Monday, December 31, 2012

The Generosity Bait and Switch

This past summer I spent some time in Germany, and one of the people I met through my host family was a middle–aged guy named Tommy. Tommy was a ton of fun to be around. He was energetic, genuinely friendly, and a great conversationalist: bright and funny with impeccable English. He also shared my interest in politics, and we got to talking about them one night at a bar in Hamburg. The topic on this particular night was how the European welfare programs are going bankrupt. Tommy asked me why I thought this was, and I answered that the population was aging: since Europeans are having fewer children and living longer, there are more retirees receiving senior benefits and fewer workers paying taxes to support them. He agreed this was a major problem, but soon he began lamenting another cause.

Tommy felt that many people were irresponsibly having children they could not afford to raise. He complained about how much more likely these kids were to be uneducated, go unemployed, or commit crimes due to the circumstances in which they grew up. I understood those concerns, and sympathized with how much harder life is for those kids. He went on to say how unfair it was that everybody else in the country be made to pay for those poor decisions through things like welfare and unemployment benefits and higher crime rates. Again I agreed – it really is unfair that responsible people be forced to pay for the irresponsible decisions of total strangers. But when he suggested a way to address this problem, I recoiled. Tommy felt that if you wanted to have a child, you should first have to demonstrate an ability to support that child to some sort of official; this official would look at certain factors like your income, age, residence, education level, or future job prospects before giving you clearance to proceed.

I blinked, and then paused for a few seconds. There were so many things wrong with this I didn’t even know where to begin. Now, as I said, Tommy was a really nice guy, and I didn’t want to spoil our evening or make a scene; bars are rarely the forum for productive political debate anyway. He’s entitled to his opinion, and I wouldn’t convince him otherwise, so I just guided the conversation elsewhere. Eventually we left for home, and I went to bed. But before I could fall asleep, I found myself just staring at the ceiling, getting angrier and angrier at the idea Tommy had proposed a few hours before.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, because this mindset and its implications are far more widespread than I’d like to believe. In China, of course, the infamous one-child policy prohibits parents from having more than one son regardless of economic status. And even in this country, liberals have been complaining about the environmental impact of overpopulation for decades. Large families are criticized for selfishly consuming “more than their share” of the world’s resources. Additionally, an inability to financially support a child has long been cited as sufficient moral justification for abortion, and many liberals cite a decrease in crime and poverty as primary social benefits of Roe vs. Wade (although I’m pro-choice, this argument has never been compelling to me: a fetus should have the same rights whether its mother is wealthy or impoverished).

To be clear, the specific policy Tommy advocated is not yet fully embraced by most on the American left. But it is true that most liberals are comfortable with government regulating how families may raise their children on issues like education, seat belts, spanking, sex-ed, and teenaged birth control,. And if the state can decide how you raise them, is it really that much of a stretch to imagine it deciding whether you get to raise them at all? It already bans riding a motorcycle without a helmet, or choosing not to buy health insurance, with the justification that such decisions risk imposing costs on taxpayers. If the decision to have a child carries the same risk, couldn’t it be restricted as well? Already, parents seeking permission to home school their kids must prove to the Department of Education that they have enough time, resources and expertise to do so effectively. Isn’t the natural next step in that progression to make parents demonstrate they have the time, resources, and expertise to raise children in the first place? These arguments haven’t reached the US Congress yet, but the collectivist worldview and rhetorical framework that justify them certainly have. As the entitlement programs so beloved by the left become more and more unsustainable, the temptation to actually implement such ideas will undoubtedly increase.

But any liberals who succumb to that temptation will be traitors to the very groups they promise to help. For decades, the Democratic Party has marketed itself as the ones who will stick up for the little guy, nobly defending the rights of the weak from the powerful interests that would oppress them. They have lured millions of impoverished voters year after year by promising them everything from the moon and back: welfare checks, minimum wages, protections from foreign competition, free healthcare, a college education, social security, you name it. To then turn around and use those same promises as justification to take away those people’s most sacred human rights would be the biggest bait and switch ever perpetrated on the American people. How dare liberals in any country present themselves as the champions of the working man, the heroes of the poor, and then turn around and tell them they’re not allowed to start a family? How condescending, how demeaning is it, for the government to tell people that you’re so stupid, and so uneducated, so inept, so incapable of parenthood that you shouldn’t even be allowed to breed?

The poor aren’t the only group betrayed by such a proposal. What about women? The only three ways this prospective law could be enforced are by requiring abstinence, requiring birth control, or requiring abortion. Aren’t Democrats supposed to be the party of “woman’s body, woman’s choice?” What happened to getting the government out of the bedroom?

If lawmakers are truly concerned that the irresponsible decisions of some are imposing unfair costs on others, they can place conditions on the receipt of government benefits. For example, parents who are already receiving welfare might be ineligible for additional TANF payments if they choose to have more children. This would prevent some parents from imposing costs on others, and I’m perfectly fine with that. It’s okay to tell people “We’ve run out of money, so we can’t afford to pay for your kids anymore.” It’s just not okay to tell them “We’ve run out of money, so you can’t have kids anymore.” Unfortunately, most liberals would shudder at the mere thought of restricting the eligibility for benefits. Why is that? Why might someone prefer to ban a child’s birth than to simply not give its parents a handout?

The root moral issue here is the question of whether a life of suffering is worth living. I certainly cannot know from experience, but my answer is still yes. I would choose to live in squalid poverty before I chose to end my life. When I see a starving African boy clinging to life in the gravest conditions imaginable, I feel his plight is a tragic and avoidable occurrence – but his existence as a person is still a blessing. I view even the worst case scenario of that child’s brief time here on earth as a net positive, both for him and for those who have known him. The intrinsic value of a human being cannot be tied to their prospects for wealth or longevity.

But many people disagree with me. Many believe that living in poverty is worse than not living at all. Therefore, they feel it is better that a child never be born than it is for one to live a life in which their standard of living cannot be ensured by the state. Those who hold this opinion reject making the receipt of government handouts conditional, because they know that some who do not meet those conditions would choose to have children anyway. They rightfully fear that those children may grow up without access to healthcare, a college education, a loving family, a healthy community, or three nutritious meals a day. They fear that without access to the government programs designed to mitigate such dangers, these children may live poorer, unhappier, and shorter lives than others. But because they prefer a society that lacks poor, unhappy and short-lived people, some of them then feel an inclination to prevent such people from ever having existed. In what they must twistedly view as mercy, they somehow transfer their sympathy for the plight of the poor into a wish that the poor had never been born. And because their statist worldview lacks a distinction between their personal preferences and their desired laws, they can justify banning couples from having children the state is unable to afford.

If you are one of these people, I have a message for you. Initially, I’d planned to ask you what warped moral framework views preventing a person’s existence as a benevolent favor to that person? But then I realized I don’t really care how you personally justify that opinion, so I thought of a better question. It’s the same question I should have asked Tommy that night in Hamburg:

Who the fuck do you think you are? Who died and made you God, that you get to decide under what conditions it is permissible for another human life to be brought into this world? What moral authority do you have to make that decision for everyone else? Why does your opinion about what would save government money give you the right to forcibly prevent women from having children? Since when is my right to procreate superseded by your desire for a welfare check? By what stretch of the imagination do you feel you have or ought to have the power to tell anyone if, when, and how they’re allowed to start a family? When did population control become a just, constitutional or conscionable objective of American government?

This is not fucking China. We do not do eugenics here. And I don’t have to be a citizen to know that they shouldn’t do it in Germany either.

1 comment:


    I told you it was coming. I'm not just ranting at imaginary dangers here - it's an actual mindset and it's more common than you think.