Of Kids And Freedom (cont)

The discussion about kids and freedom continues.

This Noah guy is pretty smart. I think he should write for TAS. Noah Millman joins our conversation and kids and freedom. Read the whole thing.

Noah’s quarrel is mostly with Will, and in this regard I want to endorse everything he says about freedom, particularly this:

Should the state teach evolution or not? If you say yes, then you’re having the state “indoctrinate” a new generation in values that a very significant fraction of our society consider abominable. Not a rule that “more or less everyone can affirm from within their own moral perspective.” If you say no, or if you say, “teach the controversy” then, from the perspective of those who care about the integrity of science, you’re “indoctrinating” a new generation in values that they consider abominable. Not a rule that “more or less everyone can affirm from within their own moral perspective.”

And this:

Raising a child, going to college and keeping a boat are all extremely expensive propositions. For pretty much everyone I know, the decision whether or not to raise a child is life-defining. For most people I know for whom this was a choice, as opposed to a given, or who have thought about the choice at all, the decision whether or not to go to college was life-defining. Indeed, it’s not just that they are both profound choices in and of themselves; it’s that they are gateway choices. If you don’t have children, you can’t have any of the wide range of life experiences that flow from having children. If you don’t go to college, a host of options, economic and social, will be relatively unavailable to you thereafter. People who can’t afford a child experience, in a profound way, a lack of ability to take advantage of the choices life offers. Ditto those who can’t afford to go to college. People who can’t afford a boat, not so much.

So while I agree with 99% of most of Noah’s post, at the end of this post he comes to his critique of me, and (spoiler) I don’t agree. Noah writes:

As for PEG, I have to say, that perspective is historically un-French. France is notable within Europe for having a lower population density than its major neighbors (half as dense as Germany or the UK, for example). This disparity is not of recent vintage, and relates to a longstanding disparity in fertility rates. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say that the historically high quality of life in France relates in part to an appreciation precisely of that quality – and to an appreciation that, contra PEG’s contention, stuff is not people; rather, people appreciate stuff, but stuff has an independent existence, and if you have lots more people some kind of stuff will be harder to appreciate, or will even cease to exist. The historic French relationship with the land is in part a product of that relatively low population density. That relationship is very different from the American relationship – which is also related to historically low population density – but it’s also very different from the relationship in, say, the Netherlands.

I live in Brooklyn. I’ve obviously got no problem with living in a very dense space. And there is a unique kind of freedom that one experiences in a big city. But it is not the only kind of freedom. India is a less-free society with over a billion people than it would be if it had only three hundred million, even if per-capita income was the same – simply because there’s less room to stretch out, which is a very basic form of freedom from constraint.

My first instinct is to say that only a non-French person could have such a disarming perspective on what seems French or not.

To start with, I would actually attribute France’s lower population density to the denominator: France is the largest country in Europe (ex-Russia) by land area. It has roughly the same population as the UK and Italy and twice the land area, so obviously its density is going to be lower.

And I attribute France’s large land area to France’s military success over the centuries, which was itself the result of France being the most populous nation in Europe. Indeed, France’s demographic slide starts after the Napoleonic War and this is when France loses its status as the preeminent Western power, a status we’ve been trying to regain since. So the French relationship with population size/growth seems to go in the other way than Noah suggests. Conversely, at least one reason why Germany is a denser country than France is because in 1945 Stalin pushed Germany’s eastern border several hundred miles to the west and deported all the ethnic Germans on the eastern side to the western side. Is this indicative of a particular historic German relationship to density?

Noah seems to be saying that France has decided to privilege its quality of life over its birth rate by deciding to have a lower density. Given that France has one of the broadest and most generous natalist policies in the world (and has had it for over a century—and as someone who just had a child, I can say it is awesome) and today has the highest fertility rate in Western Europe that seems a strange notion. After having been immersed in French culture for 25 years, it’s the first time I’ve encountered the idea.

As to the “historic French relationship to the land”, I’m not sure what to say. Terroir is certainly a part of French identity, but then again in almost every country there is an irrational romantic attachment to notions of land, farmers, etc. (with often disastrous public policy consequences). I might argue that attachment to terroir means attachment to a particular type of land as opposed to attachment to land in general. To look at another metric, rates of homeownership are lower in France than e.g. in the UK, which seems like it wouldn’t be if there were a particular “historic French relationship to the land”.

(And finally, given that I write here and have explicitly affiliated myself in the previous post as someone who identifies politically/ideologically with the American conservative movement, one might suspect than many of my perspectives are un-French. I’d been led to believe up until now that my outspoken support for natalist policies was one of the few characteristically French aspects of my outlook.)

Moving on, Noah’s second point is that more kids leads to density, and density is bad for freedom, or at least some kinds of freedom, like the freedom to live in a space that’s less dense.

I mean, I guess that’s correct. But I guess I would just say it’s like Noah’s freedom to have a boat: kind of a good idea in theory, but not something we should care too much about.

I just vehemently deny this: “India is a less-free society with over a billion people than it would be if it had only three hundred million, even if per-capita income was the same”

India is a freer society because it has more people. First of all, it wouldn’t have the same per-capita income if it had three hundred million people. But even granting this, it would have less writers, less scientists, less monuments, less teachers, less movies (and thank God for Indian cinema!) which would be unavailable to experience. It would be poorer, in every meaningful sense of the word.

And I would argue that the billions of people clustering in cities are voting with their feet for my freedom to expand their opportunities against Noah’s freedom to stretch out.

As to the important freedom to “stretch out”, well, this is the enormous density problem the Earth faces:

That’s right, the world is packed so tight that if we were all to live as densely as Paris (a city that’s not dense at all on an absolute basis, with a grand total of one skyscraper), we would merely cover three American states. (We can argue about the resource question, but Noah is talking specifically about density here.)

Relative to land area, Earth is positively deserted. In this sense, saying that if we have more kids we might have less freedom to stretch out is sort of like saying that people shouldn’t breathe in too hard or we might run out of air.