Kids Are Not the Best Thing in the Real World

Will Wilkinson, Reihan, PEG, and Noah are in the midst of an interesting policy debate about government subsidizing people’s decision to have children. I’m happy to stand back and watch that one, but in the meantime I want to co-opt it for my own purposes, namely to pick on PEG’s unqualified enthusiasm for having more people on the planet. Here’s his summary of his position:

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.

I don’t dispute most of what he says above: most of the things we consider good as human beings—law, science, consumer products—are the result of human bodies at work, and, all things being equal, more people means more minds and more bodies to make more of this good stuff. PEG would say that there is no problem with a lack of space or resources on the planet, so there’s no reason why we should be pessimistic about having more people, even a lot more people. They build good things, so why the hell not?

On an extremely superficial level, I agree. But the problem is that this is not an argument—it’s just an abstract statement of fact from a particularly sanguine perspective. Apply it to almost any real-world context and it becomes absurd. Even if the planet has the resources to sustain an unlimited human population—a question I don’t know the answer to—it doesn’t automatically follow that more people will be an unqualified good. The world currently has enough resources to feed its starving population many times over, but that has consistently proved politically impossible. I am skeptical that it will ever be politically possible, no matter how advanced our civilizations and economies become—never mind that such advancement could not be taking place without a corresponding increase in barbarism.

Adding more people to the situation does not obviously improve it; in fact, it seems very likely to aggravate it. I won’t say it will in fact make things worse, because I’m not God. But it seems intuitive that in a situation of global political dysfunction—from the crumbling U.S. constitution to the unsolvable European debt crisis to the utter lack of governance in somewhere like Afghanistan to tribal war in Somalia—that increasing the population is at least as likely to make things worse as to improve them. Those extra bodies will not become lawyers, scientists and doctors if they cannot be fed, protected and educated—something already impossible for a huge number of the people currently alive. Just because a human life has the possibility of becoming “a good thing” in a geopolitical utilitarian sense does not mean that it is likely to do so. In fact, I would argue that the more people that are added to a global system already groaning under the strain of political dysfunction and violence, the less likely those new bodies will be able to escape poverty, oppression, or misery.

It’s in that context that I find PEG’s claim that more kids equals more freedom to be baffling. True, perhaps, in a world where they were all able to participate in “making the world richer,” and were magically saved from all the available opportunities to become miserable in, exploited by, or destructive to the human world. As none of us needs to be told, that world will not exist anytime soon. I may be presuming, but I have not yet encountered a single instance where PEG will not claim that more children equals more insert-good-thing-here. But to put it lightly, I find this a cruel insistence. How does having an eighth child for a starving Somalian woman increase anyone’s freedom—her own, that of her other children, that of the other mothers and children in her village who are also struggling to stay alive in the midst of tribal warfare and famine?

In light of that, continually asserting the “goodness” of limitless population seems at worst crazy and pernicious, and at best beside the point. I’m not against utopian thinking aimed at expanding the horizon of possibility, and this may be all PEG up to. But calling for more people—literally, right here right now—strikes me as another in a long line of religious arguments that are driven by their metaphysical commitments to ignore—or invent bizarre, convoluted reasoning to explain away—the practical misery for which they are responsible.