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Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, Bryan Caplan

2012/01/07

Every now and then, I pick up a book and absolutely disagree with it from the title. Sometimes I decide to read those books. This is one of them.

In the introduction, Caplan argues, “…current and prospective parents have accidentally tipped their scales against fertility. We may feel sure that the pursuit of happiness and kids (or at least more kids) are incompatible, but it is in the average person’s enlightened self-interest to have more kids” (2). I didn’t get much further into the introduction before finding more points that made me want to throw the book across the room — “despite popular fears about overpopulation, more people make the world a better place…fertility is also vital for our retirement systems… parents who have extra kids aren’t just doing future retirees a favor; they’re also making the tax burden on future workers a little more bearable. The effects of fertility on the environment is more mixed, but conditions are better than they seem. We’re not running out of food, fuel, or minerals” (8). The Western, first-world, upper-middle-class bent of his arguments is clear when the author states, “I doubt that ‘they’ll provide for me when I’m old’ has ever been a good reason to have kids” (9). During a section where Caplan suggests hiring a nanny to alleviate some of the stress of childcare, he writes, “If you’re feeling too short on cash to hire help, there are plenty of ways to cut the cost. A nanny doesn’t need fluent English or a driver’s license to provide loving care for your children. It’s a little less convenient, but costs half as much” (30-31). Am I the only one who finds that terribly insulting and offensive?

Despite some of these dubiously received claims, Caplan does make good points when stating that the initial investment of time and resources into childrearing is not greatly increased when having multiple children in succession. He examines a number of happiness studies to determine that “customer satisfaction” when having children is greater than the regret of non-parents. He suggests that overparenting (ie, constant monitoring of children, creating and catering to unreasonable demands on parents’ time, scheduling excessive activities or outings “for the kids”) contributes unnecessarily to the burden of parenthood. He takes a closer look at the generally accepted assumption that “energetic parenting supposedly turns children into healthy, smart, successful, virtuous, and possibly even happy adults. When young adults fall short of this ideal, we round up the usual suspects — bad, lazy, or absent parents who failed to do their job” (34), pointing to studies which have shown that the upbringing of a child does not necessarily counter the biological/genetic (I hesitate to use those words due to the protests of the scientist that is my boyfriend) inclination that becomes evident when comparing twins separated at birth.

Perhaps my main issue with this book is not the economic arguments (which, coming from an economist, are fairly sound) but the emphasis that he places on family studies and genetics, without having a background in either field. Reading a few excerpts regarding the heredity of criminal traits to my aforementioned boyfriend (who happens to be studying genetics) resulted in a baffled “What?!?” and though I myself have no expertise in science, I know contradicting statements when I read them.

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