Russell and Duenes

Falling Fertility Rates are Simply “Part of Human Development in the Modern Age.”

with 12 comments

Mark Krikorian, discussing the issue of falling fertility rates at National Review Online, makes this comment: “Falling fertility rates are part of human development in the modern age — it’s happening everywhere, regardless of culture, religion, or form of government. It is inextricably part of modernity, like mass literacy and female equality. It’s a step in mankind’s social evolution or, to give a religious tinge to it, part of the unfolding of God’s design for humanity.”

Such a decline may be a part of modernity, but I can’t agree that is is “inextricably part of modernity.” There simply is no necessary causal connection between the attainments of modern technological life and the having of smaller families. Rather, I would argue, our modern technologies simply make the “contraceptive mentality” – an impulse that has always existed in mankind for one reason or another – more achievable. It also makes justifications such as Krikorian’s easier to offer. Further, Krikorian’s assertion is just that, an assertion, lacking any justification. Surely one must do more than produce a chart, as he does, showing that birth rates are declining everywhere, and then claim that this is happening due to…”modernity.” The reader should like to know what, precisely, it is about modernity that has led to the birth rate in this country to fall “from [the] rate of 7 children per white woman in 1800 to 2 today.” And why couldn’t it be based on the reasons that Krikorian so easily dismisses, namely, “indolence and hedonism?” Granted, such analysis would take a lot of unpacking, but that is no reason to offer overly confident assertions that require sufficient justification.

And I most definitely do not agree that decreased childbearing is “part of the unfolding of God’s design for humanity.” Whether expressed seriously or only tongue-in-cheek, it is this kind of statement that betrays our mentality towards children and large families in particular. The main “unpleasantry” of not replacing our population is, well, you know.

-D

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Written by Michael Duenes

January 4, 2012 at 2:39 pm

12 Responses

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  1. D-

    I don’t have a dog in this fight, as I have nothing against large or small families, as long as the state does not provide incentives either way.

    But allow me to play devil’s advocate.

    1) I suspect it’s a matter of wealth. We are wealthier, so large families don’t have the economic advantages they once had. In 1800, I’d need 7 kids so that when the inevitable 1 or 2 die young, I still have 5 surviving to help me on the farm and take care of me when I’m old. The economic incentive to have a large family isn’t there anymore.

    2) Biblically, how do you interpret 1 Cor 7? The whole chapter seems to say it’s better to not marry, and thus, not have kids. It seems to me one could argue that kids take away from ministry opportunities, using the same logic that Paul says that marriage does. That is, if it’s better not to marry, because a wife splits your loyalties from the Lord, won’t kids split your loyalty even more?

    1 Cor 7:32-34:
    32 But I want you to be free from concern. One who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord; 33 but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided.

    -Bates

    Bates

    January 5, 2012 at 1:38 pm

    • Bates – Let me take these in reverse order. First, it’s interesting that you bring up 1 Cor. 7, because I just finished translating through it while doing some reading in Gordon Fee’s commentary along the way. Fee has convinced me that Paul’s main thrust is not at all that singleness is better than marriage per se. Paul’s argument is not moral, but eschatological. In other words, Paul argues that, in light of the present distress, it is good for a single person to remain as they are, as Paul has done. However, I’m convinced that Paul is not arguing that singleness is better morally and spiritually, though he considers it better in light of the times, if one is so gifted and able to contain one’s desires. Thus, the whole chapter of 1 Cor. 7 is not about the “better-ness” of singleness, but about contentfully remaining in the context in which one was called, whether married or single. It’s a tough chapter, but I don’t think it’s about exalting singleness, though that is the common reading. But even if it were better, my argument is not with single people, but with married people who have a contraceptive mentality. Single people, by definition, shouldn’t be having children.

      Your first point is well-taken, and I don’t question the validity of it in general. No doubt having large families is no longer necessary in terms of subsistence for families. But I don’t agree with your assertion that “the economic incentive isn’t there any longer.” It’s there, and it will soon come crashing in upon civilizations like ours that want to have a soft socialism, but won’t have nearly enough children to foot the bill. So while we appear not to need so many children, we in fact do, if we want to keep our industrialized lifestyle going. When you’re not replacing the population, the economics get pretty simple. Look at our unfunded liabilities for Social Security, Medicare, and so forth, and you see the problem. Further, the fact that we have more wealth could just as easily be an incentive to have MORE children, if we were thinking biblically about these matters. We could better afford them, which is often the pro-contraceptive argument (i.e., I can’t afford to have more children). My point is that there is no causal relationship between modernity and having small families. The fact that it’s happening in modernity surely requires more explanation than: We have more money. What needs explaining is why, exactly, having more money should lead inexorably to having fewer children. I suspect that greed and selfishness have some explanatory power.

      -D

      russell and duenes

      January 6, 2012 at 9:00 am

      • It’s there, and it will soon come crashing in upon civilizations like ours that want to have a soft socialism, but won’t have nearly enough children to foot the bill.

        You’re completely right, and I can’t believe I forgot to include what’s become my usual rejoinder to the “economic incentive” discussion. Your point is made in the abstract; you’re discussing society-wide fertility and entitlements, but I see this writ small in real life every week with elderly people who need, e.g., nursing homes or home care and can’t afford it. Invariably it is much, much easier for families to cope with all this if the elderly parent has more, rather than fewer, children (and I really mean MUCH easier! It’s a BIG DEAL if costs, or time, can be divided among 6 adult children rather than two!).

        If you don’t deal regularly with elderly people, you likely won’t perceive this the way I do. The statistic is always bandied about that kids today cost $200,000 or whatever to raise from 0-18, and the subtext is usually that this makes kids cost-prohibitive .But I think, based on what I’ve seen, that even from a purely mercenary perspective the return on investment from having a lot of kids turns out to be worthwhile when you grow old.

        Samson J.

        January 6, 2012 at 11:10 am

  2. I don’t have a dog in this fight, as I have nothing against large or small families, as long as the state does not provide incentives either way.

    Really? Do you style yourself a libertarian?

    I suspect it’s a matter of wealth.

    Me too.

    The economic incentive to have a large family isn’t there anymore.

    In fact, there’s quite often an economic disincentive. But there’s a bright side – I think that Christians should adopt a long view, and the long view is this: our current social model is selecting for people who *like* having children. That’s good news in the long-term.

    Biblically, how do you interpret 1 Cor 7? The whole chapter seems to say it’s better to not marry, and thus, not have kids.

    I think that this whole chapter is very commonly misunderstood today. When it was written, Corinth was undergoing a period of fairly significant economic hardship, and *that* is the reason he says it is better not to marry – he means not right now. The passage was never intended, as so many take it, to mean that it is everywhere, in every age, better not to marry.

    And even without that explanation, I always think, come on, really? In light of all that the bible says elsewhere about the blessing of marriage and children, do we really think Paul is going to teach us that singleness is a better way?

    Samson J.

    January 5, 2012 at 4:08 pm

    • I meant to add that a great book on the topic is Bruce Winter’s After Paul Left Corinth.

      Samson J.

      January 5, 2012 at 4:13 pm

    • I agree, and since you also have raised the issue on 1 Cor. 7, I think I’ll post some choice thoughts and excerpts from Fee’s commentary, which I think is spot on.

      -D

      russell and duenes

      January 6, 2012 at 9:03 am

  3. Samson-

    Yes, I am a libertarian.

    D-

    Yes, I believe fewer kids will contribute to the collapse of the current socialist structure. But fear of that collapse doesn’t incentivize parents to have more kids. That is, the economic cost of one more kid in a particular middle to upper class family far exceeds the benefit to that family that a microscopic improvement in social security’s health will provide the family. The cost is concentrated on the individual family, the benefit is spread out among millions. This is the problem with socialism in general- those who pay the cost are not those who benefit, so they stop paying the cost, usually by stopping production. It’s the exact same principle.

    I’m not saying it’s right or good. I’m just saying that in general, people respond to individual costs and benefits. Call it greed if you want, but I don’t think people are more greedy now than they were before, I just think the incentives have changed. The current system incentivizes smaller families for the upper and middle classes, in my opinion.

    As for the Biblical perspective, you both basically said, “It was only for that time, it doesn’t apply to us.” Or, “Paul just wants us to stay content as we are, married or unmarried.”

    However, neither of you addressed the specific passage I quoted. Paul said the one who is married is concerned with pleasing his wife, while the one who is single is concerned with pleasing the Lord.

    Doesn’t that logic still apply today?

    And if it does, can’t it be extended to married couples? That is, couples with kids are concerned with matters of their children, whereas couples without kids can pursue more ministry opportunities?

    Yes, I see other parts of the Bible that talk about the blessings of children. That only makes this passage all the more puzzling for me.

    I myself have kids, and feel no guilt over it, but I have difficulty countering the argument I presented.

    Bates

    January 6, 2012 at 11:23 am

    • That is, the economic cost of one more kid in a particular middle to upper class family far exceeds the benefit to that family that a microscopic improvement in social security’s health will provide the family. The cost is concentrated on the individual family, the benefit is spread out among millions</i.

      Bates, I know you were writing at the same time as me, so I will direct the reader to my other reply, above. In sum: I agree with you that this is how most people approach the issue (if they approach it at all); it's a classic "tragedy of the commons". But I maintain that it's actually untrue, and short-sighted, to think this way. Children are a huge financial benefit in old age to everyone except those with a lot of money, and I think that when entitlements are cut (which they will be), retirees with a lot of kids are going to be glad they have them.

      I'll think about your other point for a bit and try and get back to you later.

      Samson J.

      January 6, 2012 at 11:39 am

    • Points well-made, as usual, Bates. I’ll write some more on 1 Cor. 7 and see what we come up with.

      -D

      russell and duenes

      January 6, 2012 at 8:45 pm

  4. Samson-

    Most nursing home and home care provider transactions are heavily subsidized and regulated by medicare, medical, and social security. If that were removed, I agree, there would be more economic incentive on individual families to have more kids (and more incentive on parents to save for retirement, etc).

    I also argue that there would be more variety, ingenuity, and competition among home care providers, and prices would come down (I realize that is an entirely different debate, however).

    -Bates

    Bates

    January 7, 2012 at 9:33 am

  5. Most nursing home and home care provider transactions are heavily subsidized and regulated by medicare, medical, and social security.

    They are here in Canada, too, but I think it’s still not so simple. For one thing, the government generally only pays for what it thinks you need, not everything that you want. So, for instance, there are different levels of homes: basic, government-subsidized facilities where the staff are over-worked, and really nice, comfortable ones that offer better treatment and more independence but cost a lot of private money.

    For people who refuse to enter any kind of assisted-living home, there is home care, but again, the government won’t subsidize nearly as much as a lot of people would ideally like. Respite care is a real thing – where a person is admitted to hospital so that exhausted caregivers can be given a break. This wouldn’t need to happen if home care were able to do it all.

    I am willing to acknowledge that because of government subsidies, yes, children are not NECESSARY for survival in old age, and in pure dollar value children are probably a losing investment. But it just is not the case that “the government provides care” and that’s the end of the story. The intangible, non-financial (and probably most important) aspect to all of this is that almost everyone would rather be cared for, and visited, in their old age by family rather than strangers.

    I think I’ve made my point, and I’ll let it stand here.

    Samson J.

    January 7, 2012 at 11:29 am

    • Or as Mark Steyn has said, in a take off from Margaret Thatcher, “Eventually you run out of other people.” The government engine, and all of its programs, depend on people earning money. If you don’t have the people, you don’t have the money. If your family trees become upside down, you eventually hit a wall. Moderns have been slow to entirely resistant to learning this.

      -D

      russell and duenes

      January 8, 2012 at 1:27 pm


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