life doesn’t have much of a future here anyway. So the last thing we should be worrying about on the eve of destruction is a shortage of babies. Children born now almost surely face a bleak future.

19. The birth dearth is caused not by dependency or despondency but by our individualism. Our “Lockean” political principles are infusing every nook and cranny of our lives at the expense of our relational duties and enjoyments. Consider what’s happened to marriage. The more we rely on technology, the more we enter a virtual reality in which our relational lives suffer. So the Darwinians aren’t all wrong to criticize our perverse behavior as really bad social animals. But they can’t explain why we’re so good at blowing off our duty to our species. So our birth dearth is only accidentally “ecological,” because it’s a sign of the fading away of what can be called “social ecology.” It’s both a consequence and a cause of the erosion of the social ecology on which, in truth, relational persons depend. Because that erosion wasn’t mainly caused by our minimalist welfare state, our social ecology won’t suddenly become sustainable with the collapse of our various entitlements.

20. We shouldn’t worry too much about the birth dearth. It’s about privileging the pursuit of happiness over happiness itself. The efforts to make our lives less contingent or vulnerable through technology unwittingly magnify our experiences of contingency. Following the risky strategy of having only one kid to get one’s genes into the next generation can’t help but make us obsess more than ever about the safety of that kid. So we really aren’t getting happier as we have fewer kids. And even if we achieve indefinite longevity, death, by becoming not a necessity but an accident, will haunt us as a possibility more than ever. The resulting unhappiness, thank God, sort of guarantees that neither existentialism nor religion are going out of existence. The Darwinians, in spite of their reductionistic scientism, are right that our social or, better, relational natures are bound to make a comeback, as is religion. And we’re hardwired for love, whether we admit it or not. The first step to recovery is admitting we have a problem with love, which we will almost certainly end up having to do soon enough.

If there is one best answer, it’s the one that incorporates the partial truth of most of the others. It would seem that one downside of this kind of quiz is that there are only two grades–A and F. But the truth is each and every answer earns some level of partial credit.