Bryan Caplan  

The Economics of the Gift of Life

Austrian Resurgence... Three Inflation Regimes...
If someone gives another person $100, almost all economists agree that the recipient is better off.  Hard-line neoclassical economists will say it's true by definition; the rest won't be so emphatic, but they'll confidently agree.  Even happiness researchers will probably sign on; income doesn't raise income much, but the effect's still positive.

If someone gives another person the gift of life, however, I've noticed that many economists suddenly become agnostic.  $100?  Definitely an improvement.  Being alive?  Meh.

It's hard to see the logic.  Why would a minor gift of cash be a clear-cut gain, but a massive gift of human capital be a question mark?  In both cases, the recipient seems to have what economists call "free disposal" - a cheap, painless away of getting rid of the unwanted gift.  Don't want $100?  Drop it on the sidewalk.  Don't want to be alive?  Drop yourself on the sidewalk.  As the great Epicurus wrote:
Yet much worse still is the man who says it is good not to be born, but

"once born make haste to pass the gates of Death." [Theognis, 427]

For if he says this from conviction why does he not pass away out of life? For it is open to him to do so, if he had firmly made up his mind to this. But if he speaks in jest, his words are idle among men who cannot receive them.

You could object that suicide is a lot more painful than it looks.  Yes, there are painless, effective ways to do away with yourself.  But before you leap, you have to live with the knowledge that you're causing great pain to everyone who cares about you.  If you'd never existed, you wouldn't be missed.

Once you accept this line of thinking, though, $100 could easily be a curse, too.  Many people couldn't throw away $100... without feeling like idiots.  And once they have the money, their standards of acceptable consumption might ratchet up so they actually need the gift to compensate.

Ultimately, though, skepticism about the value of either gift - $100 or life itself - seems implausible and forced.  While it's conceivable that the recipient will wish his "benefactor" had left him alone, it's highly unlikely.  As I quip in Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, "No one asks to be born, but almost everyone would if he could."  The same holds for sneaking $100 bills in stranger's pockets.

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COMMENTS (25 to date)
Braden writes:

I think you underestimate the number of people kept from suicide by obligation, fear of pain, fear of hellfire, and the endowment effect.

I'd also like to hear your response to Brandon Berg's comment on your linked previous post ( ).

ajb writes:

Bryan is being deliberately obtuse. As he points out, the pain caused to loved ones and the difficulty of committing suicide (psychologically, physiologically, and morally) mean that dying and never having been born are not commensurate. Moreover, the moral dimension of giving up $100 in no way comes close to that of giving up one's life.

If one wishes to be economistic, one could just say that there are substantial externalities to life giving/taking. [There's a reason why we don't allow contracts in suicide nor is murder a civil offense that can be dealt with by a monetary fine.] Any externalities of a $100 gift are so trivial as to be worth ignoring.

Noah Yetter writes:

Brian you're just being silly. It's not obvious that being born is good because there is no frame for comparison. If you are not born, there is no "you" to express valuation of anything. This whole exercise is like trying to divide by zero.

Daniel Klein writes:

Adam Smith, too, saw more humans as a sort of ethical good.

See the role of "a greater multitude of inhabitants" and "the multiplication of the species" in the invisible-hand graf in TMS,pp. 184-85).

Rebecca Burlingame writes:

The gift of $100, though not much - is in fact something. Whereas, in today's money-based economies, being alive is not a guarantee of economic access - hence the greater value of the $100.

Brian Moore writes:

Noah is right, I think.

Comparing the desires of a something that exists to the desires of something that does not exist is a moral divide by zero error.

Now, I am wholeheartedly in favor of (other people) having kids, but really the important factor to consider cannot be the desires of the non-existent kid, as cruel as it sounds, because it's impossible to compare. I think the fact that most people do not commit suicide is a good point against "it's immoral TO have kids" but when determining if you should, the important factors to consider are the desires of the parents.

Now, as parents are often happy if their kids are happy, it can be valuable to hypothesize "can we give our kid the happiness we WANT them to have at this point" and conclude that you could not, but this is just shorthand.

Steve Z writes:

I wonder if you have read Derek Parfit's "Reasons and Persons." I recall that there was an excellent section on the ethical implications of having more kids. A taste can be found here.

Lori writes:

And once they have the money, their standards of acceptable consumption might ratchet up so they actually need the gift to compensate.

This disease is called consumerism, and it has plenty of detractors.

Also, what Rebecca said.

Enough of the 'right to life' movement already. What this society needs a a 'right to a life' movement.

Bryan Pick writes:

Can someone explain the reasoning behind the criticism that Bryan is "dividing by zero" rather than "comparing to zero" or "subtracting zero"?


  • To say that you don't commit suicide because you don't want to cause pain to other people is to imply that you value other people's happiness to the extent that it outweighs other considerations. Think opportunity cost.
  • To say that you don't commit suicide because of the psychological/physiological difficulty also begs the opportunity cost question. People may rightly fear the pain and natural panic of suicide. Maybe life is just good enough that it's better than a short, sharp period of anguish... or even the uncertain possibility of such anguish.

Zac Gochenour writes:

Parfit's "Repugnant Conclusion" is absurd. It assumes that there is some sort of fixed pie of utility and that a rising population means there is a little less for everyone.

Using the rectangle visualization in the wikipedia article, the proper way to think about this is rectangles increasing in both height and width.

Terry writes:

Life being a "gift" is certainly a lovely sentiment, but the logic seems faulty. Isn't all perception of the virtue of any gift from one person to the next being that the receiver didnt have it in the first place? In other words, had I never been born and thus experienced whatever non-life is, how am I to know that life is a gift to me?

As an example, all of us from the time we enter the world have free access to oxygen to breathe. Do you perceive that as a gift? I dont, it is a simple fact of existence in this realm. However, if you were to deprive me of the ability to breath by strangulation, then release me from being strangled before dying I would perceive it as a gift.

I dont say this because I'm suicidal (far from it!) but the logic of your assertion seems a little off to me.

Terry writes:

Yes, there are painless, effective ways to do away with yourself.

Eh, no there isnt! Effective sure, but painless? No way.

Allow your mind to travel into thinking about this for a second. The human body is very hard to kill, and more over you have a very powerful subconscious that above all is designed to ensure your survival (thus the immune system, the fear mechanism, the ability to feel pain) all designed to stop you from killing yourself. To say overriding all of this is as easy as burning a $100 bill is, um, certainly a bit far fetched to me.

Brian Moore writes:

@Bryan Pick:

"Can someone explain the reasoning behind the criticism that Bryan is "dividing by zero" rather than "comparing to zero" or "subtracting zero"?"

Probably from programmers. :) Not so much because of the definition of division/comparison but because when you divide by zero, you get a meaningless amount. What are the desires of a non-existent human? They aren't zero, or even an amount that we could possibly know. They are simply undefined.

It would definitely be more accurate to just say "undefined," but I think people default to the divide by zero metaphor because it's so common.

jazzbumpa writes:

@ Bryan Pick.

Comparing to or subtracting zero each mean something, and can be interpreted logically. Dividing by zero cannot.

Similarly one cannot speak logically about a non-existent entity. Hence Noah's cogent insight.

In addition to all the other absurdity of this post, it is also fatuous with regard to suicide. With very few exceptions, only someone suffering from deep clinical depression ever seriously attempts, or even contemplates suicide. It is a reaction to being in an emotional pit, not anything rationally evaluated.

More and more, I coming to believe that economics is bunk.

Braden writes:

@Zac Gochenour:

Surely you must admit there is some enormous level of population at which human lives would be miserable--eventually, the earth simply doesn't receive enough sunlight to feed everyone. In our current circumstances, humanity as a whole may be bettered by an extra person, but you miss the point of the thought experiment in arguing that we aren't yet at Earth's carrying capacity.

Mario Rizzo writes:

Noah is entirely correct. This question and Bryan's analysis is nonsense.

Steve Z writes:

Zac: My understanding is that he offered the hypothetical of a world in which there are more people with less utility for each person. He's not making an empirical claim.

My resolution to the paradox is to insist upon virtue ethics.

Hyena writes:

All Bryan is saying is that this is a point where economics (or maybe just economists) fail us. I fail to see what other people are objecting to.

It's also not true that we have some sort of category mistake afoot when we "want to be born". We can, if we take Parfit, think of ways to be "reborn": embedded into institutional and cultural systems which mold our psychology for the better and, in the process, turn us into almost completely different people. So we have analogs.

Rebecca Burlingame writes:

re: your rectangle visualization. Yes, there is the increase, but think for a moment that the angles are the same. What that means is that as money expands, it is still being applied to the same things (i.e. not the potentials of human capital) but instead, as in the current decade, assets such as housing, which therefore leave people no money to spend on the other necessities of their lives.

Mitchell Porter writes:

That people persist in living proves very little. If we imprison you in a pit of poisonous snakes, you may struggle to survive for quite a while. That doesn't mean it's a good place to be.

Skeptic writes:

David Benatar - Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence - 2006

Cliff writes:

I am really shocked by the number of people that think life is not a gift. You really wish your parents had aborted you and just do not have the willpower to off yourself? That can't be true, can it? Boggles my mind.

Cliff writes:

Also, I will accept that there is almost certainly some theoretical upper bound on the number of happy people that can exist in the universe, but the number is so ridiculously high that it is not even worth thinking about. There is quite a lot of energy in the universe. What value does that "thought experiment" provide?

Mitchell Porter writes:

"You really wish your parents had aborted you and just do not have the willpower to off yourself?"

It has already been mentioned that a person may be held in place by a sense of duty, especially towards their children, even though they hate life. Another thing that keeps people around is hope. They may not be happy, but they may hope for happiness. Or, they may experience happiness for a time, and then unhappiness returns, and each time it goes away they hope it stays away forever. In that case, they are hoping for lasting happiness, but do not presently have it.

xyman writes:

I believe there is a massive difference between having been born and committing suicide and never having been born at all. You and I agree on much probably, but this statement strikes me as one of the most ridiculous I have ever read from someone I consider worth reading: "...a cheap, painless away of getting rid of the unwanted gift."

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