Bryan Caplan cheerleads for natalism, falls on his fucking ass…

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.

40 thoughts on “Bryan Caplan cheerleads for natalism, falls on his fucking ass…

  1. Gomi September 14, 2011 at 10:31

    I understand your logic behind it, but every time I hear the ethical argument for antinatalism, I see a teenager stomping their foot and yelling “I never asked to be born!”

    • Francois Tremblay September 14, 2011 at 12:52

      Literally, that’s true. No one asked to be born.

      • Gomi September 14, 2011 at 13:46

        By the same token, no one asked not to be born either.

        We have no experience of non-existence, so we can’t effectively compare not-being to experiencing being. Sure, we can say “if we didn’t exist, we would experience the bad,” but we wouldn’t be, in the first place.

        It’s like saying God is better than Hitler, because at least God’s beneficent. But God doesn’t exist. There’s no basis of comparison, because there’s nothing to compare it to. It’s fairy tale.

        • Francois Tremblay September 14, 2011 at 13:49

          Well, yes. I fully agree that we’re not comparing two states of existence. I’ve stated as much in my entry on the Non-Identity Problem:

          “It may very well be that the premise of the NIP is not even correct, insofar as it assumes that antinatalism is literally talking about potential people as persons. In Better Never to Have Been, Benatar argues:

          Comparing somebody’s existence with his non-existence is not to compare two possible conditions of that person. Rather it is to compare his existence with an alternative state of affairs in which he does not exist.

          He also compares this sort of comparison with a person who considers whether to commit suicide. This obviously necessitates the same kind of comparison that we perform when we consider whether a person should be created, in reverse. Obviously this is not a comparison between two persons, either, since no person would exist after the suicide; and yet this is perfectly meaningful to us. Therefore, considering whether a person should be created must be perfectly meaningful as well.”

          • Gomi September 14, 2011 at 14:09

            But the consideration of suicide is one of ego. An internal question of whether to continue or to “opt out,” to be or cease to be. But you can’t reverse that. There’s no ability to determine “to not-be or cease to not-be,” because there’s no ego able to make that consideration.

            It’s like saying “what if there wasn’t oxygen?” Sure, the simple answer is that we’d suffocate, but that assumes we existed when oxygen disappears. But what if there was no oxygen to begin with? We wouldn’t even exist. Therefore, would something else have evolved to ask the question, or would nothing have been there in the first place to contemplate the lack of that particular gas?

            To make an ethical determination for antinatalism, you’re making an assumption of not-being. It’s like someone asking not to be born or asking to be born. It doesn’t exist. It’s logically impossible, so not a logical argument. Ultimately, it’s an emotional one, an assumption of relative value with something that has no value to compare.

            • Francois Tremblay September 14, 2011 at 14:12

              No.. I am not making an “assumption of not-being.” If you disagree with the reasoning I presented in my last comment, then address that. As I stated, I am not comparing not-being with being.
              And your ego argument makes no sense. Of course there is someone able to make that reasoning: you, and me.

              • Gomi September 14, 2011 at 14:37

                But you and I aren’t the person considering whether to exist or not.

                A person considering suicide has their own being to consider, and thus at least a basis to consider ceasing that being. Having experienced being, they can imagine that ending.

                But who’s considering their not-being? Who’s able to consider not-being ending?

                Suicide is comparing living with death, which works because living and dead are comparable states of being, but this argument for antinatalism is comparing being with a null state. It requires an assumptive basis for that null state to make it something that can be compared to.

                Granted, the same argument flips around on natalists too, if they make an ethical argument that it’s better to be than not be, as they would also be making an assumption.

                The various arguments of resource consumption and the like can work for antinatalism, but the logic of the ethical argument fails. It’s not simply a reverse of the “suicide question.”

                • Francois Tremblay September 14, 2011 at 14:44

                  “But who’s considering their not-being?”

                  No one is. That’s just your straw man.

                  “living and dead are comparable states of being”

                  No they’re not. “Being dead” is the same as non-existence.

                  “the logic of the ethical argument fails.”

                  Prove to me that non-existing person can be deprived of anything, and then we’ll talk. Until then, this discussion is rather pointless.

                • Gomi September 14, 2011 at 14:52

                  “No they’re not. “Being dead” is the same as non-existence.”

                  No, it isn’t. Being dead is the cessation of life. There is no death without life to start with. Non-existence is a null state. These are two different logical constructs. X has a not-X, but not-X is not the same as null. You have to merge not-X and null to make the argument work. That’s the assumption I’m talking about. It ceases to be a logical argument. No less compelling, but not logical.

                  “Prove to me that non-existing person can be deprived of anything, and then we’ll talk.”

                  I never said they were deprived of anything, so why ask me to prove something I never argued? This seems to be a standard tactic of yours.

                • Francois Tremblay September 14, 2011 at 14:57

                  You just love to waste my time with endless replies that don’t really advance anything. I already told you what Benatar’s asymmetry argument (the one you are currently arguing about) is based on. It is not based on comparing a person that exists with a person that does not exist. So that’s a straw man. Can you actually address the asymmetry argument or are you just gonna keep addressing a straw man?

                  And stop this BS about death not being non-existence. Death is the fact that a person no longer exists. It is non-existent. Trying to pin positive properties on dead people will not work.

                • Gomi September 14, 2011 at 15:09

                  You have no background in real logic, so you don’t understand the difference between not-X and null.

                  I’m not comparing a person that exists with one that doesn’t exist. That’s the point. A person that exists is X, that person not existing is not-X. That’s living and death, the question of suicide, two things that have meaning in their relation to each other. But if that person never existed and isn’t part of reality, that’s null. That’s the basis of the ethical argument for antinatalism. Like you quoted Benatar: “Rather it is to compare his existence with an alternative state of affairs in which he does not exist.”

                  But you can’t compare X and null, because they have no relation. It’s an emotional assumption of comparison, rather than a rigorously logical comparison of like states. Like I said, that doesn’t make it any less compelling. Just means it’s not logical.

                  As before, you don’t understand the argument, so you proclaim it “BS” by fiat. Fine, I’ll drop it.

  2. Francois Tremblay September 14, 2011 at 15:14

    Again… I never compared a person that exists with a non-existing person. This is your straw man. And you keep making it!

    I am done talking to you, because this is all you do. I gave you the argument on my SECOND COMMENT and you never addressed it. Waste of time!

    • Gomi September 14, 2011 at 15:25

      Look, Francois, you quoted Benatar saying it’s a comparison between a person existing and a reality in which that person never existed. That’s what I’m talking about. That’s not a strawman, that’s something you posted.

  3. Sister Y September 14, 2011 at 15:19

    A teenager stamping his foot, etc. being, presumably, low-status, and hence not worth considering.

    • Francois Tremblay September 14, 2011 at 15:24

      Sister Y, cribbing from this entry on Diabasis? :)

    • Gomi September 14, 2011 at 15:26

      Not low status, and quite worthy of consideration. Just not logical.

      Not logical isn’t saying it’s wrong, or not worthy. Just that it’s not logical. You’re assuming a value judgement where none exists.

      • Sister Y September 14, 2011 at 16:31

        I read in a value judgment because you say “I understand your logic” but then make fun of a hypothetical cranky-pants teenager <3

        • Gomi September 14, 2011 at 16:52

          You say “make fun.” I say “use an example from personal experience.”

          Weren’t you once a “cranky-pants teenager?” I was.

          • Sister Y September 15, 2011 at 08:35

            I can empathize because I was aware from age 7 that it was not good for me to have been born. But I don’t think it’s a childish thought just because I first experienced it as a child, or because it is a common one for children to have.

            Maybe the children are correct, and we learn to suppress that perception.

            • Gomi September 15, 2011 at 08:55

              Personally, I’ve never really thought it was bad for me to have been born. I want to experience and learn and consume my life, both the good and the bad, so I’ve generally been pretty positive about my personal creation. But I never said it was childish, merely that, like you say, it’s a common thing for children to express. Like things being logical or not, that’s only a value judgement if you assume it is.

              Like someone once said, life is a comedy to some and a tragedy to others, depending on how we perceive it. I’ve always fallen on the “comedy” side of things, but I can understand those who fall on the “tragedy” side.

              • Sister Y September 15, 2011 at 11:34

                And the idea is that if something has enough chance of being a tragedy to someone, it’s not a risk we should take with his life, even if there’s also a good chance that he might think it’s a great thing. Uncertainty should produce great caution in how we deal with strangers without their consent, and a new being is by its nature a stranger.

                Like dosing somebody with MDMA. <3

                • Gomi September 15, 2011 at 12:01

                  Or, we can view the reward as greater than the risk, and therefore acceptable.

                  There are two ways to look at this: either the bad in life is so bad that it overrides the good, or the good in life is so good that it overrides the bad.

                  If you’re risk averse, which is a common and perfectly acceptable outlook, then you probably consider the gamble too risky. But not everyone thinks that way.

                  Doesn’t make you wrong and them right, or vice versa. It’s too subjective for a conclusion.

  4. fourem September 14, 2011 at 18:00

    I was never a cranky-pants teenager, and consider my having been created a good thing, at least for me.

    Hopefully we can now get suggestions of “you’re only saying that because you yourself. . .” (which I know you didn’t make, Gomi, explicitly, but it’s a hard-to-avoid impliciation) out of the way.

    Is it wrong to create a being that will know only misery? I think everyone will agree that it is. But there’s no one you’re harming until the moment they exist — non-entities are not subject to harm or blessing. So we can’t argue that it’s wrong to create miserable people because we’re harming non-existent people by making them existent.

    Similarly, we can’t say that it’s better for non-existent people to stay non-existent than it is for them to become existent and have a life of misery. A non-entity is not something that things can be good or bad for.

    What we can argue, though, is that it would be better for an existing miserable person to never have been. We can compare that person having suffered though life to that person having had no experiences, or perceptions, or thoughts, or emotions, or anything like that whatsoever. And for someone miserable, the latter is superior. So creating the circumstances in which this comparison can be made, that is, creating the miserable person, is inferior.

    Why is it not wrong to not create a being that will know only joy? Applying the first two (ineffective) arguments above, mutatis mutandis, is similarly invalid. Non-existent persons can’t be deprived of benefits, and things can’t be good or bad for non-entities.

    But–here’s the asymmetry–you *also* can’t argue that it would be better for a non-existing joyful person to have been, or for a non-existing person to have been and to have been joyful. The first formulation obviously makes no sense — non-existing persons do not have properties such as joy. The second formulation asks us to assess whether it would have been better for a non-existing person to have been given a life of joy. There’s no one there to give anything to, though, and there’s no one there for things to be better for. There’s no “that person”‘s experiences to (retroactively) retain or eliminate.

    I’m not an absolute antinatalist, and I think that Benatar unjustifiedly moves from the asymmetry I outlined above to one that discounts all benefit. Depriving actual persons of benefits is wrong, and I think it’s fine to create beings that have on-balance good lives. I just think that our lives are generally worse than we tell ourselves and each other, and that there’s huge downside risk that makes me not at all confident that the expected utility of a new life is positive.

  5. Anthony September 14, 2011 at 20:33

    You know, I’ve learned that there’s two sides to anything. With that being said, there are both benefits and cons of Natalism. I would be usually all for it, but not now, not in this world. And I’m not against it because of overpopulation, though too many people aren’t ‘prepared’ enough to raise a child. I mean, look at the general populace right now, look at all the ignorance, excessive stupidity runs rampant. Personally, I wouldn’t feel safe, right now, promoting Natalism, or people carelessly having babies, because most people whom have them have yet to use that big piece of broccoli located between their ears. Otherwise, I would be all for Natalism, just in another world of course. But let’s not stop having babies altogether, and let’s start addressing the major issues, such as government and capitalism. :)

  6. AR September 15, 2011 at 03:32

    “but a potential life cannot feel deprived of any pleasure”


    “‘I wouldn’t be deprived of the literature.’ I think you would have been. Or at least this is my answer when doing the thought experiment. I would have been deprived of the experiences these people have given me. They are irreplaceable; the meaning is real, the value is real. I cannot imagine a life where all my ‘heroes’ were aborted: suicide would have been my answer.”

    • Francois Tremblay September 15, 2011 at 03:50

      Please explain exactly how a non-existing person can be deprived of anything. What is being deprived? The non-existing desires? This is fairy tale reasoning.

  7. Jim Nasium September 16, 2011 at 08:42

    The irony is, it’s all the left wing intellectual types who are going to bring about their own extinction.

    • Francois Tremblay September 16, 2011 at 14:03

      “their own extinction”? You mean suicide? I doubt there’s any correlation between political ideals and suicide rates.

  8. rae September 16, 2011 at 20:27

    i am severely handicapped and i am NOT, i repeat, not happy to be alive. i have suffered tremendously and will suffer until my last breath. i would have been glad for mother to have aborted me but she didn’t know there was anything wrong. so many lives would give anything to die. myself, i would give anything to die. an animal suffering in a research lab would give anything to die rather than go through the hell they endure every day. so in my opinion it is wrong to create new life because some of those lives are going to end up being like mine or worse, and you just don’t understand that if you are not one of those lives. you don’t understand how horrible it is. as i have always said there is one and only one reason i am glad to be alive. because i think my suffering might somehow, someday help other suffering lives. for that reason i am willing to endure this to the end. but i am still an antinatalist…better to stop suffering before it starts.

  9. Marcel Popescu September 17, 2011 at 11:37

    “myself, i would give anything to die”

    Oh, this is so much bullshit. Give me a billion dollars, I’ll make sure you die.


    • Francois Tremblay September 17, 2011 at 14:37

      For an attempt to insult someone, that barely even makes any sense. Get the fuck off my blog.

  10. Luca Airoldi September 17, 2011 at 16:02

    Bryan Caplan is the same idiot who argued that women were freer in the gilded age because taxes were lower

    and that democracy is bad because people are hopeless irrational (but untrammeled laissez-faire capitalism is the best because people are perfect rational actors

  11. […] the proletariat.” Bryan Caplan is a useful idiot for the natalist order. I already addressed some of his natalist propaganda before, but this short article, called Parenthood as the Trump of All Past Regret, definitely trumps that. […]

  12. […] are not original: he’s already repeated an argument from one of his past entries, which I demolished here, namely the hedonistic adaptation argument, but he repeats it twice to form two of his three […]

  13. Eli February 10, 2012 at 21:54

    When Caplan says something like that more population leads to new ideas, or in other words, “proposition A leads to outcome B”, the author stomps his foot and says, “Well we could just increase the quality of ideas we have!” Or in other words, “well what about proposition C! That leads to outcome B too!” But the simple answer is that Bryan Caplan isn’t talking about proposition C, and almost certainly agrees that improving the quality of education within the existing population is a good idea. There is no “implicit premise” that C does not lead to outcome B, by saying that A does lead to outcome B.

    The idea that people consider their own lives quality despite poor standards of living is not some irrational bias, its just having adaptative values. Though, since the author of this article is so enlightened that he realizes the objective fact that nearly everybody in the third world’s life is shit, it would only be humanitarian to kill them all in as quick and painless way as possible.

    Its very hard as a casual observer, to find this article appealing at all to anyone who doesn’t already agree with all his heart and soul with the author.

    • Francois Tremblay February 11, 2012 at 01:15

      “The idea that people consider their own lives quality despite poor standards of living is not some irrational bias, its just having adaptative values.”

      Why do you believe the two options are mutually exclusive?

      “Though, since the author of this article is so enlightened that he realizes the objective fact that nearly everybody in the third world’s life is shit, it would only be humanitarian to kill them all in as quick and painless way as possible.”

      Wow. You have hereby been banned.

      “Its very hard as a casual observer, to find this article appealing at all”

      It’s very hard for me to find your straw man appealing at all. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out, asshole.

  14. […] think natalism follows this same structure. At first, I thought I should address Bryan Caplan’s arguments. I thought, he must be the real deal, this is what natalism is all about, these idiotic arguments […]

  15. […] is also the issue of hedonistic adaptation, which I have pointed out before. Part of our brain irrationally makes us believe that our life is worth living, even when […]

  16. […] already addressed hedonistic adaptation on the very first entry I wrote debunking Caplan’s flimsy arguments, so this proves, if anything, that Caplan’s […]

  17. […] the sophisticated academics (e.g. David Wasserman in Debating Procreation, or stupidest man alive Bryan Caplan), can’t do anything but try to ignore the arguments as much as they possibly can and focus […]

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