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Strategic Fertility Is A Public Good

May 22, 2010

Bryan Caplan writes about ways to get Liberty in the Long Run:

6. Strategic fertility. Standard twin methods find that political philosophy and issue views (though not party labels) are at least moderately heritable. But wait, there’s more: Since there’s strong assortative mating for political agreement, standard methods seriously understate the heritability of politics. The upshot is that if libertarians can get and keep their birth rates well above average, liberty will actually be popular in a century or two. And even if this plan to free the world fails, it will still create a bunch of awesome people.

Strategic fertility might seem like a big burden, but as I keep arguing, being a great parent is a lot easier than it looks because nurture is so overrated. And even if I’m wrong about the power of nurture, having one extra child is probably easier than moving to New Hampshire, and certainly easier than moving to a seastead. Admittedly, if you want radical libertarian change in your lifetime, strategic fertility isn’t much help. But what is?

As an avowed natalist, I am certainly not going to object to advocating for libertarians to have more kids.  I would love libertarians to have more kids.  But as a strategy to promote political change, it is problematic for the same reason as education and policy activism: they are all public goods.

Having kids for your own personal happiness is, of course, a private good.  But that’s not what Bryan is arguing here – he’s got a whole book coming out to do that.  Strategic fertility is suggesting that parents have extra kids in order to achieve long-run political change.  But just like educating, proselytizing, or advocating for good policies, the costs of these extra kids are born by their parents, while the benefits accrue to everyone.  Thus they are a public good, and will be underproduced.

Moving to a seastead may be hard, but at least the individual immediately and individually gets the increased freedom. Making the costs (in money, isolation, etc.) less than that increased freedom are a major challenge.  But at least we know that if we meet that challenge, we can get liberty and grow a free society through individual benefit, without having to convince large numbers of people to engage in self-sacrifice for a distant vision.

As I often express in my talks and posts, I have a general frustration with the failure of libertarian economists to turn the mirror of economics and public choice on the process of political reform.  The importance of privatizing profits and losses, internalizing externalities in order to achieve progress is a very basic part of economics.  Why then is it so widely ignored in the area of political reform?  How can Russ Roberts write about how the lack of internalized incentives caused the financial crises, while advocating that we fix politics through educating people – an activity whose costs are individual and whose benefits are external?  How can Bryan Caplan, as a libertarian and economist, advocate that victory is most likely to be achieved through the virtue of…unselfishness?

H.L. Hunt said it too weakly.  Here’s my version: This country can only be saved if it can be saved at a profit.  Profit for individuals, and for the entrepreneurs who provide the opportunity.  A little too strong, perhaps, but it’s a message that could use some overstating these days.  Seasteading, Charter Cities, and the Free State Project face major obstacles, yes, but unlike most other solutions, at least they don’t run foul of basic economics.

Fortunately, while Bryan may be advocating for the wrong strategy in this post, the main focus of his work – his current book project –  is doing exactly the right thing.  After all, who is most likely to read, understand, and accept his book on Selfish Reasons To Have More Kids and have more kids because of it?  Well, those in his wide social circle, those who see him as high status, and those who sympathize with his values and are persuaded by his style of thinking and writing.  In other words, those who are to some degree libertarians and economists!  Thus his book is brilliantly promoting his strategy of strategic fertility by appealing to selfishness among prospective libertarian parents.  Is this brilliance intentional or accidental?  Only Bryan knows…

(credit for the idea of public vs. private activism to Jonathan Wilde, who first explained it to me)


  1. May 22, 2010 4:39 am

    The stop paying taxes/starve the beast approach that many agorists like is subject to the same criticism. Yes, there’s the individual cash benefit from not paying those taxes, but, because the starvation of the government is a public good (assuming that it’s good), people will pay too much tax.
    The black market more or less reaches an equilibrium (which changes with changing laws), and it’s pretty unlikely that agorists will budge it very far, due to that public goods problem.

    I don’t think I believe having a child is easier than moving to New Hampshire. I mean, that was pretty easy. … Guess I’ll have to read the book when it comes out.

  2. Jayson Virissimo permalink
    May 23, 2010 3:04 am

    Patri, public goods can be solved without coercion. For instance, see Jasay’s Social Contract, Free Ride and Ostom’s Governing the Commons.

    • May 23, 2010 3:54 pm

      And if you look at Ostrom’s work, you see there are a lot of requirements. Like being able to identify and punish free-riders. Do you really think libertarians are going to start punishing libertarians who don’t have enough kids? I think not.

      Yes, public goods can sometimes be provided. But it’s hard. The larger and more dispersed the group, the harder it is. If your strategy depends on getting people to contribute to public goods, you are fighting uphill. If your strategy depends on getting people to act to their own advantage, you are rolling downhill.

      Government sometimes does good things. Does that mean we should have big government? Let’s not mistake the fact that communities can produce public goods in limited circumstances and at a small scale into thinking that a strategy of changing the world by getting people to produce public goods is a good idea.

  3. May 24, 2010 4:41 am

    Also, children are not necessarily a public good in this context. Bryan’s argument doesn’t work under conditions where the children are not apt to be (a) sympathetic to libertarianism, or (b) if sympathetic, assets to any cause they may espouse.

    In the case of people who are having children because they want them, any reasonably charitable view of human nature suggests that both these conditions are likely to be fulfilled.

    As we move towards people for whom some side-benefit is progressively more important than the children’s value in themselves, we include more and more of the people who presently do not have children because they should not.

    Those children who come out well from the resultant upbringing are unlikely to admire their parents’ dogmas. Those who don’t, are likely to repeat their parents’ mistakes in this and other areas.

    Far better for libertarian pro-natalists to devise practical ways of reducing gratuitous costs which may cause their responsible fellows to say, rightly, “We’d like lots of kids, but it’ll be years before we can even support one.” Both strategies will get more children born, but they won’t be the same children, because the incentive shifts that got them born applied to different sets of parents.

    The latter approach is harder than persuasion, though not necessarily as hard as secession. Even contributing towards voluntary mutual child-minding or home-schooling schemes would be something. What a peaceable, pro-natalist (or even effectively birth-agnostic) nation might look like, and what it could do if had the rest of its junk together… especially one that had to manufacture or attract its own territory… is a question yet to leave the realms of speculative fiction. But it might be an interesting one to explore there, until actual experiment becomes more practical. I’m not sure I can think of any present examples. H’mmm!

  4. kurt9 permalink
    May 25, 2010 5:14 pm

    Some think strategic sterility is a public good as well.

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