Friday, June 17, 2005

Duel at Volokh.com

Here is a bit of a duel that I am involved with at The Volokh Conspiracy with Mr. Eugene Volokh himself, one of my favourite bloggers. This is the first post that started it all. Excerpt:

What changes might substantially increase birth rates in the developed world?

Here's my candidate: A combination of (1) cheaper, less painful, and more reliable egg extraction and freezing, which would let 20-year-old women routinely bank eggs for the future, and (2) the invention of incubators that can safely grow a child from a fertilized egg to a live baby. It's of course impossible to be sure that development 2 will happen within the next 45 years, but I suspect that it will. Let's say for our purposes that it does. Why is this likely to substantially increase birth rates?

I wrote this comment:

I cannot help but think that you are treating people like a commodity (reduce costs and increase demand).

I think a big barrier to childbirth is actually our culture, which cannot see why investing into another is more important than investing in one's self.

He then posted a whole different blog. Here is some highlights of that post:

Child creation is like a commodity in that if you reduce costs, you'll increase demand. Cost matters. Culture matters, too, of course. But even if you hold constant -- as a supposedly culturally dictated factor -- the amount that a person is willing to invest in a child, as the per-child decreases, the number of children in which the person is willing to invest increases.

Perhaps I'm mistaken, but my sense is that many people resist economic analysis because they find it distasteful: People shouldn't be treated like commodities (as if I'm suggesting that I be able to sell my wife on the open market). We should be paying attention to the grand plan of making people more unselfish rather than to technocratic matters such as cost and incentive (as if campaigns to make people unselfish have enjoyed notable success).

Yet these sorts of gut reactions, and the slogans attached to them, aren't going to change human nature.

Finally, here is my response to that comment, which, I think, holds up decently, although it was written pretty quickly:


I was the one that made the original comment and question. I hesitated to post it because I hadn't the time for anything more detailed.

Although I could debate many of your points contra an economic analysis, I think it would be interesting to see how you would defend this statement: "(as if campaigns to make people unselfish have enjoyed notable success)."

I tend to disagree. I think that one of the defining characteristics of Western Civilization is a concern for other people, unselfishness, and a concern for the victim. I think those who find Christianity repelling fail to see that Christianity's contribution in this area far outstrips the track record in other civilizations. A concern for the victim (the other) is notably missing in ancient myths and other founding stories throughout the history of the world. To say that "grand compaigns", which attempt to make people more unselfish, are a failure, is tantamount to denying the power of one's moral values.

Western society has begun to not merely globalize economically, but also universalize the idea of compassion. When catastrophe's occur like the Tsunamai at the end of 2004, nations that are well off feel obligated to aid the victims. The "grand plan for making people more unselfish" is not a failure - it is a success story as long as Western Civilization. Thus, to say that making people less selfish is a pipedream, think again. Changing values are quite possible; they are not outside of human nature. Why can't an economic analysis account for it? I agree to the fellow who commented that "It's interesting, if typical for those trained in economics, to characterize what is a moral reaction as merely distasteful."

So, when you say that, "these sorts of gut reactions, and the slogans attached to them, aren't going to change human nature", I have to disagree. People who have children do not simply rely on economics to decide on whether they will raise a child or not. Many people do so on the basis of their moral beliefs or their theology. Is it any wonder that religious families are the sole demographic which is sustaining the birth rate? Religious families have few abortions, many reject contraception, and are encouraged to have families.

Certain values diminish the economic analysis of childbirth substantially. Not only that, but my own experience leads me to believe that it is actually poorerfamilies which have more children than wealthier families. How can an economic analysis explain this difference?

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