Douthat: Decadent societies lack babies, and hope

Washington D.C., Mar 21, 2020 / 02:00 pm (CNA).- Catholic author and commentator Ross Douthat said that a “decadent society” plays a role in declining birth rates, as cultures and couples lose a sense of hope in the future.

Discussing his new book, “The Decadent Society: How We Became Victims of Our Own Success,” the New York Times columnist said, in an interview Thursday on EWTN Pro-Life Weekly, that a “decadent” society is marked by “stagnation, repetition, and sterility,” but also “a high level of wealth and technological development.”

Douthat argued that the United States and parts of Europe are experiencing “a sort of loss of the sense of possibility, hope for the future,” and that this shows itself in slowing economies, gridlocked politics, and declining birth rates.

In his book, Douthat wrote that “amid all of our society’s material plenty, one resource is conspicuously scarce. That resource is babies.”

During the interview, Douthat said that some factors, such as a shift away from an agrarian economy and lower infant mortality rates, can help explain declining birth rates but cannot account for why birthrates have fallen below the replacement rate.

“If you ask people how many kids they would like to have, even in a secular society where most people don’t have Humanae Vitae on the shelf, people still say they want between two and three kids,” Douthat said.

“But if you look at how many kids they’re having, our birth rate is at 1.6, 1.7, in places like South Korea it’s at one—that has the potential to cut your population in half without immigration over a couple generations.”

Increasing secularization alone, Douthat said, does not explain the shift, because parents in some secular countries, like Sweden, have more children than some religious ones, like Poland, but that broadly “there is something about the idea that you are embedded in a story that extends beyond yourself and your own moment, to the next chapter and next development, that makes people more likely to start families and so it helps to think that your story has a capital A author.”

Thinning family trees present a host of socioeconomic consequences, he said, creating a society that is older, more resistant to change. It also creates families with fewer members, and children experience experience fewer interpersonal relationships with siblings and cousins.

“Large families, they toughen kids up in interesting ways,” Douthat said.

“Like if you’re a four-year-old in a family with a six-year-old and an eight-year-old, you can’t afford to be too special of a snowflake and you get used to sort of managing interpersonal tensions, you know, if the family is healthy.”

Douthat noted the similarity between his own arguments about a decadent society and Pope Francis’ criticisms of a “throwaway culture.”

“It’s a society that doesn’t have a strong idea of the future or of the past,” Douthat said. “So it’s sort of lost faith, it thinks that the past was bad and unprogressive and corrupt, but it doesn’t have a lot of confidence about the future, so it does, I think, tend towards very disposable forms of culture.”

“You don’t get people, building the great cathedrals, and writing the great operas,” in a decadent or throwaway culture, he said, “not that I attend opera all the time, I mean, I myself am decadent too.”

Kate Scanlon is a producer for EWTN Pro-Life Weekly.

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  1. Social Security and mandatory public education (and I think by extension parochial schools) are two sacred cows that not only the government but most especially the Church hierarchy need to look at and analyze with all due seriousness.
    I can provide an interesting article for the one at (an Austrian School of Economics website, which means it will not be a popular place for Catholics to view):
    I mention public education because I read a reference in the book There’s No Place Like Work that falling birth rates follow an increase in government mandated public education, although I do not recall the book providing any real references to that claim. It’s been my experience that home educators generally have more children that public schoolers–but there could be a religious component and not just an economic one (as the book claimed.)
    The Mises article is referenced though.
    People cannot just keep harping on contraception and abortion and general lack of morality. (I admit, I have done that.) People make choices. And that is what economics is really about–making choices. Why are people making the choices they are making and how can we get them to make better choices?

    • In our modern economy, forces in the job market can make it necessary for adult children to move around the country, or the world, as part of their career track. Unless one or more of the children are willing to sacrifice their career prospects this makes remote care-giving a necessity. Historically more and more jobs had poor wage gains and decreased benefits even when the business world wasn’t suffering any economic hardships. It was all in the name of maximizing shareholder value. For the workers a lot of things have become BYO and DIY, whether it be training or retirement.
      I dislike the free trade globalist elites because they engage in too much magical thinking. They are just as out of touch as AOC is. We keep on hearing about how free trade benefits the consumers. Unless we can find a way to give everyone in the USA a trust fund endowed lifetime income, a person can’t be a consumer until they earn the money to buy what the economy produces. Also an economy based on a mass market of mass produced goods, needs a mass market with mass buying power. That comes from the mass earning power of wages. The 1% won’t get you there. Neither will low wages. In the overwhelming majority of cases the worker and the consumer are one and the same person. Historically it looks to me like the business world has gone out of its way to destroy the work ethic.

  2. Italy has the highest elderly population in Europe which is a part of the reason its had the highest death rates of this virus. May God help those poor suffering people. It’s heartbreaking to watch the news from there.

    Decadence may have consequences we don’t realize until it’s too late.

    • I read that Italy is 1) denying significantly elderly care and 2) declaring Covid 19-like deaths to be Covid 19 when it could in fact be some other germ. Testing is inadequate.
      I see one thing in my town, but hear about another in a different town across the country. Honestly, when it comes to Covid 19, I am not entirely sure what the truth is.

      • Kathryn,
        I think we’re all wondering about this too. It happened so suddenly.
        Our state didn’t have a single reported case 2 weeks ago and now we have the fastest growing rate of infection per capita in the world. Not a number one ranking we want boast of.

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