“Kids Have No Place in a Liberal Democracy,” declares an absurd headline from The Atlantic, highlighting the unavoidable fact that liberalism has a serious kids problem.

“In liberalism, as in life, children throw things into chaos and uproar,” columnist Elizabeth Bruenig writes. Her op-ed employs language demeaning to children, referring to them dismissively as “bundles of obligations,” “a paradox for liberalism,” a “problem” and “puzzle,” and “one of the chief reasons we can’t all just get along.”

While it’s hard to distinguish where Bruenig’s critique ends and her endorsement begins, she’s not wrong: children do present a puzzling conundrum to modern liberal society.

But why? Of course, there is the niche idea that overpopulation is killing the planet, and we must scale back on having so many kids in order to save the environment. (The Guardian tells the stories of women who chose not to have kids solely “for environmental reasons.” One such woman went so far as to say that procreation, “from a biological point of view, is probably one of the most selfish things you can do.”) But as others have argued, this is almost certainly only a nobler pretext for a more fundamental motivation not to have kids.

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As one philosopher conjectured, for “most people who say they don’t want to have children because of the climate, that’s not actually the reason. Or, that’s not the whole reason because… all of the things which decrease fertility—things like being areligious, being a graduate, living in a city, being left-wing—those things also all tend to go along with being very interested in environmentalism. So there’s a kind of cluster effect where it might be politically expedient to explain your reluctance to start a family as a result of number five, environmentalism, but it’s quite likely that actually, all five are feeding into each other.”

Elizabeth Bruenig simplifies the hypothesis: “Children… leave little room for the sort of political freedom the imaginary liberal subject is presumed to have.”

In other words, childrearing is an encumbrance on the hyper-individualistic, hedonistic endgame of liberalism.

As Tom Wolfe observed in his iconic “Me Decade” essay, most people historically “have seen themselves as inseparable from the great tide of chromosomes of which they are created and which they pass on…. They have lived as if they are living their ancestors’ lives and their offspring’s lives and perhaps their neighbors’ lives as well.” Liberal individualism, however, reversed that time-tested trend and humanity granted itself “license to try to climb out of the stream and change the natural order of things.”

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“If I’ve only one life, let me live it as a ———! Fill in the blank, if you dare,” became the individualistic left’s new guiding principle.

But that’s also when and why having kids became such a problem.

The responsibilities of having kids confine parents to Wolfe’s metaphorical stream. Hence modernists are more likely to bemoan the imposition of having kids and miss out on the great potential for meaning and joy.

They have prioritized personal enjoyment of freedom, vacations, and self-satisfaction over the laborious responsibility of settling down and raising fellow humans. They would rather vacation in Bali than be stuck at home with dependent, needy, helpless “bundles of obligations.”

Fundamentally, this explains liberal modernity’s bent toward not having kids. It’s so much bigger than just the environment. It speaks to a fundamental difference in how liberals and conservatives see the world. And for as long as liberalism sees being true to one’s self as the great virtue of democratic society, children will increasingly fall out of vogue.

Jakob Fay is a staff writer for the Convention of States Project, a project of Citizens for Self-Governance. 

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