Bryan Caplan  

A Eugenic Experiment

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Imagine a Eugenic America where citizens who earn less than median income are forbidden to have children.  Enforcement isn't perfect, so 5% of all kids born are "illegals."  Over time, this leads to a substantial stock of people who weren't supposed to be born in the first place. 

Pundits have the predictable range of positions on eugenic policy.  Liberals demand amnesty for the current stock of illegals, and pledge stricter enforcement of eugenics in the future.  Conservatives oppose amnesty - partly because they don't want to reward law-breaking, and partly because they don't trust liberals to help them strictly enforce eugenics laws.  "Think-outside-the-box" thinkers occasionally chime in, "Fertility policy should be skill-based!  Letting talented low-income people breed is good for America."

As this morally blind debate rages on, a libertarian arrives on the scene.  He vocally proposes "Open Breeding."  Abolish eugenics laws, and let any woman who wants a baby have a baby.  Mainstream reactions are diverse, but uniformly negative. 

Liberals demur, "These new births will drive down wages, especially for the poorest Americans.  Open Breeding is a windfall for the rich, but regular Americans will suffer terribly."  And "That sounds compassionate.  But until we've taken care of everyone who's already here, we can't afford to allow any more needy births."

Conservatives huff, "These poor babies will be a massive fiscal burden.  Think about all the money we'll have to spend on schools, health care, and welfare."  And "Civilizing the next generation of Americans is already an uphill battle.  These poor kids are just too culturally distant from us to co-exist in the same society."

Even many self-styled libertarians back the eugenics laws.  "You can't have Open Breeding and the welfare state.  Milman Friedton said so."  And, "Public opinion research shows that the poor are less libertarian.  When these extra babies grow up, they'll vote away our freedom."

Regardless of your political standpoint, you probably think the libertarian advocate of Open Breeding has right on his side.  Suppose then you were transported to Eugenic America.  How would you rebut your side's stereotypical objections to free reproduction?  How convincing would you be?  If your honest answer is, "Not very," what does that tell you about your compatriots?

Please show your work.

COMMENTS (38 to date)
Stefan writes:

I have taken "that side in debates" and its not clear how optimal social incentives should come out -- refundable child tax credits aren't the most popular thing around in many circles. And going for tax deductions and not tax credits is also done.

Steve Sailer writes:

According to Gregory Clark's research on wills in England from 1200 to 1800, that's pretty much how English society worked: the richer you were, the earlier you could get married and the more children you would tend to have.

And we all know how badly that turned out!

Rebes writes:

I would quote this:
"The conviction that there is a Creator God is what gave rise to the idea of human rights, the idea of the equality of all people before the law, the recognition of the inviolability of human dignity in every single person and the awareness of people’s responsibility for their actions. Our cultural memory is shaped by these rational insights. To ignore it or dismiss it as a thing of the past would be to dismember our culture totally and to rob it of its completeness. Our culture arose from the encounter between Jerusalem, Athens and Rome – from the encounter between Israel’s monotheism, the philosophical reason of the Greeks and Roman law. This three-way encounter has shaped the inner identity of our society. In the awareness of man’s responsibility before God and in the acknowledgment of the inviolable dignity of every single human person, it has established criteria of law: it is these criteria that we are called to defend at this moment in our history."

Concepts of equal rights cannot be argued on purely economic principles, they derive from the respect for human dignity regardless of economic objectives.

Compare to the Declaration of Independence:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

The implied analogy to the immigration debate is pertinent. The Declaration of Independence didn't say "all U.S. citizens are created equal."

#1 Sailer Fan writes:

I'd tell my compatriots that unlike libertarians and Rand-worshiping individualists, I care about the general well-being of my people, and so would propose that instead of prohibiting a huge chunk of our race from experiencing the joy of children, incentives for having less children should be enacted - including increasing their welfare paychecks (to at least Scandinavian levels).

Many would still choose to have children, and that's just fine, as organized and enforced eugenics, like mass immigration and multicultism, is another one of these extremist-idealist modernist cultic monstrosities that had no place in Traditional societies and should have no place in future ones.

Chris H writes:

You forgot one complaint Bryan. Think of how many new people that would mean! If the lower half was allowed to breed it'd immediately flood the hospitals with new births! Then after wrecking the health care system, these new kids would go into the schools ruining that too! Our system can't update it's infrastructure fast enough to deal with all the new babies. And don't pretend like market forces would be able to control things. The poor would just breed like rabbits until the system crashes under the weight of their new kids.

@Steve Sailer,

Yeah, for 400 of those years England was a violent backwater in turmoil for much of the period (indeed with significant turmoil spiking up even as late as the mid 1600s). It's not that impressive until close to the end of the period. English society post-1800 though looks pretty awesome.

Steve P writes:

To more closely approximate the opening of borders, the eugenic experiment needs a few extra features:

1. the children had by the below-median income must be about 3x that of the above-medians (to match the conservative estimate of 1 BILLION people - 3x the US population - who would want to move to the USA).

2. the gestation period of the below-medians must be about 9x shorter (1 month) as a conservative estimate of how long it'd take most of those billion people to come to the USA (the crux of the criticism against the below-medians... the benefits they receive from tax money).

The birthrate for the below-medians would have to be at least 27x as high as the above-medians, then we'd have a more accurate analogy.

Lee Kelly writes:

This argument doesn't do what you want it to.

Supposing both left and right accepted the premisses that negative traits are largely heritable, that low income is a reliable indicator of these traits, and that such traits can be significantly reduced in the population by selective breeding, then they would simply acknowledge that low income people who breed present a similar social problem as illegal immigration.

However, they would then counter: The child of an illegal birth did not choose to be born in the United States. The child, therefore, bears no moral responsibility and shouldn't face punishment for the crime. The parents broke the law, not the child. Meanwhile, the illegal immigrant knowingly broke the laws of the country he entered. That is, he is an illegal immigrant because of his own choices rather than someone elses, and so he bears moral responsibility.

Indeed, this distinction is frequently drawn when addressing the issue of children brought into a country illegally or born to illegal immigrants. Even those who fall on the side of opposing legal status to such children acknowledge that it's an important moral difference.

Further, the right to procreate is generally regarded as more fundamental than the right to migrate. Indeed, the desire to have children is a deeply rooted in human nature and shared by most of the worlds' people ad cultures. Meanwhile, the desire to migrate to foreign lands is a peculiar idiosyncrasy of a minority, and isn't usually perceived as a fundamental right even, I suspect, by illegal immigrants themselves.

vikingvista writes:

"what does that tell you about your compatriots?"

That they are sanctimonious advocates of "evil" (their word) as being "necessary".

Guy writes:

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address. Email the to request restoring this comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Jagdish Kadvekar writes:

What one does not know is what OTHER laws also exist in this imagined country.

If the country was fully socialist, with each man's destiny tied to that of others (common health service, for example), such a debate would be necessary, and the libertarian would not have much to say.

If the country was more or less in private hands (except for this law), the libertarian's point of view would be respected, and the law abolished.

It is an other debate, what sort of a country one ought to have.

Jagdish Kadvekar writes:

In other words, tomorrow you will imagine a country where instead of birth, it was a question of schooling ("open schooling" opposed to "selective schooling").

In a country where only public schools and universities are allowed, the question of WHO ought to be educated free of cost is not irrelevant since each man is paying out of his own pocket the education of all.

And in a country where private schools are also allowed, such a question does not arise.

ted writes:

Amusing analogy, but unconvincing. Believing that anyone is entitled to have children is just not the same as believing that anyone is entitled to live anywhere they want. Very different things are at stake.

I wonder if you even realise how many illiterate, extremely poor people with near-medieval beliefs and lifestyles are in the world? To give you a hint: a lot more than the population of the USA.

These are people with no experience of living in a liberal, constitutional democracy. No idea of what working state institutions are like.

Can the US absorb, say, 50 million a year and turn them into good citizens? Instead of looking at inapplicable examples based on things that happened more than a hundred years ago, when everything was vastly different, we can look at immigration today.

Take the (far from open borders) UK or French immigration. Could the immigrants be integrated? The answer is a resounding no. Not even a much smaller fraction of the population could be integrated. They got immigrant towns and ghettos (in which few work, by the way), they alienated and angered the rest of the population. Look at the culture clash: in the UK it's no longer acceptable to publicly wish Merry Christmas (it's Happy Holidays now). Look at the backlash: they vote more and more transparently racist, anti-immigration parties.

Then isn't this just a receipt for turning the US into a 3rd world hell-hole, similar to much of the rest of world?

The reason why the public doesn't buy into the open borders argument is not because they're evil and stupid, but because that such an argument is - at best - completely misguided and naive.

People are not just cogs in the economics machine. In fact, the economics part is perhaps the least important.

Jeff writes:

I would probably take the eugenics side of the debate and cite Garret Jones' work on how important national average IQ's are to standards of living.

But that isn't quite what you had in mind, I gather.

Joe Teicher writes:

I think eugenic America sounds great. If we could somehow get from where we are to that utopia I'd be all for it. I'm not a fan of completely free immigration, but I'd rather have that than free breeding. All those poor kids are citizens.

Jameson writes:

Why do all the commenters focus on the immigrants' rights? What about my rights? Suppose I'm a farmer and I'd like to hire a hard working Mexican, who just happens to be too far back in line to get in the US legally. Why is the US government telling me whom I can hire?

Even better is the argument made by this guy: "The state of Alabama is telling me who my friends can be." Do you think the government has the right to regulate who your friends are?

The argument that free movement is somehow less of a natural right than having children is just in bad faith. You can't possibly be serious. What can be more natural than moving? Immigrants are not (as a rule) carrying some horrible disease that's going to kill us all. They're just people trying to get by. And you don't have the right to tell me I'm not allowed to welcome them onto my property, any more than you have the right to tell me how many kids I can have.

And to top it all off, the commenters are caught in an apparent contradiction: they claim that while "the desire to have children is a deeply rooted in human nature... the desire to migrate to foreign lands is a peculiar idiosyncrasy of a minority"--but also that hundreds of millions of people would immigrate every year into the United States! It sure is amazing how many idiosyncratic people there are.

Yancey Ward writes:

Ted, you wrote:

Believing that anyone is entitled to have children is just not the same as believing that anyone is entitled to live anywhere they want. Very different things are at stake.

What, exactly, is at stake that is really different? What if your countrymen passed a law that only permitted you to live in Detroit? How would you feel about that?

Harvey writes:

As vile as the eugenics law is, assume: (1) compromised as it is, America is the most powerful example and purveyor of liberty, rule of law, due process and property rights, (2) if America were stop enforcing the eugenics law, those concepts would hold less sway and greater tyranny would reign around the world, and (3) in such a world greater immorality than the eugenics law would be ubiquitous.

The odds of this happening with the repeal of this law are far from 100%, but the likelihood of an approximation of this outcome not 0%. The moral question is not whether the eugenics law is immoral (in isolation it is). The moral question is: Are the consequences to the people of the world, all things consider, better or worse with and without the law.

I say the answer to that depends on its consequences.

The costs of America's immigration laws are indeed very, very high and, in isolation. The question should be: Is the costs of open borders higher?

[Of course, I’m not expecting to resonate with those who believe the dropping of atomic bombs was immoral no matter how many lives it saved and no matter by how much the bombing shortened the destruction and depravity of war.]

andy writes:

Interesting exercise. Funny how most people did not respond the question. The point is not that open borders and open birth policy is the same. The point is that the democratic/liberal arguments are probably quite hard to refute even in this case. The arguments are supposed to be refuted, not the analogy.

LD Bottorff writes:

Based on my success in convincing my fellow conservatives that our current immigration laws need fixing, I would say that I probably wouldn't have much success in Eugenic America. I'm sure I would have a lot of people explain to me that THEY went about having their children the legal way. So should everyone else.

Massimo writes:

"Regardless of your political standpoint, you probably think the libertarian advocate of Open Breeding has right on his side."

I prefer eugenic breeding over open breeding 100%. I am legitimately baffled on this. Why would Caplan be so strongly anti-eugenics and assume that everyone else is too?

This is a perfect analogy for the immigration issue. I'm almost as horrified by open dysgenic human breeding as I am by open immigration.

J writes:

I also don't think eugenics (restricting who can breed) is somehow evil (more so than other restrictions on liberty). The Nordic countries sterilized foster children up until the late '70s. I think many people are supportive of eugenics, but just wouldn't call it eugenics.

Not to get to far off topic (since the post wasn't about really about eugenics), but I'm sure many people would support efforts to disincentivize those on welfare from breeding (through financial incentives).

Alternatively, what about open-borders, but if you below X IQ you must be sterilized? Certainly seems far more free than the statues quo, no forced sterilizations either.

john penfold writes:

Comparing a unilateral abolition of borders for 5 billion people to childbirth restrictions on a few million makes libertarians look silly. Perhaps a comparison to a gated community is better, but that gets pretty silly as we add free food, membership in the board with voting rights but no obligations etc. etc This is a Hayekian site, do you really believe the rule of law would exist for long with an additional polyglot, culturally diverse billion or two people most of whom are not accustomed to the rule of law. Why is it un libertarian for a nation to have borders and the rule of law?

Massimo writes:

Caplans only argument against eugenics is here:

Caplan's argument is that a population mixture of "brain" and "brawn" individuals is better than a population of purely "brain" individuals. Despite Caplan's intent and stated purpose, this is still a pro-eugenics point. Caplan is still arguing that one population mixture with brain+brawn variety is superior to another mixture that lacks variety. He's just arguing that his ideal eugenic mixture is superior to the straw man eugenic ideal that eliminates all human variety. Most eugenics proponents acknowledge the value of variety, they just want to control that variety rather than just accept it as it happens.

Immigration restrictions are largely a light form eugenics that is more politically acceptable than forced sterilizations. If you can convince people that all eugenics is bad and not merely impractical, then you will have convinced people of open border immigration.

@J, I don't see how any form of forced sterilization would ever be a practical reality in anything remotely close to today's western societies.

Dennis J. Rudz writes:

My nephew and his wife jumped through many hoops in order to adopt a baby. Perhaps couples who wish to have a child should apply for a permit to show that they can afford a child and have a stable family life.

Mark F. writes:

@Steve S. But there weren't eugenics laws in England. Important distinction. I think voluntary eugenics can be a good idea.

J writes:

@Massimo, I sincerely doubt forced sterilizations will make a large come back anytime soon. The UN Convention on Genocide certainly disparages forced sterilization (also a policy sterilizing people below the median either IQ or income would effect ~85% percent of URMs).

I was suggesting though not clearly that the following policy: as a condition to immigrate, low IQ immigrants must agree to be sterilized. That policy would be less restrictive of freedom than the status quo, effectively barring them from immigrating.

The US government has an explicit eugenic policy of encouraging women carrying fetuses with down syndrome of getting abortions. I do not here an outcry of opposition to this policy.

Also, 69% of women who get abortions live under 200% of the poverty line. Though clearly not as dramatic as Brian's hypothetical, there are many eugenic like effects from the prevalence of abortion and birth control. Though I of course would say these options only expand people's freedom.

One can also argue that the H1B visa program is eugenic to the extent those skilled workers stay and procreate. Or alternatively Europe's recent revolt against open borders is of an implicitly eugenic view.

I'm also afraid my comment is off topic, but Brian's original refutation of eugenics with comparative advantage doesn't seem to apply if the population is held constant (if somehow number of the next generation of children was fixed).

nl7 writes:

Apparently people have a sacred right to expand their family size, but no moral right to relocate that family across a boundary. It's a lot cleaner if you stop trying to reconcile two positions and just resort to stating them outright.

We libertarians are silly in thinking that other people would prefer to be ethically consistent. Most people prefer to be roughly consistent with the norms and values of their peer group and the larger culture in which they swim; if that means swallowing down some hypocrisy as you swim, so be it. Inconsistency of widely-held beliefs just isn't a terribly important concern to most non-libertarians.

nl7 writes:

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that voluntary eugenics is unlikely to work (except where parents voluntarily sterilize their children, if such counts as voluntary).

The appeal of eugenics is pretty much in making the world in the image one wants, and almost everyone thinks the world would be better with them than without them. I could see lots of jerks signing up for the proposition that other people need to be gradually eliminated from society; I highly doubt many people are going to sign up for self-sterilization on grounds of genetic inferiority.

Fake Herzog writes:

nl7 says,

"Apparently people have a sacred right to expand their family size, but no moral right to relocate that family across a boundary. It's a lot cleaner if you stop trying to reconcile two positions and just resort to stating them outright.

We libertarians are silly in thinking that other people would prefer to be ethically consistent."

Uh, the first part is correct -- getting married and having a family is a natural right. But you are wrong that a consistent morality can't be explicated for why eugenics is bad and immigration is not a natural right.

No government or law is necessary to allow you to get married (although governments can and should establish laws to protect and encourage families). Why is this a "natural right"? Because human beings are rational creatures designed to couple and procreate -- part of God's plan for us (or if you don't like God talk, part of our immanent teleology). No government should be allowed to deny the natural law.

The tribe or government we are born into is also natural and moving to another place (or a different tribe) is not some sort of natural right derived from natural laws. We instead, rightly need permission from those who live there to move where they live -- again think back to all the analogies of moving into someone's house. No permission, no move. Boundaries aren't arbitrary (maybe 10,000 years ago they were as we migrated out of Africa, but last I checked we've filled the Earth with nation-states).

Massimo writes:

Selective breeding eugenics would never work on a voluntary basis because that would depend on the unfit voluntarily not breeding.

Genetic engineering eugenics would work on a largely voluntary western friendly basis where people can selectively choose genetic enhancements for offspring.

The latter is the only true happy solution to the issues of immigration and multiculturalism... and human kind.

@nl7, "Apparently people have a sacred right to expand their family size": Society doesn't feel that bearing children is a sacred right, but there isn't a way to control that that western society is comfortable with. The Chinese notoriously limit birth rates, but western society wouldn't tolerate the means by which they achieve that. Immigration limits are considered a more humane law to achieve a similar aim.

Diane Merriam writes:

1) Just because he's Milman Friedton doesn't make him right on everything.

2) Opinions are just that. Opinions. Not facts.

3) What makes their lives worth any less than yours or mine? They are just as human and have exactly the same rights from exactly the same source as you or I do. Income and speciation (had to throw at least one really geeky word in there) have nothing to do with each other.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

Some people also don't get the comparison between mixed-race marriage legality and homosexual marriage legality either.

Kenny writes:

Bryan, you've been on a roll lately!

Fake Herzog writes:

Mr. Econotarian says,

"Some people don't get the comparison between mixed-race marriage legality and homosexual marriage legality."

Or some people reject the comparison as false and misleading. Nice try.

fralupo writes:

The analogy fails because restricting the immigration of newborns (i.e. international adoption or maternal surrogacy) probably polls in the single digits in the US. People who favor immigration restrictions are trying to keep adults out, not babies.

Plus it begs the question. Eugenics is evil and there hasn't been a society that's practiced it in a human-rights-affirming way. The people in favor of eugenics in the past justified their positions with pseudo-scientific social and racial theories that have all been discredited and hold no currency whatsoever. The analogy only works if you assume that immigration restrictions are similarly evil.

Daublin writes:

When I try to play the game by the terms Bryan sets, I keep coming back to Rebes's general answer.

It's just wrong to treat people like that. The well-being of all people matters. That includes people with funny accents. That includes dumb people. That includes people not yet born. Every human being gets basic rights, or we are not really human at all.

I expect this argument to go over about as well as arguments for good treatment of farm animals. The people you are talking to generally already *know* you are correct. Granted, it does not hurt to remind them.

Me writes:

Suppose that the world is divided into two areas, A & B. They are governed separately, but between them lies only a blue line of paint that requires no effort to cross. Suppose further that the space in A is subject to a strange physical law in which everyone with a T, A or X as the third letter of his last name receives at birth a magic key that allows him to go into the house of anyone with third letters of the last name that are not T, A or X and take whatever he wishes, whenever he wishes to. (Suppose further that last names are handed down from the father and cannot be changed.) Suppose finally that the former kinds of last names are quite common on the B side.

Would the people in A be wrong to build a wall on top of the blue line?

Bob writes:

I have an option to set out that is a bit of a three legged Sailer/Unz/Caplan stool. We set the minimum wage to $12 an hour. Next we allow unlimited work visas to Canadian & Mexican citizens who must pay for and pass a background check annually for no felonies and require that they must be paid 1.5 times the US minimum wage. Violations of this guest worker minimum wage shall be punishable by both fines and jail time with corporate violations jail time to be served by corporate officers & board members in addition to those corporate employees found culpable. At minimum 10% of the time for those found culpable must be served by the corporate officers & board members collectively with each individual officer or board member to serve at least 1 week. Juries for these trials shall be drawn from unemployed US citizens. Upon 8 consecutive quarters with US national unemployment below 3.0 percent the guest worker premium shall be cut to 1.25 times the US minimum wage. Any guest worker who maintains their no felony record and is employed for more than 60 total months as a guest worker is granted US citizenship.

I know it won’t make Caplan completely happy as I only invite that part of the world that shares a land border with us. The notion that our duty to others starts at home and then goes outward in concentric circles is hard for him to grasp. Steve and Ron on the other hand seem to be comfortable with it.

Caplan’s Eugenic Experiment is flawed in that the children born are not “illegals” they are just children of criminals. Unless he also wants to repeal US birthright citizenship. These 5% are just as much US citizens as those children of foreign nationals both legal and illegal that are born in the US (concentric circles). It is doubly flawed in our Steve Hsu future of genetic understanding & spellchecking.

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