I have three main challenges for Matthew Connelly:
1. As far as I can tell, Connelly doesn’t deny that fertility is good. But he’s afraid of the consequences of admitting that fertility is good. After all, won’t governments take advantage of this admission to do great evil?
On Connelly’s logic, though, it seems like libertarians should be afraid to say that anything besides liberty is good. Take prosperity. As soon as you say that “prosperity is good,” plenty of statists will leap to advocate state action to increase prosperity. And to say that “pro-prosperity has a checkered past” is a vast understatement. In a twisted sense, you could call the entire Marxist movement “pro-prosperity”—their policies were a disaster, but the rationale for those policies was to make their people prosperous. We can tell analogous stories about health, literacy, technology, civility, and all the other fruits of civilization. Should libertarians be afraid to praise these as well?
I don’t think so. It’s just not reasonable to deny the goodness of prosperity, health, literacy, technology, civility—or fertility. And in any case, it’s strategically foolish. People will question liberty long before they’ll question prosperity. The wise response for libertarians is to accept the goodness of the ends, but argue that:
(a) liberty better promotes these ends;
(b) there is a trade-off between ends; and/or
(c) liberty is an important moral side constraint on the pursuit of these ends.
These replies obviously won’t convince everyone. But they’ll be at least as convincing to the typical natalist as they are to the typical proponent of economic growth.
2. Even taking the totality of human history into account, the abuses of anti-natalism swamp the abuses of pro-natalism. In the pre-modern era, there was social pressure to have more children, but there wasn’t much that government could do about it. Once modern contraception came along, Connelly is right to fault governments for banning and regulating it. But this seems relatively minor compared to the horrors of, say, India’s forced sterilization programs. Encouraging “the fit” to have more children seems minor compared to forced sterilization of the “unfit.” Even Stalin’s coercive natalism seems minor compared to the horrors of China’s One-Child policy. Does Connelly really disagree?
3. I’m puzzled by Connelly’s claim that “Most people who study pro-natalist incentives find that they have very little effect on fertility.” I had no strong preconceptions about this elasticity when I began my research. But on my reading the literature finds noticeable effects. Intuitively, it looks like incentives have little effect on the fertility of younger, single women, whose pregnancies are usually unplanned. However, older, married women are much closer to the margin; moderate cash incentives are often enough to tip them over the edge.
Besides Kevin Milligan. 2005. “Subsidizing the Stork: New Evidence on Tax Incentives and Fertility.” Review of Economics and Statistics 87, pp.539-555, and the literature Milligan cites, see also Rafael Lalive and Josef Zweimüller, “How Does Parental Leave Affect Fertility and Return to Work? Evidence from Two Natural Experiments,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 124 (3) (August 2009), pp. 1363–1402; and Anders Björklund, “Does a Family-Friendly Policy Raise Fertility Levels?” Swedish Institute for European Policy Studies 3 (April 2007).