Bryan Caplan  

From Mobility to Misanthropy

The Modern Bastiat... Mobility and Marriage...
Scott Winship's written a good piece on ingenerational income mobility... with one highly objectionable passage.  Ponder the underlying philosophy here:
[R]educing the number of unplanned pregnancies would unquestionably reduce the number of children experiencing divorce and other disadvantages. Since it is more common among parents in the bottom than elsewhere, reducing unplanned pregnancy would lower the number of children starting out at the bottom and thereby reduce the number of children stuck there down the road.
If we take Winship literally, his "solution" to the problem of persistent poverty is for people likely to be persistently poor to never be born in the first place.  This is an awfully misanthropic position.  A lifetime of relative poverty is a lot better than no lifetime at all.* 

A charitable reading is that Winship, like me, thinks that would-be single moms should delay child-bearing until they - and hopefully the fathers of their children - are ready to support a family.  But I fear that Winship meant what he said.  When you dwell on an aggregate outcome like "social mobility" long enough, you tend to lose perspective.  Improving the outcome becomes an end in itself.  It's easy to forget that what really counts isn't "outcomes," but individuals.

HT: Tyler

* To quote Tsunami Bomb's "5150":
Be grateful that you have a brain for thinking
And legs to take you places.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (14 to date)
John David Galt writes:

I don't see that this is objectionable at all. It would be objectionable if the law swept in and took children *away* from poor parents without evidence of neglect or maltreatment; and it might arguably be objectionable if the law banned anyone from having children that s/he can't support.

But it makes good sense, and is not bad in any way, if the state (a) *advises* people not to have children they can't support; (b) stops subsidizing the practice with our money (at least for kids who haven't been conceived when the law is passed); and even (c) starts or continues handing out free birth control, since people simply aren't going to abstain from sex (as proven by the comparative teen birth rates of states with abstinence-only sex education programs, such as Texas, vs. those with more realistic programs).

It would also be nice if the law made clear that sex does NOT constitute agreement by the man to support a child, at least if the mother has other choices available to her after conception. If she wants such an agreement, there is a well tested mechanism for getting it (marriage), and it's her job to insist on it beforehand -- not the courts' place to impose the requirement retroactively.

Tom West writes:

It would also be nice if the law made clear that sex does NOT constitute agreement by the man to support a child

Um, why not?

By my thinking, one side or the other is going to get the short end of the responsibility stick and given that as a society we have an interest in having children supported as much as possible, I'd argue it makes far more sense to pin it on the father.

If he doesn't want a child, it's *his* responsibility to avoid a situation where he could have one. Certainly it's the utilitarian answer.

David O writes:

If the utility of potential human beings is part of our social welfare function, does the utility of various animal and plant organisms displaced by humans also matter similarly?

FredR writes:

I've never met anyone suffering from "not existing".

FredR writes:

Reminds me of this passage from Augie March:

To be completely consistent in that kind of economy of souls you would have to have great uneasiness and remorse that wombs should ever be unoccupied; likewise, that hospitals, prisons, and madhouses and graves should ever be full. That wide a spread is too much.

Finch writes:

Delaying child-bearing is having fewer children, but with a nicer name for it.

I don't see that there's much difference in your respective positions.

Finch writes:

Also, the quality of man a woman can attract falls fast from her early 20s and plummets when she hits 30, so delaying child-bearing probably means accepting lower-quality children, if she can find someone to marry her at all.

So that's the trade-off for the potential single mom: More, higher quality children with early childbirth versus better economic circumstances for child-rearing if she can still manage finding a husband when older. Waiting around doesn't seem like a good option.

When I type it out I'm sort of surprised Bryan isn't arguing in favor of single motherhood.

mark writes:

I agree with you but the problem is that the left is only concerned about outcomes.

It is always important though to remember that a major factor in the increase in income inequality has been the enormous increase in the number of lower income households created by welfare state policies and changes in cultural norms, for which, as far as I can tell, no study of census or tax data seems to correct for.

KenF writes:

The only way to satisfy all of Bryan's requirements simultaneously (women marrying only responsible men, having lots of children with them, and no one ever divorcing) is through polygamy.

Clay writes:

"single moms should delay child-bearing until they - and hopefully the fathers of their children - are ready to support a family"

So, people who are irresponsible should be responsible. People who are dysfunctional should be functional.

At the ultimate Captain Obvious level I agree: most bad things should switch to being good things.

At a more practical level that is absurd. Most irresponsible and dysfunctional individuals aren't going to change their ways just because you or I think it's a good idea.

Scott Winship writes:

I'm misanthropic because I want to help people who didn't want to become parents avoid becoming so? That seems pro-natalist in the extreme. Do you really want to put the potential happiness of not-yet-created babies ahead of the happiness of actual might-become parents? If so, I hope you're doing all you can to respond to the silent screams of all those gametes contained within you and your wife!

Paul Evans writes:

That's the funny thing about economics - it is so intricately tied to humanity yet is still limited to only one part of it. Thank you, Bryan, for seeing that a person has far more value than their economic condition. Your closing sentence sums it up wonderfully.

Joe Cushing writes:

The passage said unwanted children. Clearly he is talking about people who aren't ready for children yet. I think your second interpretation is correct. Often having children before a person is ready means they end up in living poverty because they don't have the time and resources to pursue upward mobility. This means the child grows up poor.

Tom B writes:

@Tom West,

The logic is that when you have a chain of events that leads to a bad outcome, the responsibility falls most heavily on those who had more ability to prevent it, and most particularly on those who were the last who could have prevented it, because they had the most information about where the chain of events was leading.

Every traffic accident required someone to manufacture the car; every passenger who dies had to get into the car; but the responsibility is primarily the driver's, because the driver was the one who had the most options, and the last opportunities to change the outcome when the risk of impact was becoming apparent.

Women have access to far more, far better, and far more effective forms of birth control. After sex, they have the morning after pill. After conception, they have access to abortion and adoption. The logic is that by choosing to use none of the above, the burden of responsibility should fall primarily - perhaps not totally, but primarily - on them.

With power, with choice, comes responsibility.

And, of course, there is a way to share that responsibility: marriage, in which a man induces the woman to have his babies by offering to share the responsibility .

As for the children, we don't normally bail children out of other choices made by their parents, except in extreme circumstances. There is no reason to argue that this is a special situation, in that regard. A woman enslaving her college classmate is not an extreme circumstance; she can, and should, carry most of the responsibility - unless her boyfriend marries her, to share it.

You may not like it, and it's certainly open to debate, but it's not without rationale, nor is it unreasonable.

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