The return of patriarchy

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That's the title of an article in the latest Foreign Policy (unfortunately not yet online) by my former U.S. News colleague Phillip Longman, now a fellow at the New America Foundation. He is presenting an argument he also offered in his 2004 book The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity and What to Do About It. Patriarchy, Longman argues in a long look at history, "is a cultural regime that serves to keep birthrates high among the affluent, while also maximizing parents' investments in their children. No advanced civilization has yet learned to endure without it."

Yet obviously many are now trying—most of Europe, for example, and highly educated liberals in America. But the result, he argues, is something like suicide—or at least failure to replace oneself. "The greatly expanded childless segment of contemporary society, whose members are drawn disproportionately from the feminist and countercultural movements of the 1960s and '70s, will leave no genetic legacy. Nor will their emotional or psychological influence on the next generation compare with that of their parents."

Another way to put it: Conservatives have more babies than liberals, and so the next generation will tend to have more conservatives—more people prone to patriarchy—and fewer liberals. His numbers are stark:

The 17.4 percent of baby boomer women who had only one child account for a mere 7.8 percent of children born in the next generation. By contrast, nearly a quarter of the children of baby boomers descend from the mere 11 percent of baby boomer women who had four or more children. These circumstances are leading to the emergence of a new society whose members will disproportionately be descended from parents who rejected the social tendencies that once made childlessness and small families the norm. These values include an adherence to traditional, patriarchal religion, and a strong identification with one's own folk or nation.

You can argue that we are already seeing this effect playing out. Indeed, James Taranto in opinionjournal.com's Best of the Web today has frequently made this argument. He calls it the Roe effect: Women who believe in abortion rights will have more abortions and fewer children, while those who oppose abortion will have more children and thus produce more voters in the next generation. Here's one example, and a Google search produces 21,600 hits. Taranto, a conservative though not (I think) an advocate of criminalizing abortion, regards this effect as benign. Longman, something of a liberal (I think), doesn't entirely like the result but sees it as inevitable.

Advanced societies are growing more patriarchal, whether they like it or not. In addition to the greater fertility of conservative segments of society, the rollback of the welfare state forced by population aging and decline will give these elements an additional survival advantage, and therefore spur even higher fertility. As governments hand back functions they once appropriated from the family, notably support in old age, people will find that they need more children to insure their golden years, and they will seek to bind their children to them through inculcating traditional religious values akin to the Bible's injunction to honor thy mother and father. Societies that are today the most secular and the most generous with their underfunded welfare states will be the most prone to religious revivals and a rebirth of the patriarchal family.

Well, maybe yes and maybe no. There seems to be no prospect of reversing the decline in the number of non-Muslim Germans, French, Italians, and Spanish. But fertility rates (numbers of births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44) in the United States appear to have bottomed out around 1997 and to have risen slightly since then, and not only because of higher birthrates among immigrants: The Roe effect may well be perceptible. We have a tendency to believe that long-term trend lines will continue forever. But eventually they bend and turn around. This seems to have happened in this country, and Longman and Taranto, from their different perspectives, suggest a reason why. Patriarchy, here we come!