Against 'Decadence': Fewer Kids, Better Future

Is having fewer children the mark of decadence? The New York Times' cultural conservative, Ross Douthat, has been arguing that in recent columns. For him, a decline in childbearing means that people are abandoning the future for the fleeting pleasures of the present.

Douthat suggests that only misanthropes and radical environmentalists (plus any "partisan of voluntary human extinction," but that sounds misanthropic to me) can deny that declining to have kids, past a point, is decadent. The response has tended to be embarrassment about his moralizing tone and fall-of-Rome language. The don't-say-decadence response comes from conservatives who think such fulminating helped them lose the last presidential election, and also from liberals who agree with Douthat (and Brooks) in wanting policies to make childrearing easier, but don't want to moralize the decision.

It's a familiar pattern on "cultural" issues, code for questions involving traditional morality, religious scruples, and personal autonomy: conservatives have a moral language (albeit, sometimes one that seems to have been imported from Mordor) and liberals wish other people would just learn to shrug.

This is one where liberals can do better. There's a moral case for low birthrates. It includes but goes beyond environmentalism, "radical" or otherwise. Some of those whom Douthat calls decadent should be taking pride in their decisions, not shrugging. They aren't giving up on the future; they're helping to make it livable.

Full disclosure: I don't have children, and I enjoy the disposable income and general flexibility that are the symptoms of alleged decadence. But my six-month-old nephew is the joy of my life, and I decided about a year ago that I very definitely want kids. My reasons are pretty much the ones Ross Douthat seems to admire: I'd rather be tired and overstretched for a couple of decades, and hand over much of my future happiness as a hostage to my offspring, than go on with my pleasant, otherwise productive autonomy. I feel this way because I want to be part of life's whole cycle, be a link between past generations and the future, and not just treat my years as a vessel for my own enjoyment.

So I'm not being defensive, as far as I can tell. But I think Douthat is seriously, even dangerously wrong, and that the people he's criticizing are the ones who are taking responsibility for the future.

The environmental reason is big. Our total impact on the earth's systems is a function of two things: the average resource use per person and the total number of people. As the world gets richer, even with improved technology, the per-person resource use jumps. India and China are replacing dirty cooking fires with clean stoves, but overall they have much bigger environmental effects than when they were poorer. Rich Americans are still the world's resource gluttons, and we have much more company in consumption than we once did.

Fewer people, including fewer Americans, would be an excellent thing for the planet. There are complications and qualifiers, of course, but that is the bottom line. The main reason this isn't said more often is that it can seem futile and distasteful -- futile because slowing or reversing population growth as hard as reversing the tide, distasteful because a lot of worry about population has featured rich white people wishing there were fewer poor brown people.

That doesn't change the fact that truly voluntary and conscientious decisions, by a lot of people, to have few enough children that the human population would decline over the next 100 years and beyond, would be excellent for the global climate, the health of soil, our ability to preserve stressed ecosystems, and just about any other environmental value you care to name.

Another reason is subtler and maybe more partisan. The world economy is, among other things, a balance between labor and capital. (Please don't take me to be some kind of doctrinaire Marxist: I am just making a point about labor markets.) When employees have scarce talents that are needed to make capital productive, they can win good compensation packages: nice pay, secure pensions, health care, and unions if they want them. This kind of economic power naturally translates into political power. Part of the reason American workers lived in a sort of paradise after World War Two is that they were in demand in a country that was the world's manufacturer. Part of the reason the relative position of blue-collar workers has declined so much, with many clerical and even professional employees recently following suit, is that they are now in competition with the world.

If you like the idea of an economy that looks more like America in the 1950s -- fairly equitable, with a strong middle class and widespread opportunity -- you might like it if capital couldn't flee to labor frontiers like China, Vietnam and Malaysia. You might like it if labor were a little scarcer everywhere, so people who do the work could stick up for themselves successfully at the bargaining table. The globalization genie is not about to distill itself back into its bottle. But if people have fewer babies, those choices add up, over decades, to fewer people competing with one another, and, as pay structures converge, to a higher global wage. I'd like to get there sooner, rather than linger in a world where factory workers in places like Vietnam have to pass through a long Middle Passage of dangerous, poorly compensated work, while employees in richer countries struggle with insecurity and downward pressure on their wages.

Why do people have fewer children? The answer seems to be, as Douthat suggests, that they value their careers, their friendships, their romantic lives, and, yes, their fun, and hesitate to sacrifice these. So they have children later, and even those who start early have fewer. Countries, and regions of countries, where large numbers of people embrace these individualistic, self-expressive, "post-traditional" priorities also have low birth rates, especially in Europe. But -- and this is key -- they do have children, and they love and take care of them. (Indeed, anyone who has observed childrearing in such post-traditional precincts as the New Yorker's readership knows that they care for them with an obsessive attention unparalleled in human history.)

No doubt many of these people have strong environmental concerns, and some of them consider these in their childbearing decisions. Probably few are thinking of the global labor market, which seems fair enough. In any case, they may not have thought that they are contributing to a better future. In fact, they are struggling against decadence.

How? They are helping to create a world where humanity presses less hard on the planet that supports us, and where the economy requires less struggle and gives more opportunity for exploration, reflection, and self-expression. In other words, they are helping to create the kind of world they value. They are doing this by acting on those values now, in their most intimate and important decisions.

There are two longstanding pessimistic views about human nature and population. The more famous is Thomas Malthus' prediction that, because people breed as much as resources allow, growing wealth will just be grazed down to bare ground by hordes of people growing to match it. More than two centuries old, Malthus's prediction has seen periodic revivals, most recently in the fierce concern about global population of the 1960s and 1970s.

The usual thing to say in response is that Malthus didn't see how technology would make limited resources more production; but that is superficial. The real discovery is that, contrary to the pessimist (and reactionary) Malthus's view, people do not breed like lemmings. They breed like rational, passionate creatures with plans and hopes for their lives. The fact that birthrates go down with women's wealth, education, and autonomy -- that is, when everyone involved in the choice has the power to make the choice real -- is the most hopeful sign that humans can use our power of reproduction freely, sensibly, and sustainably.

Douthat's pessimism is the other side of the same coin. Malthus argued that selfish, short-sighted people would breed themselves back into poverty. Douthat worries that selfish, short-sighted people will not-breed themselves into extinction.

But humanity is doing better than that. Freedom turns out to have some tendency to be self-guiding and self-limiting. Intelligence, prudence, and ideals for a better life can discipline selfishness and short-sightedness. It may be that, on this point at least, the pessimists have misunderstood the species, and history is bending the right way.

In fact, the actual movements in childbearing don't look much like decadence at all. They look like a plausible balance of traditional responsibility and post-traditional self-realization (an important thing in search of a better name). What looks decadent is imagining we can keep rolling along, putting ever more pressure on the planet. What looks short-sighted is not thinking about the kind of future we are helping to create, not just for our own children, but for everyone.