Bryan Caplan  

An Alibertarian Case for Reproductive Laissez-Faire

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How Free Markets Make Bad Beha... Various Follow-ups...
Libertarians often highlight "the right to do wrong."  We are often morally obliged to tolerate the wicked and foolish behavior of others.  A quote wrongly attributed to Voltaire beautifully captures the intuition: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

Fruitful as this insight is, however, it is often superfluous.  If a law forbids actions that are good, or persecutes beliefs that are true, critics might as well start attacking the law by defending the merit of the violations.  If the law persecutes creationists, it makes sense to appeal to freedom of belief.  If the law persecutes evolutionists, on the other hand, it makes more sense to make the alibertarian argument that evolution is true.

Lately I've been reading the classic arguments in favor of regulation of reproductive technology.   They usually take the rights-based position as their main foil.  They'll propose a ban on human cloning for the greater good, and libertarians will object, "You're violating human rights."  On reflection, though, defenders of reproductive laissez-faire can do a lot better.  Artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, surrogacy, and yes, cloning deserve an affirmative defense.  Here's an outline:

1. Creating new human life is almost always good.

2. Voluntary exchange is mutually beneficial for the participants.

3. Third parties are also better off, at least on average.

When Leon Kass proposes a ban on human cloning, for example, the most obvious reply is, "Cloning creates human life.  What kind of a monster would want to stop that?"  When feminists say it's "exploitation" to hire surrogates from the Third World, the obvious reply is, "The women we hire earn money that they need to buy extra food for their families."  When Malthusians complain about the evils of overpopulation, the obvious reply is to refer them to the work of Julian Simon.

You could say, "All of those arguments are open to objections."  Indeed they are.  Creating a person who lived in constant horrible pain wouldn't be good.  Extremely irrational people might predictably lose from voluntary exchange.  And there is a point where population growth would make third parties worse off. 

That's OK.  When the objections stick, you can still fall back on libertarian arguments about reproductive rights.  Under normal circumstances, however, the objections don't stick - and focusing on the right to do wrong sells the case for reproductive freedom short.


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COMMENTS (9 to date)
jr. writes:

The libertarian argument is based on the idea that "we do not really know. (We do know some, but never thorough.)" A libertarian might say things like "the right to do wrong" in an argument, but that's only a convenient device, that's not the foundation of the libertarian argument. You are throwing the whole point away.

That's my understanding of libertarianism. I am not a libertarian.

About reproductive thing, the libertarian standing is based on the analysis of coercion, and they are against coercion. This concept, however, is not strong or clear enough for libertarians or at least libertarianism to take a stand in regard to babies and etc. Libertarianism has a say about gay stuff, but never really about abortion or reproduction issues.

Hope I am not too far off.

jr. writes:

For example, the surrogate mother thing is based on the understanding that the womb doesn't really matter that much to the baby (after being born). But, are you sure? I mean, physics is the simplest of sciences (see for example, Alvarez, 1968 Nobel Physics) but only a hundred years earlier, they didn't know space-time was curved. And right now, they have no idea where the dark matter comes from. Are you really sure that the womb won't build a tie between the woman and the child? Do you really know the psychology thing there? And what about the spirit stuff?

Gallego writes:

"Cloning creates human life. What kind of a monster would want to stop that?"

- yes, that's a great argument, extremely helpful when it backfires during a defense of mother's right to terminate pregnancy... "what kind of monster.." didn't think it through, did you?

I think the argument, generally, should be the other way round: first, state the principle you support (i.e. the right of an individual) plus - possibly - their general advantages, and then - for those, who haven't been persuaded - offer possible non-principal reasons to show that there are also other, specific advantages to a given solution than just the general principle (i.e. those you've numbered)... but always make sure these are consistent with your principles...;)

Eric Johnson writes:

CO2, not normally noted for adhesiveness, may nevertheless stick the population objection onto you already. So might tropical extinctions. I would favor a world pop of 1 billion.

Steve writes:

Could someone please provide a distillation of Simon's work? The link is to his website, where all I can find is a list of published papers.

Stan Greer writes:

Since I think Bryan's comments are partially directed at me, I'd like to ask for a clarification.

Bryan, you apparently concede, in contrast, I think, to some hyper-individualistic libertarians, that we owe something to the children we bring (with at least implicit intentionality) into the world. We owe them, you more or less say, an existence that is better than nonexistence. That is based on your assumption that nonexistence is sometimes (though very rarely) better than existence.

So, just to be clear, you believe that, as long as your child's existence turns out, at least somewhat predictably, to be preferable to nonexistence, you do not do wrong by deliberately conceiving a child with no intention of providing the child food or clothing once he/she is born? For the sake of argument, let's not discuss whether you may be doing wrong to the child's other parent by conceiving him/her without intending on providing for his/her basic needs. Are you doing wrong by the child?

I just want to understand you as well as I can.

8 writes:

C.S. Lewis dealt with this topic in the Abolition of Man, it'd be interesting for you to review it. C.S. Lewis feared that eventually there would be some decision as to what are the "right" traits.

Assuming you could have absolute control over the genetic-makeup of a child, is there a line at which one has made a slave of the child? Assume there is some limit to the number of people and that a genetically engineered child replaces a naturally reproduced child. If one makes a person with no reproductive organs, or a person with no ability for violence, including self-defense, for instance.

hacs writes:

What should be my primordial standpoint so that I could choose libertarianism as a worthful ideology?

I ask this because any ideologically-based justification only displace the problem. Thus, libertarianism highlights "the right to do wrong", but what meta-ideology (i.e., meta-meta-ideology, and so forth) guarantees me the right to be libertarian?

It is because if libertarianism is wrong and I have not chosen my ideology yet, I cannot invoke libertarianism to do wrong, choosing libertarianism as my ideology. That is an interim reason (e.g., I am a libertarian), and that kind of rationale is circular.

So, could we justify reproductive rights from a secure point of view?

Douglass Holmes writes:

Although I tend to agree with you on this issue, I'm not sure I agree with your approach to this argument. Clearly, creating human life is not ALWAYS good, e.g. rape.
Voluntary exchange is good, but frequently one party is not fully aware of the costs of an agreement. This is the case in surrogate motherhood, where the woman goes into the agreement before she has experienced the strong attachment that she will have to the child.
We agree that third parties are better off, on average, but that's because you and I prefer market solutions. Most people have anti-market bias, so they will see all the downsides of a market, rather than the benefits.
Good luck on your crusade to convince people of the benefits of a free market approach to reproduction. If you can sell this, then let me know how we can sell the idea of a free market in body parts.

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