The inestimable Kerry Howley’s outstanding Reason cover piece on fertility panics is now online. Like the typical Howley production, this is a super-readable combo of fascinating facts and trenchant analysis. Kerry’s great on why talk about “desired fertility” is silly, but I think she’s most insightful on the cultural aspects of fertility policy:
For those who, with good reason, worry about the solvency of transfer programs in an age of population decline, replacement immigration looks like a partial solution, and therefore xenophobia is part of the problem. But for many if not most of the people preoccupied by fertility rates, immigration is no solution at all. The question isn’t about whether the United States, Singapore, or France will be without people in 2100; it’s about what kind of people will populate those countries: what they will look like, what they will teach in their schools, what God they will bow before. Mark Steyn’s America Alone warns that within a few generations Europe will be a Muslim continent. When Pat Buchanan discusses depopulation in The Death of the West, he does not proceed to suggest we replace children of European descent with Mexican laborers. Pro-natalist policies in Quebec, Singapore, and until recently Israel implicitly target a preferred ethnic group, attempting to fill the future with the demographics desired by the current political class.
At the heart of any fertility incentive lies an attempt to encourage a particular group of women to orient their bodies in a traditional way. Every pro-fertility policy is an effort to slow cultural transformation, to stabilize a society’s ethnic composition, to ossify a current conception of a national culture by freezing the genetic makeup of a nation. From Poland to Singapore, swollen wombs are a bulwark against change.
There is a reason we speak of “Mother Russia” and “Mother India.” Feminist sociologists such as Nira Yuval-Davis refer to women as the “boundary markers” of a state or society. While men may leave, fight, and be compromised, women represent purity and continuity. Yuval-Davis points out in her book Gender and Nation that the Hitler Youth Movement had different mottos for girls and boys. The boys’ motto was: “Live faithfully; fight bravely; die laughing.” For girls: “Be faithful; be pure; be German.” Girls simply had to be. They were the collective.
In times of great social anxiety, we see new calls for women to return to home and hearth—calls alternately cast as a return to tradition and as a progressive leap forward, but efforts, nonetheless, to enlist women in a national project while defining the boundaries of national inclusion. Depopulation is not a given, but ideologically fraught and scientifically questionable debates about gender, race, and culture will be with us no matter which way the population swings. “To know what demography is, we need to know what a population is,” the French social scientist Herve Le Bras wrote in The Invention of Populations. “That is where the trouble begins.”
Spot on! The way I see it, those obsessed with fertility are people who think the culture they desire cannot possibly win the argument against competing cultures. So, they conclude, it’s down to brute baby-making force: the culture that wins the fertility war wins the culture war. In contrast, I think liberal market culture has such immense, salient rewards (wealth, longevity, happiness, etc.) that it is not only possible to win the argument, but that we are in fact winning it. Of course, part of the winning is dynamist cultural synthesis. So if you’ve got a conservative, zoological view of cultural preservation which fixes on the importance of high-fidelity copying of inessential aspects of a culture’s history (costumes, holidays, rites, cuisine, skin colors etc.), you’re going to have a hard time of it. But if you care about the essential core of liberal modernity, you should be delighted with how things are going. You’ll eat your szechuan taco pizza and you’ll love it.