The (Economic?) Case for Babies

I’m in the market for babies and, based on the research, it’s prime time to be having them.  Happily married, financially stable, and with a happiness quotient that should make the rich and famous envious, my wife and I are in a place to “make the plunge.”  However, lots of our friends and acquaintances don’t quite understand why we would want to do that.  If we express interest in raising a family, we often are thought to be either out of our minds, or members of an exclusive order of saints—altruistic beyond comprehension, and perhaps a little out-of-touch with reality.  After all, the standard assumption is that children impose a major limit discretionary time, money, and, well, everything.  But, there are a number of voices arguing the opposite.  While it’s fairly easy to find religious writers, and especially prolific Catholics, making the case for having children, the argument for kids in the press is harder to find…and even harder if you’re looking for an argument that doesn’t depend on altruism and total self-abnegation for its impetus.  Enter Bryan Caplan from EconLog.

Some might take offense at Bryan Caplan’s non-traditional and un-altruistic approach to marriage and family, however, upon closer inspection, his work presents a delightfully subversive argument that undercuts the worst aspects of our obsession with self-esteem and personal fulfillment even while ostensibly appealing to those very cherished values.  For example, scan through his Wall Street Journal article “The Breeder’s Cup” and you might think that the only good reasons for having children are the economic viability of the endeavor and the resulting personal happiness that parents find upon birthing progeny.  And from a guy writing a book titled, “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids,” you are likely justified in thinking that this guy can’t stop thinking about himself.  In the midst of such egotistical considerations, where is the fabled altruistic maternal love, the sacrificial self-denial, and the all-encompassing charity that we’ve heard so much about (no doubt from our parents when they roll out the guilt-trip strategy in the high-stakes bid for our presence at the annual Thanksgiving/Christmas holiday reunion)?

But take a closer look at the article before you consign it to the heap of selfish drivel spewing from a self-satisfied culture that will only act in ways that are bound to deliver on the promise of personal happiness.  In advocating for more children against the traditional axiom that children are diametrically opposed to personal happiness, wealth, and leisure, Caplan argues for a new conception of happiness.  Rather than limit happiness to the standard magazine advertisement fare of cruises, designer labels, and nymphomania, Caplan suggests that any definition of happiness ought to include satisfying personal relationships.  In fact, his interpretation of the National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey, he concludes that “the people to pity are singles, not parents” because the security and companionship provided in marriage far outweigh the ephemeral benefits of the single life.  In other words, love and commitment still matter.

And with that conclusion, things begin to get really interesting.  In families with parents who love each other and their children, the traditional down-sides to parenting—the pressure to make your kids successful, the constant giving without receiving—all but disappear.  Working at loving your children and developing relationships with them are more likely to produce happiness than making big sacrifices accompanied with self-pity (hey, just like doing the same thing with you spouse rather than being a jerk and making up with expensive presents).  After all, kids are people, too and since many of us are happiest when we have meaningful relationships with others, it should come as no surprise that having more meaningful relationships will increase happiness.

That happiness, though, really is different than the consumer-oriented variety you get from your HD TV commercials in 3D (yes, odds are they are here to stay).  Rather than finding happiness in the options to gratify various desires, the happiness Caplan refers to is related to an older notion of happiness (hello, Aristotle) from before the era of 1960’s behaviorism.  Happiness, in the older sense, is related to doing the things you were made to do, and doing them well.  Disputing the various ends of human action until you’re blue in the face makes little difference for this view of happiness; whatever the final outcome, this older definition of happiness says that the man who does what he was meant to do is the happy man.

Without delving into any major scientific enigmas, it remains obvious that human beings are biologically intended to reproduce.  Thus, reproducing (and then cultivating the fruits of that reproduction) well should, according Aristotle and company, tend towards greater happiness.  And this is the final point that Caplan makes.  The happiness that comes from raising kids can’t be undercut by various pragmatic considerations; in fact, data may suggest that those considerations might actually give support to the case for children.

No one should have children for purely economic reasons, but, it’s refreshing to discover that economics promote rather than discourage a few American values: life and the pursuit of happiness.

  • Boonton


    You must have a group of very eccentric friends and family. A few Google scans seems to indicate that the portion of Americans who will have at least one kid in their lives is 87%. When you consider a portion of the population will not be expected to ever have kids (those with medical problems, those with severe mental problems, those serving very long prison sentences, gays, those in religious orders etc.), the fact that you find few articles praising having children is a bit like saying you don’t find many articles praising owning a TV or blogs praising owning a computer. What’s the point when almost everyone has one or will soon have one?

    (Of course this ‘blackout’ in the media requires one to have pretty thick blinders. Huge sections of Barnes and Nobles are dedicated to pregnancy, childhood, child raising etc. Magazines like ‘Fit Pregnancy’ and ‘Parenthood’ are implicitly endorsing having kids. Yes now and again someone writes an article trying to justify not having kids. Such people tend to be treated as curiousities, like the guy who decides not to watch TV for a year and write about it)

  • Christopher Benson

    TEX: At the beginning of this post, I (wrongly) predicted that you and your wife were in the market for adopting a baby. “It should come as no surprise that having more meaningful relationships will increase happiness.” Indeed, it’s no surprise to me. The only thing that’s surprising is Bryan Caplan’s delusion that he’s arguing for “a new conception of happiness” when, as you noted, it’s quite old.

    On a side note, we should remember that the Aristotelian notion of eudaemonia (often translated “happiness”), which you defined as “doing the things you were made to do, and doing them well,” depends on a highly stratified society, where the aristoi flourish on the backs of the hoi polloi. Doing the things you were made to do often involves the privileges of education and experience that are not equally available to all.

  • Tex

    BOONTON: We don’t often praise things we take for granted, and we don’t long value things once we stop praising them…at least not until they go missing. I’m happy to hear Caplan’s voice in praise of having children if for no other reason than that I think there is a grave danger in taking it for granted that people will continue to have children just because people always have done so. At some point, once something has been assumed for a sufficient amount of time, no one remembers the basis that grounds the assumption. When this happens there is a reaction as people seriously entertain the thought that there never was a reasonable basis for the activity or value that has been taken for granted.

    I wonder that we might be getting to this place in our own society when it comes to having kids. Our parents and grandparents did it, but that has never convinced the young generation to carry on with any tradition. And when the perceived costs of child-bearing and -rearing count heavily against the benefits of an unfettered and free lifestyle, there is added impetus to break from the tradition, or at least severely challenge it. Again, this is where an article like Caplan’s is helpful…addressing the popular opinion at its root and subverting it.

    And perhaps my hyperbole stretched a bit far when I suggested that Caplan’s article is one southbound salmon in a northbound spawning stream. Still, the popular view of children seems to be that they are either to be had largely as a status symbol, or are more work than they are worth. Unless, of course, we’re watching a Campbell’s Chicken Soup commercial, talking about other people’s children while within earshot of the parents, or talking about babies in general—then the little denizens are always cute, endearing, and totally worth it.

  • Tex

    CHRISTOPHER: If “doing the things you were made to do, and doing them well” fundamentally refers to things like having meaningful relationships or exercising creativity and productivity in one’s work, do you still think it requires an unequal and stratified society in which one class flourishes on the backs of the other (I’m assuming you mean this to imply that both classes can’t flourish in a symbiotic sort of way)?

  • Christopher Benson

    TEX: I’d have to get out my copy of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics and Politics in order to be more specific, but my point is simple: the context (a socially stratified polis) makes the text (a definition of happiness as excellence in human action) intelligible. Slaves furnish the aristocrats with a comfortable lifestyle that permits them to pursue excellence in their activities.

    • Tex

      It looks like we both might need to pull out our dog-eared copies of the Nich Ethics, Christopher. However, since I’m a few thousand miles away from mine, for the moment I submit and equally simple point: the argument that happiness is excellence in human action depends on a certain view of human nature. If that view of human nature applies to all men, then all men will, similarly, be happy whenever they act with excellence, regardless of their station in life.

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  • Christopher Benson

    TEX: Yes, “the argument that happiness is excellence in human action depends on a certain view of human nature,” but it also depends on a certain view of politics. Here’s the key question: What are the necessary conditions in order to act with excellence? To become a flautist at the LA Philharmonic, a staff writer at The New Yorker, or a fellow at American Enterprise Institute, a person will need more than basic conditions of food, water, housing, employment, and health care but also non-basic conditions, such as leisure, education, and experience. Human nature equips us with the desire and abilities to pursue excellence, but politics (how we order a society) plays a vital role in the equality of opportunity. Does this make sense?

    • Tex

      Right. But here’s my question (sorry if I sound like a broken record): Does one have to be a flautist, a staff writer or a fellow in order to act with excellence?

      I submit the answer to that question is negative and that this Aristotelian sort of happiness is available to all men who are willing to pursue it. Even the most humdrum worker bee doing the most undesirable work imaginable can do his work as a man, can invest himself in being a good husband, father, brother, and friend, and can (most importantly) seek to know and be known by God. These things don’t require a stratified society with winners and losers, though they might function best in a society that places great value on these sorts of pursuits. Still, a life of classical virtue is available to all regardless of station.

      • Christopher Benson

        TEX: Neither of us seem qualified enough to address whether Aristotle’s notion of eudaimonia (“human flourishing”) is available to the hoi polloi or only to the aristoi. Wikipedia note: aristoi (“the best”) were members of the aristocracy and regarded as possessing the trait of arete (“right nature”).

        I suggest that we consult the Aristotle entry from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and specifically the section on “Happiness and Political Association.” I’m grateful that this discussion has returned me to Aristotle, a philosopher of endless fascination.

        Because my recent blog posts – “The Conundrum of Modern Art” and “What kind of judges do want?” – are lonely, I invite you (and your wife) to offer comments. It appears that Mere O readers have largely disappeared for the summer months.

        • Tex

          Christopher: The contingencies of overseas travel sometimes render it difficult to be a timely respondent to the blogosphere, but my tardiness in replying is no measure of my interest (and perhaps the same can be said for Mere O readers on summer vacation and travel).

          That being said, I found the Stanford Encyclopedia entry fascinating in light of our conversation thus far. Have you read it? The writer makes clear that Aristotle, in discussing human flourishing, has humans as humans in mind, rather than individuals in various vocations, of varying social class, or from divers walks of life. In fact, Aristotle suggests that human flourishing is fundamentally related to human function, and that is something that is universally shared by human beings.

          As the author moves on to politics he points out that, for Aristotle, the question of the best way to order the city must be answered by examining what sort of order will result in human flourishing. If the best way is by having a ruling king or aristocracy, it is not so that the king or aristocrats are happy at the expense of the common people, but because kings or aristocrats might be better at organizing a society in which all men are most happy than the common people would be at organizing a similar society.

          So, that seems to leave us where we started (or at least where I started): Aristotle’s definition of happiness does not necessarily require that some men be unhappy so that other men can be happy. Rather, happiness as “doing the things you were made to do” is available to all men since all men share a common teleology that is prior to vocation and station in life.

          • Christopher Benson

            Tex: I’m glad we’ve persisted in this conversation because it appears that we’re both emphasizing different points in Aristotle’s ethics.

            Your emphasis: Aristotle’s definition of happiness (excellence in activity) is available to all men.

            My emphasis: Aristotle’s definition of the highest happiness (excellence in the activity of intellectual contemplation) is only available to the aristoi and not the hoi polloi.

            The confusion arose because, as David Charles notes in his chapter on Aristotle in The Philosophers: Introducing Great Western Thinkers (edited by Ted Honderich), “Aristotle’s own viewpoint is far from clear.” Charles writes:

            Sometimes it appears that the self-sufficient contemplation (of truth) by the individual sage constitutes the ideal good life, but elsewhere man is represented as a “political animal” who needs friendship and other-directed virtues (such as courage, generosity, and justice) if he is to achieve human well-being. On occasion, Aristotle seems to found his account of the good life on background assumptions about human nature, but elsewhere bases his account of human nature on what it is good for humans to achieve. He remarks that the virtuous see what is good, but elsewhere writes that what is good is so because it appears good to the virtuous.

            One way (there are many) to fit these strands together runs as follows. The paradigm case of activity which manifests well-being is intellectual contemplation, and everything else that is an element in the good life is in some relevant way like intellectual contemplation. Practical wisdom is akin to theoretical activity: both are excellences of the rational intellect, both involve a proper grasp of first principles and the integration of relevant psychological states, and both require a grasp of truth in their respective areas. Intellectual contemplation is the activity which best exemplifies what is good for humans; anything else which is good for us in some way resembles it.

            Based on Charles’ analysis above, I conclude that for Aristotle the hoi polloi can experience well-being insofar as their activities resemble the highest activity of intellectual contemplation, but only the aristoi – due to the leisure of education and the privilege of experience – are in a position to achieve well-being. Does this reconciliation of our points make sense?