Welcome to TP Ideas‘ weekly roundup of the best conservative writing! Every Friday, we take a look at three pieces by right-leaning writers that constructively articulate core elements of their worldview. The goal isn’t to find conservatives telling us how right liberals are, but rather to pick out writing that helps liberals understand where their ideological foes are coming from.
So let’s get started.
1. “Could Delayed Childbearing Reduce Poverty?” — Robert VerBruggen, RealClearPolicy
Over at The Week, Ryan Cooper ripped into Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) recent proposal to reform the safety net for the way it buys into the idea that poverty is driven by cultural norms rather than the structural forces of economics. Robert VerBruggen’s response at RealClearPolicy doesn’t contradict Cooper per se, but it does admit conservatives’ focus on marriage as a poverty fighting tool has so far been a pretty thorough failure.
But VerBruggen then asks what other cultural norms could be altered that might have more success at poverty reduction. He focuses in on the timing of childbirth as one area where there seem to be a reasonable agreement among researchers that changes in behavior could make a real difference:
Which brings us back to the questions of how income changes over the life cycle and how personal decisions can factor in to poverty. What would happen if, instead of waiting until marriage, poor women simply waited? This is a depressing question for everyone — it assumes marriage is out of the question, it ignores the role of men in providing for their children, it doesn’t involve greater government spending on the poor. But I think it’s at least worth asking.
There are many reasons to think this would be a great help. The median age for a first childbirth nationwide is around 25, and experts say that increased pregnancy risks don’t set in until about 35, so there’s plenty of room for change. Women obviously do make more as they get older and, to bring up marriage and men again just for a second, men similarly become less likely to be unemployed or incarcerated — so, by waiting to have children, women might encounter a better marriage market or at least be able to collect more stable child support.
And though I’m incredibly skeptical of such projects myself, there are even some reasons to think policy or culture could nudge people in this direction. A surprisingly large proportion of births among poor unmarried women are somewhat or completely intended — they’re decisions, not accidents, that could be affected by the messages people receive. And one of the few bright spots in family trends is that teen births have fallen, a success that might be replicated among older demographics.
VerBruggen also provides some sociological data backing up the point that the timing of childbirth matters a lot for women’s economic prospects. And there are previous examples of public campaigns altering culture and mass behavior — the decline in smoking comes to mind.
However, VerBruggen also inadvertently backs up the leftwing argument that poverty is the result of structural economics rathe than culture. The point that many out-of-wedlock births among poor women are intended comes from the book Promises I can Keep, which found that low-income women choose to have children because they rightly recognize their life prospects are profoundly limited regardless, and a child will be one of their few paths to meaning. In other words, what conservatives call “poverty culture” is a rational response to the realities of material scarcity — and if we want to change the response, we should probably change the scarcity.
2. “Born to Trouble” — Hannah K. Grieser, Books and Culture: A Christian Review
This is a hard one. Over at Books and Culture: A Christian Review this week, Hannah K. Grieser reviewed a memoir by the author and English professor Rachel Adams, detailing Adams’s experiences raising her son Henry, who has Down Syndrome.
Grieser acknowledges up front that Adams is a good mother who loves her son — the memoir’s cover photo “captures the close affection and mutual delight that I’ve known with my own sons” as Grieser says. But she also zeros in on a contradiction produced by two branches of Adams’s liberal politics: on the one hand, Adams is rightly enraged by the insensitivity of the medical establishment to her son’s disability, and by the lack of understanding and accommodation in American society. On the other hand, Adams’s dedication to a woman’s autonomous right to abortion — and the underlying truth that, had she caught the Down Syndrome diagnosis earlier, Adams would’ve almost certainly had an abortion herself — creates, in Grieser’s estimation, a kind of existential pit at the core of how Adams understands her relationship with Henry.
[W]hile it’s true that many of the attitudes [Adams] encounters are inexcusable, her moral framework isn’t solid enough to uphold many of her (legitimate) objections. It wobbles under the weight of its own contradictions.
“No woman,” she says, “should be forced to give birth to an unwanted child.” But at the same time, she expects that the rest of society should be “forced” to provide for a child it may not want. Adams regrets how few adults she sees with Down syndrome while simultaneously advocating the very beliefs and practices that result in so few adults with Down syndrome. She has no patience for the attitude that cannot recognize the personhood of someone with physical or mental weaknesses. And yet physical and mental weakness (due to gestational age) is the dehumanizing basis upon which abortion is justified in the first place.
Adams occasionally hints that she recognizes some of these contradictions, but she clearly does not know — or does not want to know — how to resolve the tension. When she begins to consider what her own convictions might have done to Henry’s life, she cannot face the thought. “I try to imagine what it would be like if Henry’s story and mine had unfolded differently. What if I had made different choices? Taken more tests? I try,” she says, “but I’ve never been able to do it. As Jon said matter-of-factly soon after Henry was born, ‘It happened to us.’”
Henry happened. He has a disability, and there is, for Adams, no ultimate reason or purpose for it. It just happened, and she is dealing with the consequences. But clearly something far more than Down syndrome has “happened” as well. That photo on the cover is no lie.
Grieser is a ruthless interrogator, and some of her criticism of Adams is needlessly high-handed. In particular, she singles out Adams’s lack of religious belief as a contributor to the professor’s confusion. Grieser may find the “thick” meaning of her own belief comforting, but as Terry Eagleton has rightly pointed out, comfort is an odd thing to find in Christian doctrine, rightly understood. Furthermore, the existential leap of religious faith is not for everyone, and Adams’s standard may be such that she is unwilling to accept a grace that she finds too cheap or easy.
But Grieser gets at something real. The left has devoted itself to the idea that no one should be left behind by society because they happen to be weak or vulnerable. Yet modern market-driven society places an overwhelming premium on efficiency and best outcomes in all areas of life, especially among the upper class. Add to that the grounding of the pro-choice argument in a highly individualist conception of personal autonomy, and the result is a weird unintended stew in which the unborn — and especially the unborn with disabilities — face exactly the kind of Darwinian gauntlet the left opposes elsewhere. The fact that the abortion rate for children with Down Syndrome is over 90 percent, by some estimates, is never far from the surface here. The question is not one of Adams’ supposed personal failings, if any. It’s how are any of us to understand Henry as an irreducibly and intrinsically valuable being if the vast majority of people who share his weakness are dispatched before they are even born? Grieser is unable to find an answer in Adams’s writing.
Of course, this sword cuts both ways: at the end of the day, Adams embraced the challenge of raising Henry, and was able to do so largely because of her socio-economic resources. Most Americans are not so lucky, and thus feel the demands of control and efficiency even more sharply. If conservatives would like to see more self-giving on behalf of the vulnerable when it comes to abortion, they contradict themselves by not calling for an equal devotion to that self-giving when it comes to the social safety net.
3. “When Caesarism Is a Choice” — Ross Douthat, The New York Times
Over at the New York Times, Ross Douthat has been on a tear regarding reports that President Obama may attempt an extremely ambitious use of executive power to provide a large portion of the country’s undocumented immigrants relief from the threat of deportation. Some of it has been less than successful, as Douthat’s been effectively forced to admit the move being contemplated would be an extension of prior precedents, just one with implications Douthat and his fellow conservatives don’t like.
But this week Douthat also presented a history of the immigration fight, and in particular makes a compelling case that the Obama Administration wrecked a potential compromise back in 2012 for the purposes of improving the Democratic Party’s political popularity (relative to the Republicans anyway) with the public:
[I]n the spring of 2012, Marco Rubio started working on a variation on the DREAM Act — one that wouldn’t go as far as the bill the White House favored, but seemed to have some chance of passage, not least because the context of a presidential election (and Mitt Romney’s struggles with Hispanic voters) gave Republicans a reason to seek compromise. At which point the White House, in a move that (to quote Ed Kilgore, no conservative) ”was universally understood as a preemption” of Rubio’s potential bill, released its own executive order — the precedent for the one being currently considered — legalizing the population in question, which (as the White House no doubt expected) made it politically impossible for Rubio to push forward with legislation that would have effectively just ratified that move.
Now counterfactuals are unknowable: Had the White House not made that highly-calculated move, Rubio’s bill might still have gone nowhere, and the post-2012 immigration debate might have played out in exactly the same way, leaving us with the same present-day gridlock on the issue. But it seems quite likely that if Obama hadn’t decided to pre-empt the G.O.P. the way he did, a version of the DREAM Act would have either passed before the election, or else become the obvious compromise — perhaps even combined with a high-skill immigration expansion, another potential area for dealmaking — that Republicans reached for after their 2012 defeat in order to prove their willingness to do something on the issue. It’s even possible (though somewhat less likely, I concede) that absent that well-poisoning move, a comprehensive bill would have had a better chance in Congress post-2012 as well.
And all of this, I submit, was foreseeable for the White House two years ago: Team Obama obviously supported the deferred-action program on the merits, but also with the awareness that it both took one specific area of compromise off the table and pushed the G.O.P. away from compromise in general.
For all its virtues, technocracy can be taken too far in DC journalism, and we can forget that the simple human-to-human matters of trust and good will still matter in what Congress is and isn’t able to accomplish. Sometimes, sacrificing political advantage really can earn you the trust to do something substantive, in which case the decision to go with the political advantage really should be condemned as a moral lapse.
Now, there is something admittedly odd about condemning Obama for successfully maneuvering the GOP into revealing its own worst ideological impulses and extremist nativism. But Douthat’s post is a valuable for its ability to put liberals in conservatives’ heads, and to understand how the latter could see the Spring of 2012 as a moment when the well of potential goodwill was poisoned, and not by them.