Let’s talk about sex, baby. The long-simmering debate in American politics about babies and whether people should have more of them is flaring up again. It seems self-evident that an aging society unable to reach a replacement-level birth rate has problems—that the choice to be child-free (at the macro level) is a bad sign for a civilization.
But the question of what to do about that is being litigated in our political realm in increasingly unhealthy ways, even as birth rates are well below the replacement level of about 2.1 not just in the United States but across the developed world.
Some members of the “life of Julia” left view children as either expensive baggage (because “the United States is hell for mothers”) or a moot point (since climate change will kill us all and more people would only expedite the process). In the center are people on both sides of the aisle who want to make parenthood more affordable—a shift that might (on the margins) help increase birth rates.
Meanwhile, some on the right are so pro-natalist that they are on the verge of shaming families that don’t procreate enough to field a baseball team each (never mind whether those people want kids or even can have them). Whether this is because they want to win the culture war or (more problematically) fend off “the great replacement” demographic time bomb is open to debate. Maybe they are simply God-fearing family-values conservatives who want to give us more babies to love. In any event, this incipient worldview is gaining political traction and deserves more attention.
Take J.D. Vance, the Hillbilly Elegy author running for the U.S. Senate in Ohio, who recently floated the idea of letting parents cast additional votes for their underage children in elections. During a speech to a conservative think tank last month, he attacked the “childless left” who have no “physical commitment to the future of this country” but still represent an “elite model” for America. He also “spoke fondly of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s pro-natal policies, explaining that ‘they offer loans to newly married couples that are forgiven at some point later if those couples have actually stayed together and had kids.’” Vance later went on Fox News and added: “You look at Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, AOC–the entire future of the Democrats is controlled by people without children.” (Note: Harris has two stepchildren and Buttigieg recently announced that he and his husband Chasten have become parents.) “We are effectively run in the country, via the Democrats, via our corporate oligarchs, by a bunch of childless cat ladies who are miserable at their own lives and the choices that they’ve made, and so they want to make the rest of the country miserable, too,” he continued.
The notion that parenthood is a prerequisite to political insight or patriotic devotion is not new. Back in 2013, Harvard historian Niall Ferguson sparked controversy when he made a similar argument, suggesting that economist John Maynard Keynes’ famous line, “In the long run we are all dead,” was the product of a childless worldview. Ferguson compared this supposedly nihilistic philosophy to that of conservative Edmund Burke, who conversely argued that there is a partnership “between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”
There were numerous problems with Ferguson’s theory, including the fact that Keynes’ wife had a miscarriage and that Burke had only one son who preceded him in death. Ferguson, who was accused by some of homophobia (Keynes was gay), quickly issued an apology for his off-the-cuff remarks.
But Vance’s comments were planned, and instead of apologizing his attention-seeking strategy is to double down.
I always thought Ferguson had a point—even if he badly botched the details. Being a father has most certainly changed my perspective, including giving me more “skin in the game.” But that’s me admitting that I wouldn’t care quite as much about the rest of you if the fruit of my loins weren’t going to (I hope) be here long after I’m gone.
But it strikes me as politically unwise for a movement to alienate potential or current allies who either cannot have children or have chosen not to have children. Take, for example, Townhall.com columnist Kurt Schlicther, who recently said we should “Penalize barren, non-familial lifestyles through taxes and disqualification from political participation.” If you want to win hearts and minds (and elections), it’s unhelpful to issue such threats or to throw around insulting terms like “barren” and “cat ladies.” This is especially true at a time when this cohort of childless adults is growing.
Speaking of alienating allies, Ann Coulter recently went after “post-Trump populists” including Vance, writing that “One is left with the strong impression that these marriage and child boosters are people who are sorry they got married and had kids, so they have to turn their life’s greatest regret into the equivalent of landing at Normandy.” Coulter went on to compare Vance’s pro-natalist position to Great Society programs that paid people to have kids (an analogy that I don’t think holds water). She also suggested that the push to grow our population is really about finding new young workers to fund the Ponzi scheme that is Social Security.
The crux of the problem is this: government incentives are about as good at getting people to start having kids as they are at stopping teens from engaging in the act that leads to kids. That hasn’t stopped them from trying. Stalin gave out “maternity medals”; Putin’s Russia now offers “maternity capital.” Japan offers cash incentives, which has delivered (no pun intended) a slight increase. Singapore has a “Baby Support Grant.” The aforementioned Hungary is offering tax exemption and interest-free loans for mothers who have large families.
Here, Coulter offers a valid, if elusive, solution: “As a matter of psychology, it’s probably true that a people who are pessimistic about the future of their country won’t be keen on having a lot of kids. But the solution to that is to fix the country, not to pay people to simulate one single behavioral characteristic of optimists.”
The left and right may disagree about how to “fix the country,” but we can agree that public policy decisions or financial incentives alone won’t be enough to reverse the inexorable trend of modernity (increased education and prosperity result in lower fertility rates).
In the meantime, the J.D. Vance’s of the world can weaponize yet another issue and contribute to the pessimism about the future. Don’t be surprised if the baby carriage or the “Baby on Board” bumper sticker replaces the COVID mask as a symbol of the culture war.