In this space, I have written about the assumption that parents and especially mothers are morally superior to child-free people. In those stances about the assumed moral superiority of parents, the idea that parents sacrifice time, energy, financial resources and more for their offspring takes central attention. Of course, people make sacrifices, large and small for any number of reasons. Some sacrifice free time, sleep and other health considerations, as well as mental well-being in the pursuit of a career. Others sacrifice more specifically in those endeavors, such as dancers sacrificing joint health later in life for success in their ballet vocation, or priests sacrificing normalized sexuality to pursue a religious life. Beyond careers, people sacrifice enormously for any number of people in their lives, like the partner who stays with an extremely ill or drug-addicted person, while money, peace of mind, and even safety erode. Still others sacrifice for hobbies or artistic dreams, sometimes to extremes that others find laughable. But why is sacrificing for children inherently moral and sacrificing for a hobby laughable?
The idea that sacrifice in the pursuit of begetting and raising children is a moral endeavor, stems partly from the assumption that children are mostly a public, rather than a private good. In other words, our current conceptualization of children includes an unspoken belief that everyone eventually benefits from other people’s children. This belief stems from some truisms, that many children grow up to be workers and citizens, contributing to society both through their economic production and their civic engagement. Capitalist ideology relies on the growth model, which requires new workers, and more importantly new markets (ie consumers). However, even putting aside environmental concerns, this model ignores quite a bit about who actually benefits from additional humans and who loses. As the editorial team from the Economist points out “for one thing, some people produce neither an economic nor fiscal benefit to society. Some children will end up as free-riders, consuming more than they create.” Additionally, how do working and middle class people benefit from more workers? In fact, more workers only benefits the capitalists, who can pay less the more people there are vying for a job. The rest of us, in turn, have less ability to find a job or to negotiate for a higher wage if there are more people lining up for the same jobs. It also ignores the new reality that human workers are needed less and less in a robotic production paradigm.
Beyond the questionable assumption that children are a public good, I question the idea that they are not a private good. Rather, our nuclear family fetishization creates a world where children can only be a primarily private good. They benefit their parents and siblings more than the society at large. Some of these benefits are easily recognizable, even clichéd. When couples are urged to reproduce, a standard argument asks “who will take care of you when you grow old?” and indeed grown children bear much of the burden of elder care. The child-free must negotiate other avenues for assistance in their deteriorating years. Subsidizing benefits for parents – reifying the nuclear family – adds to a system that can undercut the social network for citizens in old age.
Other private benefits stem from the very assumptions we are attempting to undercut. For example, at some point in the middle adult years of most westerners, questions about career aspirations, life goals, and self-actualization writ large become inevitable. Children become a culturally sanctioned way to stave off disappointment. Even if you have not become a millionaire or saved the ocean reefs, you still can point to your children as your accomplishment, an accomplishment for which you sacrificed in other arenas to succeed. In some contexts, children also net other benefits. They are a not-to-be-questioned excuse to beg off of weekend events, both professional and social. I have mention the joys of sweet baby skin and could add the fun of passing along wisdom or skills to adoring little people, and I know others could provide numerous examples of the private benefits of children. Of course, most parents do put in much time in order to enjoy those benefits, but they pretend their time benefits everyone else. My argument here is simply that it really does not, and that child-free people need not feel guilty for not reproducing the means of production.