I have benefited from three very different respondents to my piece on demographic decline. Goldman points to the powerful role religion plays in driving fertility behavior, in particular, highlighting Israel as an exceptional example. Smith questions whether my emphasis on individualism is of much use and argues that we really should emphasize how useful babies are for achieving the government’s goals. Spencer questions whether government has any influence on fertility at all, suggesting that religious and cultural dispositions and community support are the real drivers.
Yet, on one issue, I and my respondents all agree: low birth rates are a problem. Each respondent shares the view that low birth rates are, on the whole, not great. This makes much of my article sort of irrelevant; much of it, written to convince people who are not concerned by low birth rates (that is, most people), will seem strange to people who already see demographic decline as a problem. This is, then, an in-house debate among people who are at least “soft” pronatalists, understanding that term broadly.
There is also one issue where my respondents all agree (with some exception for Smith): my effort to start a productive debate about the whole-life “culture of life” can safely be ignored, and instead, we can just talk about wombs and babies. This is unfortunate. The main point of my article was to reframe the debate, recognizing that the persuasive track record of the “fertility first and only” approach is very poor. Not many people are persuaded by it, as we can see by the vanishingly few countries that have implemented pro-natal policies motivated by those concerns. For those of us hoping to advance a genuinely novel political project like pronatalism, we are practically obliged to engage in constant experimentation in framing and messaging. My interlocutors have decided that, instead, we just keep hammering the same approach that has proved a failure so often in the past. I am not alone in this assessment; Trent MacNamara in the excellent “Birth Control and American Modernity,” a history of the idea of family limitation in America, concludes by meditating on whether a “liberal pronatalism” of the sort I articulate is even a possibility. It has never really been tried before. Traditional pronatalism was tried in the early 20th century in America and went down to ignominious defeat. We live in the shambles of that project, and I am suggesting it might be worth having another go at pronatalism, this time trying a strategy likelier to succeed in our times.
There are numerous issues that would make for fun debates with my respondents, and in the drafts for this response, the littered bones of clever counterarguments are numerous and dramatic. But I think there’s really a simple question that divides this debate, where one respondent agrees with me, making it a pretty fair two-on-two; namely, the question of whether there is anything to be done. Spencer and Goldman both essentially say the cause is hopeless: short of religious revival, fertility must keep falling. Spencer suggests that our private actions can create a new culture of life and that government policies have trivial effects on fertility. Goldman highlights Israel to emphasize that stand-out fertility comes from religiosity, not government policies. Only Smith seems to agree that “intentional” and “targeted” action might be warranted, and it is noteworthy that Smith is also the only respondent who makes an effort at engaging in the whole-of-life debate, and the only respondent who entertains the question of “Who is really impacted?” And for the record, I share Smith’s view of broader impact, and I’m now thinking my next survey should ask people how many grandchildren they hope to have. While Smith and I may have some strategic disagreements about whether to emphasize the social benefits of childbearing or the personal rewards of childbearing, we agree that more babies would be good, that getting more babies involves many different parts of life, and that tackling those parts of life probably means government action of some sort or other.
So let’s dive into this narrower question: can the government influence birth rates?
Only idiots say no. When Nicolae Ceaușescu, communist dictator of Romania, imposed his draconian policy of pregnancy surveillance and forced birth (not simply restrictions on contraception and abortion, but literal requirements and mandatory cervical checks), Romanian fertility rocketed upwards, and it remained higher than peer countries until the fall of the regime. Governments can boost birth rates. Of course, Romania’s experience was a disaster: this kind of policy disregarded women’s fertility preferences, forced undesired births, and led to blistering increases in child mortality, maternal mortality, and orphancy. Romania is a cautionary tale of what-not-to-do, but it also serves as a proof case that fertility goes where the government tells it to. There is also strong evidence (most decisively from the Matlab experiment in Bangladesh, but more famously in China) that government policies can reduce fertility.
But short of Romania-style tyranny, can more light-touch pronatalism work? Dozens of studies say yes. A recent review by Norwegian economists, who were not exactly conservative firebrands, found that in the vast majority of cases, pronatal policies yielded increased births. When governments give money to families to have children, they do have more children. Spencer’s family desires may not be sensitive to government policies, but other people’s are. In many cases, these extra births come about because abortions decline. The defeatism expressed by Spencer and Goldman, that there is nothing to be done, that we must simply hope and pray that the kingdom of God comes soon, is wrong. When John Paul II wrote that we should support the whole of life, that is not a call to inaction, but a call to action; it is genuinely shocking to see Spencer cite Catholic texts as an argument against public support since Catholic social teaching is one of the most powerful sources of public arguments in favor of public support, hence why many Catholic countries have implemented comparatively successful pronatal programs.
Furthermore, Goldman egregiously misreads the case of Israel. Goldman really wants us to believe Israeli fertility is high because of religion. Yet, compared to 2010, trends in Israeli fertility mirror EU fertility, as his own graphs show. More to the point, as I’ve shown elsewhere, secular Jews in Israel have twice the birth rates of secular Jews in America. Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel average 2 children more than their co-religionists in America. Israel has high fertility rates, regardless of religiosity. There are two reasons for this: 1) Israel has uniquely generous financial support for families, which academic research shows greatly boosts birth rates; 2) Israel has a uniquely communitarian culture even among secular Jews, with high rates of kin-group support, alloparenting (i.e. free childcare from friends and family), and even communal living (classically in the kibbutz movement).
Spencer is absolutely correct that community support for parenting (what sociologists call alloparenting) is important but wrong that it is inherently a feature of religion. Some religions engage in very little alloparenting, others quite a lot. Communitarianism in Israel has arisen both from Jewish religious norms, which are highly familistic, but also possibly from a constant sense of threat and pressure from outside groups. Other research has shown that minority groups facing external pressure pretty routinely experience super-normal “strategic” fertility. Indeed, a pretty sure-fire way to get a group to increase their fertility is to intensify inter-ethno-religious competition. As the US becomes more deeply divided, we may see religious minorities adopt larger and larger family sizes; a result I for one would welcome.
Israel’s example, far from contradicting my point, strengthens it: Israel has a materially and structurally more supportive environment thanks to government policies that support parents alongside greater communitarian support for parents among both religious and nonreligious Israelis. This is why Jews who moved to Israel after the Cold War saw their fertility rocket upwards: they shifted from a less supportive Soviet family ecosystem to a more supportive Israeli one.
Of course, the price tag on pronatalism can be steep, as I’ve outlined elsewhere. Trying to boost fertility only through a child allowance would be absurdly expensive. More direct cash support for families is important and worthwhile, but not sufficient. I and all respondents at some point gestured towards the importance of alloparenting; one way to get more of that would be to allow people to claim a tax deduction or tax credit for some number of hours of unpaid childcare. More simply, the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit could be extended to cover all families, instead of only the two-earner families it currently covers. By allowing families with a stay-at-home parent to use the CDCTC, more families would essentially have a built-in budget to pay for whatever kind of help they want. And while not the kind of free-gift help Spencer envisions (or that my wife and I have depended upon from our church!), having some extra money to pay a babysitter or pay for craft supplies for the mommy-share sure helps.
Other structural factors also matter. Housing costs are one of the most decisive barriers to family formation and are driven largely by onerous regulations. It doesn’t cost anything to reduce the stringency of zoning and land use rules. Just let landowners have the freedom to build on their own land without so much government veto power. This will reduce housing costs, enhance economic freedom, and boost fertility, as ample research on housing costs and fertility has shown. Indeed, a few reasons red states have higher fertility than blue states is their more affordable housing market.
Educational timelines also merit some revisiting. Marriage and birth rates rocket upwards as soon as women finish school, i.e., at age 23 for college-educated women, 24 for women with master’s degrees, and so on. Think about your own communities: how many people got married in March or April of their senior year, vs. June or July just after graduation? Educational milestones serve as key thresholds around which Americans build their life timelines. Compressing college education into three years, or college and graduate school into 4 or 5, or else reducing the pageantry of graduation ceremonies or using the Department of Education to reward schools for enrolling students who are married parents are all options here. We need to find a way to convince people that marrying the person they’re going to marry anyways during college isn’t the end of the world and that having a child with that person around graduation isn’t an unrecoverable disruption to life. Again, these kinds of adjustments need not be costly to the government.
And of course, we must address deaths of despair. States where deaths of despair have risen the most have also seen the largest fertility declines. The burden of addiction, ill health, and premature mortality have a serious negative effect on marriage and fertility. People who might have been happy and productive spouses and parents, instead end up strung out and dead. This is not a tangential issue; escalating usage of dangerous drugs is causing epidemic levels of drug-related incapacitation. Meanwhile, the ongoing mental health crisis in the Western world has a serious negative effect on fertility too: suicide is a canary in the coal mine, but there is a much deeper, much more widely-distributed problem of anxiety and depression, which has disastrous effects for fertility and marriage. This is a very difficult issue to resolve, but the key point is: far from being an intractable issue, there are innumerable ways we can productively tackle it. Contra Goldman and Spencer, low fertility is not the inevitable product of secularism (nor is high fertility the inevitable product of religiosity): fertility can be raised through numerous channels if we have the resolve to actually do something for families.