Bryan Caplan  

The Charge of Creepiness

William Easterly... Forum Today on Financial Crisi...
CK, an EconLog reader, writes:
I find your obsession with the topic of people's personal choices to be deeply creepy. Also, the fact that your starting point is that they are in error is a textbook example of bad logic, e.g., assuming what you need to prove. Furthermore, it is highly against the logic of economics to assume that you know people's preferences and/or utility function better than they do (cf., consumer sovereignty).
I'm not sure how many other people find my "obsession" creepy, but I doubt that CK is alone.  My defense: I don't see why it's any more creepy to give advice about family size than advice about personal finance or home theater design.  I'm not trying to bully anyone, just share some relevant arguments and evidence with the world.  What's wrong with that?

Perhaps the complaint is that having a child is much more "personal" than picking a mutual fund or a high-definition projector.  I agree with the premise - whether to have a child is especially personal.  But that's no reason to spurn advice, as I explain in the preface to Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids (work in progress):

Whether to have a child is obviously one of life's most personal decisions.  Just because a decision is personal, however, does not mean that that "Whatever decision you make is the right one for you."  Precisely because the decision to have a child is complicated, its consequences are easy to misjudge.  Your personal decision can be way off - and if you make up your mind too quickly, you're only cheating yourself.

Is it creepy to claim to know someone's preferences/utility function better than they do?  A key point in my argument is that I don't need to claim any such thing.  When an economist tells you to diversify your portfolio, he isn't trying to overrule your values; he's trying to explain the best way to achieve your values.  The same thing goes with my advice about family size. 

I've also noticed that some libertarians see my arguments as somehow unlibertarian.  But I've never called for government to pressure people into having children; indeed, I favor many policy changes that I admit are anti-natalist (such as abolishing public schooling).  The key point, though, is that there's nothing unlibertarian about giving advice.

So is there anything creepy about my project?  I just don't see it.  I'll admit there's such a thing as unwanted advice.  Face-to-face, I rarely give advice unless someone asks for it.  But what could be less obtrusive than putting advice in writing on a blog, where the curious can read it, and the not-so-curious can scroll down to the next post?

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (18 to date)
Joseph Lawler writes:

There was absolutely nothing creepy about your post. It was an economic observation exactly in keeping with all the other kinds of micro situations you comment on all the time. The fact that it related to a personal topic must have thrown the reader off.

Also, you didn't assume that anyone was in error. You merely wondered whether their cost analysis would make sense in the case of a change in relative prices.

So safe all 'round.

Artturi Björk writes:

Nothing creepy at all. I think giving advice is the most libertarian thing you can do. Share information and then let the individual make the decision.

Phil writes:

I find the implication that social scientists should not conduct research that does not cast people in a flattering light or does not tell us what we want to hear b/c it is "creepy" to be quite "creepy" indeed.

Will writes:

"[...} does not mean that that "Whatever decision [...]"

You might fix the typo before sending it off to the publisher. Typos are *creepy*. Your topic is not.

Dave writes:

Responses will split by sex.

Jayson Virissimo writes:

"Responses will split by sex." -Dave


CK writes:

I'm the same "CK" from yesterday. I want to note that while you did answer my charge about "creepiness," there was a second half of my argument where I offered a powerful argument about why, almost without exception, total fertility rates fall as societies grow wealthier.

I also argue that you do not have the epistemic privileged position necessary to access people's individual reasons for not wanting more kids.

The charge of "creepiness," I'll admit, can be characterized as vague. Let me sharpen it. Creepiness can mean two(2) related things.

(2)Insidious expansivenss

Your project fits the bill. Look, Professor Caplan, I think you're great. But I don't want advice about the bedroom. You're not a medical professional or administering public health advice. Prescribing the proper amount of generative versus recreational lovemaking for me is just rude. This is a little bit like getting advice on technique for eliminating personal waste in the bathroom: I can take care of it myself, thanks! (This ain't yo' bidness, son.)

You get defensive about libertarianism. I didn't accuse you of being unlibertarian. Just as it's your right to offer advice, it's my right to reject the advice. It's also my right to say that there are certain areas about which advice shouldn't be offered. These are questions of manners and morals and people will differ on what's appropriate--even outside the coercive apparatus--and we will also differ about which questions are out-of-bounds. (In a similar way, I also think college sex advice columnists are over-the-line. But while your inappropriateness is just overly intrusive, they're gratuitously raunchy, boorish, outrageous and generally juvenile.)

Finally, I stand by my point about the relationship between the concepts of Family Size and Utility Function. In short, you're making a category error. People's intuitions about the size of the family they desire is part of their comprehensive conception of life, an end in itself and not just a means that can be subject to some sort of objective analysis to measure/compare/verify the efficiency of their choices.

Stella Baskomb writes:

CK you have said quite enough enough, sir.

When I want advice from you about creepiness, or about anything else for that matter, I'll ask you.


El Presidente writes:


I think it's especially sensitive, but still an important and relevant topic for consideration. It's a little more freaky but at least slightly more intriguing to me when it is examined at the macro level. As in, what rate of fertility and population growth might we want to target (and why), and is it possible to do that in a way that preserves or enhances personal liberty?

The effects of income and education on fertility are interesting to me when we take them from their typical 3rd world context and reintroduce them in 'western' society. It's easy to see how people might get the heebie-geebies, but I think we need to be secure enough to consider ideas that may be uncomfortable.

I think treatment of the issue might improve if the time horizon for evaluating utility could be considered at different intervals. This might inform the response-to-utility versus definer-of-utility conflict. What are the components of the procreation pricing process that individuals employ? What is thought to be flexible and what is assumed to be constant? That's fascinating . . . to me.

This is an interesting exchange between you and CK. Please keep posting on issues that provoke thought. I enjoy it.

Jamaal writes:

I fail to understand why this is creepy at all. Its a simple economic idea applied to an area where economics is unfortunately applied rarely.

There was a post a while back on MarginalRevolution discussing when to say 'I love you' and trailed back to balancing marginal cost and marginal benefit. I'm not going to tell anyone how many kids they should have or how much sex they should have but I will say that all of these choice are bound be economics whether or not you want them to be. The marginal cost marginal benefit relationship is no different when its hamburgers, children or love. The only difference is the complexity of determining the cost and benefits.

Polibaw writes:

Giving advice about personal subjects isn't creepy, but having more kids will not make you more happy. One reason is that most parents give unsolicited face-to-face advice to their kids, who resent the rudeness of their parents, and this does not make either party happier!

Unit writes:

I'm fine with it as long as you don't go macro with it. No need to stimulate the aggregate demand fer kids.

Tracy W writes:

CK Prescribing the proper amount of generative versus recreational lovemaking for me is just rude.

If Bryan is coming around to your home trying to force you to adopt a certain amount of generative versus recreational lovemaking, call the police and get him removed for trespassing. But I see no sign that he's doing that, or trying any other way of prescribing your lovemaking. He's giving advice, which you are perfectly free to ignore. What's rude about that?

And what's rude about advice on eliminating personal waste in the bathroom, if it's given impersonally? I wouldn't care to discuss it with a guest over dinner, but I'm glad I heard about the mooncup as it's saving me quite a bit of money.

It's also my right to say that there are certain areas about which advice shouldn't be offered.

And it's your right to say pretty much anything, from "2+2=5" to surrealist statements like "a giraffe plays the violin extremely well". As I have that right too.

However, just because you have the right to say something doesn't mean that whatever you say is correct, or should be listened to, anymore than anything I say is right or should be listened to.

MT writes:

CK actually is clear enough to be corrected, which is an awesome advantage in a discussion.

CK is making a leap from descriptive to prescriptive. I am 90% on Caplan not being prescriptive.

Economics is a way of thinking about life and choices. It is always the "logic of choice." This allows for other takes on life and other ways to describe how people make decesions, but it does not mean that there is some necessary yet arbitrary limit on what economics can shed light.

CK says, "People's intuitions about the size of the family they desire is part of their comprehensive conception of life, an end in itself and not just a means that can be subject to some sort of objective analysis to measure/compare/verify the efficiency of their choices."

I agree with Caplan that economics can describe a comprehensive conception of life -- at least the part that is rational. If you choose to see the choice to have kids as irrational and without any logic to it, you are not engaging the project that Caplan is working on. If however, you see that some large portion of all human action is logical, economics can DESCRIBE it. I don't think that Caplan would ever desire his advice to conflate to the "aggregate" as Unit suggests and become prescriptive.

It is somehow misplaced to think of Caplan as advocating for the central family planning center. I get the impression that you are making that charge, and it follows from that impression that Caplan would defend himself as committed to libertarian principles.

Methinks writes:

The number of children one has is a choice (for the most part). Economics is the study of choices. Why is the study of this choice more creepy than the study of any other choice?

8 writes:

Does the Vatican provide research grants for this? How about Japan? I'm sure they're interested in secular arguments for increased procreation.

Ak Mike writes:

I did not think your post was creepy. I did think that it was clueless, in your apparent confidence that increasing the number of kids brings a linear increase in happiness and that cost is not an issue.

Speaking as the parent of four kids, increasing the number of kids can bring a general increase in tensions as there are geometrically more relationships into which bickering can intrude. Housekeeping problems increase. Time spent ferrying kids around increases, as well other kid-related tasks.

As far as money goes, Prof. Caplan, just wait till your kids start on braces and then become teenagers, let alone college. There have been times when we would get a bill from the pediatrician every day for months at a stretch (even with insurance, this is quite a load).

At any rate, the underlying problem with Prof. Caplan's approach is that it is based not on objective information or reasoning, as his economics posts are, but purely on his own subjective feelings, which are no basis for anyone else's actions. His advice is therefore not creepy but is useless.

Matt writes:

I would like to hear an introspective self-analysis from Bryan about why this issue is one of his most often championed. Are you worried about declining population? Do you just feel like you've stumbled on to something amazing here that nobody's noticed before? Do you feel like your preferences are being discouraged and so this is a sort of defensive action (eg. people balk when you tell them you want to have 9 kids and this is your way of broadening your defense?). I am really just curious as to why you have specifically chosen this issue on so many occasions and I think it would make a really great context post. I must admit I've only been following the blog for a little over a year, so maybe it's in an ancient post that I've not seen. How did you come to think about this issue so much?

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