Bryan Caplan  

Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids and the Libertarian Penumbra

Schools and Socialization... Free the Children...
In one of my talks at the 2011 International Students for Liberty Conference, I argued that the my views on parenting and kids can and should enter the libertarian penumbra.  Yes, a perfectly good libertarian could believe that nurture is the key to child development, or that kids inevitably make us miserable.  But not only are these views false; it is both realistic and desirable for my views to become conventional wisdom among libertarians.

Why is it realistic for my views to become conventional wisdom among libertarians? 

Because libertarians are unusually open to...
1. Using economics in daily life.  Libertarians don't just use economics to analyze policy; they also often use it to guide their personal behavior.  Their knowledge of the sunk cost fallacy inspires them to walk out of movies.  Their knowledge of comparative advantage persuades them to buy foreign products without guilt.  So it should be relatively easy to get libertarians apply the Law of Demand to family size.  If you can get the kids you want for a lot less effort than you thought was required, you should have more.  I've even got a diagram!

The Students for Liberty chuckled, but I'm pretty sure they were laughing with me, not at me.

2. Political incorrect science.  Libertarians don't just have a high regard for science; they are also often willing to embrace scientific conclusions that the rest of world doesn't want to hear.  The key findings of twin and adoption research - that genes, not upbringing, are the main reason traits run in families - clearly fit this pattern.  Most people don't want to hear it, but libertarians can embrace the science with rationalist glee.

3. The idea that intentions do not equal results.  Libertarians are already used to the idea that merely "doing something" while wanting X to happen often fails to produce X.  The minimum wage is intended to help low-skill workers, but it backfires.  In a similar vein, libertarians should be open to the idea that parents' desire and effort to shape their kids yields little fruit - and that the wisest approach is to sit back and let nature take its course.

Why is it desirable for my views to become conventional wisdom among libertarians?

Because libertarians who take me seriously will...

1. Avoid lots of unnecessary parental unhappiness.  Once you accept how little influence you have over your kids, you can relax and enjoy the journey.  And if libertarians don't deserve to be happy, who does?!

2. Create more awesome people.  Even if the world ignores libertarians forever, it's still great for more libertarians to exist, build our counter-culture, and enjoy life.

3. Increase the frequency of libertarian genes - and the long-run prospects for liberty.  Genes have a strong effect on political views.  So assuming libertarians are right about policy, increasing the frequency of libertarian genes is good for the world.  It will take a few centuries, but libertarian natalism is one of the least unrealistic paths to liberty we've got.

I'm written my book for a general audience.  I'm happy to change minds wherever I find them.  But if I can just persuade a lot of my fellow libertarians to chillax and multiply, I'll judge the whole project a great success.

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COMMENTS (8 to date)
Pandaemoni writes:

To think that my wife chided me for little Billy's "Beer -n- Guns Birthday Party" and then again for missing pretty much every school and sporting event he ever participated in. Little did she know that all that is meaningless. :-)

Of course that demand curve assumes that most people want more people just like them, whereas I know a few natural jerks, who are hopeful that they will raise well-adjusted kids if they just try hard enough. Their hope was that time spent parenting was an "investment" and not just a "cost," and that by investing in the child, their own negative traits could be avoided. If the kids can't be improved through investment, then the ideal number would be lower in a world where the return on investment is low.

[Comment edited for crude language--Econlib Ed.]

Ned Baker writes:


I love kids, but don't you worry about the Earth's carrying capacity?

twv writes:

I like kids . . . in small doses. De gustibus non est disputandum, I'm not sure how you can argue me into a change of my preferences.

As an uncle and great-uncle, I free ride on my family members' desires to produce children. I guess according to neoclassical economics, I should be taxed to support the production of this public good.

But according to Coasian theory, my gift giving, advice, play and generally "being a good uncle" may serve as the voluntary way of paying for the public good of my siblings' productivity.

Coase is superior to PIgou. Is it selfishness that lies behind that judgment?

Steve S. writes:

Bryan, I've followed your posts for some time, particularly on this topic, and I have to admit that there's been a question nagging me about this hypothesis: what about the influence of parental values which generally are associated with success in life? e.g., honesty, thrift, work ethic, etc.

You (or the studies you've cited) may have already gone into this, or you may have already addressed this in your book - I admit that I don't have it (yet). However, I find it difficult to shake the intuitive notion that parents who model poor life choices and behaviors in their children will produce children more likely end up with children who make the same poor choices in life. I find it hard to believe that this is entirely a genetic phenomenon.

I understand (and better appreciate, from your posts) the idea that there is a strongly diminishing return on investment to how much a parent tries to shape their child. But don't habits and values of the parents inevitably have some effect upon their offspring, and hence leave at least some room for "nurture?"

todd writes:

You can count me as a convert. I was never opposed to the idea of kids, bit neither was I particularly attracted to it, but your posts on family topics are what first drew me to the site and got me thinking about starting my own family earlier than I otherwise would've. I'm now a proud parent 3 years sooner than I ever thought I would be and I can't wait to grow our little clan. So for what its worth, thanks.

Ray writes:

I use economics every day as a parent.

Specifically I focus on putting the right incentives in place. Great rewards for good behavior, and strict discipline for bad behavior.

And of course we know genes are far more important than the nurturing aspect, but of course it's a little too broad to just say one can sit back and relax. It's very rare that a kid will stumble on to good work habits, and then stumble his way into a good college, and stumble into the right career choices.

I told my son that his high powered brain was like a Ferrarri, but that it was useless, dangerous even if he didn't first learn how to drive.

Both of my parents are college educated professionals who took the sit back and relax parenting a little too much to heart. I was the Ferrarri careening down the street running in to trees and telephone poles. I got things straightened out eventually, but a little firmer of a hand earlier in life would have saved me some unneeded troubles.

Finch writes:

I'm a convert. Heck, baby number four is due shortly.

I certainly have questions, and don't think you've run down every loose end. But this is your best work, contending with the myth of the rational voter. It's really good stuff. I think it's no coincidence that it's also your work most grounded in empirical data.

jsalvatier writes:

I am probably a convert, but I think there's something you should address: why is it that it's so attractive to believe that parenting is important? One reason might be that in our ancestral environment (for which our minds are shaped), parenting really did have a large effect. In that environment, people who put in more effort raised better children because it was hard to put in so much effort. Now it's so easy to put in enough effort that everyone has run into diminishing returns.

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