Saturday, October 16, 2004

Is Sweden No.1?

Pamela Bone wrote an article for the Melbourne Age last week titled "Let's celebrate the need to breed."

Its basic message was that Western countries ought to encourage a higher birth rate to counteract an ageing population, an idea that would be supported by most conservatives.

However, Pamela Bone displayed the full force of her liberalism when suggesting which measures might improve the fertility rate. She wrote,

Everywhere I go I meet women whose biggest regret is that they didn't have more, or any, children ..

What needs to be done to allow people to have more children is well known: complete the "partial emancipation" of women, who are now free to go out to work but are still responsible for most child care and housework: introduce family-friendly work policies; good, state-funded child care and generous parental leave ...

What Pamela Bone is claiming here is that women are "emancipated" by giving up active motherhood in favour of a career, and if allowed to do so will have more children.

The first idea, that a woman is liberated by giving up her feminine role as a mother, is a natural one for a liberal to take. Remember, liberals want to be self-created by their own individual will and reason. Therefore they view negatively, as impediments to individual will and reason, those forms of self-identity which are inherited or inborn.

That's why, for instance, a liberal woman can complain that,

The thing that still hasn't changed for women is that we're never neuter gender. It's like a nationality you've got stuck to you.

Note the negative attitude in the above quote to both gender and nationality as things "you've got stuck to you". Liberals prefer the concept of fluid and pluralistic forms of self-identity.

Liberal women, then, view gender negatively as a potential impediment to individual will and reason. It's logical, given this starting point, that they should want to overthrow traditional, established gender roles, as by doing so they prove how liberated they are from the influence of their inherited sex.

That's why Pamela Bone is so keen to remove any trace of the idea that a mother would have a particular feminine attachment to the care of her own child. As a liberal, she wants the care of children to be shared in a genderless way between men and women.

It's also why Pamela Bone wants women to have an equal commitment to a career as men. This too is a kind of proof of the overthrow of the influence of gender. To achieve this, though, requires heavily state subsidised child care.

Finally there is also Ms Bone's enthusiasm for state funded "parental leave." It's to be expected that the liberal Ms Bone would not like the traditional ideal of a husband providing for his wife, as this not only continues a traditional masculine gender role in the family, but also restricts the absolute financial autonomy of the woman.

We'll return later to problems with the liberal approach to gender. The point to be considered now is Pamela Bone's second claim, that fully "liberating" women from active motherhood will lead to a higher birth rate.

To test this theory we can take Sweden as a case study. Sweden has done all the things Ms Bone calls for to a greater extent, and for a longer time, than any other country.

As long ago as 1969 the official policy for Swedish schools was "to promote equality between men and women ... Schools should assume that men and women will play the same role in the future, that preparation for the parental role is just as important for boys as for girls and that girls have reason to be just as interested in their careers as boys."

This is, of course, a liberal programme for removing the influence of gender in the lives of both men and women.

To support this programme Sweden has introduced the longest paid maternity leave of any country at 96 weeks. At the opposite end of the spectrum are Australia and the United States, which don't have compulsory paid maternity leave schemes.

Similarly Sweden introduced an advanced scheme of state funded child care, and easily has the highest rate of working mothers with children under six at 76%. The comparable rate for the US is 61% and for Australia 45%.

Sweden has also led the way in opening up traditionally masculine careers for women, having, for instance, the highest percentage of female police officers (32% compared to 10% for the US) and parliamentarians (45% compared to 25% for Australia and 14.3% for the US).

Again, Swedish men do a higher percentage of housework than men elsewhere, and there is a very generous 120 days of paid leave per year for parents to look after sick children.

Now, according to Pamela Bone, these are exactly the things which should allow "fully emancipated" women to have more children. We should expect Sweden to have the highest fertility rate of any Western country, whilst "retrograde" countries like Australia and the US should have the lowest.

So is Sweden No.1? Not by a long way. In fact, it is the US which has the highest fertility rate of any Western country at 2.07. Australia comes in at 7th at 1.77, whilst Sweden can only manage a middling position at 17th (out of 29) at 1.54. In fact, Sweden's birth rate has been so poor in recent years that it has had a negative rate of natural population growth, with something like 30,000 more deaths than births per year.

Where Sweden does come in first is in divorce rates (a massive 65% compared to 49% for the US and 48% for Australia) and taxation (with a 56.3% government expenditure share of GDP, compared to 32.9% for Australia and 32.8% for the US).

In short, the radically left liberal Swedish model does not produce good family outcomes. It leads to a low birth rate and a high divorce rate.

Pamela Bone is therefore wrong in her second claim that the "fully emancipated" woman will choose to have more children. Conservatives would also argue that she is wrong in her first claim, that denying the role of gender leads in a positive way to personal liberation.

For instance, is it really true that there is no special connection between women and the care of young children? And, if such a connection exists, is it really just an oppressive imposition on women?

For journalist Amanda Gore the answer to both questions seems to be no. She has described in one of her columns that,

The most wonderful moment of my life was the closest I have ever been to motherhood. A few years ago I babysat my adored niece and nephew. It was bath time and they were being normal two- and four-year-olds, splashing around and screaming and laughing. So was I. It was such a happy time.

"Then I took my little bundle of niece out and was cradling her in a towel as I sat on the edge of the bath. At that moment, time stopped. There was a wonderful peaceful energy in the room. Both children were suddenly calm. I knew complete contentment in those few seconds. (The Age 12/5/96)

I doubt if too many men would list bath time with toddlers as the most wonderful moment in their lives. It would seem that Amanda Gore is describing here a kind of feminine fulfilment in the physical care of her young nephew and niece.

Similarly, Deborah Forster has declared that being a mother "is the most important thing in my life." She explains how,

My generation of women was brought up to believe that we could be anything and have everything. Looking back this seems an odd sort of an idea. Anyway, I suppose there are some who would be disappointed by my choice of what's most important. I probably would have been when I was younger. Yet from the moment I held my eldest child in my arms, inhaled the smell of her head, I was hooked on something that was bigger than both of us, as I was after the birth of each of my children.

Mother love is an ocean. I sometimes look at each of my three and, in the words of a very dear friend, I think: "Is that not a child? Is that not a face to behold?" But I try to be reasonable, not toooooo embarrassing and soppy. And sometimes we drive each other nuts, but underneath it most mothers feel the deepest connection, the knots children tie into our hearts.

I went back to work a couple of times. But I missed them too much to be away all day ... I thought when I had my first child, my husband and I would both work part-time. It was a delusion. When we both worked full-time there was a gap in the children's lives and in mine ... I also know I probably stayed home mostly because my own mother always worked and I missed her. I don't want mine to miss me. (Age 9/5/97)

Again, for Deborah Forster there does exist a special feminine connection between a woman and her children.

Unfortunately, Western societies won't be able to openly recognise this connection until we drop the liberal principle that we should be solely created by our own individual reason and will.

It would be better if we viewed individual will and reason not so much as the ultimate ends of life, but as a means to reach toward what is best within our own nature, including our masculine nature as men or our feminine nature as women.

(First published at Conservative Central 17/08/2003)

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