Kidphobia: Decadent, or Just Misguided?
By Bryan Caplan
The U.S. birthrate is falling, and Ross Douthat largely blames decadence:
[W]hile the burdens on modern parents are real and considerable and in
certain ways increasing, people in developed societies enjoy a standard
of living unprecedented in human history, and the sacrifices required of
would-be parents in America or South Korea or Germany do not undo their
immense material advantages over their parents and grandparents and
great-great grandparents going back millennia upon millennia. Once
you’ve acknowledged that (fairly obvious) point, then you’re
acknowledging that people in rich countries who forgo or limit their
childrearing aren’t all just responding in inevitable ways “to the
situation that actually exists”…
Some are, yes. But others — many millions of others, in Europe and North
America and Asia — are actively creating their own situations, and
deciding that children (or more than one child, or more than two) don’t
fit with their ambitions or desires or preferred consumption patterns.
And you shouldn’t be decadent:
if children are not the only good in human life, they do seem like a
fairly important one, no? Maybe even, dare one say, an essential one, at
least in some quantity, if the pursuit of the wider array of
human goods is to continue beyond our own life cycle? Or to put it
another way, if we have moral obligations to future, as-yet-unborn
generations, as almost everyone seems to agree, surely those duties have
to include some obligation for somebody to bring those generations into existence in the first place — to imitate the sacrifices that our parents made, and give another generation the chances that we’ve had?
Very eloquent, but I’ve still got to say: With friends like this, natalism doesn’t need enemies. I doubt Douthat is going to guilt anyone into having more kids. But even if he did, how many fence-sitters is he frightening off with all this talk of sacrifice, frustrated ambitions, and moral obligations to the yet-unborn?
I’m a natalist too, and I practice what I preach. But as I argue in Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, the main modern enemy of fertility isn’t “decadence”; it’s overparenting and the misconceptions about nature and nature that underlie it. Modern parents falsely believe that upbringing has a large effect on adult outcomes. As a result, they focus on “investing” in their kids’ future – and turn parenting into an unpleasant chore.
Instead of handing out another helping of guilt, natalists should try to deflate the guilt that so many people already shoulder. Natalists should share the good news from twin and adoption research: The long-run effects of vaguely normal parenting styles are roughly equal, so vaguely normal parents should focus on enjoying the journey instead of constantly fretting if they’re raising their kids right. Natalists should celebrate the incredible safety children in modern societies enjoy, endless scary media anecdotes notwithstanding. Natalists should hail the many undersung positive externalities of population growth to counterbalance misanthropic nay-saying.
Above all, natalists should try to make kids fun again. Forget doom and gloom. Sharing the wonder of life with your many descendents is inherently exciting. I savor it. You might even call the experience… decadent.
[Valeria Caplan, my youngest.]