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May 3, 2006

Three Out of Three Ain't Bad

Presumably, Andrew Stuttaford had some sort of evidence in mind when he wrote the following odd assertion, but it certainly reads like a statistical datum entirely removed from experienced reality:

As for why people are having fewer children (a trend that you can see in many places across the planet, not just Europe), that is more likely to reflect the fact that, thanks to modern medicine, more children survive into adulthood. There's less need, so to speak, for "spares". To attribute part of the blame for this phenomenon on a supposed European cultural or spiritual deficit is entirely to miss the point.

Each of my parents was one of three siblings, and that was considered normal for families formed in the 1940s. I now have three children, but that's nearly considered to be reckless procreation. Would Mr. Stuttaford have me believe that my grandparents were normal and I'm profligate because they intended to have only one or two children but figured they should have an extra or two just in case, while I have no such excuse?

Yes, I'm sure there are arguments — akin to those I myself have made about social trends — that the need for "spares" is more culturally, than individually, understood. But that doesn't seem to capture the cultural forces at work. When I've been subjected to the presumptuous (and not infrequently offered) observation that I have too many children, the reasoning has had more to do with their cost than with a lack of need for them. And a focus on the cost seems, to me, at least, to have traces in our self-absorbed lifestyles. How can a person afford the latest high-tech gadgets, after all, with so many mouths to feed, and how can all of the content piling up in the DVR be viewed with children pleading for attention?

That Stuttaford makes the following suggestion implies that he intuitively understands that the natural desire for multiple children is being suppressed by cost — in what one might term as a sort of "spiritual deficit" — rather than falling to some natural number based on need:

... if countries really do wish to increase, or at least slow the decrease, in their birth rates, some of the evidence (at least so far as Europe is concerned) appears to show that making it easier for women to go out to work is the way to go.

I'd worry that such an approach would merely reinforce the social habits that make it so difficult to live on a single income in the first place (owing to an economy with an inflated workforce). On the other hand, sticking to the cold economic calculations that seem to drive libertarian thinking even on such warm and cushy matters as children, and making the gigantic assumption that a more fertile foreign culture won't overwhelm the West, perhaps the best thing countries can do is to reinforce the trends of decline. After all, at some point, parents will realize that it is in their own best interest to increase the odds of having offspring who won't vote to put them to sleep in their old age and at least one who will step in to help when the social welfare regime finally collapses.

Posted by Justin Katz at May 3, 2006 7:18 PM
Marriage & Family