First, I want the reader’s sympathy. Before I wrote this column, I ploughed through the jargon-ridden and statistics-laden pages of a recent study on “Trends and Determinants of Fertility Rates in OECD Countries: The Role of Public Policy.” Once upon a time I read such things with something strangely approaching pleasure. Now they make my head spin, and I find myself less and less convinced that anything can be accomplished by policy wonks.
Mostly, we learn what we already knew: that throughout the “developed” countries, fertility rates have flatlined. Even where they are at the high end (such as in the United States), they are barely at replacement levels, and even where they are lowest (in, for instance, the heart of the dark continent of Europe), the reality is worse than appears. For one may mentally subtract what the report is too politically correct to highlight: The large proportion of the few births goes to immigrant parents from “non-traditional sources,” chiefly Muslims from North Africa and the Middle East.
Without question, the heirs of Christendom in Europe are dying off, and any recovery at all in the birthrates appears to be thanks to ruinously expensive state policies. These grant big tax breaks for child-rearing, while providing extravagant public daycare and other facilities and writing generous maternity leaves into labor law.
From an economic view, “The demand for children is a function of their costs and of individuals’ preferences, for a given income level. Underlying this model is the idea that children are a special type of capital good, i.e. a long-lived asset that produce a flow of services that enter the utility function of parents.” My reader will guess that this quote does not quite capture the traditional Catholic analysis.
A more candid, purely economic view would allow that children are a dead loss, for they squander household resources, adding to food, clothing, education, and housing costs. They also impose indirect, or opportunity, costs—overwhelmingly on the mother, according to the OECD’s research. For she must often quit her job, or cut back her hours, or otherwise sacrifice career advancement just to take care of the little monsters. And how many of them will repay the investment when they grow up?
By strict economic criteria, it’s completely irrational that believing Christians and Muslims and others on the fringes of the soon-to-be-extinct mainstream Western society would persist in the old-fashioned habit of bearing children. Powerful as the biological urge may be, it seems to have been swamped by state policies that mandate two-income families—by imposing taxation at levels so high that, in most OECD countries, one income must be devoted to supporting a family, and the other to supporting the government.
And if the state tries to “kick-start fertility” by subsidizing child-rearing in an environment where, it is revealed, the care of two small children typically absorbs 40 percent of an average worker’s income, the state can only pile taxes on top of taxes. Verily, I am convinced birthrates are sustained at the American level only by the comparatively lower rate of American taxes (more like a third, rather than half, of the average income). This difference is what creates the “breathing space” for families to exist.
Against the background sketched above, a foreground proposition begins to resolve itself. It is that motherhood is the key to fighting Catholic in secular trenches. The “key,” because we really do have the secret to saving the West from extinction. It is our job to directly challenge the economic, ideological, and bureaucratic assumptions that have turned motherhood from the glory and achievement of a woman’s being into a grim economic proposition.