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Artillery Row

The problem with right-wing natalism

No one actually knows how to raise birth rates

What do we want? More kids! When do we want them? Now! That has been the overarching message of a lot of right-wing discourse in recent times. Miriam Cates MP, for example, told the London National Conservatism Conference in 2023 that raising British birth rates was “the most pressing issue of our generation”.

Looking at the statistics, you can see where Cates is coming from. People are having fewer kids while living longer lives. Total fertility in Britain in 2022 was 1.49 children — a record low. Schools are closing for lack of pupils while care homes are struggling for lack of workers. This is not an issue to be swept casually aside.

Yet I want to raise — as I so often do — a sceptical note.

My problem is not related to nonsensical left-wing complaints about “eugenics” or whatever. It is far more prosaic. I’m not sure right-wing pro-natalists have any good idea of what will work. Declining fertility is a problem, and an observable phenomenon across the developed and developing worlds, but it is not a problem that anyone has solved. 

Are childcare costs too high? Certainly! But Sweden has some of the lowest child care costs in Europe and is also hitting record fertility lows. Is housing too expensive? Yes! But Germany has far more affordable housing and its birth rate in 2022 was 1.46 — even lower than that of the UK.

None of this is meant to amount to an argument that Britain should not try to raise its birth rates

Nations which have actively tried to raise their birth rates have had little success. Hungary has poured money into tax breaks and loans for parents. Where did its birth rate stand in 2022? At 1.52 kids per women — only marginally above Britain’s. To be fair, Hungary started from a much lower point, following a dramatic slump in fertility between the late 90s and 2010. But it would still be premature to think that Viktor Orban has found the recipe for a baby boom.

Some on the staunchest end of social conservatism might argue for policies like banning the pill. This would be about as popular as a book by Matt Hancock on building a good marriage — but would it even work? Low-dose oral contraceptive use is rare in Japan, which famously has some of the lowest birth rates in the world.

Ironically, even we right-wingers aren’t doing a lot to raise fertility rates. It was a striking feature of that National Conservatism Conference that a lot of the people applauding speeches like Mrs Cate’s were unmarried, childless men under the age of 35. I say that without judgement — I was one of them! — but it illustrates the difficulty of the issue.

None of this is meant to amount to an argument that Britain should not try to raise its birth rates. The fact that no one has been especially successful yet does not mean that no one will be successful in the future. Besides, it should pursue lower child care costs and less expensive housing anyway

But it is meant to argue that there is a low chance of dramatic results. 

This matters. If your argument is that there is an urgent need for young workers, and if policies for raising birth rates tend to be ineffective, your argument will be answered with higher immigration. Yes, conservative pro-natalists don’t recommend this. Yes, they argue — and rightly so — that this is a short-termist solution with dangerous second-order consequences (the anonymous commentator “thdhmo” has made this argument effectively). But politicians tend to be stupid short-termists who are oblivious or indifferent to dangerous second-order consequences. 

So, is this a counsel of despair? Not necessarily. It is possible that we won’t need as many workers in the future. Like it or not, a lot of tasks are going to be automated. For sure, this does not mean that we are all going to enjoy an endless holiday. New technologies create new jobs. The computer created the need for the IT technician. But some labour shortages really can be answered technologically. The alarm clock eliminated the need for knocker-ups. At the very least, we shouldn’t let a focus on birth rates obscure the potential for adaptation — and we will need that adaptation, because even if birth rates somehow doubled over the coming year it would not make a lot of difference for the next two decades.

Yet nor should the potential for adaptation obscure the problems of childlessness. There are some things technology is simply never going to do. It might help with feeding and bathing an elderly person, for example, but it is not going to be their friend.

But I think this strikes at an ambiguity at the heart of right-wing natalism. I think we are expressing a largely spiritual argument in functional terms. We don’t believe that people need to have children, above everything else, to staff care homes. We think that having kids tends to be the most meaningful of human experiences. We think it tends to most substantively fulfill the essence of who we are. 

This is quite alignable with the fact that most people who make it to old age will need help washing themselves. But it is a different and more subtle belief — not beyond the reach of the state but beyond its ability to fully grasp. That’s where culture must come in.

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