Bryan Caplan  

Decadent Parenting

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More on decadent parenting from the intro of Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids:

To be brutally honest, we're reluctant to have more children because we think that the pain outweighs the gain. When people compare the grief that another child would give them to the joy that the child would bring, they conclude that it's just not worth it. As Bill Cosby put it, "The reason we have five children is because we do not want six."

You could easily call this a very selfish outlook. How can you focus exclusively on whether another child would make you happier? What about the child? Unless your baby is truly unlucky, he will almost certainly be happy to be alive. Aren't you? This is your child we're talking about. If you have to make yourself a little less happy in order to give a son or daughter the gift of life, shouldn't you? The question is serious, but I'm going to dodge it. While I accept
the natalist view that more births should be encouraged because they make the world a better place, asking others to sacrifice their happiness for the good of the world seems futile. Preaching against selfishness is usually about as productive as nagging a brick wall.


More from the conclusion:


I don't deny that some parents immiserate themselves for their children's sake. What I reject is the widely shared assumption that conflict between kids and happiness is unavoidable. It's natural for anti-natalists to equate the first couple of kids with servitude--and any more with slavery. What amazes me is how readily natalists agree. You'd expect them to downplay parental misery. Instead, most race to concede its inevitability--and tell us to be less calculating and selfish.

At least to my ears, natalists' pleas against prudence are pretty lame. Arguing against foresight with a straight face isn't easy. Imagine the public service campaign: "You think too much. Just have a baby." Appeals to duty are less laughable: "Your parents sacrificed their happiness to have you. Now it's your turn." But aspiring grandparents have tried guilt since the dawn of man. It's hard to imagine that strangers' nagging will succeed where relatives' nagging failed. The child-free don't want to sacrifice their lifestyles, and parents feel like they've already sacrificed enough.

This book takes a different approach. I don't defend acting on impulse; I'm a big fan of planning ahead. I don't preach a duty to be fruitful and multiply; I expect sermons to fall on deaf ears. Instead, I appeal to enlightened self-interest. While kids can make their parents unhappy, the choice between kids and happiness is largely self-imposed. My goal isn't to attack consumerism and individualism but to join forces with them--to show that kids are a better deal than they seem.



COMMENTS (20 to date)
Rob writes:

"Unless your baby is truly unlucky, he will almost certainly be happy to be alive."

Don't count on it.

"Aren't you?"

Not really.

Anticipation of typical response: "Why don't you kill yourself?"

Because suicide is hard, and made deliberately harder by law. The vast majority of suicide attempters survive involuntarily. Some of them after considerable suffering. Then they are forced into mental health facilities, where they are restrained and degraded against their will.

One might argue that bans on the best suicide drugs, as well as coercive hospitalization policies, are the fault of evil governments. But it is the world's parents who force children into the power of evil governments. Without consent.

Bostonian writes:

I have three children, fairly close together. They enjoy playing each other so much, whether they are playing tag, cards, Life (the game), Monopoly, or drawing, or making up little quizzes for each other, or watching TV together, or teaching each other how to win at a video game. I get great pleasure from their happiness.

I thank Caplan for his pro-natal efforts and congratulate him on his growing family. The picture he posted of his baby girl was adorable.

Society is better off if smart people, for example the kind that read economics blogs, have large families. Taxing them heavily so that they cannot afford to have large families, to subsidize the child-bearing of others, has dysgenic effects.

Tom West writes:

I have to strongly agree with Bostonian's first paragraph. There are few pleasures in the world as fulfilling as watching your children happily playing with each other.

Of course, it relies on a lot of luck (children's ages, genders, maturity and personalities), but it's awfully nice if and when it occurs.

Taimyoboi writes:

We're expecting our third child next year. I can't say we were inspired by your book to have that many (we would have done so even if they aren't a better deal), I can say that I've taken comfort that it needn't be as difficult a journey as we were anticipating. For that, many thanks.

IVV writes:

I always feel some envy toward the natalist position. I have no children, but I would like to become a father and I'm perfectly capable of fathering them. The real issue is that my wife has unexplained infertility, even after going through IVF and other treatments.

The issue becomes: does this mean I should start sleeping around and/or divorce my wife should she prove unwilling to consider egg donation/surrogacy? Would I truly get societal support in this case? I think not.

Thus, is a position against surrogacy in truth a position against natalism?

DougT writes:

I have six kids, two groups of three, and we have homeschooled all of them. My wife and I are both Ivy League graduates; she teaches the core to the younger children, and I manage the high-school ages. I teach a core Western Civ curriculum to a small group (6-8) high school homeschoolers that meets once a week. We're having a blast!

Not only do I get to experience the Classics again and again and again (Homer, Dante, Adam Smith, Keynes, Francis Crick)--through my own eyes, and again through theirs--I also get to encourage other like-minded parents to "go for it" with regards to homeschooling. Bryan, I get the joy of raising a new generation along with the intellectual fulfillment of teaching the classics.

It's a lot like riding a bike--if you've never done it, you can't imagine how such a top-heavy contraption works. But once you've done it, it seems intuitive and effortless.

Yes, I have a day job. And yes, I've been lucky in many things (my wife, my career, my parents). But people also create their own luck. Fortes fortuna adiuvat. The latest research on epigenetics (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epigenetics)would seem to bear this out.

Tom West writes:

The real issue is that my wife has unexplained infertility, even after going through IVF and other treatments.

This is why I never, *ever* assume that childless couples are childless by choice. It's only taken one attempt at humor with an acquaintance:

"You know, it's at times like this (child wailing in background while I'm trying to cook dinner) that I envy your choice..."

"Well, actually, we've been trying to have children for the last five years..."

*Urk*. Talk about feeling 2 inches tall.

Finch writes:

> This is why I never, *ever* assume that childless
> couples are childless by choice.

+1

Childless by choice is pretty rare.(*) Childless by infertility is common. You should assume infertility in older childless couples, if anything. Probably best to assume the minimum.

(*) Childless by choice is common when people are 23 and male and think kids would impinge on their nightlife. It is much less common when you're 38 and have seen the kid-having experience others are having. Being a dad is awesome, but it certainly took me some time to figure that out. Society didn't exactly help.

sourcreamus writes:

I agree with all of Caplan's pro-natalist arguments and the idea that parental immiseration is usually chosed and not inevitable. But the missing step is always, how did you convince your wife about this stuff? It always seems to me that telling your wife how to raise kids is a big step on the road to Reno.

Philo writes:

It’s unduly negative to write, “asking others to sacrifice their happiness for the good of the world seems futile,” since people *are* willing to make *small* sacrifices for the good of others. Apparently you are arguing that parenthood usually involves *no* sacrifice of one’s own happiness, but pro-natalism might succeed even in the presence of a *small* sacrifice. Furthermore, in the cases under discussion the “others” will be *the sacrificer’s own children*; awareness of that circumstance should generate a willingness to sacrifice even greater than the usual.

Anon writes:

> But the missing step is always, how did you
> convince your wife about this stuff?

Don't convince, just choose wisely in the first place.

Not-neurotic and skinny is 80% of what you need in a wife.

Jeff writes:
Society is better off if smart people, for example the kind that read economics blogs, have large families. Taxing them heavily so that they cannot afford to have large families, to subsidize the child-bearing of others, has dysgenic effects.

Here, here.

J. Ellen writes:

My husband and I raised four kids, now all in their twenties, college grads, and employed.
I don't understand this talk of misery in parenting. Perhaps the miserable parents are the ones who are overly involved and want to make all the choices for their children.

Sure the job of parent requires work, consistency, patience and a sense of humor, but so does life.

Some tips: don't do your child's homework, ever; do insist on a summer job - paid, not volunteer; don't bail your child out when in trouble with authority (unless it is certain the authority is wrong). Above all, keep your over-arching goal simple: that your offspring will be an independent adult by his or her early to mid-20s.

Joe Cushing writes:

For a very articulate opposing view on this topic, check out the YouTube video "Parenting Suuuucks!" by Stefan Molyneux. I should point out that he takes this view even though he has a child that he is raising in a way that is completely different from what he is describing in his video. For part of the video, he's really talking about what he observes others going through and not what he is going through himself.

Tom West writes:

Perhaps the miserable parents are the ones who are overly involved and want to make all the choices for their children.

I suspect a fair bit of luck on your part in the baby karma lottery.

For those who had complete control over their own lives (generally how one defines an adult), being at the beck and call of an infant is a pretty traumatizing experience, unmatched by anything else in our lives. (That was my first. The second did indeed sleep through the night by the time he was two.)

I think more generally, for the crowd here, you're probably looking at people in the top quintile of social/economic success. Due to regression to the mean, the odds that their children are as 'naturally' successful is not terribly high. Therefor there's a natural tendency to do everything one can try and tilt the odds your child's way, which is a lot of work (and if Bryan is right, probably futile).

This isn't helped by the tsunami of news that tends to point to the world economy evolving to a natural equilibrium of the huge mass of workers earning $5-10K. This is tremendously good news for much of the world, but not so good news if you're a North American worrying about your "average" or "somewhat above average" child.

J. Ellen writes:

Tom West, I think I went 10 years without getting a full night's sleep - and the infant wasn't always the child who woke me up. Bad dreams, and so forth.
Then they get their driver's license and your sleep deprivation returns.

But this was neither traumatizing nor misery-inducing. It was part of the program, as my husband the engineer would say.

I'll cop to a certain amount of luck: no terrible diseases (asthma, though, with late-night attacks), no horrible accidents (a few season-ending sports injuries), and intact minds. We got by on one salary for 13 years because we planned it that way and made life-style sacrifices. I have to admit, we appreciated the Bush-era increase in the child tax credit!

Tom West writes:

Tom West, I think I went 10 years without getting a full night's sleep - and the infant wasn't always the child who woke me up. Bad dreams, and so forth.

But this was neither traumatizing nor misery-inducing.

Ah, my mistake. You're just made of sterner stuff :-).

(Personally, young children didn't make me miserable, but then I was working. One big advantage that some paternity leave gave me was the knowledge that my wife, who was stay at home, had the *vastly* more challenging job. No matter how bad my day got, I at least got to go to the washroom for five minutes without a 2-year old wailing at being abandoned. As it was, the first hour after coming home after work was almost always a joy.)

Krishnan writes:

Bostonian wrote:Society is better off if smart people, for example the kind that read economics blogs, have large families. Taxing them heavily so that they cannot afford to have large families, to subsidize the child-bearing of others, has dysgenic effects.

Ah, I see. So, should there be a deliberate attempt at restricting who indeed can have children - through the tax code? Why stop there - why not pass legislation requiring minimal intelligence requirements of both parents before they can have kids? If we used the criterion of intelligence of parents, many who do indeed read "economics blogs" today may not have been born - because I suspect that many do not have parents with a PhD or a M.S. or even a high school education.

If indeed the people who read "economics blogs" (or write such blogs) are the truly elite who have the right pedigree (parental that is) - then how can one explain the thousands of "highly educated economists/bloggers" who have no idea of economics or economic growth or what makes the world go around? Krugman is not the only example of a "highly educated" individual who spouts nonsense and indicates a pedigree that is not what it may be.

Finch writes:

> So, should there be a deliberate attempt at
> restricting who indeed can have children -
> through the tax code?

I'm not sure it's deliberate rather than emergent, but there already are restrictions, mostly penalizing the two-professionals-in-a-marriage set. "Married filing jointly" and the AMT smack me pretty hard. Taxation as a married couple is the single largest item preventing my wife from working, edging out childcare. The AMT hits us because of our exemption count.

Krishnan writes:

Finch - yes, I agree that the tax code is insane and penalizes married folks. I was not sure if that was the reference by "bostonian"

Incentives are indeed perverse in many ways - if societies send the signal to parents that no matter what they do, "society" will take care of their children (and give them a good life, without having to work) - some will have more children to get the benefits and discard their kids to someone else to take care of.

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