Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Trouble With Childlessness

I've never been a fan of Amanda Marcotte's writing - she seems to specialize in second-wave-feminist-agitprop-by-rote and I've never seen her contribute anything to the gender debate that couldn't have been churned out by a well-programmed fem-bot - but this piece on the perception of childless women in society is particularly weak sauce. I'll happily concede that the word "selfish" is problematic, since it implies an overly simplistic value judgment about a social issue that is rather complex and can be looked at from many different perspectives, but there is no doubt in my mind that too many women (and men, for that matter) choosing to remain childless can create a problem for society, and that under certain social conditions the choice not to procreate can easily be described that way.

Marcotte, like any good progressive, is no doubt a fan of the comprehensive welfare state, but what she doesn't seem to realize is that bankrolling such an operation requires tax revenues - lots of them. A government can't raise enough money to pay out generous social welfare benefits just by taxing rich people, corporations, and other liberal bogeymen. You need lots of middle class workers to do that. Children (and more specifically the children had by the kind of yuppie women she cites in her piece) are, from a societal point of view, nothing more than the tax base of the future - if we neglect to have them now, there won't be enough of them around by the time we get old to pay for Social Security, Medicare, universal healthcare, and all the other wonderful goodies that our humane, liberal society has promised us. The reason one can call women (and men - again, I don't think this is purely a feminist issue) who decline to have children for lifestyle reasons selfish is that they are refusing to sacrifice any of their own happiness in the present to contribute to ensuring society's continued survival in the future. It's not because they are defying some sort of arbitrary patriarchal norm - there's a very real question of communitarian responsibility here. Just ask policy-makers in Japan. Or Germany. Or Italy. Or any other post-industrial country in which a graying population and catastrophically low birthrates threaten the long-term viability of society. Having children is a deeply personal choice, but it is not one without consequences for society-at-large by any means.

I do think it ought to be a woman's right to decide whether or not she wants to have children, and I don't go around telling my female friends that they need to get married and start having babies if they want to be complete human beings. But I don't think it's unreasonable to, say, make people who choose not to have kids pay taxes at a higher rate. They are, after all, consuming resources, without putting anything back into the system by doing their part to raise the next generation of providers.


  1. A friend and classmate of mine is writing her dissertation on European policies aimed at increasing the number of children. One takeaway is that virtually no policy to date has actually worked at increasing fertility, including incentives, taxes, welfare state benefits (i.e. years of maternity leave rather than weeks). Another takeaway that I think is directly relevant to your commentary is that different European countries with the same levels of fertility have reacted very differently, some frantically worrying about the "problem" of low fertility and problematizing it policy-wise, while other countries with similar fertility in fact do not consider it low or a problem at all. This gets at the heart of the matter, which is that a "communitarian problem" must be identified as a problem. The cases you named (Japan, Germany, etc) are cases where the country has decided it's a problem, but there are others with similarly low fertility where policymakers do not think it's a problem.

    In addition, I'll agree with you that from a certain policy perspective (i.e. social security financing) too few children is a problem, I don't think a policy problem is synonymous with a communitarian problem.

  2. Thanks for commenting Val - I'm amazed and pleased that somebody actually reads this drivel. :) I mostly update the blog to keep my intellectual machinery from getting rusty.

    I agree with you that there are no easy answers on this question, and while I haven't studied it from an academic perspective I have seen it firsthand living here in Japan - I know plenty of Japanese women who want to get married and have kids, but even with government policies intended to help them do so find it difficult to do so, because the costs are so high, economic disincentives so punishing, etc. It may be that a post-industrial, technology-based economy is not conducive to traditional child-rearing, which is a problem that all modern societies are going to have to confront. Sweden (and a few others) seem to be doing okay with it however, with both high levels of female empowerment and replacement-level or above fertility rates. There's no guarantee that something that works in a small, relatively homogeneous society would scale effectively to a larger one, but it's a starting point.

    In any case, I think we need to move past the point of conceiving of these issues strictly as questions of the validity of various individual choices vis-a-vis societal norms. In the case of feminism, I don't deny that there's still a need for it, as there's certainly still sexism in the world, but if saying that there's a need for women to have children gets one labeled a sexist, there's not much place for debate to go.