Sunday, September 18, 2005

The Coming Natalist Movement

Americans don’t have enough kids to keep the population up.

We are blessed with immigrants, who both add instant population when they move here, and have more kids than the average American. But that seems to be a phenomenon of one generation. The United States, like all the other industrialized nations, has too few kids per native-born mother – under the replacement level of 2.1 kids (on average) per mother.

In the past there have been “natalist” movements in countries that thought their population was shrinking or not growing fast enough. Columnist David Brooks has talked about a natalist movement in this country, but he really just means that some Americans want to have a bunch of kids and live in places that are safe, cheap, and family-friendly. This is not so much a movement as a name for one smallish subsection of Americans, mostly quite religious people who are moving away from the big cities.

Demographer Ben Wattenberg has been lamenting the “birth dearth” for nearly two decades. He is critical, though, of government-run natalist movements, like those in Europe, where the birthrates and immigration rates are even lower than here. Italy, for example, has a fertility rate of 1.2 children per woman, whereas the U.S. is a bit under 2.

I agree that a government-run natalist movement would probably not work in this country. In fact, since many people believe that we have too many people, not too few, it would be politically disastrous to the administration which officially tried to encourage people to have more kids.

The American way to do just about anything, though, is for the movement to begin with the people, not the government. Some conservative religious groups already support family life as a blessed vocation. So far, though, I have not found an organized politically based natalist movement.

Centrists should seriously consider a movement with this modest goal: all stable married couples should think about having three kids. Each couple has different circumstances, of course, and not all couples can have all the children they want. But for the last generation the norm in the stable middle class has been that one or two kids was the responsible limit. The facts have changed: consider three.

The natural home for such a movement would be among conservatives, and therefore in the Republican Party. I think, in response to this natural inclination, that liberals and Democrats should take the lead in a new natalist movement. Supporting a more generous standard of how many kids we can afford is, after all, a liberal thing to do.


thisniss said...

Beau, congratulations on your blog launch! I'm excited to see where you go with this (in your first week, you've already outpaced my blog productivity of the last three months).

I have been thinking a lot about "natalism" recently, but from the opposite perspective (surprise?). I've just finished reading Lee Edelman's _No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive_. Despite the psychoanalytic frameworks (blech) and the sometimes cloying clever-turns-of-phrase that I love/hate in most contemporary critical theory, Edelman presents a compelling ethical argument against what he calls "reproductive futurism" and its reification in the image of "the Child." I suspect you would hate this book.

Ah, my kiddo is up for a late-night potty trip, so I'll have to save more contrariness for later. Looking forward to it... :) Annissa

Gruntled said...

Yes, I have not read this book (or even heard of it), and I suspect that you are also right that I would not agree with it much. I am glad to learn about it from you, though.

The title reminds me of an idea from Degenerate Moderns (a book I think you would not agree with much). The economist Keynes famously argued that we can't wait for the long run to straighten out the economy, because, "in the long run we are all dead." Michael Jones argues that Keynes could take this position, in part, because he was gay and never expected to have children -- never expected to be invested in the "long run" in the way that parents normally are. Is Edelman's argument anything like this?