A survey of the headlines shows us our crises at a glace: in addition to mounting economic turmoil, growing unemployment, and spiraling debt, there is the simmering international kulturkampf which has emerged in the aftermath of the pax Americana. The world is broke and broken: insolvent sovereign powers have segmented the world into mutually opposed spheres of influence. And these twin dilemmas have cast a dark pall over the dawn of the 21st century.
The shadow of these problems is so long that, in the current American presidential election campaign, both candidates have all but conceded the fact that the world’s preeminent nation is in decline, and only question its angle of incidence and the possible means of its reversal.
In view of such pressing and perilous concerns, a surrogate of the Republican contender, Mitt Romney, recently decried political ads regarding his candidate’s stance on social issues as “distractions.” The culture wars of recent decades have been superseded by these larger issues of existential concern.
Or so it would seem. In fact, the separation of the current crisis from social issues such as abortion,
euthanasia, and the definition of marriage – the very separation asserted by the Romney campaign — is only a matter of perspective. Today’s economic and national security issues are merely a consequence of the cultural problems which the Republican nominee thinks of as a “distraction.” Thus, ignorant of their cause, today’s politicians remain unable to offer solutions to the systemic problems which beset the West.
Take, for example, the current woes of developed economies: the issues seem complex, convoluted, and intractable, yet a longer view of them is immensely clarifying. In the middle of the last century, prices rose in response to a virtual doubling of the potential adult workforce, a ripple produced as post-war women were offered the choice between family and career. But an unforeseen consequence of offering this choice was that the traditional alternative suddenly became unaffordable: because some women freely chose career over family, most families could not afford not to. And, while prices were on the rise and women were going to work, the cultural revolution of the 1960s came to break the last cultural supports of the traditional social unit.
The ensuing collapse of the family produced by this confluence of causes has brought birthrates to a level far below the replacement-rate, and it is this little-noted phenomenon which has precipitated our present economic catastrophe. Is it any wonder that nations with no children are wallowing in unredeemable debt? The childless decades of the last century were like a “biological mortgage” which was leveraged against future prospects for the sake of a straightening present: the temporary burst of wealth brought about by voluntary sterility in the short run has ruined society’s long-term health. The countries that thought they could not afford children, could, in reality, not afford to be without them. And now they cannot even support themselves.
The withering of the West’s fertility — whether by contraception or abortion — has had similar consequences on international relations. Foreign threats and virulent ideologies are a hazard for civilized countries in every age. But the population implosion of the last half-century has destroyed the real deterrent which experts thought that nuclear weaponry would ensure. For, a healthy nation is what a military theorist might call a “fleet in being”: warships at anchor need not even be launched to impose on hostile threats. So too, large populations which could defend themselves often makes actual wars unnecessary.
The crisis of our time, therefore, is not plural but singular: its effects are diverse and disparate, but there is, at their shared root, one cause: our world has been ravaged by voluntary childlessness. This self-imposed crisis will produce a demographic drop similar in scale to the Spanish flu or the Black Death, but these disastrous epidemics offer only imperfect analogies. The more pertinent parallel is with Roman antiquity: although lead poising was once blamed for the collapse of fertility among the Empire’s aristocracy, the real cause was not medical but moral. In the first century, Augustus was already enacting pro-fertility laws to reverse the dangerous trend that he perceived. But, as Tacitus, writing about these failed initiatives, ruefully noted: “marriages and the rearing of children did not become more frequent, so powerful were the attractions of a childless state.”
As with the Romans, so with us. The allurements of a perpetual, unfruitful adolescence have made us the belated twin of imperial Rome, amusing ourselves as a darkness, of our own making, falls. And, so powerful do the attractions of a childless state remain that the West cannot even rouse itself to reverse this fatal, infertile trend — or even acknowledge the single source of its debilitating dilemmas.
Far from being a “distraction” from larger problems, social issues — and these issues alone — constitute the source of all these problems. For years, social conservatives have been derided as “single-issue voters.” Now, however, culture has become the only issue there is. A culture that has no children will never be solvent or secure. Unless the West reverses its own chosen childlessness, its problems will only multiply — precisely because its citizens have decided not to.