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Selfless Reasons to Have More Kids

A few years ago, Bryan Caplan argued that good parenting is less onerous and more fun than many people think.  To some extent, it’s the parents, not parenting, that shape a child’s prospects.

One implication is that helicopter parents can relax a little: they’re probably not having as big of an effect on their children’s personality as they think, and they’re almost certainly confusing causation and correlation in assessing how well or poorly they’ve done as parents as they watch their children age.

Another implication Caplan draws is that there are, as his book title suggests, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids.  This may be true, but what I argue in an essay at Quillette is that there may also be altruistic reasons to have more kids, especially if we are worried about environmental issues like climate change.  Contrary to a thought common among journalists, the environmental pollution that new children create is not a good reason for conscientious parents to have fewer kids.

Economists since Julian Simon have defended the benefits of population growth, though the case for natalism is more nuanced than Simon thought.  A lot depends on who is having the children, and under what kinds of political institutions they live.

As readers of BHL know, the world does not contain a fixed supply of resources, so that creating more children automatically leaves fewer resources and more pollution for other people.  Instead, children born to successful and compassionate parents who live under political institutions that foster trade are the ultimate resource for transforming the existing stock of resources into more and better resources, including medicine, books, and technology that reduces pollution rather than just creates it.

In other words, if you care about the welfare of future people, and are reading this blog post, the world would probably be better off if you had more kids.

(The full essay is here)

Published on:
Author: Jonathan Anomaly
  • John Halstead

    Great post, making some neglected points. However, I think your argument neflects a crucial point concerning externalities. The negative externalities of the greenhouse gas emissions of future children are not internalised by market prices. If these large externalities continue not to be internalised and the population increases and in turn greenhouse gas emissions increase, then having children might in fact be a net cost to everybody else by bringing about dangerous climate change. Of course, new children will have many benefits to others as well, but it is not obvious what the balance of costs and benefits in advance of in-depth empiricial investigation.

    One could also argue that having children has important impartial benefits – by adding happy people to the world, we make the world a better place. This seems obvious to me, but lots of people seem to reject it.

    Anyway, great post – there’s a lot of confused talk about population and resources that should be corrected.

  • Irfan Khawaja

    “As readers of BHL know, the world does not contain a fixed supply of resources, so that creating more children automatically leaves fewer resources and more pollution for other people.”

    Actually, as just about everyone knows, the supply of some resources is fixed. Since human beings are mortal, each person has a fixed supply of time to live, hence a fixed and as yet unpredictable amount of time to spend on any one activity. The time spent on raising a child automatically leaves less time to do other things, hence automatically leaves fewer resources for would-be parents. What the argument of the post needs is a sub-argument for the conclusion that a determined non-parent ought to care so much about pollution/climate change that he or she ought to be willing to spend the time and effort to become a parent. It’s a stretch, to put it mildly.

    I care about climate change, but not enough to torture some would-be child with my unconcealed “altruistic” belief that his or her existence, though great for the “planet,” is a waste of my time. (I suppose I could solve that problem–by lying.) A parent who would have a child in order to have an effect on climate change is at least as much of a threat to human life as climate change itself. The world would not be a better place if it had more such people in it; it would be a living hell, as any therapist could tell you. I realize that the longer version of the post makes an effort to acknowledge the importance of context in making decisions about child-rearing, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough in stressing that it makes no sense at all to have children you don’t really want to have because “the world” would be better off if you did.

    • Anomaly

      The argument is NOT that you should have children in order to solve climate change. The title is a play on words from Caplan’s book, which I thought I made clear.

      The argument is instead a rebuttal to the frequently made claim (follow the links and you’ll find versions of it) that if we care about climate change we should restrict reproduction.

      • Irfan Khawaja

        Sorry, but that’s not clear at all. If the argument was supposed to be a rebuttal to something, you should have said it was. You didn’t say so–and I looked pretty hard to make sure I wasn’t misconstruing you (=I read and re-read the words you actually wrote, not the unwritten intentions you forgot to download onto the page). You said you were giving altruistic reasons for people worried about environmental issues for having more kids, which is exactly how I read you. But construed that way, you’ve given some of the worst reasons in the world to have kids–ethically preposterous and psychologically implausible ones. The fact that the title is a play on words from Caplan’s book doesn’t prove anything, much less prove the existence of intentions that didn’t find written expression in the actual essay.

        Incidentally, the fact remains that time (as in the duration of a lifespan) is a fixed-supply resource–a claim you haven’t rebutted.

        • Anomaly

          Fair enough, but:
          1. Check the full essay — the BHL post is just a teaser with a play on words, not a full argument or a stern moral commandment saying people are horrible if they don’t have kids.

          2. When constructing a short essay for a general audience, some things have to be taken for granted. I guess I thought it was obvious (and that readers would find it too obvious to state) that nobody should have children that they despise or neglect in order to supposedly make the world better off.

          3. You are a very aggressive interlocutor — calling the argument “ethically preposterous” is itself ethically preposterous. Maybe some of the assumptions are wrong, or maybe some should be further developed. But none of them are preposterous.

          • Irfan Khawaja

            1. I checked the full essay before I wrote my comment. It didn’t help. I said that in the first place.
            2. The point is not merely that one should refrain from having children one despises or would neglect, but that one should only have children one really wants to have for their own sake. Obviously I can’t take that for granted because you don’t seem to have grasped it.
            3. There’s nothing ethically preposterous about saying that it’s really, really immoral and stupid to have children for reasons that instrumentalize the children for some larger political purpose. It’s preposterous to deny that. No matter how you backpedal it, your essay clearly implies that one should have children for purposes that go beyond the welfare of the children and the desires of the parent to have children.
            There’s something problematically ingenuous about a blogger who posts on BHL in the year 2017 and complains about “aggressive interlocutors.” Does the name Jason Brennan ring any bells? Or Fernando Teson? BHL is practically the locus classicus of aggressive online conversation. You can’t post here and expect kid-gloves treatment. The posts don’t involve kid-gloves treatment, and the commenters don’t get it, either. It’s not a reasonable expectation, at least within limits of civility, and I don’t think my comment crosses any limits in that regard.
            Aggressively put or not, the fact remains that our time on earth is a fixed resource.

          • Anomaly

            I hereby conclude that you are not among the set of people who should have (more) children. Consider this a pardon.

  • BooBooBaby

    Well, people across Africa, India, and China should definitely STOP having Children.

    Many Majority White Countries Need to Stop being responsible, and Have More White Babies!! ASAP!!

  • Alexis Rodriguez

    Americans use a LOT LOT more unrenewable resources than people from Africa, and cause a lot more externalities(polution)!

    – Eat beans seriously!!
    – People should only go to school for labs. Discussions and Lectures should go online
    – Give loans to high-school dropouts so that they have fewer kids