Connelly’s Fears

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.[1] 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).

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Bryan Caplan argues that declining world populations aren’t such a good thing after all. While we may have dodged the “population bomb” predicted in the 1970s, the world still benefits from more suppliers — and demanders — of new goods and services. Friends of scientific and cultural advancement should want more people around. All of which leads him to a question: Are there ways to incentivize population growth without sacrificing individual liberty? Caplan suggests several methods, including open immigration, tax incentives for children — and the direct, ultimately private argument that having more kids is more fun than most people realize.

Response Essays

  • Gregory Clark argues that, while Caplan may more or less accurately describe the history of economic development, mineral and other reserves in the West have been significantly depleted. What holds true today will not hold true indefinitely regarding food, energy, and basic mineral commodities. The balance between population growth and resources only recently tipped toward abundance, and it will likely tilt in the other direction soon.

    Clark agrees, however, with Caplan’s suggestion that on the margin, middle-class families stand little to lose and much to gain by having more children; cultural assumptions in the West likely overestimate the importance of nurture, and as a result, middle-class Americans probably do overinvest in their children.

  • Matthew Connelly reviews the history of pro- and anti-natalist policies around the world. He finds them both full of coercion, perverse incentives, misogyny, and — if states try hard enough — atrocity. Population trends, however, are very stubborn, and the payoff to such policies is low. In his words, “economists do not know where babies come from.” Not, anyway, such that they can motivate people without destroying their autonomy. If libertarians are recruited to the pro-natalist side, as Caplan urges, their enlisting could come at the price of individual liberty itself.

  • Betsey Stevenson agrees that parents are often generally less happy than otherwise similarly situated nonparents. But she casts doubt on the theory that excessive parental worry is the source of the unhappiness. The most worrying parents, those who spend the most time on childcare, are also the ones who report relatively higher levels of happiness. There is, moreover, more to life than self-reported happiness, and parents may very well have other desires and values than just this one. Neither self-reported happiness nor economic utility are all that there is to our various ideas of the good life. We still need to learn more about why parents describe themselves as less happy before we can prescribe more children and less worrying as the remedy.