David's Bookclub

02.08.13

What Can We Do About America's Baby Bust?

Ross Douthat created an internet uproar with his December New York Times column describing our nation's declining birthrate as a sign of "decadence." Douthat's core critique - that modernity and impermanence have eaten away the basic foundations of our social order - was generally missed in the slew of denunciations of Douthat as sexist, theocratic, and (from the most honest critics) conservative.

I hope Douthat's critics take seriously a very similar critique of modernity from the Weekly Standard's Jonathan Last, whose latest book contains this biting sentence:

[I]f you believe in anything seriously enough - God, America, the liberal order, heck, even secular humanism - then eventually babies must follow.

And it's a pity What to Expect When No One's Expecting, Last's book, was not available prior to the latest election. In fewer than 200 pages, Last surveys America's challenging demographic future and delivers an uncomfortable truth: the vibrant, dynamic and optimistic social model of 20th century America is fundamentally incompatible with modernity.

That basic idea also perfectly illuminates the core contradiction of the Republican Party. America's conservative movement - one ostensibly built around strong families, vibrant economic growth and limited government - relies on the support of a coalition of retirees. At a time when conservative reforms are needed to fix the entitlement state, the party that ought to be leading the charge relies on the votes of those least interested in sweeping change.

Last demonstrates impressive restraint in presenting a small "c" conservative outlook on what can be done to combat the ever collapsing birth rates in the United States. Having built the case for why a multitude of factors have combined to strip the basic imperatives behind child rearing, Last pulls back and recognizes the futility of assuming governmental action can restore the birth rates of the last baby boom:

[W]hat about the big cultural issues we spent so much time examining - divorce, marriage, cohabitation, contraception, women in the workforce? I'm afraid that, as a matter of policy, there's very little we can do to alter any of these stars in their courses. These are matters of enormous cultural consequence and government has never proved adept at (consciously) influencing them. On the big-ticket items, we are largely at the mercy of the culture. Our best bet, I suspect, is not to try to remake the culture with the levers of government, but to support those who want children and let them engage the culture with their lives.

That paragraph comes after a chapter explaining how even very serious efforts in states like famously baby-friendly France have failed to maintain a birthrate above replacement levels without substantial immigration. That's a depressing reality. It's also the new normal, and the GOP would be gravely unwise to pretend - to borrow Last's phrase - that we can fix these problems by pulling the "levers of government."

But we can reposition the GOP as the party seeking fairness for those who undertake the very serious and expensive task of raising our future generations.

Last's three principle domestic ideas - major social security reform, higher education reform and improving transportation networks - are relatively realistic possibilities as our nation realizes the depths of our demographic problems. Parents are unlikely to start families burdened by major student loan debt. Being unable to get children around town means parents are unlikely to raise big families. Being unable to live in affordable neighborhoods - and, perhaps more importantly, being unable to live in a single family home - shrinks family sizes. Finally, being forced to pay into entitlement programs while raising the future payers of such programs is an unfairness on the most basic level.

On a personal note, Last's fourth proposal requires immigration restrictionists such as myself to weigh the competing costs between the short-term problem of unskilled immigrants driving down wages versus the long term need for immigrants to maintain a reasonable birthrate. That's a battle we'll have to fight, but Last's book provides an imperative for understanding the problem beyond a silly "amnesty vs open borders" debate.

These are all areas of opportunity for the GOP, which must make basic appeals to working and middle class voters beyond cutting taxes and standing up for "job creators."

And while Last may disagree with my ultimate conclusion - that conservatives can best counteract the demographic problem by embracing the New Deal/Great Society/Obamacare model and working to best reform government, rather than running against it in its entirety - I'm certain he and I agree on something:

We are the inheritors of an intellectual and material wealth and tradition that far exceeds anything we could build ourselves. In the broadest sense of the term, we didn't build anything. Our ancestors built that, and we owe it to them to see their creation enjoyed by generations to come. That's the GOP message that can win in the post-Reagan era.