Bryan Caplan  

The Selfish Reason to Have More Kids

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Steve Landsburg has some powerful moral arguments for having another kid. (See the chapter "People Wanted" in Fair Play). Contrary to organizations like Zero Population Growth, the externalities of another productive human being are positive, not negative.

But like most economists, I don't think that the typical person's willingness to pay to do the right thing is very high. What fraction of your income are you giving to tsunami victims?

There is however a purely selfish argument for making another baby that most people overlook. I know a lot of parents who pull out their hair on a daily basis who are sure to disagree. But they are guilty of a grave error: Focusing exclusively on the present. When your offspring are ages 4 and 2, adding a newborn seems like a tough burden. And it is.

But think ahead to your golden years. How many kids do you need to get as many visits, phone calls, and grandkids as you would like? 5? 10? An old saying tells us that "One parent can care for five children, but five children cannot care for one parent." It could happen to you.

Basic microeconomics recommends a simple strategy. Have the number of children that maximizes average utility over your whole lifespan. When you are 30, you might feel like two children is plenty. But once you are 60, you are more likely to prefer ten sons and daughters to keep you company and keep the grandkids coming. A perfectly selfish and perfectly foresighted economic agent would strike a balance between these two states. For example, he might have four kids total - two too many at 30, six too few at 60.

Trust me - you'll thank me later. Your third child ought to thank me too, but we all know better than to expect gratitude from the young. Now all you have to do is convince your spouse!



TRACKBACKS (5 to date)
TrackBack URL: http://econlog.econlib.org/mt/mt-tb.cgi/184
The author at Different River in a related article titled Economics, and Having Kids writes:
    Lots of people think that having kids is an economic burden, not only on the parents, but on the whole society. After all, if your measure of standard of living is "GDP per capita" then you decrease your standard of living when increasing the number... [Tracked on January 19, 2005 3:35 PM]
The author at The Frosty Mug Revolution in a related article titled The Obvious Solution writes:
    Bryan Caplan thinks that parents should select the number of children they will have based on microeconomic theory: Have the... [Tracked on January 19, 2005 3:48 PM]
The author at The Voice of Reason on the Internet in a related article titled Neoclassicals Need to think about the Assumptions writes:
    Brian Caplan showcases another problem with thinking with a neoclassical hat on. His blog purportedly argues for a perfectly foresighted, perfectly selfish reason to have more children: maximization of average utility over a lifetime. Leaving aside a... [Tracked on January 20, 2005 1:47 AM]
The author at HPO: BlogDrive in a related article titled to have or not to have writes:
    just read an micro-economic analysis which maximize our utilities whether we should have two children or, say, four. I was so surprised how different people think about the number of children between in US and in Japan. Writing blog articles in Japa... [Tracked on January 27, 2005 2:26 AM]
The author at Dane Carlson's Weblog in a related article titled The Selfish Reason to Have More Kids writes:
    Bryan Caplan: There is however a purely selfish argument for making another baby that most people overlook. I know a lot of parents who pull out their hair on a daily basis who are sure to disagree. But they are... [Tracked on January 28, 2005 11:21 AM]
COMMENTS (23 to date)
Ron Baty writes:

You are overlooking a key factor, the quality of your children or rather your ability to instill in your children the desire to visit and care for you in your old age. Its better to have that one child that will care for you than five kids that ignore you. The number you need is dependent on the number you can provide an adequate amount of love and caring for in their youth. If you have that third child but then need to hire a minimum wage nanny(see comments on Mexican movie) to raise your kids so that both parents can work to afford the third child it reduces the likelihood they will care for your in your old age, that is prepare for a minimum wage nursing home in your future.

Bruce Bartlett writes:

It appears that you have overlooked the concept of grandchildren. This argues in favor of having children early so that they will reproduce and provide granchildren for the purposes you discuss. Of course, to get the grandchildren to actually pay attention to you requires that you have at least a modest estate so that they have a financial incentive to be nice to you.

Dezakin writes:

Given the rather immense nominal and opportunity costs that children incur, you would do just as well to hire friends in your golden years.

Some of these 'friends' would doubtless be more helpful in some areas than any number of offspring could.

The selfish economic argument for children is for society, not the individual. Children amount to expensive pets.

Carroll Rios de Rodriguez writes:

My husband and I are expecting our seventh child. My experience is that large families are FUN. I agree wholeheartedly with Bryan because the rewards far outweigh the costs associated with the parenting adventure. And if we teach our kids to love liberty and acquire a sense of personal responsibility, then we are not generating "negative externalities"!

Mike writes:

Dez...


You are either a stupid person or lack wisdom due to immaturity.

"Children amount to expensive pets."

Not funny, not smart, just dumb.

Eloise writes:

Given that my just-turned-four-year-old often insists she is a dog (occasionally she tries out cat-ness but always reverts to dog)--responding only to doggy commands (sit! get on your hind legs and get your jammies!) and wanting her food to be served on a dish placed on the floor--I thought Dezakin's comment was pretty funny.

Ted Craig writes:

As an only child who recently had to care for two elderly parents and the father of three, I could not agree with this essay more. Also, there's a benefit for the general economy when you have multiple children - they take the burden off other entities (i.e. the government). With more kids around to taxi grandma, there's less of a need for publicly-funded transportation. And more children means more grandchildren, who can also help out when they get older.
By the way, Dezakin is a fool with no idea what he is talking about. And I'm sure Bruce is being facetious about grandchildren only paying attention to elders with money. My personl experience has been the opposite - the more people feel one needs, the more they will provide.

Bob writes:

Bryan makes a great point, although the post has a bit of a "pay now, collect later" flavor to it that I think is wrong. Few people can fully embrace the total commitment required to be a good parent but many recognize that in 20 years most of us would be willing to pay thousands of dollars for just one day back with our young children. It's not that we suffer our children today for a payoff later. It's that time with children has diminishing returns and the time you get with your children is heavily skewed. I'd argue that makes it "optimal" to start early and spread your children out over time.

Bob writes:

One other thing, though, Bryan. You write

"I don't think that the typical person's willingness to pay to do the right thing is very high. What fraction of your income are you giving to tsunami victims?"

Either this is fluff or you have an opinion about what fraction is the "right thing," and that the fraction is higher than most people are giving. Well, what fraction is it? And how did you calculate it?

Lawrance George Lux writes:

I think you ignore the 'Revolt factor' in the projected Mothers. I can't remember the cite, but one Study made in the 1970s suggested that the stress of pregnancy and raising the Child through the early years could take two years off a Mother's life expectancy. lgl

PJ Doland writes:

Why not just have a market for kids so you can buy and sell them at various times to maximize utility at every given point?

Mike Linksvayer writes:

I hope this post was a joke. Tyler Cowen said it all in the title of his post linking to this one: Bryan Caplan has a low discount rate. I'd add "very" in front of "low".

John T. Kennedy writes:

"But like most economists, I don't think that the typical person's willingness to pay to do the right thing is very high. What fraction of your income are you giving to tsunami victims?"

Why is giving to tsunami victims "the right thing" if you'd prefer to do something else with your money?

Steve Landsburg writes:

"But like most economists, I don't think that the typical person's willingness to pay to do the right thing is very high. What fraction of your income are you giving to tsunami victims?"

I agree with the first sentence, but the second is a non sequitur. Giving income to tsunami victims is, of course, a pure transfer. Unwillingness to make transfers is not the same as unwillingness to take actions that actually improve social welfare.

If economic efficiency were your guiding principle, you might not give to tsunami victims but you'd still feel obligated to have more children (provided you agree that the externalities are positive).

JRM writes:

The Social Security ponzi scheme will have collapsed in fifty years.
Invest in babies!

jaimito writes:

Obviously, there are not enough selfish reasons to have kids, because people is not stupid and look, they are having few kids. We could try out some measures to increase the attractivity of having children:

(1) Welfare society means that the State will take care of us in old age. The visits of the grandchildren are nice, especially if they are very short and far away. And who can remember more than five or six names? Those visits are unsufficient incentive to have more kids. But should welfare society be abolished and people had to rely on their children and grandchildren and relatives for survival, kids would be worthwhile. The State should not interfere in the protection of the old, the individual should care for himself.

(2) There is a problem to get young people to save for their old age. At 20 - 30 you feel immortal. That's why the State makes saving for retirement compulsive in many countries, and/or provides strong incentives for it. But compulsion for having kids does not work. Many societies tried to force their citizens to marry and have children, from Imperial Rome on, but they have all failed. Only religion works - orthodox judaism, mormons, anabaptists, etc. Therefore, the State should promote fundamentalist religions.

(3) Prolonged peace and prosperity provides too high a level of security that all the children will reach adulthood. If the country is in war and there is a possibility for young people to be killed, there would be an incentive to have at least 2 or 3 or 4 kids. Therefore, the State needs to engage in periodical wars that will randomly kill say 1% of all young people.

(4) What NOT to do? Public campaigns and prizes to productive mothers are useless. Exhortations and patriotic propaganda are counterproductive.

Jon writes:

The argument "Contrary to organizations like Zero Population Growth, the externalities of another productive human being are positive, not negative" is just plain wrong. First, to analyze choices, you must specify the choice correctly The choice is whether to add another "human being"; not whether to add a 'productive human being' to the world. We don't get to chose whether that human being will be "productive" (forgetting about whether we agree on what "productive" means).

Secondly, whether the additional human being is a positive externality or not, depends on the number of new human's being produced and the limits on fresh water, arable land, energy, and other resources. The industrial revolution has greatly increased the utility of andour capacity to support additional humans; however, it is a mistake to extrapolate this indefinitely into the future.

spencer writes:

And a society can do like China did with its one child policy and assure that the country ages faster then any country ever did. In a few years China will have a larger problem with the ratio of elderly to young people than any country.

Duane Gran writes:

What we have here is a difference of scope. In the small view, it may benefit a person to have many children into old age, but in the larger view, does that really benefit society at large? I'm not an economist, but I lurk here to learn, but I feel compelled to comment. I realize that people will act in their self interest, but it isn't unheard of to act for the improvement of the group. Is it possible that zero population growth is a reasonable strategy for the community? I tend to think so.

Tim Harford writes:

I'm confused. Didn't Gary becker teach us that it was a mistake to think about investment in children merely in terms of quantity?
As an analogy, most people, when they decide to invest more in a car, buy a better car rather than a third or fourth rustheap.
Bryan might do better to have higher quality children rather than more children - especially if he can teach them to produce lots of affectionate grandchildren. Catholicism, anyone?

Stephen Yuen writes:

Like others who never studied economics, I like to browse this site to learn how economists think about things. I love this discussion! It’s clear that economists, like lawyers, believe that there is no area of human behavior which cannot be improved or illuminated through the application of principles from their professions.

But it’s nice to know that economists also can laugh at themselves. Bruce Bartlett’s above comment cannot be taken too seriously:

It appears that you have overlooked the concept of grandchildren. This argues in favor of having children early so that they will reproduce and provide granchildren for the purposes you discuss. Of course, to get the grandchildren to actually pay attention to you requires that you have at least a modest estate so that they have a financial incentive to be nice to you.
Reminds one of a variation of a very old joke: How do you get lots of children (and grandchildren), yet accumulate a modest estate? First you start with a large estate……

Dezakin writes:

Funny how my comment would draw such ire, yet all I got were flippant responses rather than illustrations as to why I was wrong.

Children are an end, and not a means to another. They've been that way since the industrial revolution: Individually, just another consumer good rather than agrarian capital and retirement plan. Though for many, children are the most important consumer good, as they can't define their lives in any way save their offspring.

jaimito writes:

children are the most important consumer good Of course. Look at the length people is ready to go to have a baby - how much they are ready to pay for fertility treatments, for adoption of a blond blue-eyed baby, for providing medical treatment to a child.

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