Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids

 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.”

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.


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