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Wednesday, December 05, 2012  

On Decadence

Ross Douthat's most recent column on the decline in American birthrates contained, by many accounts anyway, some sensible thoughts on pro-family fiscal policies both here and abroad, and concluded with a somewhat more controversial peroration:

Beneath these policy debates, though, lie cultural forces that no legislator can really hope to change. The retreat from child rearing is, at some level, a symptom of late-modern exhaustion — a decadence that first arose in the West but now haunts rich societies around the globe. It’s a spirit that privileges the present over the future, chooses stagnation over innovation, prefers what already exists over what might be. It embraces the comforts and pleasures of modernity, while shrugging off the basic sacrifices that built our civilization in the first place.

Matt Yglesias replies rather tartly, "It'd be a much better country if social conservatives would stop writing things like that" and instead address the policy questions. Amanda Marcotte is a little less focused in her critique.

What's wrong with what Douthat says here? "Late-modern exhaustion," "decadence," a spirit of evil that "haunts rich societies around the globe"--a certain strain of writer has been heaving these rhetorical cutlasses for decades, perhaps centuries. You may select from any number of candidates the apogee from which the decline begins--Pre-Socratic philosophy, the reign of Augustus Caesar, the Latin 13th century, pre-Revolutionary France, the early American Republic, the period immediately preceding Woodrow Wilson's presidency, the Kennedy years--but the story is in other details virtually identical. Douthat's stylistic swerve is kitsch, and it partakes of the immorality of kitsch. It's a kind of anti-thought, a reveling in fine sentiments (unicorns or gargoyles, you choose) at the expense of asking, without reproach for others or congratulation of self, what is really going on in the world.

It's especially odd coming at the end of a column that lays out the economic factors that are likely drivers of short-term fertility declines, and which gives special attention to the relatively sharper decline in immigrant fertility (are they really becoming nihilistic at a faster rate than those of us reared in the belly of the affluence beast?) But the McGyveresque zipline from sociological fact to totally unsupported conclusion is by now a hallmark of Douthat's style. It's best just to suspend one's disbelief and enjoy it. But what, one wonders, do actual people think of their actual child-bearing decisions? I know a lot of people with kids and a lot of people without kids. I suspect plenty of people on either side of that divide (myself included) of engaging in a little motivated reasoning when it comes to explaining their status. Maybe I don't read the back of the book at Slate enough, but I haven't encountered the sentiment that child-rearing interferes unduly with Xbox time. Who really knows? Maybe it's true that maternal desires often get deferred through an extended period of romantic testing and seeking, but if they fade and slip away, and the resulting domestic life gets re-described as a choice (virtuous or selfish as you wish), at what culpable moment is the charge of decadence to be lodged? And if that moment can't be found even in one actual life, much less the accumulated decisions of a whole cohort, perhaps we're thinking of this the wrong way.

But nevertheless, Douthat is not wrong to try to bring the language of norms into the question of family policy. In other areas Yglesias agrees (he writes really well about norms in finance and government, for example), and Marcotte flings around condemnations of culture left and right (hey, your marriage proposal desires suck, America). Parenting inevitably entails public virtue. Apart perhaps from the vast carbon-and-water consumption swathe that all of us are cutting through the world, it is likely the most consequential aspect of most of our lives. It requires altruism, whether we experience it that way or not. It requires appreciating that the impact of some of our choices will outlive us considerably--believe me, I think of this every time my son makes some cheery attempt at piety. I do appreciate what Ross is, I hope, trying to get at. Whether the choice to be a parent itself is virtuous, it requires virtue; and insofar as we love anything about the human world beyond our own experience of it, we should care that it somehow continue.

So it is especially discouraging that the task of making the case for the public virtue of child-rearing and the legitimate role of public policy in sustaining it should fall, in the paper of record, to Douthat. Modest and few dissents notwithstanding, he cheered on a presidential ticket whose centerpiece proposal would have turned the federal government into a giant pension fund (for the currently old) with a giant army, largely at the expense of things like education, child nutrition and health care, infrastructure, scientific research, and so on. No presidential program in my lifetime more perfectly "privileges the present over the future" than that. Douthat may be a European-style Christian Democrat at heart, but he's shown no sustained interest in challenging the anti-state orthodoxy that makes any of his family-supporting policy preferences basically impossible, no interest in pointing out that maybe a future-oriented politics needs to take note of the planet's ability to sustain a human future, and little interest in the question of how environmental toxicity may already be impacting fertility. Whenever he brings this topic up, Douthat gets spiked on the horns of a dilemma. You can't be anti-state and pro-family in a world where child-rearing is so insanely expensive and so lightly and irregularly borne by the community. An America with rising inequality, shoddy social services, no paid parental leave, and no subsidy for preschool is an America that will not see higher birthrates. 

At the same time, whenever liberals light the outrage beacons in response, we tend to become caught on a dilemma of our own. If the radically anti-communitarian ideology of the modern Right is not compatible with pro-family policies (or with cultural traditionalism altogether), neither is the social justice ideology of the Left compatible with its strident insistence on personal autonomy. The critiques of Douthat's column (he responds to some of them here) seem to make the contradictory claims that child-rearing is too hard and too costly because we have lousy social services and high inequality, and also that not having kids is an awesome and liberating life choice. Parental leave distributes wealth from non-parents to parents. So, more obviously, does subsidized early childhood education. If liberals really have the courage of their social-libertarian convictions--if they think that public policy and social norms should not lean toward child-rearing--then they should work to prevent rather than create family leave and subsidized preschool. 

If decadence is, in fact, an operative category here, I think it needs to be found all around. But perhaps more to the point, we should stop diagnosing the world this way. My job requires me to encounter a lot of human dysfunction, and if I shook my head and pronounced "decadence" in every case I'd be a lousy pastor. The world is what it is, and people are what they are, and they probably have as much or as little good faith as they ever did. If you care about the future, or hell, even the present, there is no release from trying to understand them on their own terms. 

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