The Foundation for Economic Education is a right-wing think tank. It may therefore not be entirely surprising to see that it has published a natalist article by Steven Horwitz. This article starts by praising Bryan Caplan (the useful idiot of the natalists, whose arguments I have debunked many times before), and ranting against bioethicist Travis Rieder for saying that children are negative externalities. His article is meant as a reply to Rieder and, by extension, as a debunking of antinatalism, so let’s look at his arguments.
He, like so many environmentalists, sees human beings only as consumers of resources. So one core statistic he trots out is that the amount of CO2 saved by not having a child is roughly 20 times what we can save through traditional things like driving hybrids and recycling. Therefore, he and the other people discussed in the story conclude, if we really want to “save the planet,” we should have fewer, if any, children.
But this is single-entry economic and moral bookkeeping. This view ignores the idea that humans are also producers. As Julian Simon reminded us so often, more people not only means more hands to work and more minds to create, it means more different people with different ideas. Increases in population not only deepen the division of labor and productivity by their sheer numbers, they also take advantage of the fact that each of us is unique which leads to new ideas and innovation.
Even on the face of it, this is not an adequate response. Rieder’s point is an urgent one, given the fact that we are plunging headlong towards environmental disaster. It is vitally important that procreation slows down. Only some of us are intelligent enough and fortunate enough to be producers and innovators, while all of us pollute and consume. So on that basis alone, Horwitz is missing the mark.
But there’s also the problem that these two things do not cancel out. Having more people so they can produce more is even worse for the environment, because production inevitably implies pollution. Innovation usually means the means to produce more, or to produce new things, which again produces more pollution. If anything, Horwitz’s argument strengthens the “new lives are a negative externality” position!
But what is ultimately missing is any sort of reference to the interests of the child. Horwitz wants to convince us that having children is good because children will grow up to be producers and innovators. What he does not tell us in the entire article is why any child should be convinced by this rhetoric. Why should anyone’s life purpose be set by Horwitz’s economic calculations? And if a child does not grow up to be a producer and innovator, does that mean they have not fulfilled their purpose? In short, why should any new life care what Horwitz, or his natalist colleagues, think about the purpose of their life?
Such growth is what has made it possible for the Earth to sustain 7 billion lives of increasing length, comfort, and quality. Reducing the population might mean we use up more resources by losing the efficiencies that come from a larger population’s greater ability to innovate and productively specialize.
This last statement is absurd. It is not as if we currently have one person doing every job, knowing one special area of knowledge, and that having fewer people would deprive us of a specialty. No, many people do the same job, and losing some of them would not affect our “ability to productively specialize.” Having seven billion people, one billion people, or even 500 million people, is surely not necessary to “productively specialize,” as long as you’re willing to educate everyone and provide for everyone’s needs. That is the part that terrorizes capitalists, because they are absolutely unwilling to do this, and so they push for natalism instead of providing for the people who are already here. And THAT, in short, is why idiots like Caplan and Horwitz push for natalism.
The benefits of having more kids are not primarily to the parents involved, though as Caplan points out there are many. More people means we are better able to beat back omnipresent scarcity and carve out a more inhabitable planet for more people who live longer, better lives.
This refers to Bryan Caplan’s natalist book, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think. I think the title tells you everything you need to know about it. We hear so much about the advantages of breeding because it’s a propaganda front: adults need to be bombarded by the “benefits of having kids” because the negatives are so obvious and easy to understand, and if it was up to an unbiased and totally free choice most people would never breed.
That aside, the “reasoning” that more people means we can “beat back” scarcity is the exact opposite of what logic would dictate. The more humans that exist on this planet, especially humans who live in Western countries, the more resources they need to continue to exist. The resources of this planet are finite. Therefore, logically, the more people there are, the more likely it is for those resources to be scarce. The longer people live, and the “better” they live (meaning: the more technology they use, and therefore the pollution they generate, either by themselves or through energy generation), the more scarce resources are. The natalist reasoning is completely irrational, but that’s because they are justifying an irrational ideology.
The other crucial point Rieder and people like him miss is that the Earth’s population is already in the process of stabilizing. One of the most agreed upon empirical facts of history is the so-called “demographic transition.” As societies become wealthier and more industrialized, the incentives facing parents change and family size falls. Once mom and dad, or perhaps only one of them, can earn enough income to support a family, and there’s no farm or cottage industry that requires the whole family pitching in, the need for many children is much less and parents seek to control their fertility.
This “demographic transition” is not backed by the evidence. Yes, we are planned to enter such a transition, but we are nowhere near that point yet: we have a few billion people left before population growth stabilizes, under most realistic scenarios. So this is clearly an ignorant statement on Horwitz’s part.
Furthermore, the fact that higher wealth and industrialization leads to lower birth rates is a powerful objection to a major natalist argument, the argument that procreation is natural and a basic drive of human beings. If that was the case, then being more wealthy and having more time-saving machines would lead to people have more children, not less. In his eagerness to “prove” that there’s no overpopulation problem, Horwitz is tripping over natalist premises without even acknowledging it.
Thankfully Rieder does not want to use Chinese-style coercion to limit family size, but he’s not afraid to tax larger families more heavily. Even that isn’t necessary given the reality of the demographic transition: in a free society, human beings naturally limit their fertility as they get wealthier. Again, the best way to save the planet is not to have fewer kids, but to have as many as you can afford and let their productivity enable us to use resources with more efficiency and create more progress.
There is no coherent argument here, and the set of statements here are a non-sequitur. Taxing larger families has nothing to do with wealthy families but with how many children they have. The “demographic transition” nonsense is repeated again, with no evidence. And none of this has anything to do with “saving the planet.” This is a real mess. I’ve already addressed the bizarre argument that more children will lead to less scarcity, so I will not repeat it here.
The radical wing of environmentalism is, as Ayn Rand said decades ago, “anti-life” and “anti-human” in its belief that humans are the scourge of the planet and not the source of its progress. After all, if the important thing is saving the planet by reducing our carbon footprint, why stop by persuading people to not have kids?
Why not persuade currently living people, especially young ones, to reduce their lifetime carbon footprint by killing themselves? The logic is no different.
Ho-hum. This is the standard argument addressed to antinatalists: “if you’re against life, then why don’t you kill yourself?” It is not made any less offensive by making the suicide hypothetical. Telling people to kill themselves is heartless.
But to answer the point: suicide is a different kind of thing than not having kids. Not having kids means not bringing in new lives into this world, which, as long as they remain potential, have no desires, values, and cannot suffer. Suicide is about ending already existing lives, people who have desires, values, and can suffer. Whatever your opinion is about suicide, they are still wholly different things. Not having kids does not entail suffering (the frustration of the desire to have children does, but not the absence itself), while suicide does.
But equally importantly, it is true that suicide reduces one’s lifetime carbon footprint. So why not persuade people to kill themselves? Well, for one, not having kids, while a very hated position, is probably an easier sell than inducing people to kill themselves. Enjoining people to not have children will get you vilified, but encouraging suicide would probably land you in jail. Apparently Horwitz doesn’t think that’s important.
That they don’t make that argument suggests that “saving the planet” really isn’t the overriding issue here. Like so much else in the Green movement, this seems to be about protecting their own comfortable lives against what they think will happen when everyone else is able to live lives like they have. They got their progress and health and children, but everyone else needs to sacrifice for the sake of the planet. That Rieder does have a child is some evidence of this point.
For the first time, I agree with Horwitz… but note that he’s addressing Greenies here, not antinatalism. I agree that liberal environmentalism is mostly about preserving the Western way of life while sacrificing the third world for the sake of preserving capitalism. I also agree that so-called environmentalists having children are little more than human vermin, and I have zero respect for such people.
Not only is Rieder’s argument deeply immoral and reactionary in how wrong it is, it turns out to be far less altruistic than it first seems. Nothing could capture the total failure of radical environmentalist anti-natalism better than calling it “selfish reasons everyone else should have fewer kids.”
But the previous argument was about environmentalists who have kids, not antinatalist environmentalists. So it seems here that the conclusion is misplaced. It is breeding that is fundamentally selfish, not antinatalism. There is nothing selfish about having fewer or no kids, as no one is being hurt by new lives not being brought into existence (except in limit cases, which are not relevant in today’s world). So it seems silly to call anything “selfish reasons everyone else should have fewer kids.” What are those reasons? I suppose Horwitz would answer that not having children is selfish because you’re lowering the standard of living for everyone, but that comes from his delusional worldview, not anything resembling reality.