Why Bother With Family?
If conservatives do not speak for the family, who will?
Millennials are on track to be the least married generation in American history. They are running out of time to make up for their record childlessness. That’s a lot of alienation and misery, some of it unnecessary. Aren’t such crises what politics is for?
Many on the right say no. The state has no business judging its citizens’ household arrangements, they say. We don’t want politicians declaring the number of babies being born is too low or the number of single women is too high.
If there are things that are distorting people’s decision-making, then maybe we can tweak those, some libertarians admit. If young people are putting off marriage because of crushing college debt, then maybe we need some form of relief. If families can’t afford housing big enough for their desired number of children, then maybe we need better housing policy.
But family policy? No. As long as no one is preventing people from marrying and having kids, then government should stay out of it. Let everyone make their own choices, and things will work themselves out.
Sydney Smith was a big believer in letting things work themselves out. In an article for the Edinburgh Review in 1810 on women’s education, the liberal clergyman mocked the idea that anyone should worry that giving ladies too much schooling might unfit them for motherhood. “Can anything,” he wrote, “be more perfectly absurd than to suppose that the care and perpetual solicitude which a mother feels for her children depends upon her ignorance of Greek and mathematics, and that she would desert an infant for a quadratic equation?”
An admirable sentiment, but is it completely true? Can we just assume that the impulse to form families is so strong that society can always trust that people will find a way to satisfy it?
Nearly 25 percent of Millennial women are now projected to have zero children in their lifetimes. Less than 5 percent of women say when asked that they want no children. That leaves the other 20 percent — millions of women who will die childless, not because they wanted to, but because they couldn’t put the pieces together in time.
Nearly 25 percent of Millennial women are now projected to have zero children in their lifetimes.
One factor might be the very subject Smith was discussing: education. Women have outnumbered men on college campuses for decades, resulting in an imbalance between the number of college-educated single women and the number of college-educated men available to them as partners. Yet women’s standards for marriageability have remained as high as they were when the imbalance was in men’s favor, wanting a partner who earns more and is at least as educated. This mismatch is one reason the share of American adults who have never married has reached a record high of 35 percent, up from 21 percent twenty years ago and 9 percent in 1970.
It’s not exactly “deserting an infant for a quadratic equation.” But it’s not something we should ignore, either. Women’s preference for having a partner who has at least as much education as they do may not be rational, but it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. If constantly expanding college enrollment is cutting off large segments of the female population from a supply of marriageable men, then that is something to weigh against any attempt to boost college enrollment even further. We can’t just shrug and assume that whatever people end up doing must reflect their preferences.
Our forebears didn’t. After the Revolutionary War, the young republic saw what Gordon Wood has described as a “sudden flood of didactic novels and pedagogical writings warning of the dangers of seduction.” Every novel on the American market, it seemed, warned of the horrible consequences of choosing the wrong marriage partner or dallying sexually without securing a marriage commitment first. Wood chalked it up to the worries of “fathers, husbands, masters, and magistrates” that “patriarchy was in disarray.” That is one interpretation. It could also be that sexual mistakes were not the kind of mistake that made male authority figures most anxious but simply the kind that they figured people were most likely to make.
There’s a reason so much art throughout human history has been about choosing a sexual partner. It’s the topic on which young people are most in need of instruction. Left to their own devices, their decision-making in this sphere is exceptionally bad.
Young people are impulsive, romantic, and not very good at predicting what will matter to them decades down the line. That is as true today as it was in 1776. Young people still tend to prioritize the short term over the long term, whether they are teenage girls attracted to bad boys over stable providers or thirtysomething women who put off childbearing on the assumption that they will have plenty of time to figure out family stuff after they put their careers in order.
Such myopia is not just typical of reckless teenagers, nor of the less educated women whom elites might lecture about “life choices.” It’s often elites themselves. Nicole Shanahan, the wife of Google cofounder Sergey Brin, is a brilliant and accomplished woman. Yet Shanahan admits that her early life decisions about work and family were made in ignorance of basic facts about female fertility. She dreamed of having it all, she told the MIT Technology Review. “It was eye-opening to me that there are biological factors that would limit that dream.”
“Like many women who are not quite ready to start a family in their early thirties, I decided…to take matters into my own hands and freeze embryos,” Shanahan said in 2019. “However, after three failed attempts at embryo-making and three dozen visits to in vitro fertilization clinics around the Bay Area, I learned that I was not nearly as unshakable as I thought I was.”
Shanahan has since donated tens of millions of dollars through her personal charity to establish a Center for Female Reproductive Longevity and Equality at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, to research ways to help women become pregnant later in life. (Happily, she and Brin welcomed a daughter in 2018.)
If even a woman as well-educated as Shanahan didn’t have an accurate sense of the facts of biological fertility, the average women must be at least as misinformed — and according to surveys, they are. Women overestimate their chance of becoming pregnant naturally after 40, guessing a 60 percent chance in a given month when the real likelihood is 5 percent. They also consistently overestimate the odds that a round of in vitro fertilization (IVF) will successfully result in a live birth.
We could try telling them the truth, but lots of people don’t want women better informed on this subject. For some, it is a matter of self-interest. Employers prefer women to focus on their careers without worrying that their window for having children is closing – so much so that firms now pay employees to put their eggs on ice. Companies that sell consumer goods to single women like it when they have plenty of disposable income to spend on themselves.
For others, it is a matter of ideology. Feminists don’t like to hear anyone talk about biological clocks. In 2002, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine wanted to place ads on buses and in movie theatres informing women of various fertility-related facts, to correct precisely the sort of false assumptions that Shanahan and educated women like her often have. One ad, for example, simply stated, “Advancing Age Decreases Your Ability to Have Children.” The National Organization for Women (NOW) organized a successful campaign to get the ads pulled, not because anything in them was false, but on the grounds that they “sent a negative message to women who might want to delay or skip childbearing in favor of career pursuits.”
Employers prefer women to focus on their careers without worrying that their window for having children is closing – so much so that firms now pay employees to put their eggs on ice.
Letting people make their own informed decisions should be the default choice of any conservative political philosophy. But in the matter of family and childbearing, if we simply trust people to make their own individual choices, we may find that people don’t make choices in their own long-term best interests, as they themselves would understand if they were better informed about the facts and better able to predict their own desires later in life.
The tragedy of these choices is that, by their nature, by the time someone realizes she has made the wrong decision, it’s often too late. Yet another reason not to simply assume that if fewer people today are getting married and having kids, it’s because they prefer things to work out that way.
Such misguided assumptions permeate our policy debates. Like many documents that are more talked about than read, Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous Labor Department memo “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action” is frequently misunderstood – not just its subtleties, but its basic argument, and not just by laymen but by experts who should know better.
A book of retrospective essays published to mark the report’s 40th anniversary, The Moynihan Report Revisited, states in its editors’ introduction: “Moynihan’s core argument was really rather simple: whenever males in any population subgroup lack widespread access to reliable jobs, decent earnings, and key forms of socially rewarded status, single parenthood will increase, with negative side effects on women and children.”
That was not Moynihan’s argument. His point was almost the opposite. He wrote the report after seeing a graph that has come to be known as “Moynihan’s scissors,” which showed welfare cases going up at the same time that black male unemployment was going down. Previously the two lines had run in parallel. Single motherhood used to increase when economic times were bad and jobs were scarce; after 1962, it kept increasing even when economic times were good and jobs were plentiful.
People had assumed that there was nothing wrong with inner-city family formation that prosperity wouldn’t fix. The editors of that essay collection apparently still think so. But something deeper was wrong. Prosperity may be necessary, but it was not sufficient. Maybe it was cultural. Maybe it was government programs and their perverse incentives. Either way, family formation had to be treated as a target of policy and not just a byproduct.
In the matter of family and childbearing, if we simply trust people to make their own individual choices, we may find that people don’t make choices in their own long-term best interests.
Alas, such an observation is inadmissible in our day. Last November, J.D. Vance tweeted, “As a parent of young children and a nationalist who worries about America’s low fertility I can say with confidence that daylight savings time reduces fertility by at least 10 percent.”
Critics pounced on him, not for making a lame dad joke, but for supposedly endorsing white nationalism. “Hillbilly Elegy Author Faces Backlash over Remarks Connecting Nationalism to Fertility Rate,” read the headline in Salon.com. Blue checks on Twitter murmured darkly about Lothrop Stoddard and the “‘great replacement’ conspiracy theory.”
This was, without exaggeration, insane. But it was a good indication of where the pundit class is on family policy. The very idea that a country’s government might worry about declining fertility rates is dismissed as a racist dogwhistle.
Conservatives should reject that blinkered view. Declines in fertility and marriage rates can be taken not just as indications that something may be wrong with the economy or housing policy or college debt, but as problems in themselves.
Not everyone wants a white picket fence, two-point-five children, a male breadwinner, and a stay-at-home mom. There’s plenty of room for pluralism. But stable families are good. Marriage is good. Babies are good. Public policy should acknowledge that. If conservatives won’t, who will?See more from this series
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