Fertility and the Gift of Life

A reply to Matthew Connelly.

1. When I wrote Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, I tried to review the whole literature on the effect of natalist incentives. But this wasn’t my focus, and based on Connelly’s references, I confess that I may have overlooked some relevant research.

Fortunately for me, as I pointed out in my target essay, the cost/benefit ratio of additional fertility is so favorable that we can drastically reduce our estimate of the benefits, drastically increase our estimate of the cost, and continue to enjoy a free fiscal lunch. This is an argument for tax cuts that almost all non-libertarians would find compelling. Can a libertarian really be less sympathetic?

2. Connelly writes:

Bryan insists that the crimes of anti-natalism are far worse than those of pro-natalism, and describes them as a thing of the past—even though dozens of countries keep abortion unsafe and illegal.

Did I say or even suggest that coercive natalism is a “thing of the past”? I don’t think I did. He continues:

I do not know how to compare the human cost of pressuring or compelling someone to bear multiple children against their will—and at risk to their health—to that endured by those who felt pressured or compelled to agree to use an unsafe contraceptive or endure assembly-line sterilization.

Question: Is this a general agnosticism about weighing one form of coercion against another? Or is it specific to the issue at hand?

3. I’m puzzled by Connelly’s claim that, “Fertility is not, after all, a good in and of itself, unlike liberty, prosperity, or good health.” It seems to me that, all else equal, it is very “good in and of itself” when one more person gets to enjoy the gift of life. Yes, you can point to downsides and trade-offs. But you can do the same for prosperity and health.

Matt, why are you so much more worried about “fertility cults” than “prosperity cults” or “health cults”? All can be rationales for oppressive policies. All have been. But as I said in my previous reply, libertarians have more convincing ways to defend liberty than flatly denying the goodness of these ends.

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.