The libertarian case against good parenting

Our choices don't influence how our kids turn out, says economist Bryan Caplan. Which means we should have more?

Published June 21, 2010 11:40PM (EDT)

Father's Day has come and gone, but my unfortunate decision to follow a link from Andrew Sullivan to libertarian economist Bryan Caplan's opinion piece in Saturday's Wall Street Journal, "The Case for Having More Kids," has left me feeling so unsettled that I fear only an overwrought blog post can restore the equanimity so recently bestowed upon me by a fine day spent in the company of my eminently satisfactory spawn.

A representative sample of Caplan's argument:

Many conclude that if you value your happiness and spending money, the only way to win the modern parenting game is not to play. Low fertility looks like a sign that we've finally grasped the winning strategy. In almost all developed nations, the total fertility rate -- the number of children the average woman can expect to have in her lifetime -- is well below the replacement rate of 2.1 children.

Caplan's obvious presumption is that the conclusion reached by citizens of the developed world is wrong. They should be having more kids, not fewer -- and if they could only be shown the error of their ways, they would change their preference. In the Journal, Caplan doesn't appear to be making this argument out of any explicit desire to reverse the demographic trends that some find so alarming. (Maybe he's saving that for his forthcoming book, "Selfish Reasons to have More Kids.") Instead, the kernel of his argument seems to be that the people who aren't having more kids are making an irrational decision that's not based on the evidence. They, gasp, have picked the losing strategy by mistake!

On the face of it, this is a problematic thesis for a libertarian economist to push. People are freely choosing not to have as many kids as previous generations; to argue that they are making the wrong decision seems like exactly the kind of busybody interference into private lives that libertarians normally deplore. In the Atlantic, Will Wilkinson is devastating on this point.

... [W]hat one finds is that increases in average levels of education, levels of disposable income, gender equality, and access to birth control -- that is, increases in the ability of people (and especially women) to deliberately control the conditions of their own lives -- generally lead people to choose a smaller rather than larger number of children. As far as I can tell, Bryan's response is that it "lacks perspective" to take at face value this truly striking tendency of choice under conditions of increasing personal control. If Bryan really thinks rising education, wealth, and gender equality have somehow made us worse at evaluating the costs and benefits of children, he probably ought to turn in his economist card.

Just a few months ago, Caplan was making the rather extraordinary argument that women were better off in the 19th century than they are today, so it's not too surprising to find him completely oblivious to the implications of the fact that the more educated and economically affluent women become, the less children they tend to have. The reason is not too hard to understand: It takes a lot of work to raise children, and traditionally that work is performed by the mother. Women who achieve more control over their own lives somehow seem to be deciding that they'd like to devote at least some of their energy to other challenges besides changing diapers.

But that leads us to the truly deranged part of the argument: Caplan believes that we shouldn't be working so hard to be good parents, because, hey, the quality of our parenting doesn't really make any difference to how our kids turn out. He cites a few behavioral genetics studies, mostly on sets of twins, that purport to show very little difference in outcomes when children with the same genetic makeup are raised by different parents.

It's the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free parenting card!

Many find behavioral genetics depressing, but it's great news for parents and potential parents. If you think that your kids' future rests in your hands, you'll probably make many painful "investments" -- and feel guilty that you didn't do more. Once you realize that your kids' future largely rests in their own hands, you can give yourself a guilt-free break.

If you enjoy reading with your children, wonderful. But if you skip the nightly book, you're not stunting their intelligence, ruining their chances for college or dooming them to a dead-end job. The same goes for the other dilemmas that weigh on parents' consciences. Watching television, playing sports, eating vegetables, living in the right neighborhood: Your choices have little effect on your kids' development, so it's OK to relax. In fact, relaxing is better for the whole family. Riding your kids "for their own good" rarely pays off, and it may hurt how your children feel about you.

So we should have more kids, and spend less time and effort parenting them, and just kick back and enjoy the fruits of our non-labors, presumably generated when our offspring stroke our egos by visiting us in our nursery homes and telling us how cool we were for setting no curfews and letting them play videogames until they keeled over in front of their computers from lack of proper hydration.

I guess I do see a certain libertarian world view integrity here. If you judge modes of political organization from the foundational precept that good government is impossible, then why not also assume that good parenting is, if not impossible, merely useless? If you're going to dump John Maynard Keynes then why not throw out Dr. Spock as well?

Who knew that lazy permissiveness would become a calling card of libertarian parenting ideology? I'll concede that there are tendencies towards over-parenting in American culture that verge on the extreme, and could quite possibly be counter-productive. The frantic competition to get your baby into the best pre-school in Manhattan -- a struggle that seems to start before the child is even born -- may not be the most efficient use of resources. Caplan is certainly right on one point, we should relax more -- relaxed parents, I would submit, are better parents. But to leap from that starting point to the contention that our choices have little effect on our children's development seems, in my own anecdotal understanding of the world, to go too far. Even worse, it smacks of an abdication of responsibility, a surrender to the worst kind of easy rationalization. Good parenting is hard, but even if the differences we are making are only perceivable at the margins, that shouldn't absolve us from the necessity and pleasure of making any effort at all. It's not a winning or losing strategy: It's a way to be in the world.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Children How The World Works Libertarianism Parenting