How to Look at the World Like a Neoreactionary, Part 4
There is no demographic trend more evocative and damning of modernism than precipitously declining birth rates. It seems as though every modern trend which has an effect on birth rate depresses it ever further. This will be an exercise in how the neoreactionary approaches the world, with an eye to the unrecognized costs of benefits which are virtually always taken for granted in society. These costs are almost always of an invisible sort; the cost is the opportunity of something else that fails to take place. In this way, modernism is marked by an increasing absence, an atomization of the individuals in society amidst a receding community. The symbol of modernism is the childless home.
The modern man is an irony. As developed before, he works in order that women may work, negating the value of his work to himself and his society. If he should like to pass over the allure of a narcissistic lifestyle wherein he treats the accumulation of material possessions as an end of living and concern himself instead with the work of civilization, i.e. starting a family and raising children ready to take their own place in society, he has everything in the world working against him. Though I intend no romanticism, a man who should like to be a provider to a loving wife and family has virtually every force conspiring against him. At the age which he should like to begin being a man, all other women his age who he should like to woo are distracted and occupied by education, Facebook, a career, and predatory socio-sexual aristocrats who have no qualms with using women for sex and nothing more. One might try and enjoin this man to partake of the pleasures of his age, and maybe he shall give in, since otherwise the rewards of his labor shall be a lonely 20′s where he feels crushed by his inability to attract a wife interested in the vision of a family. And when attention is finally given to him, his wife might concede to having a second child if she doesn’t divorce him or somehow ruin the marriage.
Such a situation is almost a perfect contradiction to the plight of the man growing up earlier than 50 years ago. Where our hypothetical modern young man is probably chastised for wanting to marry young, he would’ve been chastised for not trying to marry young. This would’ve been the life experience for most men growing up down through history. It is hard to even see at first that our society is so very, very different from all other societies before it. We would have to appear as a thoroughly foreign culture to anyone born before 1850, and that doesn’t have anything to do with our level of technology. The declining of birth rates, the fracturing of families, the delaying of adulthood, these would be the background of a dystopian novel were it written in 1890.
Yet, and this would be surprising to a reader from 1890, virtually none of us suspect that anything has gone wrong. It would appear virtually certain that Apocalypse came and went, yet none of us seem capable of remarking on the fact. When did it happen? It might be like marking the end of the Roman empire. It really depends on the metric you’re going with.
So even if we are not presently living in a dystopia, it is arguable that we are transitioning into one. And why is that? It may have something to do with how civilization isn’t getting made anymore. Our hypothetical young man was not merely partaking of biological function in reproducing, but a societal good as well. The perpetuation of society does not occur unless people actually form families and raise children. Apart from this, civilization literally does not go on; an empty home does not become occupied when the childless couple die, it remains a tomb of forfeited genetic legacy. The breakdown of civilization is marked by increasing absence, like a complex machine in which small yet significant parts are going missing, only disturbing its operation in a way not observable to those standing outside it. But, as the machine continues operating, the absences accumulate and exacerbate the machine’s decay, until eventually something essential in the short term becomes noticeable. Such is how civilization darkens, without anyone realizing the lights are going off until all the rest of them go off at once. But the event of chaos is only epiphenomenal and cannot be stopped; it was guaranteed to occur a long time before anyone even realized something was amiss.
It isn’t normal for children to be worse off than their parents. While there will always be calamitous events which have an influence outside the control of society, in a society such as ours we have the technology and capital available to protect against all but the most catastrophic of natural events. In order to explain why the children of a society such as ours face a future worse than that of their own parents or grandparents, the explanation must be social. It wasn’t an asteroid or plague which has left us worse off; it is the burning up of social capital without replacing that so the future generations have the benefit of these institutions. We weren’t made worse off so much as our own parents, and the parents before them, did nothing to make our situation better off. They did not do what they could to strengthen their own marriages and families, instead they clamored to divert to themselves all possible resources at any expense to the future. They never sought to make sure their children would be well off, but were focused on promoting egalitarianism. They tried to rescue everyone from poverty and just assumed that everything they were afforded while growing up would be around even if they did nothing to actually make it be around.
Why do we tax cigarettes? Besides that it is a way for the government to give itself your money, the purpose is to be punitive. A higher price induces lower quantity demanded. This is very simple economics. The more something costs, the less people want of something.
And it works, to a point. There is a limit, however, to the amount of cigarette smoking that can be effectively prevented through high punitive taxes. At a sufficiently high level of taxation, it becomes feasible for those more criminally inclined to smuggle in cigarettes from regions where the tax is not so high. In some places, the punitive tax has the effect of driving most cigarette sales underground. Cigarettes are not banned or prohibited, but they practically are, with the price pushed outside of tolerability for most who would choose to smoke cigarettes in the first place.
Agree or disagree with whether cigarette smoking ought to be stigmatized, the effect must be kept in mind. The disincentivizing of a behavior through increasing the cost of it is one of the most basic principles of social organization. Whatever you increase the cost of, you get less of.
It should be apparent that the change in equilibrium rates of marriage and family formation is due to some changes in society. It is not an effect without cause. The suggestion of the neoreactionary is that the cost of marriage and family formation has been increased. It is more costly to make happen, it is more costly to undertake, and it is more costly to sustain. This explains very easily and simply why the rates of marriage and birth have declined so precipitously. It is not so much that society re-evaluated its desire for marriage so much as marriage itself was changed. It isn’t technically prohibited, but its costs have been raised substantially over the last 100 years in ways explicit and implicit. The family is essential, as it is literally the institution which perpetuates society. To make the family more costly is to make the perpetuation of society more costly.
That is, in sum, your problem right there. Entropy is always working on society, but it never succeeded at total ruin because what was taken from society by nature was replaced more than sufficiently by society. Except that now the mechanism to replace the failing parts of society is less reliable, less useful, less effective. The death of the family is the death of society.
Where did it go wrong? What was the first domino that saw the family become more difficult to develop in a society with literally no excuse? At least back then people were poor, so you can understand the “literally too poor to take care of a family” problem many people likely faced. In fact, the problem was so bad at times that children would die for want of basic necessities that their parents couldn’t provide. Even the likelihood of miserable failure and suffering didn’t decrease the equilibrium rate of marriage substantially.
No, the first domino was not birth control. That might seem an obvious answer, but the widespread acceptance and adoption of the Pill is part of a trend that began in the 19th century. That trend is the cult of childhood.
Childhood? What could possibly be wrong with childhood? Childhood is a happy, innocent age. The cult of childhood seems like it should increase the rates of marriage and birth, not decrease them. If the cult of childhood is an unequivocally modern norm, then clearly whatever would have to critique childhood is an inherently medieval worldview.
That might not be the worst. Let us examine the cult of childhood, to see why it is so abnormal and prohibitively costly.
The cult of childhood may be summarized as the view that children have an inalienable right to a period of development up to the age of 18 and sometimes even beyond which is free of significant life responsibilities or decisions. It is the responsibility of parents to provide their children with a high ease of living and many opportunities to indulge in carefree pursuits without a care in the world. Such a view seems only right given the prosperity of a society such as ours. To deprive a child of his childhood is to deprive someone of an essential life experience without which a person is incomplete. Life without a childhood is like a life without friends. Doable by all technical means, but probably worse than death.
Furthermore, even after childhood is technically finished, it is also the norm to spend several years at a postsecondary institution accumulating debt and foregoing all opportunities to work and start a family. Indeed, as has been covered extensively elsewhere in many ways, such a cultural norm of itself decreases the rates of family formation.
Providing a child with such a developmental experience is extremely costly when you consider that until the 19th century it was the norm for children to begin working with or for their family about the age of 14. When you consider that this could practically eliminate the financial cost of raising a child, you can see how this increases the cost of family formation radically. Although presently youth can begin work at the age of 16, sometimes 15 or 14 given certain legal exceptions, the expectation of every youth to finish high school before he is allowed to actually begin the work of life increases the difficulty of someone trying to go to work when they can. Extended adolescence and delayed adulthood are the norms; it should not surprise us when trends indicate that the phenomenal norms of adolescence pervade a person’s life through their 20′s, with very little effort put into family formation and much more expended building a substantially delayed career.
A one size fits all approach to the maturation of children simply doesn’t make sense. It should be taken as a practical reality that not all children are equally benefited by being afforded (or trying to afford, cf. inner-city schools) the same opportunities. Resources expended trying to raise an idiot to the educational attainment of a genius is obviously futile, but this is only an extreme instance of the same principle. It doesn’t make sense for society to afford the same developmental experience to all individuals. College isn’t for everyone. Nor is high school. Many would be better off if they were taught a trade beginning at the age of 14; you don’t need to know how to read Hemingway or how to calculate the area under a curve to do plumbing or construction, and all those hours spent in school learning such useless information are a disadvantage to the young man who would be better off if we instead afforded him the opportunity to begin building up work experience in a socially beneficial trade.
Note, of course, that I am not saying an extensive education should never be afforded to children. Many (I won’t say most, but it could be) are better off for it. However, that there are some who are better off for it does not entail all are better off for it. A diversity of realistic approaches to preparing children for the stresses of society was the historical norm, and it seems a return to this norm would help in restoring cultural norms to sustainable levels of family formation.
The point here is not only that a modern childhood is expensive, but our assumption that it is normal and of perfect benefit to everyone in every situation is problematic. At its logical extremes, it leads to first world Western nations trying to ban child labor in third world countries where child labor is the norm because that is what must be done to get by. Banning child labor in poor countries will not have the benefit of putting children in schools; if anything, it will leave the families of these children even worse off, putting education even further out of reach. An imperialist cultural chauvinism makes us blind to the fact that our view of childhood is but a mere cultural norm which differs greatly in other cultures that face different social and economic problems.
It isn’t sufficient to insist that “more should be done.” Every intervention which contravenes the market to make a society better off has the unintended consequence of pushing people to less optimal means of solving the basic dilemmas of acquiring food and shelter. The effect of banning child labor decreases the birth rate. While this effect will not be so pronounced in first world nations which have a high median income, this effect must be substantially more pronounced in those societies where the prohibition of sending/allowing your children to work only makes it more difficult to feed your children at all.
A plummeting birth rate is simply not sustainable. If a society will not replace its aging and dying members, it will wither like a body denied food. The body may continue along for a while, cannibalizing the protein of its muscles and organs in order to go on, but unless it obtains for itself more nutrients, it will die due to catastrophic organ failure. We cannot assume that civilization takes care of itself, that others have it covered. Nor can we even hope of ourselves that we will do it without incentivizing ourselves to do it. This implies that what has occurred is not a mere change in expectations, but a change in the structure of incentives which face a person in how he decides to live his life. There are many more things to say about the structure of family formation as it currently exists in our society, but the cultural view of childhood seems the most overlooked despite the way it substantially informs the decision to be married.
The costs of the cult of childhood are substantial and cannot be passed over with little attention. The majority of these costs are invisible, and showcase themselves through curious absences; the empty womb, the empty house, the empty marriage. Nothing in the modern world is beyond critique, even its most sacred dogmas.
Originally published Nov 28th, 2013