19 March 2006

Demography and 'patriarchy'

My good friend Richard Greydanus draws our attention to Phillip Longman's Foreign Policy article, The Return of Patriarchy. Longman argues that, in a society which spurns patriarchy, the birthrate inevitably declines. On the other hand, those conservative subcultures affirming patriarchy continue to have children and over the long term will overtake the ostensibly progressive people who are procreating at below replacement level. Greydanus is critical of this thesis, arguing that Longman has made population stability a golden calf. I doubt that's an entirely justified critique, and I suspect that the term patriarchy is posing something of an obstacle to a fair reading of Longman.

Jennifer Roback Morse makes an argument similar to Longman's but avoids this hot-button word. Her focus is the failure of the European welfare state, which, despite providing "economic subsidies to child-bearing", has been unsuccessful in pushing up the birthrate because it is "attempting to replace the father." If one focusses, not on patriarchy with its connotations of male domination, but on the crucial role of fathers in society, then Longman's thesis might be more easily heard.

While the welfare state need not be intrinsically anti-family, most of the existing models are indeed predicated on the assumption that individuals should be able to make choices in a variety of settings irrespective of familial and marital obligations. This corresponds to what I have elsewhere called the choice-enhancement state, the fifth stage in the historic development of liberalism. While the socialist welfare state is communitarian in focus, undertaking to protect the working class, as a class, from the abuses of the market, the late liberal welfare state tries to cushion individuals, irrespective of their lifestyle choices, from their destructive consequences. Thus the state is free to redefine even the most central of institutions, such as marriage and family, because it is naïvely assumed that the largesse of the welfare state will compensate for the inevitable social fallout of such redefinitions.

Yet in subverting family and marriage, the late liberal welfare state appears to be eroding its own undergirding foundations. Demographic collapse is one consequence of this, and a notable one at that. Others have noted the decline south of the border in support for abortion on demand, as the pro-choice segment of the citizenry steadily declines due to a failure to bring forth a generation to which to bequeath the pro-choice vision. One need hardly be guilty of making an idol of population stability for merely pointing out that a healthy civilization depends upon the existence of sufficient numbers of people to keep it going.

Although I am not a nostalgist for a premodern past, I sometimes wonder whether western societies went wrong in leaving marriage and family up to the devices of individuals. I myself am only two generations removed from arranged marriage. While I do not favour bringing this back, it is far from evident that the love match is a better basis for a healthy marriage. Over the long term can a civilization survive that leaves an institution so crucial to its perpetuation to the vagaries of individuals falling in and out of love? Does marriage become just one more lifestyle choice amongst others? And if so, does childbearing take on a similar status?

Perhaps it's time for Christians in particular to be more proactive in encouraging their young people to marry and in readying them for the responsibilities of marriage. Might a christian university such as Redeemer have a role to play in this? What about churches? In the past I might have played down such a possibility, but now I'm not so sure.

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