Bryan Caplan  

From the Preface of My Next Book

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Who This Book Is For

When I tell people that I'm writing a book called Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, the most common response is, "Because they'll take care of you in your old age?"  Now's a good time to issue a disclaimer: That is not what I'm saying.  Indeed, I doubt that "They'll help me out when I'm old," has ever been a good reason to have kids.  Love tends to run downhill; as an old saying ruefully observes, "One parent can care for five children, but five children cannot care for one parent."  In any case, there are more cost-effective ways to provide for your old age than starting a family.  In a backward farming community, you can take the money you were going to spend on children, use it to buy land, then rent it out when you're ready to retire.  In the modern world, self-help is easier still.  Invest in a retirement fund, or buy an annuity.  No muss, no fuss.

Admittedly, an especially devoted or successful child might end up being a high-yield investment.   But that's a long shot.  The only promising way to meet the "What's in it for me?," challenge is to appeal to the intrinsic or "consumption" benefits of children.  If someone asks, "Why should I buy a high-definition t.v.?  What's in it for me?," you don't assure them that their HDTV will provide for them in their old age.  You tell them that their HDTV will be "fun," "neat," or "awesome."  Perhaps, like Blockbuster Video, you'll promise customers that they'll "Go home happy."  In the same way, if someone asks "What's in parenthood for me?," you've got to highlight kids' cool features: They're ridiculously cute; they're playful; they'll look like you; they'll share half your genes; it's all part of the circle of life.  You might also promise prospective parents that, "You won't regret it," or even assure them that "You'll be happier with kids."

Now I'm going to level with you.  If kids' "cool features" have absolutely no appeal to you, then you probably don't have any selfish reasons to have more kids - or any kids at all.  If you don't like what's on t.v., a sales pitch about HDTV's great picture and sound quality is a waste of your time.  Similarly, if the phrase "my son" or "my daughter" leaves you unmoved, none of my arguments are going to sway you.  In neither case will a customer buy a product if he rejects its basic premise.

That's OK by me.  I'm not trying to convince everyone to have kids.  I'm trying to convince people who are at least mildly interested in being a parent that they should have more kids than they originally planned. 

Fortunately for me, that's a big audience.  Over 80% of Americans eventually have kids.  Even among the childless-by-choice, many decide against kids because the sacrifice seems too great - not because the thought of having kids fills them with apathy.  As long as you belong to the vast majority of people with the seed of a desire to be a parent, we have much to discuss.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (16 to date)
Jacob Miller writes:

Great preface. It markets your book to the target audience well. I look forward to the book.

AMW writes:

Love tends to run downhill; as an old saying ruefully observes, "One parent can care for five children, but five children cannot care for one parent."

Dawkins explains a likely biological basis for this in The Selfish Gene. His argument runs like this:

Each kid has 50% of a given parent's genes, so caring for and protecting children enhances the number of the parents' genes in the gene pool (at least in expectation). But each parent also has exactly 50% of a given kid's genes, so children protecting a parent makes genetic sense too. So why the empirical asymmetry that Bryan notes above? Because children have all (or much) of their reproductive lives ahead of them, while parents' reproductive lives are unlikely to last through much of a given child's life. So genes that focus altruism on children will be of greater selective value than those that focus altruism on parents.

Joe Marier writes:

In any case, there are more cost-effective ways to provide for your old age than starting a family. In a backward farming community, you can take the money you were going to spend on children, use it to buy land, then rent it out when you're ready to retire.

And if everybody does it the "cost-effective way", to whom will you rent the land out?

Nathan writes:

Joe Marier writes:
And if everybody does it the "cost-effective way", to whom will you rent the land out?

Why would my decision not to have children make everyone else do the same?

AMW writes:

And if everybody does it the "cost-effective way", to whom will you rent the land out?

As more people rent out the land the price falls, lowering the expected return versus child-bearing until we reach an equilibrium. In the equilibrium, the expected rents from a given plot of land equal the expected return from child-bearing plus any consumption benefits of parenting.

Hugo Pottisch writes:

I am writing a book to. Selfish Reason To Be Human. No actually - I have a better idea - Selfish Reasons To Breath. Or the sequel - Selfish Reason To Be An Animal.

David R. Henderson writes:

"Whom This Book is For."
Object of a preposition.

arthas writes:

I once saw a life story of a lake frog in national geographic. The frog in a distant land lived in water, reproduced and died.. And this was the case for many many generations of that particular frog breed. I wonder how the humans are different than a simple animal like frog. Dawkin's selfish gene seems to be the more appropriate answer to why people have kids.

Being a social animal with some intellect, human are a bit different. There you can reason that kid is a social investment as it provides for old age; this point is particularly valid when u look at last 15000 years of human evolution. If you stretch the reasoning in the modern timed, kids are just like assets with a return in investment. This leap in reasoning is faulty as it ignores that we live in society with certain values and culture in an artificial nation state, wherein the values are a necessity for the perpetuituation of the society.

I d still say biology and evolution takes primacy over any other attributed reasons for having/not having kids. Lets not forget these attributed reasons arise particularly in the society where the costs of bringing up child is huge (struggle of daily existence)..i ve observed that people like to do things which in the end helps their genes survive and replicate-
-children love sweets. reason: high caloric content (not the case with adult)
-people like meat and fish (high valued protein)
-almost all delicious cooking is high in oil and sugar (gives more calory)
-people like sex ( reproduction and social bonding reasons)
-children run and play more often than adult in general ( their growth phase demands the body to be fit)
-people like music and arts ( evolved human form of peacock feathers)
etc etc

jb writes:

Mr. Henderson sets up the great joke:

"Whom This Book is For."


"Whom This Book is For, Jerk!"

(note, this is a joke, I do not actually think Mr. Henderson is a jerk")

Luke Lea writes:

When my parents and grandparents died I was full of fond memories. A recurrent image was of stair steps down which love flowed like water.

Steve Roth writes:

David R. Henderson, re:

"Whom This Book is For."
Object of a preposition.

Oh sigh.

Pinker: "Whom has outlived ye but is clearly moribund; it now sounds pretentious in most spoken contexts. No one demands of Bush that he say Whom do ye trust? If the language can bear the loss of ye, using you for both subjects and objects, why insist on clinging to whom, when everyone uses who for both subjects and objects?"

For further ridicule of "whom" (re: written language) from the Master, read all of page 403 (389 in my hardcover) of The Language Instinct. If you don't have a copy (!), this page is viewable in "Look inside."

Steve Roth writes:

Bryan, I don't know where you're going with it, but my cents' worth:

Genetic inclinations aside (as Daniel Dennet explains quite clearly, we're at at totally different level of "design" here, where conscious intention is fundamentally--though not functionally--disconnected from the genes' "intentions"), the reason to have kids is to maximize utility!

"Happiness" is a reasonably good proxy for utility. (Though I prefer "joy," myself) And it's been studied a lot. Consistently, the thing that makes people happiest (by self-report) is being surrounded by loved ones.

I have no evidence for this, but I assume that involves both 1. loving and 2. being loved.

On 1: We're genetically programmed to adore the little beasts. To quote (and second) my friend Robin, "I just couldn't believe how much I loved them."

On 2: In my experience there are a very limited number of situations in which somebody, on one's arriving home, jumps up and down, races around madly, leaps into your arms, and screams with glee. Perhaps this is a common experience for others, but for me it was quite unusual, and had extraordinarilly high utility.

Yes, this particular behavior fades with age (one hopes...), but it gets replaced by mellower but still wonderfully warm and rewarding interactions that for most people are not thick on the ground--including (thank god! finally!) those of the mental and intellectual variety.

David Friedman writes:

I think you underestimate the value of children for taking care of you in your old age. The mechanisms you describe depend either on you being competent and functional when old, thus not getting cheated out of your land or money in one way or another, or on some agent reliably acting on your behalf. One advantage of having children, if you do a successful job of rearing them, is that they care a lot for your welfare--and will be competent to make decisions considerably longer than you will be.

Which is not to deny the other values you describe.

mjh writes:

As the parent of 4 kids, the oldest of which is 11, I am anxious to read your book. Because while the cuteness, playfulness, etc are fun. Along with it comes a *LOT* of work, stress, worry, fear, anxiety, etc.

On the whole, 4 kids has, thus far, made the balance of work to fun, tip towards work. Thus we've stopped. I'm interested in reading the rest of the story because the preface is unconvincing, even though I love all of the positives you mention.

mjh writes:


All of that being said, even though child #4 has tipped the overall balance from fun to work, you couldn't get me to give him up for anything. But not knowing child #5, I'm not interested in taking on the work that I know would come. I'm sure that if child #5 were to come, I'd be in the same position as with #4.

austin writes:

Looking forward to it. I also loved 'Myth of the Rational Voter'.

On a related note, it's fairly easy to tell from these comments that protectionism is popular:

There's also a lot of buy local comments.

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