David R. Henderson  

Gillespie and de Rugy on Generational Warfare

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Nominal Rigidity of What?... Are You Asking or Telling?...

I get some of my best uninterrupted reading done on long flights and on a recent flight I read the latest issue of Reason magazine (August/September) cover to cover. It's excellent. I found virtually every article valuable. The highlight was "Generational Warfare: Old-Age Entitlements vs. the Safety Net," by Nick Gillespie and Veronique de Rugy.

One high point is the quotes from former President Lyndon Johnson, current Vice-President Joe Biden, and then-First Lady Hillary Clinton about how bad it is to support one's parents.

LBJ:

"No longer will young families see their own incomes, and their own hopes, eaten away simply because they are carrying out their deep moral obligations to their parents, and to their uncles, and their aunts."

In other words, unless there's an Easter Bunny, LBJ is saying, we'll free you of your moral obligations by obligating strangers.

Biden:

"It matters to your children if you have a decent retirement. Every one of you--it matters to your children. Because if you don't, your children feel obliged to step up."

And that would be terrible: Much better to force other children to step up.

Clinton:

Were it not for Social Security, many of us would be supporting our parents," intoned the author of It Takes a Village. "We would take them in; we would do what we needed to do to try to provide the resources they required to stay above poverty, to live as comfortably as we could afford. And that would cause a lot of difficult decisions in our lives, wouldn't it?"

And of course we can't have difficult decisions about supporting our parents: it's much better to make strangers' lives more difficult.

Biden again:

In his March speech in Florida, Vice President Biden told stories of building a new house that included living quarters for his parents, who refused to move in. Biden explained that his parents and other seniors value their "independence" and "dignity" more than anything. His mother, he said, was representative of seniors in that she wanted to be able to pay her own way at check ups with her doctor. "She didn't want to ask her kids."

In Biden's strange moral universe, his mom should be admired for wanting to get medical care on the dime of strangers rather than from her own family.


Another high point is the data. A few nuggets:
In 1984, reports the Pew Research Center, households headed by people 65 or older had 10 times the wealth of households headed by people under 35. By 2005--before the Great Recession hit--the gap had increased to 22 times, and by 2009 it was 47 times. In 2010, 11 percent of households headed by people 65 or older were officially under the poverty line. For households headed by someone under 35 years of age, the figure was 22 percent. The last time younger households were less likely to be poor than elderly ones was back in 1983. Conditions for older Americans have improved remarkably since Social Security and Medicare were established.

One thing that has always bothered me, that started in the 1970s and early 1980s, was the language used to talk about Medicare and Social Security. In Washington, these programs are referred to as "mandatory." They are no such thing, as Gillespie and de Rugy point out. Congress can change them at any time. Congress might be afraid of the heat they would take by changing the program but that doesn't make it mandatory any more than farm subsidies, which Congress has been hesitant to change, are a mandatory program.

Not to be missed is a table, taken from Urban Institute economists C. Eugene Steuerle and Stephanie Rennane, that shows the Social Security and expected Medicare benefits and taxes for various age cohorts. (Gillespie and de Rugy don't mention, but Steuerle and Rennane do, that the lifetime benefits and taxes are present values that are computed using a real interest rate of 2%.) Bottom line: the older you are, the better you do in present value terms. Social Security and Medicare are a huge wealth transfer from the young to the old. The people who really will pay through the nose are not in the Steuerle/Rennane table. They're Generation X and younger.

One criticism: They write that Ronald Reagan, as president in the 1980s:

tweaked the system by increasing payroll taxes and slightly increasing the age at which benefits would kick in for people currently paying into the system. He left the benefits of current retirees untouched.

Actually, Reagan didn't increase the age at all. Had the Social Security compromise gone forward as the Greenspan Commission proposed, there would have no increase in the age at which people receive Social Security and the system would today be in even worse shape. The person in Congress who would not stand for this was Democratic Representative Jake Pickle from Texas.

UPDATE:
Patrick R. Sullivan, in a comment below, misses the point: The young are not paying to take care of their parents. They're paying to take care of other people's parents--and, by the way, of people who have never been parents.


Comments and Sharing





COMMENTS (38 to date)
Dent writes:

Pattern: Children haven an obligation X to their parents, because otherwise strangers would have to fulfill X to those parents.

This is broken on two levels:

1) Children do NOT have an obligation to their parents (or uncles or aunts). They did not consent to being the children of those parents - it was forced onto them unilaterally. Instead, the parents owe their children for this non-consensual act of reproduction. Let us remember that it is involuntary, and that it causes harm as well as benefit. How am I obligated to someone who created an involuntary dependency on me unilaterally? A child is no more obligated to help their parents than any other person on the planet.

2) The argument ignores the free-rider problem, as well as incentives. Taking care of one's parents can be so expensive that working harder just doesn't make selfish sense anymore - you'd simply be expected to share all your profits with your parents to fulfill your mythical "moral obligation". And in a welfare state with functioning taxation, the burden of the worst-case scenarios is distributed not only on many, but also adjusted to their means.

Incidentally, I fundamentally disagree with the libertarian notion that individual freedom and bodily autonomy extend to arbitrary unbounded property rights. If a person is rich enough so that they can live a nice above-subsistence life without ever working or being harassed again, how is it an infringement on their freedoms if their additional income is taxed, no matter how much? It may reduce incentives, but there is no magic right to accumulate arbitrary physical resources in the hands of a few. Libertarians would do better to focus on bodily autonomy, and on the right to say no of those who still have to work for a living - and to finally recognize that life itself starts with aggression: The non-consensual act of being dragged screaming into a physical world we know is filled with violence.

kurt writes:

@Dent
When did these children consent to the passing of social security?

Dent writes:

@kurt: They didn't, unless you count democratic votes. This doesn't invalidate my point 1).

You may argue it invalidates any obligation to solidarity in general. But then of course you can also ask: Why show solidarity with the wealthy as their wealth is taken from them? When did any children ever consent to the enforcement of property rights for strangers? It is enforced by ordinary physical violence by the police, after all. Which is also non-consensual. So there would not be any obligation to accept or support such enforcement, either. Which makes the whole moral criticism of coercive redistribution obsolete, and we're back at "might makes right".

That's my point about reproduction: There may be consensual contracts within the system, but being a part of the system, as well as the nature of the system, is a non-consensual outcome determined by historical happenstance and maintained by physical violence.

So once we accept that these deontological injuctions are effectively self-defeating, and might really does make right, the question becomes, to what end what do we want to use our might? Maybe a somewhat peaceful functioning society with minimal misery and suffering and the degree of freedom that facilitates the good life.

Tracy W writes:

I think this about my in-laws when I can't persuade them to take any money from us, but they'll take government benefits happily enough.

On the other hand, where a couple had multiple children, government benefits does save family arguments about money, and does operate as a kind of insurance against, say, your fellow siblings' contributions suddenly dropping because of their own financial problems (at the price of course of losing the financial upside if your parents drop dead). So I can see where the politicians are coming from.

Greg G writes:

Certainly there are problems with entitlements that need to be fixed. That does not mean, as this post suggests, that the main motivation for supporting entitlements is to facilitate people evading obligations to their families. This line of argument is both offensive to many people and totally ineffective at bringing us closer to real reform.

I have been a Hospice volunteer for 16 years. I have seen many people (mostly women) who have exhausted all of their savings in caring for a series of dying relatives. Many either don't have any surviving kids or have kids who also live in poverty and can barely support themselves. It is fine to say that charities will help and our Hospice does provide services whether or not they can pay.

These people are still left totally dependent on Social Security and Medicare in the end. Your highly misleading statistics about the average wealth of seniors are not relevant to the high percentage of seniors who rely on these programs to stay out of poverty.

Reasonable people can and do disagree about the best way to reform entitlements. David, you need to realize the fairness issue cuts both ways.

RPLong writes:

This is a great post.

Some of the comments above me reflect a sentiment that has always baffled me, and that clearly also baffles Henderson: Why is taking responsibility for your own family bad, and yet placing that responsibility on others is good?

Dent's comments are by far the most revealing. As long as a person can live what Dent considers to be an okay life, what does it matter if Dent takes that person's money and spends it how Dent deems appropriate?

When did people become so cavalier about other people's money? Ideas like this really bother me. Why do people think it's okay to call the shots in other people's lives?

Randy writes:

My advice to younger generations, if they choose to listen, is to stop paying - and I assume that at some point they will stop paying. But it also seems to me that the younger generations are leaning left, so I have no problem with collecting, because it serves them right.

Jason Clemens writes:

Thanks David. I missed the Urban INstitute study and it's something we're (Fraser) starting to think about... Hope you're well.

R. Richard Schweitzer writes:

“Put aside all the sophisticated ways of conceptualizing governmental functions and think of it in this simplistic way: Almost anything that government does in social policy can be characterized as taking some of the trouble out of things. Sometimes, taking the trouble out of things is a good idea. Having an effective police force takes some of the trouble out of walking home safely at night, and I’m glad it does.

“The problem is this: Every time the government takes some of the trouble out of performing the functions of family, community, vocation, and faith, it also strips those institutions of some of their vitality—it drains some of the life from them. It’s inevitable. Families are not vital because the day-to-day tasks of raising children and being a good spouse are so much fun, but because the family has responsibility for doing important things that won’t get done unless the family does them. Communities are not vital because it’s so much fun to respond to our neighbors’ needs, but because the community has the responsibility for doing important things that won’t get done unless the community does them. Once that imperative has been met—family and community really do have the action—then an elaborate web of social norms, expectations, rewards, and punishments evolves over time that supports families and communities in performing their functions. When the government says it will take some of the trouble out of doing the things that families and communities evolved to do, it inevitably takes some of the action away from families and communities, and the web frays, and eventually disintegrates.”

Charles Murray; Irving Kristol Lecture at AEI 2009

Now that the worker/retiree ratio is about 3:1 and dropping, the children ARE paying to take care of their parents. Through the middleman of SS.

Floccina writes:

on the right to say no of those who still have to work for a living

Some people live on about $1.00 day. SO how much to you consider enough that one does not nee to work. Please be more concrete.

Children pay money to SS which is given to their parents so why is it that the politicians get credit.

Yancey Ward writes:

Greg G wrote:

These people are still left totally dependent on Social Security and Medicare in the end. Your highly misleading statistics about the average wealth of seniors are not relevant to the high percentage of seniors who rely on these programs to stay out of poverty.

Not misleading, Greg. He is highlighting the difference between an entitlement and a safety net.

Dent writes:

@Floccina

I think those people are being harmed by being forced to live at subsistence-level poverty, or even below subsistence at times (e.g. malnourishment). This is especially true for the children, who never opted in and who cannot opt out (suicide).

Yesterday, I saw a documentary about hunger in India, where a slum dweller fathered seven (!) children and then complained that he couldn't feed them. Neither the interviewer nor the man himself even raised the question whether this reproductive behavior is acceptable. I consider it child abuse. Some states of existence are worse than not being born. Libertarians usually do not address this as they see reproduction as a right not to be meddled with.

With increasing automation of production and even the service sector, we will see the low skills of billions of people becoming more and more worthless. As libertarians would have us accept unlimited migration of unskilled workers, most humans will then live on subsistence, and the malthusian nightmare will be exported to every nation that allows it. Work will not become voluntary, but competing with the machines will be so hard that wages will drop ever further. We will all live in a giant stinking slum world, with the McMansions of the ultrarich visible from outer space.

Of course, I'm exaggerating, but the trends are all there, and libertarianism doesn't seem have an answer.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

Was there something offensive in the Charles Murray quotation I posted?

Yancey Ward writes:

Perhaps you quoted too much? Or didn't clearly identify what was a quote and what was not? Just guessing.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

One should note the use of the word "obligation" in the first two quotations. Note the implication of obligations or responsibilities in the others.

If you ask many parents (particularly the well-off) today: "Do you instill in your children an understanding of their rights?" You will get a quick assertive, affirmative response.

If you then ask of the same: "Do you instill in them an understanding of their obligations?" You will not get the same response.

This is indicative of the effects of the steady "escape" from responsibilities as a mistaken form of "freedom," which has eroded the social structure of our country. This effect was best summarized:

“Put aside all the sophisticated ways of conceptualizing governmental functions and think of it in this simplistic way: Almost anything that government does in social policy can be characterized as taking some of the trouble out of things. Sometimes, taking the trouble out of things is a good idea. Having an effective police force takes some of the trouble out of walking home safely at night, and I’m glad it does.

“The problem is this: Every time the government takes some of the trouble out of performing the functions of family, community, vocation, and faith, it also strips those institutions of some of their vitality—it drains some of the life from them. It’s inevitable. Families are not vital because the day-to-day tasks of raising children and being a good spouse are so much fun, but because the family has responsibility for doing important things that won’t get done unless the family does them. Communities are not vital because it’s so much fun to respond to our neighbors’ needs, but because the community has the responsibility for doing important things that won’t get done unless the community does them. Once that imperative has been met—family and community really do have the action—then an elaborate web of social norms, expectations, rewards, and punishments evolves over time that supports families and communities in performing their functions. When the government says it will take some of the trouble out of doing the things that families and communities evolved to do, it inevitably takes some of the action away from families and communities, and the web frays, and eventually disintegrates.”

Charles Murray; Irving Kristol Lecture at AEI 2009

dullgeek writes:

Dent,

It seems to me that you operate on two assumptions:

1) That there is some way to allocate resources that is more efficient than the libertarian ideals of property and free trade. Can you name a society in which top-down allocation of resources has resulted in the poorest members of that society being better off than the poorest members of more economically free societies? I think the poorest of the poor tend to show up in societies that hold this assumption.

2) That people's lots in life are static and that they do not respond to incentives. Increased automation does not doom people to a malthusean distopyia. Rather it frees up their minds to find some other new way of cooperating with others. Rather than keeping people stuck in menial mind draining labor, they now have an incentive to find something else to do. I think people respond to incentives of this sort.

I find your conclusions difficult to accept because I'm struggling with what I think you're assuming.

Dent writes:

@dullgeek:

I don't think that a complete top-down allocation of resources is ever efficient or desirable in human societies. But I do reject the idea that any and all redistribution is immoral or socially inefficient. It's not clear to me that economic freedom has to be all-or-nothing - for instance, I don't think that high tax rates for very rich individuals are incompatible with functional markets and capitalism. (Neither do I think they are somehow an infringement on personal autonomy, considering the rich are virtually the only class of people on this planet who will be physically left alone most of the time if they so choose, maybe except for retirees.)

Furthermore, I don't think people's lots are static or that they don't respond to incentives. I just think that people can be stuck with disadvantages they didn't choose and they can't opt out of. For instance, I do think we will soon see a time in which low skilled labor is no longer in high demand, and there will be countless people who don't have the natural talent, even assuming education, to do much else economically. I also think that automation will make a very small part of the population incredibly rich, i.e. capable of binding significant amounts of physical resources as they see fit, and that we can't necessarily count on their altruistic benevolence alone.

My final beef with libertarianism is that it defends "rights" that don't just affect the individual but have strong externalities on others, e.g. reproduction, which affects children, or animal ownership, which currently tortures billions of sentient individuals.

Other than these points, I think libertarians are way ahead of paternalists in moral intuitions and social consequences of their philosophy, and I highly sympathize with that.

Greg G writes:

Yancey

I am sure that you are correct that David wanted to emphasis the difference between an entitlement and a safety net. That is a fair point but let's remember Social Security and Medicare were designed to be a combination of the two, not just one or the other.

To be fair, David's comparison of poverty rates between age groups was right on point and supported his argument well.

On the other hand, it's hard to justify preferring a comparison of average net worth to a comparison of median net worth which would have been much more relevant.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

For all those speaking of "entitlements":

Every "entitlement" for some requires an obligation on the part of others to fulfill.

A society may find its character defined by the way in which obligations come to be allocated, and the motives and manner of their performance.

Ken writes:

Dent,

but there is no magic right to accumulate arbitrary physical resources in the hands of a few.

First, can you explain how this could possibly happen in a free market society? Second, can you give examples of this being worse in free market societies than in command and control societies?

Wealth ownership, like wealth creation, is NOT zero sum. That people are wealthy in free market societies is most certainly not the cause of others to be less wealthy.

[Property rights are] enforced by ordinary physical violence by the police, after all.

This is categorically false. Do you not steal from your neighbor solely because of the threat of arrest? Of course not. If the only constraint on theft and the total disregard for property rights was the threat of force, crime rates all over the world would be much much higher than they are now.

Libertarians usually do not address this as they see reproduction as a right not to be meddled with.

Libertarians have addressed this exhaustively. Forced sterilization and population control (i.e., killing people) are disgusting practices that have done far more damage than whatever good anyone ever thought they would do.

As libertarians would have us accept unlimited migration of unskilled workers, most humans will then live on subsistence, and the malthusian nightmare will be exported to every nation that allows it.

This is logically and empirically false.

My final beef with libertarianism is that it defends "rights" that don't just affect the individual

Rights have never been about "just affecting the individual". Rights, by their very nature, are about obligations imposed on others. The right to property obliges others to keep their hands off. The right to life obliges others to not kill you because they find your existence inconvenient.

MingoV writes:

Many of the commenters above have accepted a false duality: the elderly either receive Social Security and Medicare benefits or become a burden on their families. A third alternative: working persons invest enough to cover their living costs and medical costs once they retire. This will be easier if the government no longer deducts FICA and Medicare from their paychecks. A fourth alternative: people defer retirement until they are in their seventies or older. Increasing longevity and better medical treatments make this feasible for many.

Dent writes:

@Ken:

Some of your points may have merit, but it seems you have treated some of mine quite uncharitably, e.g. I never gave reason to assume I condone forced sterilization or killings. I do, however, question the ethics of forcing children to live in a slum, or any similarly adverse circumstance, I do think parents should be held accountable for the consequences of their reproductive choices, and I do feel libertarians fail to address these issues adequately.

This has become quite an extensive debate; I'll quit at this point.

Daublin writes:

David, it's very interesting to read the difficult decision argument being phrased directly. Some of those complaints you quote are not even that it would be a real financial hardship to the child, but that the child would have a difficult decision to make.

In my mind, the difficult decisions make one of the better arguments for medical insurance. Not a great argument, mind you, but one of the better ones. I just think, as some of the commenters are suggesting, it makes us have *less* of a community, if these vital decisions are being taken out of the flesh and blood people involved and moved over to a bureaucracy.

Maniel writes:

@MingoV:

I had always assumed that when I turned 65, I would be instantly stupid, sick, and broke. If I had known I would live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.

Lars P writes:

This rhetoric is fairly silly, but these programs does solve an important problem, in that they spread risk.

The burdens of individuals taking care of their parents strike randomly and very unevenly. Some people have plenty of children to share the burden. Some have none.

Some parent die quickly and cheaply, some take for ever and cost a fortune.

These programs replaces this enormous financial uncertainty with a simple and predictable tax. That does have a lot of value.

You could imagine some kind of insurance scheme to handle these things, but I'm not aware of any real world examples.

Jardinero1 writes:

My view of it is that you work until you die unless you are rich enough not to. I have never heard a logical reason why a cohort of able people should not work and are entitled to idleness at someone else's expense.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

The "Values" of "these programs" which diffuse the nature and "burdens" of particular responsibilities and obligations through the use of the mechanisms of governments are far outweighed by the destructive effects on both the governmental mechanisms (fiscal impacts, constitutional issues) and the social fabric of direct human relations.

Jim Greenleaf writes:

According to the supporting data referenced, people retiring in 2010 will receive less in social security than they paid in social security taxes by about 10% - i.e. social security is self supporting. All of the "unpaid for/unearned" benefits are medicare benefits which is further asterisked as expected rather than realized and the link goes on to indicated that longer life is expected to result in increased medicare benefits

Comparing a program that is self supporting to one that is not and claiming that both are unjust seems a bit much, maybe you should separate your criticism of each program instead of trying to tie both together

Ken writes:

Some of your points may have merit, but it seems you have treated some of mine quite uncharitably

Maybe.

e.g. I never gave reason to assume I condone forced sterilization or killings.

That's not what your comment read like.

I do, however, question the ethics of forcing children to live in a slum, or any similarly adverse circumstance, I do think parents should be held accountable for the consequences of their reproductive choices, and I do feel libertarians fail to address these issues adequately.

No one is FORCED to live in a slum. The resort to "it's for the children" is the oldest bait and switch in the book for back dooring government intervention of all kinds. "For the children" leads the charge for degrading liberty to the point of meaninglessness because it's easy to make the claim that you want to help the children. No one DOESN'T want that. "For the children" advocates almost always ride the moral wave of intentions, leaving results completely ignored.

Dent writes:
That's not what your comment read like.
Then you misread. However, I do condone the use of coercion for those who breed irresponsibly. For instance, I respect the government of China's right to fine citizens who choose to have more children than the law allows. There are different types and degrees of coercion, and you directly jumped to the physically most intrusive ones. I favor market-based approaches that allow reproduction for those who can afford to feed their children, and punish those who can't (and yet create children), just like any other child abuser.
No one is FORCED to live in a slum.
Of course they are. Are you seriously telling me children born into a slum are NOT forced to live there? What is a three-year-old to do, get a job in a rich household? Commit rational suicide? If you have to argue from fairy land premises that are clearly empirically false, it's a warning sign of ideological blindness. Your assertion that no one is forced to live in a slum, even though hundreds of millions clearly are, is such a sign.
The resort to "it's for the children" is the oldest bait and switch in the book for back dooring government intervention of all kinds.
You have it backwards. You think I start with a secret malicious wish to create Big Government, and then use the children as a tool to get there. The truth is, I really do care about the children, as well as non-human animals. Why? Because they NEVER CONSENTED and they CANNOT OPT OUT. This is the one textbook reason to justify coercive intervention in otherwise free private conduct. You would not define a "basic right" to abduct or adopt children, to hit children or to rape children. Neither should you define a "basic right" to create children under circumstances that are predictably detrimental. The precise definition of that point is a matter of degree, there is no all-or-nothing morality in legitimate precaution, just like there isn't one in economic freedom.

If you want to have absolutes, ban all reproduction. That's where the antinatalists end up, by rejecting all non-consensual physical conduct completely.

Alex Young writes:

Although I see how many would be able to support themselves after retirement without social security or medicare, many would not be able to support themselves. A few of my grandmother's friends were very lucky to have amassed wealth before retiring, but many more are living on very little, provided by social security.

Because so many people have a college education now as a way to adapt to the increasingly demanding workforce, I think less Americans will be involved in physical labor and more in the development of automation of physical labor. In other words, there will be a shift from blue-collar workers to white-collar workers. As a result, people will be able to work for longer in their life without being forced into retirement for physical reasons. Maybe the minimum age to receive social security benefits will have to be increased, also as a response to advancements in medicine and an increase in the working age.

What I wonder is, would the burden of expensive medical bills and the cost of living for supporting an elderly family member prevent the family from spending their money on other things? Maybe paying little by little for social security would pay off after all.

Mark Bahner writes:
According to the supporting data referenced, people retiring in 2010 will receive less in social security than they paid in social security taxes by about 10% - i.e. social security is self supporting.

If people pay in more than they get back, they have no incentive to volunarily participate. And the people who retire in 2020 will get an even worse deal. And 2030 an even worse deal.

So Social Security is not sustainable either. (Though I agree it's not as ridiculously unsustainable as Medicare.)

Mark Bahner writes:
Neither should you define a "basic right" to create children under circumstances that are predictably detrimental.

So, would a child born to...oh, Michael Jackson, for instance...be born into "predictably detrimental" circumstances?

Or...if Emma's mother *knew* that she was going to be born with arthrogryposis, but had wanted to give birth anyway, would the Birth Panel have approved, or considered Emma's circumstances to be "predictably detrimental"?

"Magic arms"

Mark Bahner writes:
These programs replaces this enormous financial uncertainty with a simple and predictable tax. That does have a lot of value.

The problem, as with that wonderfully hokie line from Top Gun, is that both Social Security's and Medicare's "...egos are writing checks their bodies can't cash."

If Social Security and Medicare merely took cash built up by a generation, and distributed it within that generation, it would be one thing. What Social Security and Medicare are actually doing is making all the generations after the peak of the Baby Boom generation pay more money in than they can ever hope to get out. And it will get worse (paying more and more in, with getting out less and less) forever and ever.

Dent writes:

Mark Bahner:

There was no reason to assume being born to Michael Jackson would be predictably detrimental. So no. Unless you count virtually all children as victims, as the antinatalists do.

As for eugenics, if a potential parent has a genetic defect that can be predicted to induce significant suffering on the children, they should not be allowed to have children, unless there exist interventions that can prevent the suffering (and the parents can afford them).

I agree that value judgments like "predictably detrimental" and "significant suffering" are vague and fishy. But that's because reality itself doesn't provide all-or-nothing guidelines for absolute ethics. If you want all-or-nothing morality, you can ban all reproduction, as the children always suffer (somewhat) and did not consent and cannot opt out. You can build a solid rhetoric out of that.

If you want absolute non-interference laissez-faire instead, then at least for some of the children, the result will have so much negative utility that a rational person would very much rather not have been born. After all, children are starving, or suffering from pain syndromes, and where is their individual liberty NOT to go through that experience?

Mark Bahner writes:

Hi Dent,

If you want absolute non-interference laissez-faire instead, then at least for some of the children, the result will have so much negative utility that a rational person would very much rather not have been born. After all, children are starving, or suffering from pain syndromes, and where is their individual liberty NOT to go through that experience?

It is simply not possible for one person to decide whether another "rational person would very much rather not have been born."

For example, look at Stephen Hawking. Obviously, he certainly would not choose to have ALS. I might even say that, were I in his situation, I would rather not be alive. But I strongly suspect that if you told him that, if you were in charge, you would have decided he shouldn’t be born, he would not view that in a positive manner. Or look at the girl, Emma, in that video. You or I could say that, in her place, we’d be unhappy. But *she* doesn’t seem unhappy.

So your "solution" to this problem appears to be laws and panels that say who can reproduce and under what circumstances, with the aim of somehow protecting those who are born. As with many cases of government intervention, I think the "solution" would almost certainly be worse than the problem.

A better “solution” to what you view as a problem might be to have “parental malpractice” civil laws, wherein a child who thought he/she was harmed by parents could sue for civil damages. At least, in that case, the “victim” would at least think he/she *was* a victim. This is in contrast to reproductive laws wherein the people allegedly being protected might not think they were victims at all. Of course, one example you give is a child born into a slum. If the child sued for “parental malpractice” damages, obviously very little money could be recovered (because the parents, after all, are living in a slum).

As for eugenics, if a potential parent has a genetic defect that can be predicted to induce significant suffering on the children, they should not be allowed to have children, unless there exist interventions that can prevent the suffering (and the parents can afford them).

Again, the idea that a legislature could decide which "genetic defects can be predicted to induce significant suffering on the children" is, I think, a very bad one. For instance, if Stephen Hawking's ALS was genetic, would his parents have been allowed to have him?

Mark

Dent writes:

Mark,

the case of Stephen Hawking is an interesting one because he developed the disability during adulthood, and he is still communicative. If we had proper voluntary euthanasia laws, cases like his would never require non-consensual existence or non-existence.

You are probably correct that government-mandated eugenics laws would be very hard to define satisfactorily and politically unrealistic, at least for now. This may well change with the progress of the science of suffering - physical disability per se may be less of a misery correlate than certain personality or psychological traits, which are also partly genetic.

As for poverty-related suffering, I really do think reproduction should be conditional. A guideline could be the ability to provide basic shelter, sustenance, clothing and health care to children until age 10 or so. Parents who don't have such savings or predicted income might be banned from reproduction until they do, and given subsidized or free contraceptives. Another possibility could be a welfare system that makes payment contingent on non-reproduction while the recipient is on welfare. Either option seems reasonable and non-violent, and it would help prevent non-consensual poverty stressors (and any Malthusian-type dynamic).

Or we just globally redistribute wealth completely and hope people play World of Warcraft instead of reproducing. But I hear libertarians don't like that option. :)

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