Libertarian makes case for having more children
Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think by Bryan Caplan (Basic Books, $29, 228 pages)
Bryan Caplan is a libertarian thinker and economics professor at George Mason University. He is always provocative and is one of my favourite writers. I was without a doubt going to enjoy his latest book, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think. That is not to say that I agree with everything in it; indeed, there is much for morally conservative readers to oppose, but at the same time he is owed a debt of gratitude for making a starkly pro-natal, pro-larger family tract that would be ignored if written by someone with a more traditional values bent.
Caplan’s main point is that the world is better off with more people. He is a fan of Julian Simon, who described human beings as the world’s greatest resource. As an economist, Caplan recognizes the importance of maximizing happiness, and he makes the perfectly sensible argument that whatever small price parents might pay in terms of diminished satisfaction with their own lives, it would be easily eclipsed by the joy that the each new human being experiences throughout his or her life. Unfortunately, prospective parents do not seek to improve the world, but rather selfishly (an observation, not a judgment) look out for their own benefits.
Here, Caplan begins to enter the world of controversy. He argues parents do a poor job of ascertaining what is best for themselves. Employing happiness studies, he says that after the first child, the affect of each additional children is negligible and that, anyway, most of the misery parents experience raising children is self-inflicted. He rightfully skewers the style of parenting that plans every spare moment of a child’s life, enrolling kids in endless soccer, piano, language classes, and other activities. Caplan says parents and children would be better off if mothers and fathers relaxed and parented less.
As an economist, Caplan observes the sensible principle that people will buy more of something when the price falls and less of it when prices increase. By reducing the costs of parenting – time, emotional investment, money, etc… – mothers and fathers can afford to have more children. It sounds coldly calculating and many parents do it unconsciously, but if parenting was less of a burden, parents would view having more children as less painful.
One of the costs of parenting is the guilt of not doing enough for our children. Caplan’s solution is to exonerate parents of most of the responsibility of how their kids turn out. He is a firm believer in nature over nurture and he comes to this conclusion by noting copious twin and adoption studies. Much of the evidence is counterintuitive and Caplan can be criticized for putting too much stock in his chosen evidence. He admits that as the father of identical twins, “I readily accept the power of nature, but still struggle to deny the power of nurture.” Yet, he concludes that most of the effects of parenting are short-term while genetics have a long-term influence.
A humility that we have only so much influence on our children and that “parental investments don’t pay off” means that “relaxed parenting is a free lunch: better for parents, an no worse for kids.” He says that if you qualify as parents who can adopt, you are going to be hard-pressed to wreck your child’s life.
A more problematic aspect of Caplan’s pro-natalist outlook is his acceptance of host of morally questionable practices such as surrogate motherhood, artificial insemination, and fertility tourism – what he calls “life-giving science.” He simply dismisses any moral arguments that favour natural procreation.
One need not accept Caplan’s argument that nature trumps nurture to take his practical advice on how to lighten up (which is the first and best chapter): how to discipline, supervise, get sleep, and plan activities with minimal pain. If parenting was less work, more people would have more children.
Caplan is not arguing that every family needs to have five or six children, but rather that people who are eschewing parenthood could probably survive one child, and if small families have survived one or two children, then adding another will only be marginally more work than the first one(s). Most families, he argues, can painlessly have one more child.
There is much in Selfish Reasons to Have Children to help most parents, to upset many traditional values readers, and challenge conventional wisdom that both pro-family and anti-family people hold. The happiness research and adoption and twin studies are interesting and probably true up to a point, and one need not buy into all of it to learn a thing or two.
Ultimately, however, the book misses the mark. The reason to have children is not selfish in that it will increase the happiness one experiences in life, but, as the journalist Jonathan V. Last notes, that progeny “provides purpose for a well-lived life.” If this book helps more people achieve that, it will have done a great service for both individuals and the larger society..