Photo by Israel Sebastian
Artillery Row

The case for kids

Why children are a public good

In England, at present, almost one hundred primary schools are either closing down or at risk of closing down. The reason? A shortage of pupils. Society isn’t having enough kids, and they’re surplus to requirements. In a decade or so, it’ll be secondary schools, too.

It reveals quite a lot about one’s politics whether that fact bothers you. In an age of mass migration, after all, it hardly augers the collapse of the tax base. Do we really need all the children to fill those schools? Did we ever?

Personally, I think so. When it comes to the British public’s revealed preferences, though, I may be in the minority.

Children were once the primary insurance against the hardships of old age

Last month, whilst making the case against George Osborne’s two-child benefit cap, I argued that “children are a public good”. At the time, it got no pushback. I fear that may be because people didn’t grasp the implications.

It seems to be the settled view of the electorate — or at least, of an electorally-decisive segment of it — that children are not a public good at all, but a private one. Nice to have, perhaps, if they’re within your means — but not something to have if you can’t afford it, and certainly not something to burden anyone else with.

Hence the child benefit cap remaining so popular that Sir Keir Starmer can’t pledge to undo it, despite its being deeply reviled by his party and the reputation of Osbornomics lying in ruins, even on the right.

The then-Chancellor spoke to a legitimate grievance when he pledged “to ensure that families in receipt of benefits faced the same financial choices about having children as those supporting themselves solely in work” — but chose to resolve the tension in the direction of fewer children, rather than more.

Plenty of progressives are happy to execrate him for that. I wonder how many are prepared to follow the contrary argument to its logical conclusion. If children really are a public good, then whilst having them should be up to the individual, paying for them should be mandatory.

Pro-natal arguments usually cut little ice with the desiccated worldview of the Treasury, which cannot understand why the State should waste 21 years gestating taxpayers when it can, as one former spad put it to me, “just import people”, fully formed and ready to work.

One wonders how many people indignant at the prospect of paying for other people’s children are also furious about the mass immigration we have instead.

This attitude misses much, of course, not least the value to society of children as children. More than 90 primary schools in England are either closing or face pressure to close for want of pupils. Do we really want Hovingham, the elderly residents of which are campaigning to save an empty school, to become the blueprint for the Britain of the 2030s?

If we regard the nation as a community of citizens rather than merely of taxpayers and welfare recipients, it is surely a moral failure to simply accept an economic order in which Britons repeatedly tell surveys they are having fewer children than they want.

Perhaps we can put it in terms the economists at 1 Horseguards Road might understand: a system in which the costs of children are borne only or mostly by their own parents, in a society which is not having enough children to replenish its own population, is a free-rider’s charter.

Before the development of the modern welfare state, children were the primary insurance against the hardships of old age. A large family meant a bigger safety net, with more people willing and able to provide both financial support and physical care in your twilight years.

Over the past century or so we have more or less entirely socialised the question of old-age care — breaking, as a result, that connection between building a family and security in dotage.

That would be fair enough, in itself — a big step towards greater individual choice. The problem is that the contributory investment children represent isn’t maintained at all. It is a substantial one: according to The Times, the average cost of raising a child to 18 in Britain today is over £200,000 per child — before even reckoning that many children today are supported by their parents to age 21 and beyond.

If you don’t have children, that’s a bounty that you can spend on yourself. If you do, the cost of caring for you in old age falls not on you, but on the next generation — the children other people paid to have.

A society of shuttered schools and quiet parks would be a poorer place

Those of the Treasury-brain view might argue the toss here. It’s not as if those hard-pressed parents had to have those children. There would always have been immigration, right?

This just broadens the pool of people we’re hitching a free ride on, though. Every immigrant has parents, after all, who invested in raising them and made the necessary sacrifices, such as forgoing a career or other opportunities.

By continually wooing skilled workers from less fortunate countries, we are depriving those countries of those skills and workers. You don’t need to be an ardent immigration restrictionist to recognise the moral problem of, say, extolling female workforce participation rates in the West, when the sacrifices are essentially offshored to women in other countries.

There surely ought to be a moral distinction between immigration that meets an economic or social need which would genuinely go unfulfilled otherwise, and immigration that is substituting for children British families would like to have, but cannot afford to. The latter props up a system in which the next generation is seen as surplus to requirements.

In a system less totally dominated by the preferences of older voters, this might be remediable. We might expect people to spend the money saved by forgoing children on their own care needs, for example. This is anathema to the Boomer-libertarian mindset, though, which demands instead that social care taxes be specifically targeted at working-age people.

Such a policy would also risk punishing saving. People who did make provision for their retirement would watch others, who simply spent the proceeds of a child-free life, getting the tab picked up by the State. Meanwhile a specific Pigouvian tax on those without children, hypothecated toward an extensive family support programme, is probably too on-the-those.

However we do it, that £202,660-per-child investment by parents ought to be recognised and rewarded by the system. They are going to be the workers and taxpayers who look after us one day. Moreover, a society of shuttered schools and quiet parks would be a poorer place, and a system that allows others to benefit from that investment without contributing is manifestly unjust.

The ultimate point of society and civilisation is people. The case for the next generation does not rest merely on whether they’re of use to us. Likewise, contra the more hysterical attitudes towards climate change, we are not doing them a favour by not bringing them into existence. JS Mill, in On Liberty, put it best:

Supposing it were possible to get houses built, corn grown, battles fought, causes tried, and even churches erected and prayers said, by machinery — by automatons in human form — it would be a considerable loss to exchange for these automatons even the men and women who at present inhabit the more civilised parts of the world, and who assuredly are but starved specimens of what nature can and will produce.

Children are a public good. That means all of us, one way or another, should help to pay for them. As Hillary Clinton might have put it: it takes a nation to raise a child.

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