Shannon Love’s recent effort on the cultural struggle between the pro-life ethic and those who belittle “breeders” seems to have gone far afield in comments.
I haven’t seen anybody actively angry with those who are biologically incapable of having children, yet several comments seem to accuse Shannon of doing exactly that when he says that childless couples are selfish. But it’s absurd to think that there’s only one type of childlessness. A little charity in reading would reduce the temperature of the conversation quite a bit. Instead of looking toward the personal, it might be much better to examine the problem through the lens of infrastructure.
Societies undertake tremendous expenditures in water, sewer, electricity, lighting, and transport in the expectation that a certain number of people are going to be around to use these systems for the long haul. If you wrong-size sewer lines and a town’s population shrinks below the effective minimum, you have to redo the entire sewer system’s piping or effectively lose public sanitation as there’s just not enough flow to keep things moving. The massive water tunnels of New York City were not built to last over a century without maintenance in order to satisfy the needs of the generation that built and paid for them.
Put simply, all that existing infrastructure represents the accumulated sacrifices of the generations that have come before us. It’s a sort of group project, a shared social contract that should not be thrown away, willy nilly based on a temporary fashion. In short, it’s the physical, enduring manifestation of our society.
Now there are other, softer, multi-generational institutions that are a bit more controversial. Social Security and other old-age pension schemes are largely inter-generational capital transfers that depend on having a certain birthrate to maintain sustainability. Were we all living in libertarian paradise, these sorts of political programs would not exist. Wake me up when we get to libertopia. In the real world, inter-generational transfer schemes are likely to be with us for a long time. They’re too reliable a way to assemble durable electoral coalitions for them to not be used again and again by ambitious politicians.
Now there have always been people who could not or would not participate in the creation of the next generation. The sterile, the ill, those who were incapable of the work of parenting, those called to specialty functions incompatible with child rearing generally contributed what they could to the raising and protecting of other people’s children and aided to the limits of their abilities society in its fight to progress and not regress across the generations.
Historically rarer was the happy to be childless who purposefully avoided being the helpful uncle, the adoptive mother, the spinster schoolteacher who educated the whole village or some other like role that may have been personally childless. Such people had historically been looked down on as wastrels, hedonists only looking toward their own pleasures. It’s a pretty recent phenomenon that such purposeful wallflowers in the multi-generational struggle to maintain and improve society hit a critical mass sufficient to create their own society with its own mores and prejudices, mores and prejudices that are actively hostile to the great project of keeping society alive into the next generation.
I have to say that I’m not at all fond of this new ideal, this dismissal of “breeders” as social inferiors who don’t appreciate the finer things in life and who supposedly whine for “subsidies” for children. The truth is that some economic goods have not been successfully monetized and payment for them remains collective and nonmonetary. The foresight to create physical infrastructure that you don’t personally have to pay to recreate each generation comes out of a multi-generational ethic that is incompatible with what I call wallflowers and Shannon called free riders. The benefits of that ethic are taking advantage of the artifacts of our forefathers. The cost is to repeat the process in our own generation. This is enforced via social pressure for the most part though the tax man and the law code do have their roles.
The wallflowers take the benefits of the multi-generational ethic without complaint and whine about the cost of continuing the project into the next generation, propagandizing and agitating for the project to end with their generation being the great winner, all gain with no pain. It’s selfish and ultimately destructive for our society to adopt that course but the wallflowers don’t care.
[ed note: Shannon’s a guy. I think I used to know that. I’m very sorry, gender corrected where appropriate]