Washington, DC. Parents are admonished to care for their children. Nature and scripture alike testify to the unique bond of filial love. Philosophers, prophets, and saints have long insisted that the household presents a unique complex of moral demands, and these are of central importance for the formation and expression of human character. It is for this reason that St. Paul insisted that anyone who doesn’t attend first and foremost to his own household is worse than an unbeliever.
Among the demands of household management is the law of inheritance. Parents are conduits between generations. They are obliged to take the best of what their parents have bequeathed to them and to pass it undiminished to their posterity. If possible they should take what they have been given and improve upon it. Passing the inheritance on in a lesser state, however, constitutes a moral failing.
In this sense the Boomer generation must be counted as a failure on multiple fronts. If we regard inheritance purely as wealth, the crippling debt they are passing on to their progeny suggests selfish indulgence. We are not only stewards of monetary capital, however, we are also stewards of social capital, and the main assets of social capital are the stability and well-being of social institutions. Here the record condemns perhaps more thoroughly. Our churches, our schools, our structures of government and finance, our entertainment industries, all show signs of decay and distress. But perhaps nowhere is the failure of the leading generation more pronounced than in the hash they have made of the institutions of marriage and family.
By way of preface, let me state two axioms: first, government has no compelling interest in love. It neither encourages nor discourages persons from loving one another. When the President said in his Inaugural address that “the love we commit to one another must be equal,” assuming he thought it through, this may be formally true from a legal standpoint, but it’s materially irrelevant. Adjudicating or dictating love is beyond government’s competency.
Second, while government does not create human relationships, its policies can operate reflexively. Through incentives and disincentives, often difficult to detect, government pushes isometrically on the institutions on which it depends. For this reason, policy needs to be considered with great prudence and a sense of what it can and can’t accomplish, all with an eye to the common good and not by focusing on individual desires. Love simpliciter between two or more persons has, at best, only a tangential relationship to the common good. Strong public claims grounded in the demand for recognition with its inherent self-directedness must therefore be looked at skeptically.
Government’s interest in marriage comes down to three things. First, any regime is composed of a proper ruling authority, territory, and people. Without these it cannot be sustained. So a government must make sure it has sufficient numbers of persons to fill the regime. This means government has a distinct interest in procreation, the process by which government can depend on intergenerational continuity, mutual dependency, and interactive care.
Government’s second interest is to support institutional arrangements most conducive to the flourishing of young persons as they enter into public life: in other words, not just persons, but ideally the right sorts of persons. Government ought to deliberate prudently about the social forms best suited to this task and neither attempt to supplant nor erode the meaning-granting and formative authority of these institutions. This relates to the third interest: that is, government’s role as a protector of associative life. Government doesn’t create civil society; rather government is created by and for the institutions of civil life for their defense and preservation. It emerges out of civil life and loses its legitimacy when it absorbs the authority of those institutions into itself, even if this is done for putatively good purposes. Government’s preservative role is thus intimately connected to its interest in supporting natural arrangements that produce and nurture human beings.
It has long been thought that marriage was the social institution most responsible for performing these duties, and government could in a certain sense operate in oblivion of marriage so long as marital unions successfully performed their functions. If marriage were to become deinstitutionalized, however, this could have serious consequences for the stability, appropriate growth, and overall well-being of the regime. This is especially true if, as Jennifer Morse has pointed out, society views fertility as a problem to be solved and not a gift to be embraced.
Already in 2004 Phillip Longman in The Empty Cradle began to draw attention to the implications of declining birthrates, mainly in terms of their threat to prosperity. The combination of a rapidly aging society and smaller pools of workers would necessarily place tremendous stress on state welfare systems. Longman presciently noted that “An economy that creates disincentives to have children, while undercompensating parents and other caregivers for the essential human capital they create, is living beyond its means.” Allan Carlson, in Conjugal America as well as other works has drawn attention to the ways in which government policies disincentivize or penalize family life. In a more dyspeptic, indeed apocalyptic, tone Mark Steyn in America Alone argued that Europe would be of no help in the coming clash of civilizations because the combination of declining birthrates and material indulgence among the elderly would render it too decadent and weak to mount a challenge to cultures not as far down the slide of decline. The world, Steyn opined, belongs to the fecund.
In November and December last David Brooks and Ross Douthat wrote in the NYTimes about America’s emerging fertility crisis. While Steyn thought that Americans might withstand European style fertility declines, Brooks and Douthat looked at data that indicated Americans too were facing a demography crisis. But the most comprehensive presentation of the shift in fertility has come in Jonathan Last’s What to Expect When No one Is Expecting. As of 2010, Last notes, the average number of children per woman in the US stands at 1.93 – below the replacement rate of 2.1. This decline in “human capital” is the determinative factor of our politics, regardless of which party holds power. An aging population that is not replacing itself will create enormous pressures on the political system, as the experiences in Europe and Japan attest. In one interesting observation concerning Japan’s long-standing economic troubles – and it may be all you need to know – Last relays that in the past year more adult diapers than baby diapers were purchased in Japan.
When children are brought into this world, they emerge into a rapidly changing institutional context. 40% of children are now born to unmarried mothers, and more than half of the women under the age of 30 who have children have them outside of marriage. Americans are increasingly likely to see marriage itself as “obsolete,” with 39% answering in the affirmative when asked that question. In 1990 65% of Americans said that children are important to marriage. By 2010 that number had declined to 41%. In the past 60 years the percentage of adult Americans living alone has more than tripled.
Even if children are born into an intact family unit, they have a less than even chance of making it to adulthood in that same family. In cities, the percentages are significantly lower than that. In Cleveland only 15% of children make it to adulthood in an intact family. In Baltimore, 16%. Here in the nation’s capitol only 17% of children will make it to adulthood living with cohabiting parents. And as Americans become increasingly open to non-marital co-habitation the consequences for children shift accordingly. Co-habiting couples are less likely to have children, but when they do 2/3 of those couples will split before their child reaches the age of 10.
I need not rehearse here all the data indicating diminished social outcomes for children who don’t grow up with the benefit of two co-habiting parents. By any important social measure – educationally, poverty rates, crime rates, emotional well-being, sexual activity – they lag behind their peers. The important point is this: there is little government can do to compensate for parental failure. Its best bet is to encourage arrangements that maximize parental care for their own offspring.
The key reasons behind the declining birth rates are clearly cultural, beginning with regnant notions of personal autonomy and the confusion of happiness with flourishing. It is hard not to note either despair or selfishness in individual’s reasoning about why they “choose” not to have children. The pages of The Atlantic, for example, tack between stories which treat children as a barrier to self-fulfillment and those which see them as a desirable accessory to a bourgeois life.
Indeed, the transformation of America into a deracinated, cosmopolitan empire has, in terms of historical comparisons, almost necessarily meant that connection to one’s ancestors has faded and with it the impulse to reproduce. Spengler in The Decline of the West noted that healthy cultures ground themselves in “the element of wonder” that emerges out of the primitive life-force. “When the ordinary thought of a highly cultivated people,” he wrote, “begins to regard ‘having children’ as a question of pro’s and con’s, the great turning point has come. For nature knows nothing of pro and con. Everywhere, where life is actual, reigns an inward organic logic, an ‘it,’ a drive, that is utterly independent of waking-being … when reasons have to be put forward at all in a question of life, life itself has become questionable.”
I recently had a conversation with some former students, all of them female. At one point the conversation turned to their plans for the future, and whether this included marriage and children. One of them, on a heated career track, said “No way I’m going to have kids. I’d have to give up shellfish, fermented cheeses, and alcohol while I’m pregnant.” I found this confession astonishing. You’re really going to close yourself to the greatest temporal gift and adventure available to human beings because you can’t do without sushi or blue cheese for a couple of months? It’s an attitude of pure self-indulgence, and an inability to understand how the parent is created by the child.
One of the other young women was more pensive. She wondered how one could justify bringing a child into such a troubled world. Philosophers of old had also wondered, given the hardness of this world, whether it might not have been better never to have been born at all. Children are expressions of hope and faith as well as love, however. To bear children is to insist that despair is not the final word on human life. In many of my conversations with young persons they express that they don’t want to have children. Scratch below the surface, however, and you’ll find that it’s often the case not that they don’t want them, but that courtship, dating, marriage, and family life are all so higglety-pigglety that they suspect it will likely never happen for them. So, as Nietzsche recommended, they are learning to love what they believe to be their fate. Such is the world of a young person in modern America.
It is hard to imagine how we could have created a more confused and confusing sexual universe for our children. A recent study from the APA called this “an unprecedented time in the history of human sexuality,” paying special attention to the emergence of the “hook-up” culture among young persons. According to the report 61% of 7th, 9th, and 11th graders report having engaged in sexual encounters with someone whom they were not dating. 60-80% of college students participate in some kind of hook-up experience. This is the flip-side of the phenomenon recently reported on in the NYTimes concerning the utter chaos and unworkability of the current dating scene. Indeed, there hardly is such a thing as dating anymore, and the concept of courtship has been thoroughly consigned to the mothballs. The fact is there is no social institution whose authority or functionality is such that it can help young persons navigate these troubled seas.
So we see the wisdom in the Pontifical Council writing on the Meaning of Human Sexuality that:
In the past, even when the family did not provide specific sexual education, the general culture was permeated by respect for fundamental values and hence served to protect and maintain them. In the greater part of society, both in developed and developing countries, the decline of traditional models has left children deprived of consistent and positive guidance, while parents find themselves unprepared to provide adequate answers. The new context is made worse by what we observe: an eclipse of the truth about man which, among other things, exerts pressure to reduce sex to something commonplace. In this area, society and the mass media most of the time provide depersonalized, recreational and often pessimistic information.
The key thing about social trends is that any one living in the society is subject to those trends. It is difficult to escape them, even if they don’t quite rise to the level of an iron cage. Like Weber’s contrasting of traditional economies with capitalist ones, the traditional model of family life has largely been negated by a vast cosmos of social organization that operates non-teleologically when it comes to human action and stresses instead the inviolability of personal autonomy. It severs the natural connectedness of human beings in favor of the quest for self-fulfillment. It was Shaw who noted that the price of female emancipation was repudiation of “duty to her husband, her children, to society, to the law.”
Thus even if one has tried to live more traditionally, at some inflection point things get unhinged. Such unhinging necessarily creates misunderstanding and anxiety between the generations, the ways of life of both becoming mutually incomprehensible. While it was once thought prudent to spend part of ones college years searching for a spouse (where, outside of church with its much smaller numbers, is one likely to have so many quality options available?) the “senior scramble” is now derided as the pathetic flailings of the desperate and ambitionless.
Perhaps, then, the key thing Christians can offer on these issues to the surrounding culture is an antidote to the pervasive selfishness and hopelessness – the decadence, in short – that characterizes the dominant attitudes toward marriage and family life. The data indicate that religious persons are more likely to have children, and are more likely to have more children, than their non-religious counterparts. The long-term consequences of the selection process by which secular persons tend not to marry or have children while religious persons do can hardly be guessed at as yet. Additionally, by drawing on its historic resources Christian faith offers a different conception of the human person from the addled one so prevalent, and thus provides a surer foundation for sound law and policy. In any case, it always begins from an idea that the foundation of good social policy is the defense of the household. The man who doesn’t do that is worse than an unbeliever.