Not surprisingly, I have an instinctual aversion to Matthew Yglesias’s essay titled, “Conservatives have no solution for the increasingly bleak economics of raising kids.” By “conservatives,” Yglesias means specifically Washington Post columnist George Will:
It is retrograde to expect families to be able to fully internalize the costs of the children they raise. And Will is correct in sensing that something has changed in this regard. But while he sees the new way of thinking as reflecting an abandonment of the wisdom of the ages, the real story is that the underlying situation has changed.
Will’s “pay for your own damn kids” philosophy, despite its appealing parsimony, is out of touch with the shifting economic realities. If we want American society to endure (and I think we should), then we need to do more to acknowledge those realities.
What’s surpassing strange is that Yglesias starts his response with the assumption that procreation is primarily an economic decision. Perhaps that’s the case in his narrow slice of the society of his day, but throughout most of history and (I’d argue) even among most modern Americans, having children is more tightly related to the thing that men and women do that creates children and their essentially religious sense of their relationships and their families.
Controlling childbirth is so thoroughly feasible these days (especially among those who don’t mind snuffing out any progeny who sneak through the defenses and make it to the womb) that we have the luxury of seeing it all as a matter of choice. But the idea that familial economics are the prime determinant is belied by every look and comment I’ve gotten for the audacity of having four children. Let’s just say that those looks don’t say (at least not without sarcasm), “That’s great! You must be doing very well,” which would be the response if everybody wanted more children but resisted out of financial prudence.
Maybe some change to the numbers on hipsters’ financial planning spreadsheets would lead to a first or second birth here and there among those who otherwise wouldn’t have let them through the barrier of the parents’ choice, but the cultural shift throughout society would surely swamp the effect. Consider that Yglesias notes that government has already absorbed the mammoth responsibility of K-12 education; under his premise of family planning, why would birthrates be going down nonetheless?
This question leads to a response to Yglesias’s headline. Being more accurate, at most one could say that conservatives have no solution to the economics of raising kids within a progressive framework. From where I sit, George Will’s nod to self reliance is much more conducive to a solution than Yglesias’s negotiation with the government on behalf of parents. In short, if we want American society to endure (as Yglesias and I agree we should), then we need to revive something lost in our culture that makes us want to endure as a society.
In that regard, a passage from a book by Leon Podles from which Rod Dreher recently quoted comes to mind:
Later monks continued to think of themselves as soldiers. The Anonymous Life of St. Cuthbert refers to God’s soldier, militis. Bede speaks of Cuthbert as an athlete and of his life as a warfare. Cuthbert seeks out waste places as a scene of battle. His withdrawal is not to seek peace but battle, the contest that is the way of life of a hermit. Monks were “the champions of the Church who carry on the battle with evil spirits, and with the spirit of evil in the world. They are forever engaged in a wrestling match with their own passions; they are running a race for which they expect an incorruptible crown; the world is the arena in which they engage in a spirited contest with all that is opposed to the will of God.” The monastic life was an agonic life, one of conflict. The monk did not flee from human society to find safety in solitude, but like the hero went out into the wilderness to confront the forces of evil and fought them to rid himself and the world of all traces of evil.
Podles’ book is titled The Feminization of Christianity, and similarly, the key change that Yglesias skips right past is the feminization of America. Podles encourages his fellow Christians to acknowledge that men need a fight, a struggle, and that Christianity should foster that sense of spirituality. (I’ll note, but resist being distracted by, the allure of Islamic jihad, here.) We must apply that same advice to our sense of families.
Raising kids in a hostile society can have the same heroic, salvific feel. During those months when adhering to Catholic teachings on contraception has proven particularly stressful (ahem), my most calming thought has always been that a larger family would only more powerfully prove my beliefs and what I stand for as a father and as a man.
In this regard, government programs feminize society. Whereas we once overdid the narrative of men providing for women, progressives want us all to be espoused to our government provider. This may solve some difficulties for the cultural elite, but in the long run, it will only decrease the frequency with which we choose to have children, because the financial calculation isn’t the point. Why would we be having children if government were doing the lion’s share of the work raising them and acting as a benefactor, too? Out of a sense of civic responsibility?
Indeed, that paid leave from work is spark for this conversation illustrates the cultural point. I can’t speak for all men, obviously, but it has seemed to me that there are basically two modes of masculine employment. On one hand, we want to work, whether out of love of the job or the sense of accomplishment and provision that it brings. And to the extent that we do not want to work, do we want to trade a day at the office for a day at the nursery? Maybe in some cases, but not as a general proposition across all social groups.
If we want people to have children in a world in which doing so is, from conception to birth, a matter of choice, then parenting has to be bound up with the meaning of our lives. Outside the rarefied worlds of high-brow progressives on one side and identity-supremacists on the other, offloading responsibility to the government severs those bindings.
What government can do, in short, is get out of the way and stop interfering with our attempts to support and govern our own families. If it supplies the funding, it will also supply the meaning — implicitly, at first, and deliberately, eventually. The progressive solution is no solution at all, but another stepping stone along a path with no good end.