Moar kids = moar freedom

Rick Santorum recently came out with a WSJ op-ed that tries to include pro-family and pro-kids policy as part of an “economic freedom” agenda.

Predictably and intelligently, Will Wilkinson denounced this gambit in The Economist as an attempt at social engineering and, therefore, incompatible with economic freedom.

At National Review, TAS Overlord Reihan responds that, while rewarding people for having kids might not be conducive to economic freedom per se, it might still be conducive to higher economic growth and therefore might be sensible policy. Having children can be viewed as making an investment in human capital. Almost every country tries to encourage investments in other kinds of capital through tax policy, but human capital is also important.

Later at Big Think, after drawing a distinction between economic freedom and maximizing GDP growth, Will Wilkinson pursues his line of argument further.

After drawing a distinction between economic growth and economic freedom, Will tries to submit the spend-on-kids-for-growth idea to a reductio ad absurdum: if the goal of rewarding people for having kids is to boost growth, then we should reward people even more for having high-IQ kids, and punish those who have low-IQ kids. But the pro-kids people would doubtlessly be squeamish at the implications of that. And so the economic growth argument is just a fig leaf for social engineering. And so any pro-kids policy must be rejected.

On Twitter, I made several arguments in response, and Will asked me to blog them, so here I go.

First of all, while Will is right that economic freedom and economic growth are not the same thing, Will argued eloquently elsewhere that the reason why economic growth is desirable in the first place is because it expands choices. And so while the two are not the same thing, they are interrelated. One leads to the other and vice versa.

Secondly, Will’s reductio is wobbly. It’s almost impossible to know whether a kid will be a successful adult, and thank God for that. For example, from studies I’ve seen, entrepreneurial success is uncorrelated with IQ above a certain level, so subsidizing little geniuses would not necessarily subsidize the Steve Jobses of the future. And really, it’s perfectly consistent to simultaneously believe we should be subsidizing kids because they’ll boost growth but believe that subsidizing only the high-IQ (or those who pass the Marshmallow Test or whatever) ones would be morally reprehensible, and if some of the money will be wasted, so be it.

More importantly, there are (to me) obvious ways in which a pro-kids and pro-family policy can boost not just economic growth, but economic freedom and social welfare.

An important thing to note is that a market economy is made possible not only by formal rules but by the underpinning of these formal rules by a set of social norms of trust and expected behavior etc., which cannot be mandated and mysteriously accrete in a society over many generations. If you give a society without these underlying norms the institutions of a modern liberal democracy, you get Russia in 1993 or Iraq in 2005.

With that in mind, most people tend to agree that reams of studies show that generally and on the whole, stable families have better odds of producing better-adjusted, happier folks who will integrate and perpetuate such social norms better. Policies that successfully reward producing more of these sorts of outcomes would, therefore, not just promote general welfare, but also promote economic freedom over the long run by strengthening the social norms that make it possible at all to begin with.

I say this in all sympathy with Will’s argument, because I do agree with him that too often social engineering is presented under economic/budgetary fig-leafs that are really masks for value judgements. I’ve argued so about so-called sin taxes.

But just because such fig-leafs exist sometimes doesn’t mean that being pro-kids isn’t being pro-freedom. About sin taxes, I argued that it’s fine if sin taxes don’t provide all the economic benefits that boosters allege, because it’s fine to say “We disapprove of this, and therefore we’ll tax it.”

As someone who identifies most closely with American conservatism (and as a libertarian fellow-traveller), I am a proud heir of an intellectual tradition that has taught me to be highly skeptical of social engineering. But being highly skeptical is not the same thing as being always and everywhere an opponent. As Reihan notes, it’s impossible for the tax code not to be a social engineering tool, as people’s behavior will be nudged in certain ways no matter what you end up deciding to tax. (Will disagrees, but doesn’t really say why.) And so I’m fine with supporting some kinds of social engineering. So when Will says “This isn’t about economic growth/freedom at all, therefore it’s social engineering, therefore it’s bad”, I’m unmoved. I say “It is about economic growth and freedom, and it is also social engineering, and that’s fine.”

But even more broadly, and this is something I should have written up sooner, my defense of moar kids from a freedom and human welfare perspective is this: stuff is people. Not just Soylent Green. Everything. Corporations are people, my friend. Not in the sense that they have human rights. But in the sense that they are a framework through which people collaborate. Likewise, cities are not a geographical location and building, they’re people. Even stuff is people. Your iPhone is people. It’s Steve Jobs, it’s Jony Ive and it’s plenty of Foxconn workers. An iPhone is not a thing, it is a few moments of thousands of people’s time. Culture is people. Books is people. Everything we cherish, everything that makes life worth living, is people. More people means more of everything.

More kids boosts freedom, because each person is an infinite amount of new choices to be made, and it obviously boosts welfare, because the world is people and more people makes the world richer.

EDIT: Reihan has his own rejoinder to Will, which is very much worth your time. I guess Reihan is slightly less pro-kids than me, which I guess is fair enough given that I find it hard to imagine how one could be more pro-kids than me.