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Artillery Row

Political fever dreams

Not everything we dislike is Hitler

“If only *anyone* involved in saying this,” tweeted the geneticist and popular scientist Adam Rutherford this week, “Had even the slightest knowledge of history, notably the history of eugenics, or Nazi Germany.”

What? I sat up. What was being suggested? Killing the disabled? Sterilising the weak? Setting out to seize new living space in France? No, tax cuts for having kids — apparently proposed by a “top Tory” to The Sun. “Look at the labour shortages we are suffering from,” they told the paper, “We need to have more children. The rate keeps falling.” (Sadly, The Sun added the headline “Bonk for Britain” — proving, if proof were needed, that there is nothing less sexy than British camp.)

Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but I think we loathe Hitler because of the Holocaust, the mass murder of Slavs, the extermination of the “unfit” and World War Two — not because he encouraged German people to have kids.

Granted, in the case of the Nazis, encouraging people to have kids and executing the “untermensch” were both aspects of the same fanatical interest in the health and purity of the German stock. But that does not mean the former entails the latter. Another aspect was encouraging health and fitness but when the government puts up taxes on soft drinks, no one says, “My God! Hitler would have done the same!” Another aspect was environmentalism but if the government tries to preserve British wildlife no one howls, “You Nazis!” Bad people doing X doesn’t make X bad.

I don’t get too involved in conservative discourse about declining birth rates for the simple reason that I don’t have kids. (Similarly, I don’t get immersed in discourse around public health after downing my third energy drink of the day.) Nor would I be all that optimistic about prospects for tax cuts to raise birth rates given that they have declined across the developed and developing worlds and no one has pulled off a consistent reversal. No one ever will, on the other hand, if all attempts are problematised by political neurotics.

Zoe Williams, writing for the Guardian, says the idea of tax cuts for parents is “nastier than it looks”. Why? Because Victor Orbán does the same. Victor Orbán? Boo! Hiss! To be fair, it was the Conservative politician who mentioned Hungary, but they did not reference its media or electoral laws, which Williams fulminates against, but its tax breaks for parents. However much you dislike Mr Orbán, endorsing one policy of a government does not require you to support the others. Say what you like about the Western world following the Chinese government into lockdowns but it has not led to the internment of ethnic minorities or the establishment of Xi Jinping Thought.

Policies to raise birth rates are being proposed and implemented across the world

Besides, policies to raise birth rates are being proposed and implemented across the world. You don’t like Orbán? Fair enough. South Korea offers parents money. Estonia offers parents money. Japan might soon offer parents money. Singapore offers parents money. Italy considered offering parents land. Thailand offers tax breaks for parents from the second child onwards. (Quick! Someone send Adam Rutherford to lecture them about the Nazis and eugenics!) Cuba asked its people to have more sex. Denmark asked its people to have more sex. Pro-natal policies transcend ethnic and ideological differences between nations. Williams focuses on Orbán because she knows Guardian readers will start to splutter and wring their hands. At least she didn’t mention Hitler.

Conservatives, according to Williams, are obsessed with “racial survival” and believe that it is “necessary to rigidly socially control women in their mate and reproductive choices.” To be clear, what has been proposed is taking less of women’s money. If that is “rigidly socially controlling” them then sign me up for some rigid social control. Whatever sixth form debate teams might suggest, there are such things as slippery slopes, but I don’t see the natural course between “incentivise family formation” and “LivInG iN tHE haNdMAÌDs TąLe”

“The real message,” writes Williams:

… as with Braverman’s plan to make cannabis a class A drug, is:“Suck it up, forces of civilisation. We’re about to be as nasty, in our language and whatever acts we have the competence to perform, as it’s possible to be.”

Don’t even bother looking for the logic here. There is none. It is the free jazz of opinion commentary. Tax breaks for parents are “as nasty … as it’s possible to be”? I can think of ten nastier things to do before lunch.

What really offends Williams is the idea that raising the British birth rate might be preferable to raising immigration. Of course, boosting the labour market is not the only reason one might want to help people have kids. One might just believe that having kids is great and more people should have the chance to do it. God forbid that parenthood be viewed only in the cool light of economics. 

But the slightest hint of a political preference for citizens over migrants is what leads Williams to fret about “dog-whistle white supremacy in a babygrow” (and, no, that doesn’t make more sense to me than it does to you). Never mind that a mild ingroup preference, in terms of demographic policy, is a natural phenomenon that also exists in Japan, South Korea, Cuba et cetera (white supremacists, white supremacists all of them!). Don’t even think about mentioning that mass immigration has entailed all sorts of troubling, unresolved challenges when it comes to integration. Don’t even dream about observing that most British people have long believed that it should be lowered. Whisper the suggestion of alternatives and Guardian columnists will shake a big “white supremacy” stick in your face. 

It is worth re-stating that none of this should be considered a full-throated endorsement of the politician’s plans. It is hard to imagine that a minor tax cut will make a big difference if young couples cannot afford their own properties and are gazing up a mountain of student debt. But any attempt to improve Britain’s long-term prospects will be met with howls of Guardian outrage and it is worth remembering how little it means.

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