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Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Feminism 101

posted by bitchphd
It never ceases to shock and upset me that otherwise supposedly intelligent people just cannot get past the idea that having children is a "choice" and that any proposal to benefit kids and/or their caregivers is somehow unfair. So, this piece from Crooked Timber on the new book No Exit -- What Parents Owe Their Children and What Society Owes Parents (which I shall have to put on my Amazon wish list and hope to read but probably never actually get around to). While I agree that the proposal to pay primary caregivers $5000/year in cold hard cash 'til the kid turns 13 sounds great (while we're at it, let's universalize health insurance), I completely disagree that the libertarian objection to this kind of thing isn't easily dismissed.

First, we have this--"I'm not persuaded that there really is a loss of autonomy involved"--which is just laughable and not worth refuting; childbearing is so very NOT "of a kind with other autonomy losses consequent on voluntary choices" because, as the book apparently points out (according to the very essay I'm quoting), having a kid is pretty much the only "voluntary" decision that one is not allowed to walk away from. Literally: this very evening I found myself explaining to pseudonymous kid that no, I could not let him just sit in the car while I went into the fast food place (yum) to buy dinner because 1. it is dangerous; 2. it is illegal. A small, petty example, but a significant one that, until you've had a little kid who you must tote around, like a 25 lb. sack of stubborn, questioning, clumsy potatoes that kicks off its shoes at every opportunity but can't put them back on by itself, you can't really understand. I would wager that there are few other voluntary commitments that require so much physical and mental energy. You try thinking when your kid won't shut up asking you "why" every 30 seconds, and then tell me there's no loss of autonomy there.

More significantly, the CT piece goes on: "The libertarian objection simply takes the institutional status quo as authoritative, and says "Look, you know what the circumstances are, or you should know, and if you make this choice in these circumstances, you're on your own; why should other people have to help you out?" Understanding the situation of the primary caretaker as one of diminished freedom or autonomy simply concedes to the basic thrust of this argument; and once it is pointed out that the parent is not lacking in autonomy, there are no further resources to respond to it." This is the enormous logical flaw at the heart of the libertarian argument. Why do we take the institutional status quo as authoritative, as normative even, and NOT take basic facts of human biology as authoritative and normative? Yes, individuals can choose not to have children. More power to them. But collectively, on both the social and species level, we cannot make that choice. Being living creatures and all. Moreover, the economic disadvantages of having kids pretty much accrue because we've all agreed to alienate our labor. Ok, fine, but let's don't pretend that it is the children, rather than the social structure, that is the "choice."

Later on someone says, "I thought that people who have children do it largely because they want to." No. People have children because if you fuck someone of the opposite sex, chances are that sooner or later you (or, if you are a man, your partner) will get pregnant. It's lovely that we have ways of avoiding this, and tragic when people who want kids find out they can't, but let's not be stupid: having children is not the choice. NOT having children is the choice.

To be fair, the commenter who said that was responding the weak argument that we have a social obligation to take care of children because they are the next generation and will pay for our retirement, run our nursing homes, etc. etc. Again, I say no. We have a social obligation to children because CHILDREN ARE PART OF SOCIETY. As they are young and dependent, the obligations of adults towards them are greater than theirs towards us. But see, they do grow up (if our obligations are fulfilled), and then they take on social responsibilities too, including caring for us when/if we ourselves become dependent. This is a nice thing, but it is not the REASON we should take care of children, it is merely the logical consequence of doing so.

Finally, a more minor point. A couple of people point out that giving out cash benefits for having children would probably encourage people to have kids earlier. Then we have the question of whether this is good or bad. My answer is that it is almost certainly good. Having children in, say, your late teens/early 20s is healthier, easier, and by the time the kids are in college you are still, say, 40--young enough to start a career, start pursuing advancement in a career you're already in, even switch careers. The only reason having kids young is "bad" is because the social stigma and economic disadvantages are quite strong, and mutually reinforcing.

And it's only because we take the social stigma and economic costs of childbearing (and if you think that childbearing doesn't carry a social stigma, think again) as normative that people even have arguments like this one.
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