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Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids

An odd mix of common sense and gullibility from an American economist projects a positive message about large families.
Francis Phillips | 18 August 2011
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 Living in a society where children are often seen as a burden rather than a blessing, I was drawn to Bryan Caplan’s title. After all, the received wisdom is that selfish people have fewer rather than more children. The book’s dedication seemed to promise further proof of the author’s wisdom:  “To my parents who gave me life – and to my children who give me joy”.

Caplan is professor of economics at George Mason University and his arguments in favour of larger families (he has three) are underpinned by the economic language in which he thinks: profit and loss, investment, bonuses, dividends and percentages. He is influenced by the late Julian Simon, an economist who dared to challenge the pessimism of influential writers on population such as Paul Ehrlich. For Julian Simon “the human imagination is the greatest resource”. Caplan adds to this his own belief that despite popular fears about over-population, “more people make the world a better place.”

Quoting statistics, such as that in the US in 1976 20% of married women in their early forties had five or more children, compared to 2006 when less than 4% did, Caplan would like to see this trend reversed. He argues that a healthy family size makes economic sense: in 1940 in the US there were ten workers per retired person; now there are about five; in 15 years there will be only three. Small families lead to economic decline.

Much of his argument focuses on reassuring couples that having a larger than average family need not bankrupt them or drive them to an early grave. Indeed, he advocates relaxed parenting, for instance, not making your children engage in numerous after-school classes or activities if neither they nor you derive any pleasure from them. “The typical kid is not a fan of long car rides and museums” he asserts. Television should also be permitted in small doses: “Electronic babysitters are a vital component of cultural literacy”; children should be exposed to the Simpsons as well as Shakespeare. Many parents, if not Tiger Mothers, will see some sense in this approach.

 More controversial are his views on the nature/nurture argument:  that adoption and twin studies provide strong evidence why parents barely affect their children’s future prospects.” In the short run, parental interventions will have a limited effect – but “nature wins, especially in the long run.” This is the reason for his relaxed stance: why bother, if it is all a waste of time? Just as I was formulating a counter-argument, to the effect that “nature” might win in “average” families, but what happens to all the numerous other families where there is depressive illness, addiction, divorce, death, single parenthood and so on,  that will impact upon one’s capacity to make use of inherited traits and abilities, Caplan admits the weakness of behavioural genetics: “ Research focuses on middle-class families in First World countries”; twin and adoption studies almost always concentrate on “relatively normal families in relatively rich countries.” Quite so.

 Caplan does not discount the notion of personal responsibility: “By the time you are an adult, your parents’ past mistakes are not the reason for your present unhappiness”. Yet although I can accept the message that children should be welcomed rather than seen as a threat, there is one serious flaw to his outlook: a complete lack of moral boundaries when it comes to biotechnology. If babies are a good thing, he reasons, they are good in any and every circumstance: conceived without fathers, conceived by artificial insemination, conceived by two people of the same sex using egg donors or sperm donors; everything science can invent to by-pass traditional conception is to be applauded because “ being alive is good for children.” Although it is evident from his book that he himself is a very involved father, devoted to his three sons, he can still ask the question, are fathers necessary? On the matter of artificial insemination by donor, he writes, “Who would seriously say, ‘Unless I find my real Dad my life won’t be worth living’”? Does he really have so little understanding for a child’s need to know who his parents are?

Caplan finds nothing disquieting in the idea of “baster babies” where “lesbians don’t have to find a man at all.” He also doesn’t raise the question of exploitation of poor, Third World women in “fertility tourism”. Indeed, “surrogacy is an amazing advance”, as are artificial wombs for women “who see pregnancy as a burden.” He casually remarks, “If you’re lucky, a relative, friend or random benefactor will agree to carry your baby for free.”

The more I read on in this book, the more disappointed I became, that someone so highly educated and from a clearly loving and conventional, two-parent background, could be so astonishingly obtuse and unreflective. Instead of being just a pleasant, articulate, secular chap who has discovered the joys of parenthood and who wants to share some amusing insights on the way children behave, the author finally comes across simply as a useful idiot for the advocates of values-free biotechnology, unthinkingly betraying the very children he protests he cares about so much.

Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire, in the UK.

MORE ON THESE TOPICS | children, parenting
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