Bryan Caplan  

Breed Like Beckhams

The Case for Trial and Error... My Debate with Ian Fletcher...
Journalists usually love a good debate.  If there's one protectionist economist for every hundred free-traders, they'll still make an effort to "ask both sides."  A glaring exception: Today's piece in The Guardian on the Beckham's fertility.  The headline:

Beckhams a "bad example" for families: With a fourth child, the couple have joined the ranks of the irresponsible, population experts say.
Ahem.  I, too, am a "population expert," and I couldn't disagree more.  The Beckhams are a great example for families.  The world is sadly underpopulated.  And considering the unusually high probability that the Beckham kids grow up to be star athletes, singers, and models, we should thank them on behalf of their millions - or possibly billions - of future fans.

What about the environmental effects?  As I explain in Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, restraining your fertility to help the environment is using a sword to kill a mosquito:
If the birth of a human being has a lot of positives and a few negatives, the constructive response isn't to denounce "people." The constructive response is to selectively target the negatives. Name specific problems, and figure out the cheapest way to handle them.

Selective targeting requires more imagination than mass sterilization, but it's worth the extra mental effort. If you want to do something about man-made global warming, you don't have to reduce the number of human beings on the planet. You just have to get humanity to reduce its carbon emissions. A carbon tax is one simple way to get from here to there. To discourage emissions, make emissions more expensive, then sit back and watch lifestyles and technology adapt. The same principle applies to virtually any population problem you can imagine.
A final thought: The Guardian's article's experts repeatedly distance themselves from the evils of China's One-Child Policy.  Question for Tracy McVeigh, the article's author: If even population pessimists admit that population pessimism is dangerous in the wrong hands, don't you think it would have been a good idea to talk to a bona fide critic?

HT: Tyler

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (20 to date)
Yancey Ward writes:

The Guardian should follow up in about 13 years and interview the Beckham children and publicly declare which of them should have never been born.

MikeP writes:

If there's one protectionist economist for every hundred free-traders, they'll still make an effort to "ask both sides."

I don't know about this example. I have seen far too many articles where they didn't bother to ask a free-trader.

Clay writes:

What is outrageous is that they target a fairly responsible couple having four children in a married two biological parent family.

I'm more upset when I see seriously dysfunctional people having 8+ children.

Also, by applying a social pressure to reduce fertility, you dilute the group that obeys that social pressure, and increase the percentage of the population that doesn't comply. That seems like a terrible move.

Dog of Justice writes:

Also, by applying a social pressure to reduce fertility, you dilute the group that obeys that social pressure, and increase the percentage of the population that doesn't comply. That seems like a terrible move.

Yes, I think this is the dominant consideration.

Gil writes:

In the spirit of "Idiocracy" we need more babies from productive people and less babies from indolents and idiots. Stupid people are abundant, highly productive people are the real resource and always seem to be rare.

PrometheeFeu writes:

It seems to me most people have to be producing more than they consume otherwise civilization would be moving backwards instead of forward. So obviously, more people will result in better outcomes.

Becky Hargrove writes:

The real issue, as to why people are presently seen as detractors from wealth, is that they have no true connection to economic wealth save the random addition of humans in monetary production efficiencies. While this measurement and definition of wealth is a very good one, further definitions of wealth are needed that bring the average individual back into the mix, warts and all. Skills based economies can measure units of time which can add to the valuation of all people.

Tracy W writes:

Becky Hargrove, I don't understand what you mean.
How do you measure units of time that can add to the valuation of all people? And why would you want to add to the valuation of all people, if what you are trying to do is to measure wealth?
If you just want bigger numbers per se, you can measure in say, Hong Kong dollars rather than US dollars, and thus every measure of wealth will be about 8 times higher.

(Note, I think that people are wonderful and important and really valuable in and of themselves, independently of any additions they make to economic wealth, and I adore small babies and puppies and apple pie and all those other matters, I just think humans are way too complex to be captured by any single number. So if we change the definition of economic wealth to try to incorporate these other wonderful things then I fear we will wind up losing useful information, rather than gaining.)

Austin B writes:

You say that the world is underpopulated. Would you then agree to subsidies for having children (above and beyond those already in place)? Or would you encourage the removal of policies that discourage childbearing? Or nothing at all?

Dan Weber writes:

I bet the average member of the Duggar family has a smaller carbon footprint than anyone reading this blog.

Becky Hargrove writes:

Tracy W,
We need to add measurements of valuation for people in part because most anyone w/o a job doesn't feel very valuable right now. The closest approximation to what I suggest is the present use of time banks; however the crucial difference is that the use of an hour's time between two individuals needs to happen differently from money,in other words ongoing life education could contribute to what two people decide to share. One important factor of skills based economies is that this is the only kind of economy that really should work outside the boundaries of money, for physical resources and manufacturing will always be measured best with money, contrary to what resource based economies would suggest, i.e. giving up on the use of money altogether.

Tracy W writes:

I think that anyone w/o a job who wants one won't be very impressed if you tell them that you've put some government series up by US$10,000 a year to reflect their valuable contributions.

I agree that time banks of course theoretically should be included in measures of wealth, along with things like the black market, although data collection is a practical problem. (Incidentally, I don't know about the USA, but in NZ people using alternative currencies like time banks or "green dollars" are legally liable to pay taxes on income earned that way).

I don't know what you mean by "ongoing life education could contribute to what two people decide to share". Do you mean that "two people decide to share ongoing life education"? Surely the contribution of this to wealth should depend on how valuable this "ongoing life education" actually is to the recipient?

As for skills-based economies - what economy isn't skills-based? Manufacturing, farming, mining, hunting and gathering, fishing, all require some highly skilled people.

Markus writes:

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Steve C writes:

Who is worth more, the doctor in a developing nation working every hour he can to save lives and help others for next to nothing, the African farmer who spends his entire life trying to grow enough crops to keep his family from starving, praying that this year the crop does not fail, or the multimillion heiress that has never worked a day in their life and had everything handed to them on a platter?
Measuring a persons value (or even success) as a dollar amount is flawed.
The only way a persons worth can be judged is by those around them and even then their perceived worth will vary from one person to the next.
To you, your family is worth more than any amount of money, but to a total stranger they may be considered worthless

Tracy W writes:

Steve C - I don't know whether you think that you are disagreeing with me or Becky. In these circumstances I will say that I agree with you entirely that measuring a person's value, or even success, as a dollar amount (or any numerical unit) is flawed. My basis for this, as I said in my first comment is that "I just think humans are way too complex to be captured by any single number."

However, I do think that it's sometimes useful for some purposes to measure aspects of a person's life numerically, such as wealth, or income, or internal body temperature. I just think it's important to keep in mind that all we can do is measure aspects, so it's rather pointless to adjust those series to try to reflect quite other things, valuable as those other things may be. (I'm open however to the possibility of a good counter-argument, in any specific case, or in the general one).

Elo writes:

The fact that we are overpopulated has nothing to do with Carbon footprint, and if you reduced our footprint to zero, we would still be in the dire situation we face today. Our population is a major driving force behind deforestation, carbon emissions, destruction of natural habitats, extinction of species, etc.

You can look at these individually and say, "The population is not a problem; we can solve each of these with technology or conservancy," but the reality is that those are coping mechanisms to mitigate the underlying issue in the short-term, and that issue is, in fact, overpopulation.

Stop a moment and think how many people we need on Earth? Until the 19th century, we had less than a billion. Is the world 7 times better now that we are eclipsing 7 billion? There is well documented science that analyses that carrying capacity of the planet and sets sustainability targets subject to requirements such as, "Not destroying the currently existing biodiversity on the planet."

It is disgusting to hear a person espouse unregulated population growth by suggesting we can just modify all our other behaviors (like carbon production) to fix the problem. Too many people is the problem, and there's no reason for it. There are very good reasons to fix it.

chf writes:

+1 for Elo. Overpopulation is indeed the root problem. The author of this article is seriously delusional.

Mike writes:

Overpopulation is without a doubt the #1 problem facing humanity.
Unfortunately population growth has been used as a recruitment tool by most of the worlds major religions, and human nature being what it is, population growth will continue unabated until the Earth reaches it's maximum peak capacity, followed by a collapse to a more sustainable level.
Of course people in 3rd world countries are already starving to death due to the ballooning energy demands of the developed and developing world populations.
We'll buy their nations crops for bio-fuel and let them eat dirt if it means our gas will be 5c/gallon cheaper.

Peter W writes:

A quick survey of history reveals that radical improvement in standard of living, human rights and technology are consistently associated with and almost certainly caused by across the board reductions in population (if it happens to just one country all that happens is the neighbouring countries invade and the population doesn't drop much).

The Renaissance in particular occurred immediately after the Black Death culled Europe. The human rights part is simply an effect supply and demand; serfs are a lot more valuable when you can't get enough tenant farmers, and suddenly they have a negotiating position instead of just being a sort of talking livestock.

The technology aspect is a knock-on effect: when there is a genuine and prolonged labour shortage is economic to invent and make expensive machines - and once you do, your competitors are forced to follow suit. This is also affected by the relative resource abundance produced by the reduction in demand for raw materials.

This is all so obvious that I worked it out for myself as a child. It's hard to be sure whether Caplan is insane, stupid or criminally irresponsible.

Gil writes:

I agree somewhat with you Peter W - people quantity isn't necessarily better, people quality is. People who turn to science instead of superstition make for better standards of living. India isn't the richest country in the world by a long shot.

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