Bryan Caplan  

How Will Daniel Akst Like Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids?

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Here's the conclusion of Daniel Akst's Wall St. Journal review of Parentonomics:
It's a pity that Mr. Gans misses the chance to cover the most interesting question an economist might address in the parenting arena: Why he decided to have children in the first place? They're no longer an economic asset, after all. So is human reproduction nowadays irrational? Is it even ethical? If a pill is invented that would confer the joys of parenthood without all the mess or expense, should people take it? Dreary speculation, I know, but what better topic for the dismal science?
This gives me hope for a more sympathetic review for Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids - after all, it's all about the question Akst finds "most interesting."  In fact, I plan to address almost all of the issues he mentions.  A quick preview, question-by-question:

Question: Why did he decide to have children in the first place? They're no longer an economic asset, after all. So is human reproduction nowadays irrational?

My Short Answer: In the modern world, kids are a consumption good.  It's no more irrational to have kids than to buy an HDTV.  In fact, it's especially rational, because buyer's remorse is very rare, while non-buyer's remorse is extremely common.

Aside: Akst echoes the common perception that kids used to be "an economic asset."  But kids have probably always basically been consumption goods.  Even in a primitive farming society, buying land is a better retirement plan than having kids.  At the margin, of course, a kid who helps on the farm is less of a burden than a kid who doesn't help; but if it's just a matter of dollars and cents, hired help is a better deal.

Question: Is it even ethical?

My Short Answer: Highly - it's not only better for the parent; it's also better for the child and the world.  Truly tragic cases excepted, the child is vastly better off existing than not existing.  Aren't you glad your parents had you?  It's also good for the world: As Julian Simon beautifully explained, the positive externalities of more people are far bigger than any negatives - once again, excepting a few tragic counter-examples.

Question: If a pill is invented that would confer the joys of parenthood without all the mess or expense, should people take it?

My Short Answer: This is the one question I probably won't deal with in my book.  Why not?  First, I'm trying to write a book of practical advice, not puzzle over mere hypotheticals.  Second, Nozick's Experience Machine example already raises the question of whether you should give up real life for a simulation.  Akst's "joy of parenting" pill is just a more specific version of a challenge that philosophers have hashed out for decades.  So you should either solve the general version of the challenge, or stay away from it altogether.


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COMMENTS (18 to date)
Stewart Ulm writes:

"Truly tragic cases excepted, the child is vastly better off existing than not existing. Aren't you glad your parents had you?"

I don't think you can meaningfully make this comparison. What is it like to not exist at all? Someone who does not exist is only a 'someone' in a linguistic sense. They have no interests or sense of being that can be compared to their living counterpart. A living person can't be said to be better (or worse) off than a non-living person, because the latter is just a metaphysical construct.

I may feel glad that my parents had me, but that doesn't mean I'm better off for it. There is a nearly-infinite number of potential children who could have been born in my place; should we think that it's a shame that they weren't? Are they worse off in any meaningful sense?

SheetWise writes:

"Why did he decide to have children in the first place?"

The decision to have children, in reality, is not one that is made by a man.

David Jinkins writes:

Nice point, Stewart! I see how Bryan might be able to argue that a marginal childbirth is good for those who are already alive, but it is very different (and much more difficult) to justify childbirth from the perspective of the child being born.

Hugo Pottisch writes:

Aren't you glad your parents had you?

Yes... but if they hadn't have me I could not be sad either.


It's also good for the world: As Julian Simon beautifully explained, the positive externalities of more people are far bigger than any negatives - once again, excepting a few tragic counter-examples.

Julian Simon wrote stuff such as this. Like the author - I am in favor of having children. But this is ridiculous and dangerous and even for the mechanists to see.

The Cupboard Is Bare writes:

When I was a child, my mother told me that she wished she'd held off having me for a few years.

I was just barely old enough to understand biology and replied that if she had waited, then I would have been someone else; and is that what she really would have preferred?

She had no answer for that one...

Zac writes:

Stewart Ulm wrote: "I may feel glad that my parents had me, but that doesn't mean I'm better off for it. "

This is pure nonsense. Of course you are better off for it.

@Hugo- What is ridiculous and dangerous about a graph showing population growth? That is something to celebrate! It is a message of hope, not despair. That people don't see this baffles me.. its a very fixed-pie mentality.

jebs writes:

I agree completely with Stewart.

You seem to think of a non-existent person as a person who experiences a lot of nothing and therefore has a utility of zero. Obviously experiencing *something* is better.

But a non-existent person is not a person at all. They do not experience ... period. They have no utility function, and therefore their utility is not zero, it is undefined.

Existence and non-existence can't coherently be compared and ranked in a preference ordering as you seem to want to do. I think it is meaningless to say that one is "better" than the other.

Like Stewart, I am glad that I exist. But I think it is because the process of death is frightening, or because my brain is not wired to really comprehend the meaning of non-existence. I don't think it is because existence is objectively preferable.

If you've thought about this argument and rejected it, I'd like to know why. I've wondered before why no one has raised this objection in your comments sections. What am I missing?

JW writes:

Instead of saying that one is "better off" existing rather than never having existed, Bryan could instead say that existing is "good" for the person who exists. This would get him what he wants without setting off as many alarm bells, I think. "Better off" normally implies a comparison, and Stewart and others, above, rightfully note that by definition we can have no experience of non-existence. But to say that existence is "good" for a person does not necessarily imply a comparison. Existence could be good for me because of all the good things I get to do and experience as a result of having existed. If I had never existed, I would never have had the happiness that I have in my life. It is true that were I never to have existed I could not miss this happiness, but that is irrelevant to whether the happiness--and what makes it possible (existence)--is good for me.

If you are interested in more on this topic, Parfit discusses this in Reasons and Persons, Appendix G: "Whether Causing Someone to Exist can Benefit this Person".

Skeptikos writes:

You say buyer's remorse is very rare, but recent research has found that kids make people less happy, on average.

It seems that people can be poor judges of what will make them happy. I'm not convinced that measurements of self-reported buyer's remorse are reliable proxies of real remorse.

Jayson Virissimo writes:

"Like Stewart, I am glad that I exist. But I think it is because the process of death is frightening, or because my brain is not wired to really comprehend the meaning of non-existence. I don't think it is because existence is objectively preferable." -jebs

If you brain was rewired to be more rational, do you think there is a good chance that you would become indifferent between living or dieing? If not, why not?

Dezakin writes:

It all boils down to opportunity cost. Having kids for me incurs enormous opportunity cost on all the other work I want to accomplish in life.

Hugo Pottisch writes:

Epicurus 2300 years ago:

Accustom yourself to believing that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply the capacity for sensation, and death is the privation of all sentience; therefore a correct understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not by adding to life a limitless time, but by taking away the yearning after immortality. For life has no terrors for him who has thoroughly understood that there are no terrors for him in ceasing to live. Foolish, therefore, is the man who says that he fears death, not because it will pain when it comes, but because it pains in the prospect. Whatever causes no annoyance when it is present, causes only a groundless pain in the expectation. Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not. It is nothing, then, either to the living or to the dead, for with the living it is not and the dead exist no longer.

Of course - those that are alive value their life. That is why killing animals for entertainment and taste and not for self-defense or survival is immoral. It does not matter how "humane" and "free-range" their existence has been. I cannot follow the logic why we should rather kill the happy than the unhappy? I cannot follow the logic of pro-lifers who eat animals and support the death-penalty.

As Leonardo Da Vinci has supported Epicurus - he stated in defense of his vegetarianism - if "pain and conciseness" is absent such as in plants (and early embryos)....

We animals have the urge to have sex and love in order to survive and to reproduce. In the light of how all animals have always lived - it is rather strange to even find discussions regarding "should we have children".. even stranger is to encounter arguments that the whole thing is about the child being better off existing.

Are we somehow devolving compared to other animals? Can humans survive without say slavery, a piece of paper to confirm their love, and economic arguments for having or not having children? Soon our "progress" will enable us to build breathing machines without which we could not survive?

Again - at the very least I would have expected on reference to the fact that humans are apparently too willing to have children and that it is made too easy to have and keep a child rather than the other way around. The world is child-obese.

Hugo Pottisch writes:

@Zac

What is dangerous about the population graph? Let me first state that this has nothing to do with a fixed-pie mentality or zero-sum games.

When revenues grow but profit margins decrease, even into the negative, loss-making regions, and for decades in a row... one ends up with an audit such as this one.

If we practiced sustainability - there would be nothing wrong with this graph. But as we do not and have not - we risk a point of no return.

Right now we have not only grown from 2 billion to 7 billion over night - we have also increased our animal slave population from 7 billion "livestock units" per year to over 50 billion. God are these animals happy that they are alive. It is like we have removed all free-agents and workers from the biggest market on the planet and have put them on eternal welfare. Yeah - the slave owners and tyrants flourish but there is a natural limit to their growth and a correction inevitable unless they set the market free again.

Already we are experiencing the same species loss as has only been recorded 65 million years ago after meteoroid hits. Only today - no meteoroids have hit - at least not from space. Imagine 50% of all companies and services to disappear almost over night from the market? Imagine economic decline for decade after decade - not mere months. Last time it took the ecology millions of years to recover.

Right now we practice a fixed-pie mentality: us or them. I can't wait before we change that and also stop the "let's invest even more before we know how to make a profit" mentality shown above.

Unless we know how to achieve a positive margin - I am not certain how to be cheerful about the population graph. Do you, Zac, know how to get to a positive margin and how to reverse the long-term loss-making trends that risk the happiness of all future generations?

jebs writes:

Jayson,

My initial response is to say "yes." Practically, I might avoid death because it would harm my family.

But I think there is a good chance that if "non-existence" were a more intelligible concept for me, and if I lacked the inherited biological urge to stay alive, I would be indifferent to survival.

Of course, I have a strong intuition that a person who is suffering and has no hope of relief can rationally choose non-existence (suicide) to continued suffering. Does that give the game away? It seems to imply comparability between existence and non-existence. I am not sure how to reconcile the two views.

Parfit (thanks for the reference, JW) attempts a synthesis of similar ideas. He wants to say that we shouldn't care about people who never existed and never will, because they are not thereby made worse off. But he also wants to say that existence is good, and that people who are saved from dying are thereby benefited.

He uses words like "good" and "bad" and he draws a distinction between actual and potential people, arguing that the former can be benefited but the latter cannot.

I want to agree with him because he solves the issue nicely, but there is something about his argument that I find unsatisfying. I came away from it feeling like he not resolved the contradiction... but that he had employed some clever language to conceal it. It is possible that I just don't understand him.

I am going to have to go sit in a dark room and think hard about this one. The contradiction here makes me wonder if the whole question is ill-posed.... if we are using a term or a concept that is fundamentally incoherent.

Parfit would say that once Bryan's children exist, their existence is good... but at the same time potential children are not worse off if they are never born. I can't wrap my mind around that.

Zac writes:

Hugo wrote: "Do you, Zac, know how to get to a positive margin and how to reverse the long-term loss-making trends that risk the happiness of all future generations?"

Yes. We should continue to have children and let population grow unhindered. A larger population is our best hope for finding a solution. This has worked so far.

The evidence does not suggest to me that there is any sort of population bubble going on. It looks to me more like sustainable exponential growth with only one long-term trend: up. Every time a bubble pop has been predicted, it has been wrong. Same fallacious Malthusian thinking, different century. The population graph should be the thing that Malthusians want no one to see - it is proof positive that their theories are contradicted by the evidence and are, in fact, wrong.

Talk about "animal slaves" is not very persuasive to me. I am about to eat a steak that cost me $10 at Safeway - where is the evidence to support your claim of unsustainability when the real price of meat has been falling for centuries?

Hugo Pottisch writes:

Zac

You had me there for a second. But after your second post my sarcasm detector started functioning again. Nice one.

Zac writes:

@Hugo- I think your detector was working fine before; no sarcasm here. I'm a cornucopian, a position I feel follows naturally from basic economic theory and is unquestionably vindicated by the evidence.

Care to criticize any of my claims specifically?

Hugo Pottisch writes:

Zac

I am a cornucopian too. I believe that mankind can find solutions to new problems in order to survive. Can is different from does however. It does not right now, it could. In other words - I am talking about the real world and not a hypothetical one.

Do you care to criticize any of my claims specifically?

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