Is Childbirth National Service?

In their recent Weekly Standard future of conservatism piece, Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam offer a few natalist policy suggestions to encourage more breeding here in the USA. For example:

Republicans might consider offering tuition credits for years spent rearing children, which could be exchanged for post-graduate or vocational education. These would be modeled on veterans’ benefits–and that would be entirely appropriate. Both military service and parenthood are crucial to the country’s long-term survival. It’s about time we recognize that fact.

Now, I think Ross & Reihan overlook just how creepy this comparison is. Naturally, our country could not survive in the long run if everyone concluded that it is cruel to bring an innocent human being into this dark, cruel world. Neither would our country survive if everyone shot him or herself through the temple tomorrow at noon. It doesn’t follow that suicide must be made illegal as a matter of national interest, or that people who step back from the ledge ought to get a continued-existence subsidy.

More importantly, the ways in which military service and parturition advance the continued existence of the nation-state are, well, different. Members of the military, ideally, preserve our right to life and self-government by protecting us from agressive interlopers who would kill or rule us on terms not are own. Furthermore, being a state is about having a monopoly on force over a region. A defense force is in some sense constitutive of having a state. Now, no babies, eventually no state. True. But the real worry here is not no babies, but too few babies to support our our massive middle class entitlement programs. That is, babies-as-public good is predicated on the idea of babies-as-tax-base.

Now, I believe that people are the ultimate resource. And I think we’d be better off with more folks about. I for one want children, and think libertarians would be smarter to have five kids per pair than try to take over New Hampshire. But talk about commodifying people! Ross and Reihan make the the anti-capitalist caricature of people as a mere cash nexus look appealing. If I credibly threaten to kill myself, would a rational state offer me the entire value of my projected future tax payments minus one cent? If I’m projected to be a lifetime net tax consumer, should the state subsidize me to expatriate, or swallow a bottle of valium? Do we sterilize mothers most likely to have net tax-consuming children? No, of course not. But that’s how the world looks from the point of view of the state when people are understood as a nexus of inlays and outlays. We should discourage the state from looking at us this way by not supporting policies meant specifically to create people for the purposes of later taxing them.

I like the idea of pro-family policy (as long as that includes a non-bigoted notion of the family). I truly believe that families are a foundational social institution, and that we would all be a bit better off if families were stronger, and even bigger. But the family is the private institution par excellence, and you cannot protect or advance the integrity of the family by eroding the distinction between the public and the private. I worry, and I think many others would worry, that when the state starts rewarding us for childbearing, that effaces the public/private distinction, and opens up a crack into the private sphere that the state is bound to try to squeeze through. The agents of the state will see themselves as having a legitimate interest not only in the quanitity of children, but in their quality, and start shaping policy meant to tell us HOW we should raise our children, and, worse, start shaping policy meant to tell us WHO should have them. Let’s stay away from that.