Baby Bust: How the Right’s baby love is undermining conservatism

In recent years, American conservatism has morphed from a smoke-filled room of martini-swilling adults into nothing short of a nursery. The Right, once known for its emphasis on individual accomplishment and personal responsibility, once a haven for those keen on adults making their own decisions, has linked arms with the stroller moms of Park Slope and put babies at the center of its universe.

The most sensational recent case of this may have been Sarah Palin’s “Seventh Heaven”-esque family, which pitted those inspired by such fruitfulness against those repulsed by it. But even before the Palin brood hit the national scene, conservative intellectuals far from Wasilla had been celebrating babies at all costs.City Journal contributing editor Kay Hymowitz argues that the fight against teen pregnancy is based on a middle-class bias that misapprehends “adolescent baby lust.” Traditionally, conservatives discussing teen birthrates do not accept any lust as worth reckoning with, so this makes for a change. Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam’s recent book, Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream (2008), proposes family-friendly policies, a two-step approach intended first to gain the support of parents with many children (a traditionalist-leaning bloc), and, in turn, to see those same policies encourage all Americans to have larger families, and thus to shift, for the sake of the children, towards social conservatism.

What ties these authors together is the belief that social ills come not from unwanted pregnancy, but from the fact that we think a pregnancy could possibly be undesirable. In other words, for Hymowitz, the problem is not that very young women want children, but that our society frowns on early marriage. For Douthat and Salam, the concern is not that those who can’t afford to have babies have them anyway, but that the state fails to make childrearing affordable. These writers, along with columnist David Brooks, do not merely want to correct what they see as a stigma surrounding procreation. The purpose of the movement is to encourage Americans—even arugula-eating sophisticates—to have more babies.

At its most basic level, natalism is not about the values held by the sort of people who think having ten children is an excellent idea. All natalism means is the politicization of childbearing. This cuts both ways—China’s one-child policy and cash payments for births in Italygive a rough overview of the natalist spectrum. To politicize natality is to tell individual families that the choices they make that affect their own lives the most should be made with the state’s interest in mind.

Perhaps the best way to understand pro-natalism is as a pro-life movement gone wild, distraught over not only pregnancies terminated, but also the not-yet-conceived. That’s what allows less nuanced pro-natalists to equate childless women with deadly microbes and genocidal dictators. In the New York Times, National Catholic Reporter correspondent John J. Allen, Jr. explained low birth rates across the Atlantic as follows: “Europe is projected to suffer a population loss in the 21st century that will rival the impact of the Black Death.” Chabad’s Nissan Dovid Dubov speaks for many Jews when he argues that by intermarrying and failing to produce Jewish offspring, “one would be contributing to the decimation of our people and the ‘Final Solution’ that Hitler and his followers began and nearly accomplished.”

Not everyone likes the sound of that. Mention natalism to a liberal audience, and you will hear about a woman’s right to do as she pleases with her body, and about the racist implications in many calls to procreate, Godwin hovering close by. You’ll hear that there are too many people in the world as it is, too many for the earth to support, and that what we need is anti-natalism. Gawker’s Richard Lawson describes the 18-child Duggar brood, made famous via a reality show, as “an Arkansas family in which the dad is named Jim Bob and all the girls have long hair and wear long dresses. Oh, plus, heh, everyone is home schooled. Not trying to judge here, but, um, the whole thing is a little too Jesusy and FLDSy for regular TV.” Politically, refusing to use contraception goes hand in hand with rejecting hipster dress, city life, and public schools.

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From liberals’ hostility we might conclude that natalism is a conservative movement. And while its advocates and real-life adherents do tend to come from the Right, this overlooks the obvious: Nothing could be less conservative than the state telling families how many children to produce.

It’s bizarre that pro-natalism has come to be associated with conservatism. Neither libertarians nor religious traditionalists ought to want the state fussing about birthrates. From a libertarian perspective, the danger of pro-natalism is clear: Whatever benefit one might be able to prove of a population upswing pales in comparison to the damage inflicted on a couple pressured—however mildly—into having children they didn’t want, all for the good of the country. What Douthat and Salam propose—an increased per-child tax credit, as well as tax reforms to promote marriage—does not amount to the state criminalizing unconventional lifestyles. After all, tax breaks alone are unlikely to turn Carrie Bradshaw into Sarah Palin. Often, pro-natalist arguments exist absent any specific policy proposals, and are merely words of praise for those who make the most of their fertile years. To a libertarian, the threat is not a federally enforced three-child minimum, but the abstract notion that the government can, in even a minor way, interfere in this area.

Where the case for libertarian suspicion is clear, it’s less apparent why traditionalists, who tend to hold pro-natalist religious beliefs, should oppose state-sanctioned natalism. Yet protest they must, for pro-natalism today sets the precedent for anti-natalism tomorrow. Laws explicitly designed to increase the population would codify the principle that family size is not about your beliefs, but about your obligation to the state. Right now, we may have David Brooks and the authors of Grand New Partyencouraging women to have families, not for a specific faith, but for America. But what’s to stop policy-makers a few years down the line from deciding that maybe there are too many people after all, or maybe the ones procreating are not the ones we’d like to see doing so? In 2007, the Economist examined the “more questionable assumptions lurking behind the ‘kids as public goods’ argument.” The author explains: “If, for example, high IQ children tend to become more economically productive, creating more value to consumers in addition to paying more taxes into the system, while low IQ children tend to become markedly less productive and a net drain on the treasury, then natalist policy logic pushes toward eugenics.” Procreation is too personal (says the libertarian) and too spiritual (says the traditionalist) to be the business of the state.

Well, that’s what they should be saying. But the only people noticing that conservatives should be wary of natalism are liberals. In his review of Grand New Party, Kevin Drum points out the contradiction between the big-government policies the authors advocate and the rightward tilt of those policies, explaining, “Liberals, who are at least open to the idea of social engineering, aren’t going to support this particular version of it, and conservatives, who might very well cotton to its goals, are allergic to social engineering.” Drum argues that this paradox could doom “Sam’s Club Republicanism” to failure.

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At its most convincing, pro-natalism comes across not as religiosity or traditionalism, but as, to quote Grand New Party co-author Reihan Salam, “the reversal of anti-natalist norms.” When it comes to birthrates, Salam claims, the government has never been neutral.

To natalists, that the state’s choices have an impact on birthrates gives the state a right to influence those rates. As Salam writes, in the New York Sun, “Like it or not, virtually all public policy decisions have implications for population growth, whether they are zoning laws, Social Security, public health programs, wage subsidies, civil partnerships, or the rate of incarceration.” It’s true that we can’t remove the influence of zoning laws on population growth, but we can hope to prevent the state from enacting zoning in the name of population control. Some of the policies suggested in Grand New Party might well be sound, but the danger lies in the precedent they set by justifying policy explicitly in terms of population growth, which can in turn be used later to justify quite the opposite. There’s no reason to think that a tax break for parents of young children would necessarily influence the birthrate; it might simply make life easier for those children who’d have been born either way. Katha Pollitt gets it right: “If fears of population implosion result in paid parental leave, improved childcare and more support for mothers’ careers, it won’t be the first time a government has done the right thing for the wrong reason.”

The less open natalists are about their goal—that is, using the power of the state to increase the birthrate—the more innocuous, and thus convincing, their arguments appear. Why would anyone object to letting women realize their dreams? Aren’t such policies, well, feminist?

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Today’s pro-natalism addresses the feminist mantra that a woman is no mere baby-making machine by declaring that men and women alike are baby-making machines above all else. On the one hand, this looks like an egalitarian compromise, allowing those of both sexes to reject the workaday world for something more meaningful. Yet a few problems emerge. For one, glorifying fatherhood—the task commonly known as holding fathers accountable—does not change the fact that babies come from uteri, and that these uteri are found exclusively in women. (Apologies to the “pregnant man” who was on Oprah.)

As former Reason editor Kerry Howley writes, “Privileging one, dominant idea of the family comes with costs that [the authors of GNP] never really grapple with in their breezy book, and those costs fall almost exclusively on one gender.” Salam responds to this critique by noting that he and Douthat are “very keen on gender neutrality in the book.” Which is true, in that they encourage marriage and urge fathers not to flee. But what’s really changed by using the word ‘family’ instead of ‘woman’?

Salam finds “peculiar” the feminist writer Linda Hirshman’s claim in Salon that Grand New Partyaddresses “families (read: women).” He explains, “I am a non-woman, yet I am part of a family.” There’s a whole lot of peculiarity on both sides. Of course families include men, too. But until men start having the babies, calls to increase family size disproportionately burden women. There’s a reason we never hear of anyone taking a ‘maternity test.’ It’s the woman who must abstain from sushi and raw-milk cheese for nine months, after which she is left with irreversible changes to her body. It’s the man who may, if he so chooses, skip town anywhere from conception on. Whatever moves we as a society take to make fathers accountable, the burden will remain on those with uteri to track down and make demands of those without. And even when they succeed, some women will continue to be sufficiently unenthusiastic about their one-time partners that they will prefer to raise their children fatherless.

One can look for ways to make demands of the owners of the sperm behind each and every child, but it would take a massive, unthinkable shift in culture and biology for fatherhood to be as significant a commitment as motherhood in actual people’s lives. As Lisa Belkin demonstrated in her New York Times Magazine piece on gender-neutral parenting, even in an egalitarian best-case-scenario, in which the parents are committed to a 50-50 split of childcare, mothers often end up more involved than fathers, because for societal and personal reasons, women take more care than men in such tasks as dressing children for school. According to Belkin, “Where the housework ratio is two to one, the wife-to-husband ratio for child care in the United States is close to five to one.” A present father may be better than an absent one, but even snagging a progressive husband is no guarantee one will not be left with the bulk of child-rearing responsibilities.

Accordingly, feminist responses to pro-natalism range from outraged to really outraged. But it doesn’t take a feminist to see that Salam’s response fails to address the point Hirshman made, but should have made more clearly: There’s no such thing as gender-neutral pro-natalism. The Douthat-Salam variant might be less biased than others, but that’s not saying much.

Douthat defends his book’s unequal treatment of women and men, pointing out that “everyone starts life as a child” (italics his). That’s a fair argument for policies that benefit children; it does not, however, address those designed to increase the national birthrate. The irrefutable claim that childhood is our common ground is evidence for why the government should take children into account; it is not in itself evidence that we should be procreating at any particular rate.

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Grand New Party, along with other recent social commentary on the Right, fuses a “think of the children” motif with something new—a plea to think of the working class. But because the working class rarely speaks for itself in the pages of highbrow journalism, a female corporate lawyer cannot possibly know whether it’s true that, as Sandra Tsing Loh argues in the Atlantic, only women in a few select fields actually enjoy going to work, and that for the regular American woman, work is drudgery and homemaking the unattainable ideal. Maybe the ‘regular’ job only seems dreadful to women who are themselves elite professionals; either way, our lawyer is inclined to believe Loh, who after all has statistics on her side. Indeed, according to a 2007 Pew Research Center report, over the last decade, American mothers have become less interested in full-time work. A mere nine percent of adults surveyed, male and female, thought the best situation for children was to have a mother employed full time. Still, that this is true across income and education levels suggests that the appeal of work is not limited to tenured professors and brain surgeons, nor are female professionals immune to the desire—or social pressure—to stay home with their children at least some of the time.

The problem here, as Kerry Howley writes, is that it’s hard to prove that all these potential mothers-of-three want what pro-natalists claim. “Women may be telling pollsters what they think the pollsters want to hear, or simply reciting lines memorized from cultural scripts.” Factoring in both social pressure to marry and have kids and economic pressure against having many dependents, it’s impossible to determine what, underneath it all, anyone, male or female, really desires. If all obstacles were eliminated, we might well find the birthrate in the same place. As Cato Center research fellow Will Wilkinson points out, the greater opportunities are for women in the workplace, the greater the sacrifice they make to have each additional child. “[I]t would not be surprising if a young woman were to imagine that she would like three kids, given her mom’s 1985 opportunity cost. But given 2008 opportunity costs, she really only wants one, which is what she has.” There’s no way to know what choices a woman would make, all social and economic influences aside. To do so you would have to eliminate a lifetime’s worth of not just bills to pay, but of parental nagging, exposure to the jewelry-chain jingle, “Every kiss begins with Kay,” and so on, until you’d stripped the woman’s life experience down to nothing.

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Although pro-natalism sometimes avails itself of economic arguments about replacement rates and social security, natalism is not fundamentally about economic concerns. Debates on natalism’s economic necessity tend to drift into questions of morality: Witness a recent discussion in the Los Angeles Times between Howley and Kay Hymowitz. Their difference is ostensibly over society’s economic need for a replacement rate, but the piece ends with Hymowitz—representing the pro-natalist side—waxing ominous about “narcissism in a post-family society.”

This argument is aimed primarily at instilling guilt in the affluent and childless. Don’t you like babies? Would you rather buy a flat-screen TV than bring a new life into the world? What kind of person areyou? David Brooks speaks admiringly of those who, in order to put their large broods first, “have sacrificed pleasures like sophisticated movies, restaurant dining and foreign travel, let alone competitive careers and disposable income, for the sake of their parental calling.” In their chapter, “Putting Families First,” Salam and Douthat note that the policies they advocate “would doubtless meet with resistance from the childless and the privileged.” In other words, if you disagree with the suggestions that follow, there’s a good chance you’re reading this book from the comfort of your deck in East Hampton, your ‘baby,’ a Shih Zhu, by your side.

Douthat and Salam are convincing when they protest that today, children are seen as luxury items. It’s hard not to be sympathetic. I was nearly rendered a natalist when TBS aired a Sex and the City episode in which Carrie, finding it unfair that she’s had to give a married friend multiple baby shower gifts over the years, ‘registers’ at an upscale shoe store and asks for a pair of $485 bejeweled stilettos. This scene is meant to garner sympathy for our single heroine, and more broadly for the notion that a child is no less an extravagance than a pair of impractical shoes. But it has the effect of equating childlessness with selfishness.

The episode does little to refute Brooks’ claim that those with many kids “are explicitly rejecting materialistic incentives and hyperindividualism.” How else to explain choosing preschool over pumps? But is every choice so stark? Most women are not facing Carrie Bradshaw’s dilemma between boutiques and babies. They are instead trying to weigh childbearing against careers, and balance the two. Having children costs money, but crass materialism is hardly the only reason to refrain from having as many kids as we physically can. Where, in this all-or-nothing view of parental selflessness and childless narcissism, do we place the working parents of two?

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Douthat and Salam do not come out and say that women should fill their uteri to capacity. What they do argue, however, amounts to just that: They pair a distaste for birth control with a claim that parents—not firefighters, inventors, or heart surgeons— are “the people making the most significant investment possible in the American future and the people most deserving of government support.” The more children, the greater the sacrifice. This is consistent with Brooks’ description of parents of three or more as “more spiritually, emotionally and physically invested in their homes than in any other sphere of life, having concluded that parenthood is the most enriching and elevating thing they can do.” It is this outlook that caused many conservatives to greet McCain’s choice of Palin with such enthusiasm. Raising five children—not to mention carrying number five to term, knowing that the baby would have Down Syndrome—makes Palin more impressive, under this rubric, than significant government experience might have done. To a natalist, Palin’s steadfast refusal to succumb to the temptations of abortion and (one would imagine) birth control may well exceed her ticket-mate’s wartime heroism.

There are political gains to be had in treating procreation like the greatest accomplishment ever. What could be more populist than valuing childbirth over other contributions to society? After all, most anyone, Ph.D. or GED, can reproduce. Gushing over those who put parenting first is a way of sticking it to urban professionals, or really to anyone, rich or poor, who thinks what he does for a living or as a volunteer makes him so special.

Pro-natalism functions in Grand New Party, in the Brooks column that preceded it, and in contemporary social conservatism more generally, as a way of telling the perfectly ordinary family that it’s not merely as good as but better than the urban yuppies depicted on sitcoms, whose ‘family’ is their friends. This is precisely why Republicans trying to gain working-class votes—and more votes, period—can’t just suggest family-friendly policies and leave it at that. These writers go beyond urging measures to help large families get by, instead voicing disapproval against those who—for reasons of world-saving or yacht-buying—never got around to having one.

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The loser in the pro-natalist utopia is not the elite, but adulthood in its entirety. Traditionally, conservatism has balanced a respect for ‘family values’ with an unease about the ‘nanny state.’ Joseph Epstein’s Weekly Standard piece on what he calls the “Kindergarchy” gives a sense of what conservatives protest when they see society tilting toward the overly child-centric. Adulthood—which now includes everything from knocking back a couple beers to writing a Great Book; that is, the bulk of human enjoyment and achievement—is reduced to child-production. Stray from that plan and you deserve the stigma (and tax increase) you receive.

Pro-natalism takes the pro-life focus on the unborn and extends it backward to include the not-yet-conceived and forward, so that no child is left behind. This is a tough argument to fight, since no one sheds a tear when asked to “think of the grown-ups.” But think of them we must. Not instead of the children, but alongside them. Economics professor Steven Horwitz puts it well when he writes of family policy that, “Yes, children are really important, but parents matter too.” Conservatives should fight, not seek, a society in which we stigmatize all choices that fail to put children and childbearing first.

The way to get beyond natalism is to stop countering pro-natalist arguments with cries of overpopulation or clichéd remarks about how it’s wrong to bring children into this evil world. We must instead remind pro-natalists that the government’s choice lies in how to govern its citizens, not in how many natural-born citizens it wishes to govern. The opposite of pro-natalism is no natalism, not anti-natalism.

The way to make the government immune to natalism in all its varieties is to stop assuming every pregnancy results from a family’s decision about what’s best for America. Decisions whether to have children, and if so, how many, are indeed self-centered. As well they should be, since parents themselves sacrifice and benefit most from their reproductive choices. Brooks is therefore wrong to define “natalists” as parents with “three, four or more kids,” just as Howley misleads when she writes that, “From Poland to Singapore, swollen wombs are a bulwark against change.” A woman’s decision to have several children does not make her “pro-natalist.” Those with children and those without should not be regarded as members of competing ideological teams, but rather as complementary members of society, childless aunts and uncles lending support to their siblings’ broods while leading independent lives of their own. Who wouldn’t want to bring a child into a world like that?

-Phoebe Maltz is a doctoral student and writer living in New York. She blogs at What Would Phoebe Do.

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