Vladimir Putin wants to pay Russian women to have more children. Such pro-natalist policies are common in Western Europe, Japan and parts of Canada.

It was odd, however, to see similar ideas floated last November in the “conservative” Weekly Standard magazine. Authors Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam suggested that Washington mail out checks for “bonus babies,” then pay their parents to take care of them at home.

Didn’t welfare do much of that? Of course, the authors don’t use such an unpopular term. “Subsidy” is a nicer word than “welfare,” though to a true conservative, it’s not a very nice word.

Douthat and Salam envision a number of transfer payments: handouts for parents who care for children at home; tuition credits as reward for the time spent raising kids; pension credits for the years not spent in the workplace. (I guess the $1,000-a-child tax credit isn’t enough for these guys.) Imagine the blizzard of new checks flying out of Washington.

Now why would conservatives make the sort of proposals that have long inhabited the left end of the feminist movement? The answer is that they’re not really conservatives. They’re Republicans.

The authors see their program as part of a freshened-up Republican agenda. It would “fashion a domestic policy from the wreckage of the Bush-style, big-government conservatism.” Douthat and Salam have the strangest political filing system. They place the Medicare drug benefit in the “big-government” folder. But turning the U.S. Treasury into the third parent for American children goes on the good-idea pile.

The Russians face a dire population collapse, and bold measures are needed. But the U.S. population isn’t falling -- it’s exploding. At current rates of immigration, the United States is expected to add 100 million people by 2050, according to a Census Bureau projection.

No, Douthat and Salam are not looking to finance more Americans, per se, but to buy more Republicans. They regard their program as a way to keep the so-called Sam’s Club Republicans from fleeing the tent. Working-class whites, they correctly note, have gotten precious little out of the Bush years. The likelihood that the battered working people of Ohio will again waste their votes on the gay-marriage issue has dimmed.

The authors are also aware that this group of sometimes-Republicans is not entirely with their program. These working folk, they lament, “are surprisingly comfortable with bad-but-popular liberal ideas like raising the minimum wage, expanding clumsy environmental regulations or hiking taxes on the wealthy to fund a health care entitlement.”

Speaking of funding entitlements, exactly who would pay for the Republican’s pricey new “pro-family” agenda? This is an especially poignant question now that Congress has just voted for tax cuts worth an average $9 to people earning $30,000 but $42,000 to those making a million and upward.

If the wealthy aren’t to be tapped, who would pay for this extravaganza of social engineering? One imagines the workers would end up paying more taxes to be spent on subsidizing their childrearing.

So here’s a counter-proposal: Just hike the minimum wage so that working families have more money to raise their own children -- and leave the government middleman out of this.

You know, hiking taxes on the wealthy to fund a health-care entitlement is not a terrible idea, especially since the upper incomes have enjoyed outlandish tax cuts over the past five years. Raising taxes would at least revive the old-fashioned idea that entitlements have to be paid for.

Universal health coverage plays a part in the authors’ pro-family program. They believe it would provide families the economic confidence to have more kids, and they are right. Unfortunately, they think universal coverage could happen through “market-friendly health care reform” that -- you know the rest -- “would eventually pay for itself.” Don’t bother with the details.

It’s become pretty clear by now that nothing in the current Republican vision pays for itself. The tax cuts aren’t paying for themselves, just as the oil revenues aren’t paying for the war in Iraq.

Back in the day, the Democrats’ ambitions were contained by the quaint notion that government programs had to be financed through taxes. That made the tax-and-spend Democrats of yesteryear more fiscally conservative than the spend-and-spend Republicans of today. My, how perceptions change.

This Week's Circulars