The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

A Simple Idea: ‘Four or More’

Posted on | September 17, 2022 | No Comments

Yesterday, Ace of Spades jabbed Jonathan V. Last as one of “True Conservatives Conserving Conservatism at The Bulwark” — a jab richly deserved, but it filled me with a sense of sadness, because Last used to be so good, before he fell victim to Trump Derangement Syndrome.

What To Expect When No One’s Expecting was, and still is, a book well worth reading. To quote the dust-jacket summary:

For years, we have been warned about the looming danger of overpopulation: people jostling for space on a planet that’s busting at the seams and running out of oil and food and land and everything else.
It’s all bunk. The “population bomb” never exploded. Instead, statistics from around the world make clear that since the 1970s, we’ve been facing exactly the opposite problem: people are having too few babies. Population growth has been slowing for two generations. The world’s population will peak, and then begin shrinking, within the next fifty years. In some countries, it’s already started. . . .
What to Expect When No One’s Expecting explains why the population implosion happened and how it is remaking culture, the economy, and politics both at home and around the world.
Because if America wants to continue to lead the world, we need to have more babies.

Of course, I didn’t need any lectures on that topic, being a father of six, but still this was an important message, and Last marshaled an array of arguments on behalf of this pro-natalist message. What To Expect When No One’s Expecting followed in the footsteps of the late Ben Wattenberg’s 1987 book The Birth Dearth, which was the first examination of the modern trend of demographic decline in industrial societies. Wattenberg later followed that up with Fewer: How the New Demography of Depopulation Will Shape Our Future (2004).

As should be obvious, these warnings have been largely ignored. There has been no new “Baby Boom” in response to the concerns raised by Last’s book, or Watterberg’s books, and the question is, why?

Permit me to share the insight of personal experience: People’s behaviors are limited by their imagination. That is to say, people generally don’t attempt things they regard as impossible and, in the minds of most Americans, having a large family is a financial impossibility. Even if they wished to have lots of kids, they can’t figure out how it could be done, from the perspective of their personal economic situation.

They can’t afford it, they say.

OK, believe what you want to believe, but how is it that I could afford it, if you can’t? Do you suppose I’m some kind of financial genius? An heir to the Rockefeller fortune? No, of course, they realize that my wife and I don’t have some hidden pile of cash that has enabled us to raise all these kids; we were just willing to make sacrifices that most people aren’t willing to make. And that knowledge makes them embarrassed.

This embarrassment expresses itself as defensiveness, especially among conservative Christians who understand that they are not exactly practicing what they preach, as regards “family values.” Sure, maybe it’s silly to think that every faithful Christian couple would strive to spawn a Duggar-sized brood, but insofar as we are pro-life, isn’t it logical that we would be more welcoming to offspring as blessings from God?

“See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil. . . . I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.”
Deuteronomy 30:15, 19 (KJV)

“Therefore choose life” — this quote from Deuteronomy became a slogan for the pro-life movement, but how many pro-life conservatives have tried to live out the meaning of that phrase? Most people wouldn’t judge me to be a particularly fine example of Christian virtue, but despite my failings, at least I got this part right. And along the way, I picked up a few helpful pieces of advice. When our oldest was just a little baby, and my Dad came to visit us for the first time after she’d been born, we were living in a roach-infested $250-a-month rental home in Gordon County, Georgia. When I complained about our financial situation, my Dad laughed and said, “Son, if you wait to have kids until you can afford to have kids, you’ll never have kids.” Truer words were never spoken.

Ten years later, after we’d moved to the D.C. area so I could work at The Washington Times, our family had grown to four kids, and in July 1999, I saw this item on a pro-life website:

Where are the children?
In reacting to a report released today by the statistics office of the European Union, STOPP International director Jim Sedlak said, “This report points out what we have been yelling from the rooftops for some time now — the world needs larger families.”
The Eurostat report warns that European Union countries can expect health and pension costs to soar over the next 50 years as the number of people over retirement age rises to about one third of the total population. “The main cause of the aging,” according to the report, “is the decline in births over the last two to three decades.”
“The ‘success’ of the population controllers in Europe is now taking its toll,” said Sedlak. “The average number of babies per woman has fallen from 1.95 to 1.65, and there is no end in sight.”
“In order to turn things around, four things are necessary,” Sedlak said. “First, the world has to understand that there is not an overpopulation problem, but a problem of too few children. Second, everyone in our society must accept large families and stop using peer pressure to convince people not to have more children. Third, governments and rich philanthropists must stop giving money to population control programs. Finally, young people getting married have to be thinking of having four or more children.”
“We have one generation to turn things around,” Sedlak said. “After that, it may be too late.”

The author of that short article, Jim Sedlak, was a remarkable individual. A research physicist, Sedlak worked for IBM for 30 years before retiring in 1993, at age 50, “to devote a full-time effort to the pro-life cause.” A devout Catholic, Sedlak was particularly a critic of classroom “sex education,” and founded Stop Planned Parenthood (STOPP), which eventually became part of the American Life League, of which Sedlak became Executive Director. He died earlier this year, but I had the chance to talk to him a few times over the years, and he was full of wisdom about our culture, including this simple idea: “Four or more.”

Sedlak had studied the demographics of the Baby Boom, and understood this: It was largely a Catholic phenomenon. Most people don’t realize this, because the way we think about population trends usually focuses on medians and averages, without much thought to the human variables behind such statistics. The Baby Boom peaked in 1957, when the U.S. Total Fertility Rate (TFR) reached 3.77 average lifetime births per woman. If you think hard about that number, you realize that it means the average American woman in 1957 was three times more likely to have four children as to have merely three. To reach such an astonishing figure, however, you must first account for those women who will ultimately be childless, and whose contribution to the total is zero. Such a subtraction means that the average mother (as opposed to the average woman) was even more likely to have at least four children. And, as this 3.77 TFR number was an average, it means that for every woman who had only two children in 1957, there was another woman who had five or six. For every “only child” born in 1957, there was another child born into a family with six or seven siblings. Large families were what really made the “Baby Boom” happen and, among these super-sized families, Catholics were a disproportionately large share. The Catholic Church’s doctrine against artificial contraceptives was taken seriously back then, and the decline of that faithfulness is the real cultural explanation of the changing demographic trend over the past 60 years.

Of course, I’m Protestant, but the issue with Catholics and their declining fertility rate is illustrative of the overall trend. While different Protestant denominations have different approaches to these questions, in general, more conservative Protestants are inclined toward the “pro-life”/“pro-family” beliefs so elaborately spelled out in the various encyclicals (e.g., Humanae Vitae) that codify Catholic doctrine on this subject.

The salt has “lost its savour” would be the best description of what’s happened, in terms of Christian family practice in recent decades. One might imagine that self-identified Catholics would still have substantially higher fertility rates than the average American, but they don’t — they have been “conformed to this world,” and the same is true of evangelical Christians. The commandment to “be ye separate” — to have no fellowship with unrighteousness — seems to have been forgotten, so that many Christians are now just following the crowd, and making the same lifestyle choices as the unchurched. This is true about many things, including divorce, and few church spokesmen seem willing to speak out against this trend. Church leadership is not leading.

People make trends, not the other way around. The choices you make, as an individual, have an influence far beyond your own awareness, and what you practice will ultimately have more influence than what you preach, if you don’t live up to own professed beliefs.

Our ability, as individuals, to influence something so large as the national birth rate may seem infinitesimally small, and Jonathan V. Last’s book apparently failed to make a dent in the trend. But our actions ultimately make more difference than any author’s words, and you don’t need a whole book to explain it. “Four or more” — a very simple idea.

Now, to find a cure for Trump Derangement Syndrome . . .