Published January 8, 2024
It seems like nearly every installment of Star Trek included at least one scene where the USS Enterprise, damaged by conniving villains or mysterious nebulae, is listing through space without the use of its warp drive. Ideally, the ship would be hauled into dock and outfitted with a new core. But in the meantime, emergency measures are called for.
Very few superweapons out of science fiction could threaten worse damage than a future where both people in Western and Eastern civilizations are increasingly choosing not to partner or reproduce. It’s not just a speed bump, it’s an all-hands-on-deck crisis.
Like Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott, politicians aren’t miracle workers. In a liberal democracy, politics is the art of settling for the half-loaf and establishing the preconditions for the pre-political institutions of society, like the family and the church, to do what they do best. While ground-up spiritual renewal may be welcome, we don’t have the luxury of stripping society down to the studs and rebuilding from scratch. Instead, we need a team of Scottys to muddle through and fix public policy as best they can, giving religion and culture a chance to do the necessary long-term work.
Catherine Pakaluk’s essay, drawn from her forthcoming (and sure to be fascinating) book, Hannah’s Children, makes a strong argument that no amount of fiddling with the dials and levers of public policy can make up for declining religiosity. “People will lay down their comforts, dreams, and selves for God—not for subsidies,” she writes. Politics, she suggests, has little to no role to play in creating a future with more Children of Men in it. Instead, she argues, “Religion is the cardinal family policy.”
At some very fundamental level, it’s hard to disagree too vehemently. You cannot understand the decline of fertility across the globe without recognizing that it is largely driven by a decline in marriage and, for many, a technology-fueled shift from seeing parenthood as an expectation to an increasingly optional lifestyle choice.
Pakaluk correctly notes that monetary costs alone—diapers, wipes, formula, childcare—aren’t the sole driver keeping many women from becoming mothers. For the women she spoke to, the “relevant obstacle” to parenthood was “the cost of missing out on the other things you could have done with your time, your money, or your life.” In economist-speak, that’s called the opportunity cost of having children. As both I and the Cato Institute’s Alex Nowrasteh have stressed, the cost of what one has to forgo in order to have children has unquestionably gone up, and this increase is a fundamental driver of the fertility plunge.
The rising opportunity cost of parenthood, especially for women, has far-reaching ramifications. As recent Nobel laureate Claudia Golden explored in her book, Career & Family, it used to be only a small subset of women, typically in elite careers, who needed to carefully consider the opportunity cost of fertility. Most women didn’t—and couldn’t—acquire enough money, status, or personal freedom to outweigh the benefits of motherhood. Over the past half-century, though, women have attained greater professional success and invested in more years of education. Society has also grown richer, with the result that more and more women are acting like the most successful ones of generations prior. Across the income spectrum, women are deferring fertility until they feel financially and professionally secure. And some are deciding against it altogether.
As America gets richer, better educated, and more secular, making the sacrifices Pakaluk glowingly writes about seems more and more costly for many women. Especially for college-educated women on aspirational career tracks, there might be little policymakers could do to give them more hours in the day, or make their jobs a little less “greedy.” The women who hold such jobs may also be more likely to find personal meaning in them. As Pakaluk would agree, money alone can’t sway the type of person who feels that parenthood would ask them to give up their chance to realize their potential, whatever they understand that to mean.
But not everyone finds work and family zero-sum. Indeed, many middle-class families thinking of another child feel resource-constrained by rising costs for essential goods. Even some fairly well-off couples might find themselves more likely to take the plunge into family if policymakers tackled certain costs associated with parenting, like housing, health care, and education, even if they aren’t necessarily solved by a marginally larger Child Tax Credit.
We know, for example, that the COVID-induced work-from-home boomlet led to an increase in births among college-educated women. Given more flexibility to spend less time commuting and more time doing conference calls with a very young apprentice, more women became moms (first births rose by 5.3 percent in the year following Covid, according to one study.) Policies that enable greater work-life flexibility, like increasing benefits for part-time workers, might have similar effects.
Similarly, house prices have been shown to have a surprisingly direct relationship with fertility. When local real estate prices go up, homeowners feel richer, and feel more confident about expanding their families. Renters, however, see more of their paycheck going out the door without any increase in equity. Their fertility goes down.
Labor supply or housing markets may strike some as being too far afield from “pro-family policy.” But understanding the linkage between key sectors of the economy and broader questions of family formation helps illustrate why Pakaluk’s attacks on a taxes-and-transfers approach to pro-family policymaking can end up feeling slightly caricatured.
There may be a handful of commentators and pundits who believe “we can incentivize anything we want with tax and subsidy schemes,” and see a Hungary-style approach to subsidizing fertility as being all that’s necessary to solve the birth dearth. “The cash hasn’t worked,” Pakaluk claims. “It hasn’t worked anywhere it’s been tried.”
But the criticism is overstated. Policymaking with an eye towards directly inducing births is extremely expensive, but not wholly ineffective. And, thankfully, cash isn’t the only tool in our arsenal. Making family life more achievable and affordable can take the form of regulating, deregulating, taxing, investing, or orienting any of the other levers of government in a pro-family direction, all without giving up on liberal principles or targeting a specific national fertility rate.
And measuring whether pro-family policies “work” or not is not so simple as just looking at the total number of births. Even if policies like increasing the housing supply or reducing the administrative burdens of health care didn’t lead directly to an increase in the birth rate, it would give parents a little more breathing room. If strong families are the backbone of a healthy society, they should receive a place of political preeminence.
For as our society grows wealthier, the opportunity cost of parenthood will continue to grow. It does not seem inherently obvious that a government that took no interest in families would see an increase in fertility as parents discover the benefits of mutual aid. Instead, government policies must acknowledge a fundamental asymmetry: that parents bear the cost of raising the future generation, while non-parents benefit from their labor. This realization should encouraged us towards policies that give parents insulation against economic and culture pressures.
In her essay, Pakaluk sees the need for religious revival to avoid the plight of a childless West (and East.) Having children, like any worthwhile effort, requires sacrifice. Women, as Pakaluk eloquently explains, “bear the incommensurable costs; they alone assess the balance of the merits against the costs.” They are much more likely to do so when living for a transcendent horizon than as some rationalist calculation about staving off civilizational decline.
There is unquestionably a relationship between a decline in faith and a decline in marriage and a decline in births. And perhaps the only systemic change that would have any real impact on replacement rate-level fertility would be some kind of Great Reawakening—the new warp drive our society so desperately needs. But encouraging people to return to church, mosque, or synagogue, while laudable, isn’t a satisfying policy agenda in the face of civilizational quietus. Indeed, aiming to increasing conversions to salvage the birth rate (rather than so more souls enter into a relationship with their creator) would seem to be an odd goal for even clergy to adopt.
Until a religious revival comes along, too quickly casting the admittedly restricted policy tools at our disposal, without even really trying an authentically family-first politics, verges on defeatism, rather than realism. Like Scotty in the engine room of a listing starship, the prospect of an increasingly barren world should leave us giving her all she’s got.
Patrick T. Brown is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where his work with the Life and Family Initiative focuses on developing a robust pro-family economic agenda and supporting families as the cornerstone of a healthy and flourishing society.