Saturday, March 03, 2007

The War Over Children

There is a quiet war simmering among the chattering classes over children and the responsibility to have or the irresponsibility of having them. People who don’t have kids have more rewarding lives than “breeders,” or people who don’t are selfish. Property owners implicitly (because they don’t want to run afoul of federal anti-discrimination laws) pitch themselves to the childless by advertising the desirability of the property for a “quiet adult person” or “single” people, so as to protect the existing residents from the rug-rat plague. It raises an interesting question: which is the more responsible choice?

The most straightforward, and morally correct, answer is “whatever choice the individuals involved make.” People who don't want to have children have no moral obligation to, and might be expected to make poor parents in any event. But there are interesting issues raised, particularly with regard to who is subsidizing whom. The proudly childless often argue that their taxes must subsidize public schools without getting the (small) tax breaks that parents get, so that those with children in them free-ride to some extent on the taxes of the childless. Meanwhile, ChicagoBoyz argues that the decision not to have kids is free-riding by being unwilling to produce future generations.

I think that neither of these positions is correct, although the second is more nearly so. Suppose there is an island with 500 couples on it. 250 couples have one kid, 250 have none. The next generation thus has 250 couples. Soon, obviously, this society is headed for extinction (or conquest by other islands).

But there is no obligation to maintain the human species per se. People who are never born never experience any loss, while people who refuse to have them experience gain. However, the problem arises for those who are alive in the increasingly childless society. The primary positive externality from children is not the perpetuation of the species, and certainly not the ability to fund the state pensions of future generations, a view that sees future children as partial slaves. The externality arises because others are deprived of potential trading partners. In the example above, if everyone had two children, each of 1000 people in the next generation would have 999 potential trading partners; as it is each of 250 only has 249. (I am assuming you can trade with as many people as you like.) Everyone in life, childless or not, only has trading partners because others have decided to have children. Children are a massive positive externality, and those who don’t have them are free-riding on the children of everyone else in every trade they consummate.

Admittedly, children also consume scarce resources – oil, e.g. – and generate pollution, but this is trivial when set against the ideas, innovations, knowledge and value they create. As the economist Steven Landsburg notes in his very readable Fair Play, even the love and joy that children throughout life generate in others must be accounted as a positive externality. Against this must be set the harm they do to others, a negative externality, but unless one takes an unusually dim view of human nature these effects are for most people (hardened criminals or democidal dictators aside) outweighed. In that sense measures taken in the name of population control are as inefficient as any policies on earth.

Having said all that, if people want to start child-free housing developments or restaurants that is their right in a free society. (A town does not have the right to require that developers operate this way, as at least one town in New Jersy has recently done.) But here is a hint for those who fret about children being in a particular restaurant where they hoped to enjoy a child-free meal: if you go in and it has kids’ menus or highchairs, it is a place where children belong.

2 Comments:

Blogger Joshua said...

Suppose there is an island with 500 couples on it. 250 couples have one kid, 250 have none. The next generation thus has 250 couples.

Actually the next generation has 250 people, not 250 couples. In fact, unless these 250 children consist of exactly 125 boys and 125 girls, and none of these 125 boys and 125 girls die during childhood, or turn out to be infertile or gay, these 250 couples will translate into less than 125 couples. So, your hypothetical society is in even more dire demographic straits than you've made them out to be.

There is one other dynamic that I suspect is fueling this "war" over children. In a way, procreation is like voting in an election: Regardless of whether or not you vote, that individual vote, or its absence, is virtually insignificant by itself. George W. Bush, for example, would have been re-elected in 2004 regardless of whether I voted for him (as I did), for John Kerry, or for some third-party candidate, or simply sat that election out. Likewise, no one couple can have a significant impact on the fecundity of their society.

People who are never born never experience any loss, while people who refuse to have them experience gain. However, the problem arises for those who are alive in the increasingly childless society.

Here, of course, is the rub. Since societal childlessness and its consequences are not something any one couple can prevent, having kids isn't so much an act of ensuring the future of your society as it is an act of wagering on that future, with your child's happiness in that future society as the stakes.

5:07 PM  
Blogger Evan said...

Thanks for the correction.

Re: your analogy to voting, it would suggest that those groups with higher fertility rates (religious conservatives, "Hispanics") have more confidence that the future society will be to their liking than those groups - secular progressives, most indigenous Europeans, etc. - with lower rates.

Of course, family decisions are more than that. Children are a tradeoff against other things of value. The person who spends his 20s and 30s traveling the world, changing jobs and going to school is sacrificing the opportunity to have more kids, but doesn't mind.

4:47 PM  

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