Sunday, November 20, 2005

Is Parenthood “National Service”?

I have been having a debate with myself this morning. The occasion has been a line in Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam’s excellent Weekly Standard piece which attempts to get the Republican Party to actually deliver a pro-family conservatism. They offer a whole list of interesting ideas, including this one:

Republicans might consider offering tuition credits for years spent rearing children, which could be exchanged for post-graduate or vocational education. These would be modeled on veterans' benefits--and that would be entirely appropriate. Both military service and parenthood are crucial to the country's long-term survival. It's about time we recognize that fact.

Will Wilkinson at the Fly Bottle offers a libertarian response. He found the comparison between parents and veterans as national servants “creepy.” He argues, rightly, I think, that the family is the most private of institutions, not an arm of the state. He reads Douthat and Salam as basing their argument solely on the potential tax return to the state of having more kids raised by subsidized families. I don’t think that is entirely fair – Douthat and Salam see parenthood and well-raised children as crucial to national survival in every way, not just the financial viability of the state. Still, he raises a good point. (I thank Maggie Gallagher for distributing Wilkinson’s piece).

I agree with Wilkinson’s starting point. The family is not an arm of the state. It is creepy to think of parenthood as an efficient way for the state to outsource the production of future taxpayers. It would be dehumanizing and perverse to think of parenthood as a branch of the service for which one volunteers, willy-nilly, by the act of having children.

Still, families do not exist only for themselves. The state does not exist only to serve families. Both families and the state are central institutions – the central institutions – of the nation. Parenthood is not state service, but it is national service. Parenthood is a great good even when there is no nation, as is the case for hunters and gatherers, and parenthood would still be a great good should there ever again be no nation. But we live in families in nations, nations with a hugely complex array of interdependent institutions. The institution charged with superintending the whole is the state. This means that the government is necessarily concerned with how families are functioning, promoting and supporting good parenting practices and compensating for and, if possible, diminishing bad parenting practices.

From that perspective, tuition credits for parenting is an idea worth considering.

There is a larger point in seeing parenting as national service. Families who have a vision of service larger than just serving themselves live a richer life. Parents will shape their children as citizens whether they intend to or not. Parents who raise their children to serve a larger cause than just their own comfort are performing a service to their children and to the nation. Families who work together to serve others are more cohesive and authoritative as families, and appear to be more contented, as well.

Parenthood as national service serves the nation and the family.


Reginleif said...

Unsurprising that in your vision, as well as most other pro-natalist visions, "family" only includes "people who've sprogged."

A childfree couple is as much a family as a couple with ten kids ... especially since they pay through the nose for the services that those ten kids, and everyone else's kids, use. Meanwhile, they have no guarantee that those kids are going to grow up to "cure cancer," to echo the typical breeder refrain, rather than go to jail.

Gruntled said...

A childless couple is indeed a family. My concern in this post is with parenthood.

I think it is reasonable to treat the training of the next generation as a national concern, whether each individual has a kid in that race or not.

Reginleif said...

Anonymous, thanks for the link. Reginleif, or Ms. Daisy Cutter, seems to be strongly anti-child just now. She does not explain why, so I can't go much further in direct reply to her concerns. I expect, though, that she and most of the other contributors to "child free hardcore" will feel differently when they are older.Hey, swee'pea, it's three and a half years later and I still feel the same way. No baybee rabies, no urge to breed. Oh, incidentally, I'm 41.

So much for the predictive value of breeder bingos from smug pro-natalists.