When It Comes to Fertility, How Can All Other Things Ever Be Equal?

Bryan is gracious in admitting he may have underestimated what we might have to pay people to have more babies. So how much more would he be willing to pay? Given that his policy would only apply to taxpayers, might hedge fund managers with large families get a free pass? And would this not mean doubly penalizing working class couples unable to bear children? But my main concern is the unanticipated costs and risks—inevitable when we are fiddling with something that we do not really understand—including the opportunity costs of implementing such a plan when the country has far more pressing concerns than the fertility rate.

When I wrote that I did not know how to compare the crimes of anti-natalism to the crimes of pro-natalism, I was drawing a contrast with Bryan’s assertion that the former have swamped the latter. I should have asked how he made this judgment, especially now that I understand he recognizes that threats to reproductive rights are ongoing. People struggle to compare the great human rights atrocities of the 20th century, but at least we can count the bodies. How do we even begin to calculate the toll on women’s health and wellbeing of having to bear children against their will, and then compare it to the tragedy of others who were denied that right? Historians shy away from making these kinds of judgments since we believe it is hard enough simply to understand and explain, and real understanding is what we need most to avoid repeating the same errors.

Bryan and I must agree to disagree about whether fertility is a good in and of itself “all else equal.” Ceteris paribus can be a useful—though often misleading—assumption when positing causal relationships. But it is not helpful when we are trying to assess human values. Most people judge liberty, prosperity, and health to be good in and of themselves because they wish to live in a society that maximizes each one of them. Who wants to live in a society that maximizes fertility, especially if manipulating or pressuring couples to have more children comes at the cost of liberty, prosperity, and health? When it comes to fertility, other things have never been equal—especially not the costs and risks for men and women, rich and poor, the fit and the “unfit.”

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.