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The (Economic?) Case for Babies

June 28th, 2010 | 3 min read

By Tex

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.