I am writing this entry to counter what is honestly the most pathetic defense of natalism I have yet to read (thank you to Sister Y for the link). It was written by Bryan Caplan, professor of economics at George Mason U, who is an avowed natalist and has published a book called “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think.” Disgusting enough, right? Not to mention redundant: all reasons to have kids are selfish and ethically wrong. There is no such thing as an altruistic or ethically justifiable reason to have kids.
If this article is any indication of the level of his reasoning, then we have nothing to fear from Caplan or his books. Not only does he fail to address any of the antinatalist arguments which are widely published, but he downright fails to grasp the most fundamental point of all:
There are plenty of good reasons not to reproduce, but “It wouldn’t be fair to the child” isn’t one of them. How can it be “unfair” to give a gift so reliably better than nothing?
The most hilarious point here is that he fails to name any of these “good reasons not to reproduce” except for feeble and well-poisoning mentions of “overpopulation,” as well as a mind-bogglingly bad argument which I will address at the end. But beyond that, Caplan demonstrates a complete failure at grasping two very basic facts about the natalism issue: starting a human life is logically worse than “nothing,” and life is an imposition, not a gift.
It should be obvious that starting a human life is worse than not doing so. A potential life cannot suffer, while an existing life can. An existing life can experience pleasure, but a potential life cannot feel deprived of any pleasure. Therefore, it is always bad to come into existence, because it exposes one to suffering without any accompanying positive. To say that exposing someone to suffering is “reliably better” has really nothing to do with any kind of logic.
Life is “given” to a person without their consent. No one consents to be subject to millions of different risks of harm. Just as forcing someone to participate in a game of Russian Roulette is criminal, so is forcing a person to participate in the game of life. It is an imposition of risk on another human life, not a gift.
Equally idiotic is the first part of that same paragraph:
The most neglected benefit of population growth, though, is that more people get to exist. Almost everyone is glad to be alive. Thanks to the magic of hedonic adaptation, most people around the world consider themselves happy—even when severely handicapped or mired in Third World poverty.
By “hedonic adaptation,” Caplan is here referring to the fact that people can get used to any life-situation and adjust their standards of happiness accordingly, so that people can be happy even when they are living lives which most people would consider unlivable. Our brain forces us to be mindlessly optimistic about our own lives, even when our lives are objectively shit. And Caplan is saying that this is a good thing! How fucked up can you be to openly call an irrational bias “magical”? This is Christianity-level logic.
But most importantly, this demonstrates clearly that Caplan is not interested in facts or arguments. How does it prove natalism to point out that people are glad to be alive? We understand very well that human beings have evolved to remain optimistic, because pessimistic or suicidal traits do not survive the evolutionary process. What do these subjective opinions molded by an unintelligent process have to do with philosophical or scientific truth? Should we take surveys of subjective opinions to prove whether evolution is true or false, or whether God exists, or whether government is good by measuring how many people pay their taxes?
Incidentally, his only other mainstream natalist argument is that we need new people to fund older people’s retirements. So Caplan’s genius argument to rescue an innately faulty system (which he himself calls a “pyramid scheme,” an entirely accurate description) is to keep increasing it. Wow.
Caplan’s own natalist argument isn’t any better:
Once you recognize the power of ideas, the value of population comes into focus. People—especially smart, creative people—are the source of new ideas. Imagine deleting half the names in your music collection—or half the visionaries in the computer industry. Think how much poorer the world would be.
His argument is based on the implicit premise that we cannot increase existing people’s intelligence or creativity, which is why we need to keep producing new people so they can produce new ideas. As I discussed regarding Melvin Tumin’s defense of egalitarianism, the structure of economic hierarchy in place in our societies artificially limits the available talent in society. Most people, even in the developed world, are grossly under-educated (to say the least) and do not get to develop their intelligence and creativity to any significant extent, let alone its fullest extent. So how does this to any remote extent justify natalism? The world would be a lot “richer” if we would develop the minds of existing people to their fullest extent and permit their full expression. We don’t need to start new human lives for that.
Furthermore, even if you accept the extremely dubious premise that we absolutely need to breed more people in order to get new ideas, the argument commits what I call the fallacy of misplaced conclusion: it tries to get us to draw a given conclusion, when in fact the opposite conclusion makes more sense given the evidence. Caplan’s argument can be expressed as “we need to breed more people in order to get new ideas, therefore breed more people.” But the more rational conclusion, given the persuasive strength of antinatalist arguments, is “we need to breed more people in order to get new ideas, therefore let’s do the best we can with the ideas we have.” Of course, Caplan cannot consider this conclusion because he’s already set his mind against antinatalism.
I think it should be clear by now that, on the issue of natalism anyway, Bryan Caplan is a moron. But I’ve kept the best for last. This is what Caplan thinks the antinatalist arguments are like:
The case against population is simple: Assume a fixed pie of wealth, and do the math. If every person gets an equal slice, more people imply smaller slices. The flaw in this argument is that people are producers as well as consumers. More sophisticated critics of population appeal to the diminishing marginal product of labor. As long as doubling the number of producers less than doubles total production, more people imply smaller slices.
These anti-population arguments have strong intuitive appeal. But they face an awkward fact: During the last two centuries, both population and prosperity exploded. Maybe the world just enjoyed incredibly good luck, but it makes you wonder: Could rising population be a cause of rising prosperity?
First of all, he really, seriously thinks that the case against natalism resides in a complaint that we’re getting a smaller part of the production pie. Forget about all those other arguments, this is apparently the only one. The funny thing is, I have never heard this argument until now, and I think it’s a pretty bad one, since it relies on the proposition that growth is innately good, something which I have never seen proven.
But then Caplan replies to this straw man by making an argument which is astonishingly bad, even given the standards of the rest of the article. He points to the correlation between population and “prosperity” (for whom? measured how?) as an “awkward fact” in favor of natalism. But population has risen for almost the entire duration of human history (with exceptions for worldwide disasters or near-extinctions like the Black Plague), and thus population can be correlated with pretty much anything. Rising population is a cause of the shortening of skirts, and also their lengthening. Rising population is a cause of AIDS, cancer, nuclear bombs, school shootings, Christianity, Islam, and gardening. So what?
His book should have been titled “Selfish Reasons to Spout Nonsense: Why Being an Economist takes Less Intellect Than You Think.” He sure manifests no intellect in this utterly worthless article. Let’s hope future natalist articles will at least try to address some of the important points we’ve been making over and over, instead of just burying their heads in the sand.