America Isn't as Decadent as Social Conservatives Think It Is

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Many cultural factors are more important contributors to the declining birth rate than moral degeneracy and decline.

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Is America's declining birthrate a symptom of cultural decadence? That's the claim Ross Douthat makes in a New York Times column that evaluates possible policy responses. "The retreat from child rearing is, at some level, a symptom of late-modern exhaustion -- a decadence that first arose in the West but now haunts rich societies around the globe," he writes. "It's a spirit that privileges the present over the future, chooses stagnation over innovation, prefers what already exists over what might be. It embraces the comforts and pleasures of modernity, while shrugging off the basic sacrifices that built our civilization in the first place."

This is mistaken, or so I'll argue.

What's even more consequential is the particular way it's mistaken, for it's a perfect example of a social conservative compromising his ability to influence cultural change by misdiagnosing its causes. Douthat is one of the smartest writers around, and I can't think of anyone in media who makes more of an effort to be fair and charitable to folks who think differently than he does.

In this case, however, I don't think he's being fair to the average American. Why are they having fewer children, beyond the economic factors that Douthat acknowledges (though without realizing all the ways they cut against his argument)? Perhaps "decadence" is a small part of the explanation. A married man and woman feel that they ought to have a second child, to give their first a sibling or to contribute to the world, but decide against it because the cost would force them to give up their vacation home in Aspen and ski on less desirable slopes closer to home.

I actually once spoke to a couple like that. They exist.

But as best I can tell, they are rare. What's widespread are opportunities for women that were unheard of even two generations ago. Women wanting to invest in the future recently had but one path available to them: motherhood. Today a woman who wants to contribute to the future can do so through any number of careers. Is it any surprise that many have shifted some of their "contribute to the future of the world" efforts from child-rearing to other areas? What is "decadent" about that?

Nor is that the only non-decadent cultural cause of smaller families.

Traditionalist Eve Tushnet wrote an astute post recently explaining what many social conservatives misunderstand about American culture:

Conservatives often talk as if we're combating hedonism and the solution is bourgeois normalcy. This makes our arguments look silly (everybody points out that "blue states" have lower divorce and teen pregnancy rates, or some other statistic indicating that they are winning on the bourgeois-normalcy front) and I think it probably makes our audience resentful.

Nobody likes to be told that they're not doing life right, but I think we especially feel indignant and even self-pityingly resentful when we're working very, very hard to follow the rules and somebody comes along and tells us we're just out for our own pleasure. We don't have a marriage crisis in this country because everybody has stopped following the rules. We have a marriage crisis because the rules don't work. There are all kinds of strict rules: Don't marry before you're "economically stable" (an endlessly-retreating horizon), don't wait until you're married to have sex, don't wait until you're married to live together, don't move back in with your parents. And, for the upper classes, don't have kids too early and don't have too many. I've written about these issues before (here and here) but I want to emphasize how the rules rely on completely bourgeois impulses to achieve and preserve. They're based on fear-primarily fear of divorce, but also fear of loneliness-but also on the intense, poignant desire to do the right thing.

She's right that many social conservatives underestimate the degree to which cultural practices they attribute to decadence are actually pursued for reasons that are nearly opposite.

She continues:

A woman who has sex with multiple partners (maybe hooking up a lot if she's at a more elite college), contracepting throughout and having at least one abortion, then cohabits, then marries in her early 30s if at all, might be a hedonist or a relativist. In my experience she's much more likely to be trying to do everything right, finish her education and start climbing the economic ladder and make good rather than hasty choices in her men. Her mother usually supports or even pressures her in her decision to abort, and many of the decisions I've described are made not in the service of personal sexual liberation but as a means to preserve her relationships.

A lot of the time it doesn't work -- the marriage or cohabitation she really hoped would be "the one" still breaks up -- but she sees all the alternative choices as even riskier, and therefore irresponsible.

As Tushnet noted on another occasion, research into why young people are marrying later found the answer wasn't a slowness to "grow up" or a desire to pursue a full decade of hedonism. In fact, "most frequently mentioned was a desire to 'do it right' and marry only once, to the ideal partner, leading some to view cohabitation as a 'test-drive' before making 'the ultimate commitment.' The belief that marriage was difficult to exit was mentioned nearly as frequently, with examples of how divorce caused emotional pain, social embarrassment, child custody concerns, and legal and financial problems." Later marriage is partly a consequence of the need for more unpaid education prior to starting a career, and partly a reaction against the epidemic of divorce, something that now occurs more frequently among some subsets of traditionalists.    

Writing from within the subculture of a northeast graduate school, Phoebe Maltz has poked fun at the alternative norms of educated elites:

The unfortunate fact of female sexuality in our society is that too-young is very quickly followed by too-old -- to conceive, or even to attract many men in the first place. 'You're not allowed to date, young lady' (from conservatives) or 'You're too young to settle down' (from liberals) segues almost instantaneously into 'What, no boyfriend?' The elusive window-of-opportunity -- not the Pill, not the tendency of 20-somethings in crappy relationships to end those relationships -- is the problem.

Her suggested solution:

As it stands, all long-term romantic commitments begun prior to age 30 are viewed as having rushed into things. Without reverting to a system where women are stigmatized for not having settled down by 21, we could shift to one in which 23-year-old couples wouldn't be treated like experimenting middle-schoolers. I wouldn't suggest encouraging those who wouldn't do so otherwise to marry or similar at 20. I would suggest removing the stigma that says that to be well-educated and impressive and so on, you have to find 'that special someone' at 29-and-a-half, marry at 31, and reproduce before (horrors!) 35. I'd instead encourage the happy couples 18-25 that exist anyway not to end their relationships simply because 'there's so much more to experience.' I mean, if you're in a relationship at any age and you feel there's so much more to experience, that's not a great sign about the relationship. But if all is well, the social pressure to explore other options isn't terribly beneficial.

If this change occurred, while there'd still be plenty of women trying to have kids for the first time at 40, there'd be more having their first child with their husband of several years, whom they'd dated several years prior to that, at 25. A certain number of women who'd resented having gone the 'explore other options' route unnecessarily would have reproduced. This is, at any rate, the only way I could think of to address the 'crisis' of coastal-elite female fertility that is about increasing women's freedom, rather than the reverse.

Attributing a cultural change to decadence when its causes actually lie elsewhere almost guarantees that social conservatives will be unable to speak persuasively to people whose behavior they'd like to change. Tell someone that they're "shrugging off basic sacrifices," even as they understand themselves to be sacrificing in service of responsible living, and they'll conclude that you don't even enough understand their choices well enough to evaluate and criticize them.

Usually, Douthat understands that people who choose to order their lives differently than their grandparents or their socially conservative peers aren't doing so as a result of moral degeneration and decay. As a result, he is an uncommonly persuasive socially conservative pundit. The average socially conservative pundit is far less charitable in evaluating people unlike themselves. The result is analysis less incisive and persuasive than it might otherwise be.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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