One of the principal arguments against designer babies is that the rich would use this technology to give their children further advantages, but such technology would remain out of the reach of the typical person. In a previous post, I argued that this is probably false–most likely the technology would eventually be available to most–but even if were true, because of comparative advantage, we should still welcome designer baby technology.

Today, I want to push harder on the zero-sum mentality.  Many people believe it’s bad for the rest of us if the rich design smarter, stronger, more beautiful, healthier, more advantaged babies. They subscribe to a zero-sum worldview in which one person’s advantages come at everyone else’s expense. If that’s your worry, then in principle you should be in favor of using genetic engineering to design dumber, weaker, less healthy babies. It would sure be surprising if the status quo just happens to produce optimal amount of variation in natural talents from the zero-sum point of view. Are we right now at the ideal distribution of natural talent? I don’t see how or why a person worried about designer babies could answer yes. After all, thanks to assortative mating, the rich and successful are already giving their kids a leg up on the competition, namely by giving them better genes.

So, if you believe we shouldn’t allow the rich to engineer healthier babies because this will give their kids too many advantages, please explain why you don’t also favor (in principle) using genetic engineering to remove genetic advantages.

You needn’t imagine the government forces the advantaged to engineer  average kids. Imagine instead that the rich, now motivated by a strong sense of egalitarian justice, subscribe to the zero-sum mentality. Out of the goodness of their hearts, they choose to invest their money in producing less talented offspring. If you fear them engineering more talented offspring, shouldn’t you welcome them choosing to engineer less talented offspring?

EDITS: Fixed some typos. Added a sentence.

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Today The Atlantic published an article on the Basic Income Guarantee, with special focus on the work of Scott Santens to crowdfund a basic income on a voluntary basis. And last week, Michael Tanner of the Cato Institute published a terrific policy analysis assessing both the strengths and weaknesses of various sorts of BIG and related-policies.

I’ve written a few pieces defending a BIG from both a pragmatic and a more principled perspective. But it’s never been an issue about which I’ve felt absolutely settled. The idea of implementing a BIG as a replacement for our current welfare state faces some serious difficulties. And lately – especially after reading Tanner’s piece – those difficulties have been worrying me a bit more than they used to.

Here, then, are what I take to be three of the more pressing problems facing libertarian supporters of a BIG:

  1. Cost – There’s good reason to worry that the size of the grant provided by a BIG is either going to be too small to meet people’s basic needs, or to large to be affordable. Ed Dolan’s proposal, for instance, which is one of the better-worked out proposals out there from a libertarian perspective, clearly falls into the former category at only $4,452 per person. Other proposals like Charles Murray’s cut down on the costs but only by giving up on the universal nature of the grant, and thereby also on some of its most attractive features. Murray’s proposal, for instance, includes a provision to tax back the grant at progressively high rates after a person’s income rises above $25,000. That significantly reduces the administrative simplicity of the proposal, and also creates potentially strong disincentives to work. Michael Tanner goes into the cost-estimates of various programs in great detail, as does David Henderson in his contribution to the recent Independent Review debate on the BIG. Both discussions deserve a careful read from supporters of a BIG.
  2. What Programs to Replace? It’s easy to talk in the abstract about the BIG serving as a replacement for the existing welfare state. But exactly which programs is a BIG supposed to replace? Free K-12 public education certainly involves coercive redistribution. Is that “welfare”? And if so, would we really feel comfortable replacing it with a cash grant (which would presumably go to the parents, and not the children themselves)? What about programs for the mentally disabled? Would giving them cash really be better for them than giving them counseling services and other need-specific forms of in-kind assistance?
    I’m pretty opposed to paternalism as a general principle. But there’s something to the argument that people like Barbara Bergmann (and Tyler Cowen) make: people have lots of different and very specific needs, and simply giving people cash isn’t always a more effective way of helping them then trying to meet those needs directly. Whatever cash grant the BIG provides might not be enough to meet their needs. And if people perceive (rightly or wrongly) that the BIG isn’t meeting people’s needs, they are likely to support political measures to amend it, adding add-ons for this, exceptions for that, and so on. A BIG that replaces all or much of the existing welfare state might thus not only be insufficient; it might very well be politically unstable.
  3. Increased Xenophobia – In my the very first thing I ever wrote about the BIG, I worried that implementing would lead to increased hostility toward immigration, and therefore to worsening the situation of the poor outside the United States. Megan McArdle makes a similar point here, and raises some other serious concerns for the BIG here. Now, sure, there are ways around this. You could design a BIG that simply doesn’t apply to first-generation immigrants, or that has a kind of waiting period before it goes into effect. But the more exceptions and modifications you have to weld on to a BIG to make it practically workable – especially when those exceptions are likely to face severe political and legal challenges – the less likely it is that you’re going to get it implemented in anything like the form for which you’d hoped. The relevant comparison isn’t whether an ideal BIG would be better than the non-ideal welfare-state we’ve actually got. It’s whether the BIG we’d actually be likely to get would be better.

Now, the force of these problems depends to some degree on what one’s rationale is for supporting a BIG. And different libertarians have different rationales. Libertarians who take a pragmatic approach to defending a BIG, for instance, are going to find all three of these points especially troubling. If the point of a BIG is to meet people needs more effectively or more cheaply than the current welfare state, than the fact that it wouldn’t meet their needs, or that it wouldn’t be cheap, is going to be a pretty big problem.

On the other hand, most libertarians don’t believe that people have a right to get all of their needs met by others as a matter of justice. If, then, the point of a BIG isn’t to meet people’s needs, but rather to compensate for past injustice, or to redistribute the undeserved economic rent held by owners of natural resources, then the fact that the BIG doesn’t meet all of everybody’s needs isn’t really a problem after all. On this view, the point of the BIG is to give you the economic resources to which you’re entitled, and what you’re entitled to and what you need might be two entirely different things.

I think this response goes some way to addressing the worry raised by the first two arguments above. But then again, I’m so much of a hard-nosed deontologist that the consequences of the policy don’t matter to me. So if there are better responses to these problems, I’d love to hear them. What do you say, readers?

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A PSA:  Jonny Anomaly has put together a web site that we (Duke-UNC PPE) hope will serve as a useful repository of information, syllabi, and resources for PPE programs and scholars.

Check it out….

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