The Winter issue of National Affairs is up online, with a provocative essay by Eric Cohen on Irving Kristol's view of capitalism and its limits. I say "provocative," for how else to describe Mr. Cohen's assertion, "Almost certainly, we will need to cut taxes on families and raise taxes on men and women who choose not to have children"? Tax policy is already fairly family friendly, what with tax benefits for child care, dependents, and tax-favored college-savings accounts. Mr. Cohen:
the culture of capitalism alone provides no reason for men and women in their twenties and thirties to raise up the next generation of democratic capitalists (aka children) — a very expensive task indeed, in terms of time and money and lost personal freedom. Children may fulfill certain natural needs, as the evolutionary biologists have long assured us, seeing human beings as no different from all the other sex-seeking and gene-spreading animals. But in reality, it turns out that when having children competes in the marketplace against other desires — for sexual freedom, for career advancement, for an elegant studio apartment — child-rearing loses. And when men and women of child-rearing age question the ultimate meaning of their own lives, they feel little impetus or urgency to create another self-doubting generation. Building a family requires precisely the virtues and spiritual purpose that the capitalist order fails to nourish.
I know Mr. Cohen and respect him and admire his ability to provoke. And I agree that religion provides certain things that capitalism does not. But I think he's missing a few points here. For one thing, the prosperity created by capitalism allows people to feel like they can afford big families, and the low birth rates in Japan and Europe that he writes about may be related to scarcity created by central planning and big-government policies there as much as to lack of spiritual purpose. Second, it was Communist China -- the opposite of capitalism -- that imposed the one-child policy. And finally, there are reasons within capitalism to raise up the next generation -- without them, who will carry on the family business? Mr. Cohen's essay doesn't account for that motive at all, yet it is a strong one within American capitalism -- just ask Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., William Lauder, or any other of the many third-generation leaders of American businesses.
On the tax question, my own preference is for a code that raises whatever money is needed to fund the government while intervening as little as possible in personal decisions such as whether to have children or how many. You should have a child because you want one, not because some politician dangles a tax break in front of you or threatens to punish you with higher taxes if you fail to reproduce with adequate fecundity. The alternative is a kind of social engineering via the tax code. Granted, you want a pro-growth tax code, and population growth is part of that. But it seems to me this is an area where the government would want to tread lightly for fear of impinging on the freedom of a person to choose whether to have children. There are other ways to grow the population than using the tax code to encourage large families. Immigration, for starters.