Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Cato book forum considers population replacement issue, with a libertarian twist: self-interest

Today, I made it to a Cato Book Forum at the “Fortress of Solitude” on Massachusetts Ave., a headquarters building undergoing impressive renovations and additions.

The book is “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids” by Bryan Kaplan (from Basic Books). I’ll review the book soon on my Books Blog, but I’ll talk about “The Event” at Cato today.

Policy Analyst Adam B. Schaeffer moderated the discussion by Bryan Caplan, and author Charles Murray, known for “The Bell Curve” and then “Why I Am a Libertarian” back in the 1990s, books that influenced me when I was writing my own “Do Ask Do Tell”.

We’re hearing a lot from the “right” today about the disinclination of wealthier societies to maintain replacement populations, which raise sustainability and generativity issues, even as moral questions. Writers like Philip Longman (“The Empty Cradle”), Alan Carlson and Paul Mero (“The Natural Family”) have discussed this with moralistic overtones. (The other side was provided by Elinor Burkett's "The Baby Boon".)   Others in the religious right speak of “demographic winter”, whereas the Left often counters that this turns into an argument about having “the right babies” (especially “more white babies”).

 Caplan spoke very fast, and opened with the idea that people are indeed a resource and not just a cost; if we have “more people”, we have more new ideas and more innovation. He even mentioned being a dad to twins early in his speech, and certainly will provide his own kids with an academically and intellectually stimulating home to grow up in. But his argument is simple: how kids turn out is more a matter of genetics and biology than we think, and parental attention means less than we think. Therefore rearing kids costs more than we think, so parents who want kids can reasonably consider having more.  That may indeed be constructively selfish (even in an Ayn Rand sense):  not only are there more progeny, but there is a greater chance of having offspring who themselves will make great original contributions to the culture; there is some “safety in numbers” against unforeseeable tragedy.

I’ve noticed, previously as a substitute teacher, that different students in a family, particularly brothers, tend to perform in a similar fashion. When an older brother is an academic and athletic or activities star, so is the younger, in similar fashion.  I know of one family of four young men as biological brothers: one is a pianist, another is a violinist, another is a web designer, and the other is a teacher, all very strong in intellectual pursuits.

Murray played devil’s advocate, speaking to the effect that the presence of marriage and stability does affect kids.

Caplan noted that disadvantaged adopted children may seem smarter or more like adopted parents early in life, but then tend to revert to their genetic expectations.  Intellect and character (but not controversial “values”) tend to be inherited, he says. He didn’t talk about sexual orientation (as in Chandler Burr’s work), but it seems like the wild card, with homosexual orientation sometimes occurring once  (like an independent variable or vector basis component) among siblings who may be very much alike in all other aspects.  

I did raise the “demographic winter” crowd’s question from the floor, and Caplan’s general reaction was that the individual moral assessment has not (compared to my assertion) changed: having children is still an independent personal choice that confers absolute personal responsibility (for the consequences of voluntary sexual intercourse), but the presence or absence of the choice doesn’t by itself confer moral status. However, as I noted from the audience,  responsibility for others, particularly filial responsibility, is often imposed anyway, regardless of choices.  Eldercare is a much bigger issue today than it was fifteen years ago because medicine (government supported in Medicare) keeps the elderly alive longer with disability. And sometimes people wind up being expected to be prepared to raise their sibling’s children (again, not the result of their own “chosen acts”), or to step up to all kinds of other interpersonal challenges.  That’s part of “living in a community”.

At the wine and cheese party afterward, there was some mention of Jennifer Roback Morse, who wrote “Why the laissez-faire family doesn’t work”; but it was said she came from libertarian origins. Bryan signed my book “instance”: “To John: The world needs more people like you.”  Because the world needs more people

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