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On Natalist Narratives by Jorge González-Gallarza

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On Natalist Narratives

On a recent visit to my hometown of Madrid, I found it worthwhile to attend a panel on family policy hosted by a religious-cum-scholarly group deeply invested in the issue. Three speakers took turns to intone, with varying degrees of alarm, what is by now the three-pronged conservative consensus on the matter. That consensus runs as follows: 1) Europe’s record-low birth rates, everywhere below replacement, amount to demographic suicide, 2) the costs of childrearing should be alleviated through tax and fiscal policy, and 3) the joys of forming a family should be more assertively advertised to would-be parents. This latter point—and largely the case, borrowing from behavioral economics, that non-pecuniary policy tools such as government-run publicity campaigns can effectively nudge couples toward having more kids—is perhaps the least consensual of the three. A libertarian sensibility, for instance, would contend instead that only economic incentives—tax breaks, tax credits, or lump-sum assistance—can succeed in getting families to have more children at the margin.

The event’s substance militated strongly in the pro-nudge camp’s favor. In from Budapest was my good friend Rodrigo Ballester, former EU official, head of the Center for European Studies at Mathias Corvinus Collegium and a father of three. Ballester touted his adopted country’s policy mix of lavish tax breaks for parents (and no income tax at all for parents with three or more children), a generous monthly payout to newlywed couples, paid family leave, flexible kindergarten options, and aggressive use of the “family-friendly Hungary” sobriquet, famously the first thing visitors glance upon landing at Ferenc Liszt Airport. One estimate had Hungary’s overall spending on family policy in 2015 at 4% of GDP.

Speaking on behalf of Isabel Díaz Ayuso’s center-right regional government was Luis Martínez-Sicluna, Madrid’s vice minister for families, who oversees within the confines of the region’s purview, a more modest version of the same policies. The whole point of the event, convened by CEU San Pablo University’s CEFAS forum, was to have the two gentlemen compare notes, and everyone else bask in the reassurance that such a bleak ‘demographic winter’ can be at least partly remedied through public policy.

The panelists agreed that making child rearing less costly—if not outright profitable—should form the pillar of a 21st-century family policy. Also alluded to were measures to lessen the associated burden, such as allowing parents to split time off through parental leave and sanctioning companies that inflict a motherhood penalty. Migration, the speakers stressed, may offer a temporary reprieve from the looming insolvency of the pension system but is by no means a long-term substitute to a healthier birth rate among natives.

The crux of the discussion is what is left in the policy toolbox. Ballester argued that Hungary’s rapidly climbing birth rate owes to all of the above, but also to a climate of cultural optimism, unprecedented after the country’s dreadful 20th century of territorial amputation and totalitarianism, and egged on by Prime Minister Orbán’s Fidesz party, that provides the narrative texture into which more Hungarians than before are willing to supply their progeny. Madrid, meanwhile, breathes in Western Europe’s general atmosphere of decline, aggravated by a still bleak job-market outlook for millennials.

Shaping a narrative that invites young couples to procreate, the speakers seemed to agree, is the more promising non-financial avenue to reverse the ageing of our society. The third panelist, Spain’s guru demographic alarmist Alejandro Macarrón, tackled the heart of the matter with something of an iffy diagnostic. If young couples are not having enough children, he seemed to argue, it is partly because they’re underestimating the long-term fulfillment and self-actualization that flows from bringing a newborn to life. If only the government could help fix that informational asymmetry through publicity campaigns to persuade them of doing what is already in their best interest, Macarrón’s thinking went, we would be back at replacement levels in the foreseeable future. Fill those bus-stop billboards with irresistible pictures of cute lil’ babies—Macarrón’s slides had plenty of them—and you can seduce the rising generation away from wanting pets and toward breeding human beings. The messaging of those campaigns, he highlighted, should stress that childlessness is misery and that only parenting can elevate one to a happy life.

This rationale strikes me as self-defeating. If young couples are postponing, or altogether refraining from having children in such large numbers, the decision-making of each one individually cannot possibly hold all the explanatory weight—the culture must bear some of the blame, too. Individuals live and breathe in a culture that helps shape their behavior, and the reason that behavior today locates the birth rate below replacement levels is because the culture has gradually come to emphasize the immediate pleasure of countless other stimulae, all geared towards maximizing our individual sense of happiness, unmoored from family and community. Striving to persuade young couples to alter their calculus with a message that doubles down on the same happiness-at-all-costs individualism is likely to fall flat. Only by rediscovering a vision of the good life that reckons with the suffering inherent in human experience and conceives of individuals as social animals bound by duty to one another—Edmund Burke’s “partnership of the dead, the living and the unborn”—do we stand a chance of bending the rising generation’s egotism and make them want to grace their communities and nations with new human beings.

Jorge González-Gallarza (@JorgeGGallarza) is the co-host of the Uncommon Decency podcast on Europe (@UnDecencyPod) and an associate researcher at Fundación Civismo (Madrid).