The report Wednesday that U.S. birthrates fell to a record low in 2020 was expected but still grim. On Twitter the news was greeted, characteristically, by conservative laments and liberal comments implying that it’s mostly conservatism’s fault — because American capitalism allegedly makes parenthood unaffordable, work-life balance impossible and atomization inevitable.
This is a specific version of a long-standing argument about the tensions between traditionalism and capitalism, which seems especially relevant now that the right doesn’t know what it’s conserving anymore.
In a recent essay for New York Magazine, for instance, Eric Levitz argues that the social trends American conservatives most dislike — the rise of expressive individualism and the decline of religion, marriage and the family — are driven by socioeconomic forces the right’s free-market doctrines actively encourage. “America’s moral traditionalists are wedded to an economic system that is radically anti-traditional,” he writes, and “Republicans can neither wage war on capitalism nor make peace with its social implications.”
This argument is intuitively compelling. But the historical record is more complex. If the anti-traditional churn of capitalism inevitably doomed religious practice, communal associations or the institution of marriage, you would expect those things to simply decline with rapid growth and swift technological change. Imagine, basically, a Tocquevillian early America of sturdy families, thriving civic life and full-to-bursting pews giving way, through industrialization and suburbanization, to an ever-more-individualistic society.
But that’s not exactly what you see. Instead, as Lyman Stone points out in a recent report for the American Enterprise Institute (where I am a visiting fellow), the Tocquevillian utopia didn’t really yet exist when Alexis de Tocqueville was visiting America in the 1830s. Instead, the growth of American associational life largely happened during the Industrial Revolution. The rise of fraternal societies is a late-19th- and early-20th-century phenomenon. Membership in religious bodies rises across the hypercapitalist Gilded Age. The share of Americans who married before age 35 stayed remarkably stable from the 1890s till the 1960s, through booms and depressions and drastic economic change.
This suggests that social conservatism can be undermined by economic dynamism but also respond dynamically in its turn — through a constant “reinvention of tradition,” you might say, manifested in religious revival, new forms of association, new models of courtship, even as older forms pass away.
It’s only after the 1960s that this conservative reinvention seems to fail, with churches dividing, families failing, associational life dissolving. And capitalist values, the economic and sexual individualism of the neoliberal age, clearly play some role in this change.
But strikingly, after the 1960s, economic dynamism also diminishes as productivity growth drops and economic growth decelerates. So it can’t just be capitalist churn undoing conservatism, exactly, if economic stagnation and social decay go hand in hand.
One small example: Rates of geographic mobility in the United States, which you could interpret as a measure of how capitalism uproots people from their communities, have declined over the last few decades. But this hasn’t somehow preserved rural traditionalism. Quite the opposite: Instead of a rooted and religious heartland, you have more addiction, suicide and anomie.
Or a larger example: Western European nations do more to tame capitalism’s Darwinian side than America, with more regulation and family supports and welfare-state protections. Are their societies more fecund or religious? No, their economic stagnation and demographic decline have often been deeper than our own.
So it’s not that capitalist dynamism inevitably dissolves conservative habits. It’s more that the wealth this dynamism piles up, the liberty it enables and the technological distractions it invents let people live more individualistically — at first happily, with time perhaps less so — in ways that eventually undermine conservatism and dynamism together. At which point the peril isn’t markets red in tooth and claw, but a capitalist endgame that resembles Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” with a rich and technologically proficient world turning sterile and dystopian.
Which actually makes the challenge for conservatives much tougher. If the decay of faith or family were really a simple matter of “too much capitalism,” you could imagine a right that eventually got over its rugged individualism and chose redistribution and sustainability instead. But one can favor moves in that direction — social conservatives should spend more on families — and still see that they aren’t sufficient, that conservatives actually need to somehow jump-start a lot of forms of dynamism all together, in a way that’s hard for an old, rich and decadent society to do.
But let’s not let liberals off the hook. If capitalist churn isn’t what it used to be, if taming its excesses in the style of France or Sweden isn’t enough to restore family and community, if the combination of welfare-state liberalism and personal emancipation trends toward a Huxleyan dystopia, do liberals have any resources besides complaints about capitalism that might help pull us off that course?
Because if conservatism’s responses are incoherent and insufficient, I fear that liberalism has no response at all.