Everybody’s Babies Are Awesome
And to be truly American, we need all of the babies
Today’s post will be a break from my usual migration-and-economics fare. I do this occasionally and write a post about some more philosophical or cultural issue. If you come here for the migration charts and maps, this post may be boring to you, so feel free to skip it!
There’s been a furor over a Tweet from Representative Steve King, where he said:
This provoked most people to read this tweet the way, well, pretty much any reasonable, modern person would: our culture needs to be restored, ergo is currently damaged, and that damage cannot be repaired by “somebody else’s babies,” meaning presumably immigrants or non-white people. “Somebody else’s babies” combined with demographics here seems to pretty clearly suggest this is about race.
However, to give Rep. King a fair shake, in clarifying remarks he did pretty strongly disavow racial readings, and even give compelling counter-examples: he said that babies adopted into American families were all well and good and would help restore western civilization just like white babies. So, in other words, while King didn’t explicitly disavow his whole comment, he actually did disavow the worst plausible reading of it, as he clearly is actually fine with using somebody else’s babies to “restore our civilization,” as long as “somebody else” isn’t raising those babies; as long as “Americans” raise those babies.
But still. Even if we avoid purely racial connotations and read this as an ethno-cultural claim, it’s hard to avoid seeing the thinly veiled bigotry here. Pro-natalism as demographers call it has been a hallmark of many authoritarian nationalist regimes, as the reproduction of the volk is essential to the propagation of nationality. It is therefore easy to see even in an ethno-cultural basis here a deeply disturbing and un-American view; any time one advocates pro-natalism, one must be extra careful to avoid the dark waters of ultranationalism.
Hold that thought.
Yesterday, I saw this tweet from a prominent journalist:
She was commenting on CBO’s cost estimates of AHCA. I want to be clear I have no view whatsoever of the right healthcare policy. I have no dog in that fight. I will note that CBO’s view that small changes in the net cost of birth control relative to income can cause large changes in the birth rate is almost certainly bananas. If it were that easy to adjust the birth rate then there would be a lot of countries who would be interested. As it turns out, changing the cost of birth control from $0/mo to $10/mo or $20/mo or even $50/mo does not have a huge impact on the birth rate, ceteris paribus. I’m not saying anything here about the goodness of this policy. In fact one reason the birth rate doesn’t rise is because abortions partly substitute for birth control which, as a Christian, makes me pretty motivated to promote birth control. But my point is, CBO is probably not correct that thousands of extra births will result in rural low-income areas as a result of Planned Parenthood restrictions, since, ya know, PP isn’t even the only free/cheap distributor of contraceptives.
No, my point is actually the view of births here. Additional births are presented as an adverse outcome. And this isn’t rare! I see this all the time, especially on the left: additional humans are framed as a cost to society when, hello, additional humans are society. This view has its roots in the radical ecological movement of course, but is mainstreamed via “Population Bomb” type nonsense as well.
This view is also deeply un-American, like Representative King’s view. From its earliest days, the American experiment has been typified by enormously robust natural population growth. The Yankee Diaspora that settled everywhere from Massachusetts to Iowa existed because of high fertility. Early commentators, including Alexis de Toqueville, marveled at the fecundity of American mothers. Even to this very day, American birth rates are extremely elevated given our other economic and social indicators. Americans have always been baby-lovin’ people.
Curiously enough, these two views, positivity towards high fertility and positivity towards immigration, rarely coincide. I had a discussion about this recently with a very rightist person on Twitter, where I said:
And I stand by this view. But I want to elaborate on it some more.
First of all, population growth in America is falling faster than experts expected. Here’s the trajectory of recent population growth forecasts for the U.S. vs. actual growth rates:
As you can see, since 2010, population growth has been strikingly low. In 2016, it was below the lowest forecast range from forecasts made as recently as 2013. That’s genuinely alarming. You should be hearing demography-sirens in your head and looking around for population growth sources.
Why are we falling so fast?
The main reason is that estimated migration is coming in way below (like, 200,000 people per year below) forecast levels. But deaths are also coming in higher than projected, and births are coming in lower than projected. Every single demographic indicator is coming in more negative than anybody expected.
The consequences of weak population growth are debated. But various strands of research suggest low population growth will reduce innovation and entrepreneurship, worsen inequality, cause politics to become more reactionary and divisive, slow the pace of immigrant integration, and slow the pace of economic mobility. Some researchers think declining population may accelerate automation, but that line of argument remains thinly-evidenced, and, while possibly true on some margin, is fundamentally preposterous in the long run. The idea that reducing the human capital of a society would actually boost productivity growth over time is so outlandish that it requires extraordinary verification. Sure, when isolated rich areas have low population growth and can benefit from areas still experiencing growth, they may automate: Japan is a good case study of this. This is especially true when their immediate neighbors are undergoing the fastest industrialization in history, on the largest scale ever observed. The spillovers from China should have made Japan a mind-blowingly rich country. Instead, they’ve puttered along at a very nice but not exceptional level of wealth. When China’s growth slows, I fear for Japan, personally.
So if weak population growth is bad, then shouldn’t we care that it’s getting even weaker?
Shouldn’t we all be really big fans of babies?
Both sides dislike the other side’s preferred set of babies. The reason, of course, has to do with “civilization.” It’s a naughty word. It’s seen as code for race (never mind that prominent users like Samuel Huntington identify Russians and Polish people as residing in different civilizations, despite both, last I checked, being white people). And it often is code for race! Honest-to-God racists will use civilizational language to encode hard-core racist views and politics. This is a cause of great despair to those of us who love our civilizations.
Let me talk about that love. I am a fairly well-read person thanks to inclination and the coercion of my theologian of a father. I have read most of the early church fathers, and other theologians, of course. I’ve also read large segments of English versions of various Islamic texts like the Quran, some of the Hadiths; I’ve read the works of many Sufi poets and mystics, Islamic scholars of the past, and Islamist and Salafist scholars of the modern period. A large part of my undergraduate studies were in Islamic economics, encouraged in that study by the fact that most of my economics professors were Muslim, and vital mentors to me. I’ve read Hindu and Buddhist literature, though I will grant not as extensively as Christian or Islamic. And of course I’ve read some Chinese literature, tho that’s my weakest area. I consume information about pre-Columbian American societies voraciously, and African civilizations when I am able. I love history. I love culture. My wife and I love to travel (here’s our travel log for Peru) because we like to explore the amazing diversity of lifeways that humanity has created.
And yet, it is the long tragedy of the Byzantines that stirs my heart, not the Han Dynasty. I root for the Spartans at Thermopylae, because they’re the “home team” for me. I cheer for Charles Martel at Tours, for Alfred at Ethandune, for NATO in the Cold War, for the Union in the Civil War… in some cases because those people were right, and in other cases not because they were right, but because they’re my people. Western Civilization is my tribe, my hometown team. I desire that it should prosper. I want to pass it on to my children, my grandchildren, my great-grand-children if I should be so fortunate. I think it’s wonderful for Sufis to do the same for their children, or Sikhs for theirs, or Han Chinese with theirs. And if my wife and I can’t have biological children and we adopt, I will pass my culture on to my children, whether they’re from a race usually identified with “the West” or not. What I care about is not the skintone or language spoken; Western Culture can survive under any language. What I care about is that my children learn to cry like I did, by mourning the fate of Njall. That they learn courage the way I did, from Beowulf and the dragon. That they learn the quiet poetry of my homeland’s grass and creeks and mulberry fencerows and tigerlilly June afternoons. And then we’ll order takeout Chinese for dinner, because that’s part of my Western Civilization now too. I’m not even sure that Homer is really any better than some Chinese epic, to be honest… it’s just that Homer is my epic. Maybe there are better ones! I don’t care! Fair-weather fans are even worse in culture than in sports. We cheer for our culture even when it sucks.
This sense of generational longing can be mistaken for nostalgia. For some people, it actually is nostalgia, which is dangerous. I don’t actually want to engage in Icelandic blood-feuds. I don’t want to fight the Danish state church like Kiekegaard. I don’t want to re-fight the Civil War. But the experience of living out the difficulty of civilizational history in one’s own life is powerful and transformative, and I desire it for my offspring, and indeed for all people.
This will seem like an odd digression, but, I promise, it will relate.
Our own children do not always receive the culture we desire. Indeed, often children go a totally different way. This has always been the case. But in modern American society, conservatives are especially resentful of this process because it has been accelerated by the unique ideological constraints of the university.
A college education is important for middle-class success. That’s why people go to college. But because the academy is dominated by a certain ideological subset, conservatives see the gatekeepers to the middle class seeking to actively undermine the intergenerational transmission of love, longing, purpose, and place. We want education for our kids because we want them to be prosperous, productive members of society; and in turn the gatekeeper says, “Fine, but your child must also abandon the things you think are actually most important in life.” So we become hostile to universities. We come to view academics as “elites” even if we make more money than them and even if they don’t command much influence outside of classrooms: because these are people who hold our childrens’ fates in their hands, and all-too-often hold them ransom, where the price is the forfeiture of civilizational inheritance. Only by renunciation of civilization is modern, progressive enlightenment obtained.
Of course, much of this is our own fault. We wanted to teach our children truth, but all too often, as we aged, we passed on nostalgia. We meant to teach our kids that slavery was awful, the union is indivisible, but also that while he was wrong on many things, great-great-grandpa was nonetheless a courageous person who thought he was sacrificing for family and freedom. What we ended up teaching was that the Confederacy was a glorious lost cause. And then our children passed on that message. And of course some people always just meant to pass on the Lost Cause, without any problem at all, but I’m talking here about the larger center of society who think remembering and honoring tradition is good even if the traditions are flawed, not folks who think Tradition Is Perfect. Most of us like vaccines, iPhones, and modern liberty.
So the “elites” entrench themselves: all these kids show up at college needing some serious re-education. And then the families entrench themselves: all these “elites” are actually trying to destroy our civilization and eradicate all goodness, truth, and beauty from the world. We’ve got to burn it all down.
This would be a vicious but probably manageable cycle on its own. But the “elites” “destroying” “our culture” seem to have a vision of a new culture to replace the lost one: the culture of other countries. Nordic socialism with a Hispanic population, evidently. “Somebody else’s babies.”
The reaction is wrong. It’s incorrect, and I think immoral, to so categorically reject the possibility that people originating in other cultures could contribute to our culture. But it is a comprehensible kind of wrongness. It’s a wrongness that has a chain of causes where each individual decision was rational within the bounded, atomized framework of individual philosophical and political decision-making.
So you get reaction.
American culture is hard to define. Certainly it has inherited Western Civilization. But that’s not all. Almost every historic government building, be it the Supreme Court Building or the Library of Congress, has on it depictions of Muhammed (which can be offensive to Muslims of course, but perplexes conservatives when they notice it). Chinese and Indian thinkers get depicted as well. No Africans, sadly; but great figures of revolution from around the world have statues around our capital as well. The American vision of exceptionalism has never been that we were the leaders of the “Free World.” We are not the leaders of the free world. We are the leaders of the world. We are not exceptional among Western states; we are exceptional among all states. The blessings of liberty and the benign influence of good laws draw all people into that “unfinished work” as Lincoln called it: the production of America.
Yet the production of America requires Americans. The first arrivals on this continent were not prepared for modern American democracy. From Jamestown, it took nearly 200 years to arrive at our current constitution. And it took decades more to abolish slavery, decades more to ensure equal rights for blacks, and indeed there are still imperfections in our laws and society (for example, the murder of the unborn was introduced in modern times: a new horror, even as the gains from the civil rights movement seem to be eroding and inequality rises while mobility declines).
We cannot continue the American project if every new American has no experience of America; does not have American-ness drilled into them from birth. American-ness requires immigrants for our culture of vibrant advancement to continue, but it also requires the native population to keep up a steady pace as well. The native and immigrant populations are like two runners training together, pacing each other, challenging each other, pushing each others’ limits.
We need everybody’s babies. There is no reason the United States should not have 500 million people. We have the space and the resources for it, and the world could certainly make use of 180 million more Americans. But if we add all of this via immigration, then we will face two problems: first, that we will find it harder and harder to pass on American culture and the American vision of human advancement. Second, we will create new political problems as natives react ever more stridently, and as foreign countries run out of emigrants and begin to resent us more than they do already.
Rather, we need Americans to have babies, and we need a robust inflow of immigrants. We need a growing population by both means to preserve our dynamic culture, the most remarkable and productive culture on earth in my opinion. We need a growing population by both means to preserve the strength of liberty in a world where the largest country is an authoritarian nationalist state (China). We need a growing population by both means to ensure that the tree of liberty is constantly renewed by those bred and raised up never knowing the bitterness of tyranny, knowing only the full flower of freedom — and also those who can remind natives why freedom matters, why our prosperity is so valuable, why our institutions are worth fighting for.
We need everybody’s babies. We need white babies. We need black babies. We need Chinese babies and Ethiopian babies and Syrian babies and all of the babies. The American experiment is an ever-expanding experiment; the day it begins to contract is the day it has ceased to be American.
I’ll leave you with a quote from George Steiner, one of my favorite literary critics. Writing about why Germany, supposedly a pinnacle of Western Civilization, produced the Holocaust, he says:
“A neutral humanism is either a pedantic artifice or a prologue to the inhuman… To teach [literature] as if the critical text were more important, more profitable than the poem, as if the examination syllabus mattered more than the adventure of private discovery, of passionate digression, is worst of all.”
“A neutral humanism is…a prologue to the inhuman” could be etched in stone on my grave when I die. If we assert that we have no fairly definite civilization which makes meaningful propositions which can be asserted against other propositions, then we have no ground from which to criticize all the would-be despots of the future. The option is not “Western Civilization” or “Post-Civilizational Enlightenment.” It is “Western Civilization” or a bootheel on the human face forever. There is no other meaningful tradition that can plausibly rise to appeal to most of America in a plausible timeframe. So either we go with “our society is based, for all its many flaws, on western civilization as we have received and interpreted it” or we go with “blood alone turns the wheels of history.”
UPDATE: I was pointed to this article on Slate Star Codex. Broadly speaking, I agree with it. However, I have two small disagreements with him. First, I think the origin-culture of the West has influenced “universal culture” more than he grants; I don’t think matters of taste, like Coca-Cola, admit of objective verification in the way vaccines do. Many tastes are acquired at least in part via the social desirability of consumption, and western norms have influenced what things “universal culture” would view as socially desirable, for better and for worse. Second, I think he vastly overstates the liberality of universal culture. China is a full-fledged participant in the fully globalized culture. So is Russia. As much as I wish that iPhones and Beyonce would create liberty, they actually don’t. There is no reason to believe that the most competitive, naturally-advancing, universalizable cultural norm will always and everywhere ultimately be some variation on liberalism, capitalism, and democracy. It very well might be something else entirely. I would not claim that only Western society can be democratic or good, not by any means, but I would challenge the notion that “universal culture” is at all likely to bring about, say, democratization. And to the extent it does, it will likely be because universal culture exposed non-democratic societies to democratic and western societies. While universal culture is not identical to western culture, Slate Star Codex is wrong to think that developing world advocates are just misguided in calling what they experience Westernization, because in fact western culture is spreading alongside the universal culture that wears it like a skinsuit.
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I’m a native of Wilmore, Kentucky, a graduate of Transylvania University, and also the George Washington University’s Elliott School. My real job is as an economist at USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service, where I analyze and forecast cotton market conditions. I’m married to a kickass Kentucky woman named Ruth.
My posts are not endorsed by and do not in any way represent the opinions of the United States government or any branch, department, agency, or division of it. My writing represents exclusively my own opinions. I did not receive any financial support or remuneration from any party for this research.