Bryan Caplan  

Why Libertarians Should Not Fear Good Things

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From my reply on Cato Unbound to Matthew Connelly:
As far as I can tell, Connelly doesn't deny that fertility is good.  But he's afraid of the consequences of admitting that fertility is good. After all, won't governments take advantage of this admission to do great evil?

On Connelly's logic, though, it seems like libertarians should be afraid to say that anything besides liberty is good. Take prosperity. As soon as you say that "prosperity is good," plenty of statists will leap to advocate state action to increase prosperity. And to say that "pro-prosperity has a checkered past" is a vast understatement. In a twisted sense, you could call the entire Marxist movement "pro-prosperity"--their policies were a disaster, but the rationale for those policies was to make their people prosperous. We can tell analogous stories about health, literacy, technology, civility, and all the other fruits of civilization. Should libertarians be afraid to praise these as well?

I don't think so. It's just not reasonable to deny the goodness of prosperity, health, literacy, technology, civility--or fertility. And in any case, it's strategically foolish. People will question liberty long before they'll question prosperity. The wise response for libertarians is to accept the goodness of the ends, but argue that:

(a) liberty better promotes these ends;
(b) there is a trade-off between ends; and/or
(c) liberty is an important moral side constraint on the pursuit of these ends.

These replies obviously won't convince everyone. But they'll be at least as convincing to the typical natalist as they are to the typical proponent of economic growth.

Question: Is there any reason to think that the link between the belief that "fertility is good" and support for coercive pro-natalist policies is any stronger than the link between the belief that "prosperity is good" and support for coercive pro-growth policies?  It sure doesn't look like it to me.  In my experience, the vast majority of people who think prosperity is good favor statist means to boost growth.  In contrast, I doubt that even a simple majority of people who think fertility is good favor statist means to boost birth rates.


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COMMENTS (10 to date)
Lori writes:

Increase in GDP, all other things being equal, means increase in per-capita income. Not so sure about increase in population.

SJP writes:

I would say that the vast majority of people who think fertility is good favor statist means to boost birth rates. What else explains widespread support for children as a tax deduction, tax deductions for child care expenses, state-subsidized healthcare for children, and public education? If these things aren't a subsidy on fertility, I don't know what is!

Evan writes:
I would say that the vast majority of people who think fertility is good favor statist means to boost birth rates. What else explains widespread support for children as a tax deduction, tax deductions for child care expenses, state-subsidized healthcare for children, and public education? If these things aren't a subsidy on fertility, I don't know what is!
I agree. I think a lot of people would favor lesser statist means like tax breaks for children, or paying people to have more children.

Bryan is probably talking about something awful like compulsory family sizes or banning birth control. I think most people would be against that.

Geoffrey writes:

Go to Russia..

Plenty of posters in the Subway promoting fertility.

david (not henderson) writes:

Agreed. I do feel however that the decline in fertility rates is in part due to (some) people "going Galt".

Floccina writes:
What else explains widespread support for children as a tax deduction, tax deductions for child care expenses, state-subsidized healthcare for children, and public education? If these things aren't a subsidy on fertility, I don't know what is!

The people who see fertility as a huge curse, environmentalist Democrats, are some of the biggest supporters of the tax deduction for children, the tax deductions for child care expenses, state-subsidized healthcare for children, and public education.

Tom Ault writes:

I believe the following factors account for the majority of the decrease in Western fertility rates over the past few decades:

(1) Increased participation by women in the labor force and increased opportunities for them.

(2) The availability of effective, convenient contraception.

(3) An increase in the opportunity cost of raising children. Not only does it cost more in real terms to raise a child in accord with the expectations of one's peers (whether those expectations are reasonable is a separate question), but people have access to more activities that a large family would force them to reduce or forgo (e.g. vacations, leisure-time activities, etc.) than they have in the past.

(4) A decrease in the relative benefit of having children. In the past, children were both an insurance policy against becoming disabled in old age and a source of unpaid labor. Both of these are much less true today. This isn't to say that children aren't a net benefit to the median parent, but that the benefit is less than in the past, and therefore we can expect some people at the margins to reduce the number of children they have or forgo childbearing altogether.

I doubt if "going Galt" plays a major role.

Evan writes:
The people who see fertility as a huge curse, environmentalist Democrats, are some of the biggest supporters of the tax deduction for children, the tax deductions for child care expenses, state-subsidized healthcare for children, and public education.
That's an excellent point. I think the contradiction may be resolved by the fact that such measures are commonly regarded (with some justification) as "feminist" and "pro-woman" and most Democrats care at least as much about not looking sexist as they do about the environment.
Costard writes:

Fertility is not good, any more than birth control is evil. Libertarianism is not pantheistic. For a libertarian the only universal good is that people be free to pursue whatever goals they set for themselves, and whatever happiness they can carve from their lives. Everything else - wealth, health, technology - is at best, useful. There are those who voluntarily give up these things that you call good; so where does your chain of judgment lead you? You must either condemn them for choosing evil, or you must argue that men themselves are merely a means to an end.

To say that we should be free so that we might be fertile is to make puppets of us. To say that fertility is an ends in itself, when by definition it is merely the means of reproduction, is an absurdity. Do you see your own life in this manner? Or only the lives of others? If we are here merely to prepare a dinner that none of us will be allowed to eat, then what the hell is the point? Which God - or which human's pleasure - are we to be sacrificed to?

There is something fundamentally horrible about your argument. It is the same sort of gentle advocacy for the subjugation of man to ideal, and the same ill-defined logic that drives every great oppression.

Nick Bradley writes:

"I would say that the vast majority of people who think fertility is good favor statist means to boost birth rates. What else explains widespread support for children as a tax deduction, tax deductions for child care expenses, state-subsidized healthcare for children, and public education? If these things aren't a subsidy on fertility, I don't know what is! "

- child tax credits essentially cancel out the legalized murder of unborn children.

- In a world where murder was against the law and child tax credits didn't exist, the fertility rate may be the same as it is today.

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