Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Germany, the new family & coercive autonomy

There are reports that Germany's fertility rate has started to recover a little, which is good news. However, I wasn't impressed by comments from Dr Ursula von der Leyen, the current family minister and a member of the "conservative" Christian Democrats.

Her plans for the future of the German family do not include the traditional option in which women stay at home to care for their children. According to one newspaper report:

Dr von der Leyen insists that the question is not whether women will work. "They will work. The question is whether they will have kids," she said.

It's significant that Dr von der Leyen should choose this way of expressing her point. "They will work" makes it sound as if some impersonal, inevitable movement is driving forward such an outcome for all women.

The reason for formulating things this way is to paper over a major contradiction in modernist politics. Liberal moderns believe that our status as humans depends on how autonomous we are. Therefore, it is important for liberals that we are free to choose in any direction who we are and what we do. In particular, the state is not supposed to interfere in our choice of a life project.

You would think, therefore, that a liberal state would remain neutral and allow women to choose whether to pursue a career or remain home with their children. However, the problem is that careers are thought to maximise a woman's autonomy as careers give women financial independence and a self-defining role. Therefore, liberals want women to pursue a career rather than be stay at home mothers.

So it's not possible for the principle to work consistently. If the aim is to maximise autonomy, then allowing women to choose motherhood is a negative, as it is careers which seem best for autonomy. On the other hand, not allowing women to choose motherhood is also a negative, as this restricts women's autonomy in determining their own life projects.

That's why, I expect, Dr von der Leyen opts for the pretence that women will choose careers, but as some impersonal, historical, inevitable process, rather than as a policy preference imposed by the state.

Why doesn't the principle work the way it's supposed to? In short, most people don't accept, as liberal modernism assumes, that autonomy is the sole, overriding good. Therefore, if people are given the autonomy to choose, they will often choose other goods, even if this places some restrictions on their personal autonomy.

So how is the contradiction resolved in practice? The lesson of modernity is that over time the state restricts the degree to which we can choose non-autonomous paths, even if this means that the liberal state violates its own principle of neutrality and restricts its own principle of allowing individual choice.

So we get the Dr von der Leyens who announce that a motherhood role going back to the dawn of time simply won't exist any more - meaning that the state doesn't want it to exist any more, having decided on our behalf that it is illegitimate.

What should the conservative response be? We need to return to the idea that in any society there will be a number of goods which people will legitimately pursue, and that the aim is to get the right balance between them. It won't always be the case that autonomy is predominant and, as the example of women and careers shows, the attempt to artificially make it so leads only to an irresolvable contradiction.


  1. careers are thought to maximise a woman's autonomy as careers give women financial independence and a self-defining role

    I believe Big Government is in alliance with Big Business to keep labor costs down. Can't have women dropping out of the workforce. That's the esoteric reason; the exoteric reasons are all the usual liberal platitudes meant for popular consumption.

    In the words of Admiral Ackbar, "It's a trap!" Most of these jobs are as desk jockeys working for The Man (a large global multinational).

  2. Jaz is correct.

    It should also be noted that the entry of women in large numbers into the workforce reduced the mean wage.

    So, even if women left, or encouraged to leave, or were removed, then there would have to be a period of low wages on which it would simply be impossible for a singe income to sustain a family.

    Thus, this acts as a block on the equilibrium ever readjusting.

    Of course, if ever society does want to shift the equilibrium, this simply must be done with the cooperation of State policy.

    Which rings me to my last point: it will never happen so long as Traditionalists cede ground in the party political sphere.

  3. Hmmm, looks like that's the same German government that is encouraging fathers to fondle their baby daughters' genitalia. Did anyone see this?

    Now that's a weird strategy to raise birthrates...

  4. Yes, indeed I read that.

    Here's the scary part: not only did somebody in the 'mainstream' think of this, but they actually put in time and effort to write it down, it was then edited, presumably by another person, or a team, then the document was typeset by another person, or team, then it was distributed, by yet more people, then it was accepted by schools in NINE districts in Germany, and it took a lengthy campaign to bring this not only to people's attention, but the government had to be coerced into taking action.

    Now here's a question for you all:

    Imagine a State funded department (like the one above) issued a booklet extolling the benefits of indigenous German patriotism.

    Q: How long before the thought-criminal is strung up in the city square?

    Minutes? Seconds?

  5. "They will work..."

    Surely she said, "Zey *vill* verk!"

    Very disturbing.