The Case for Optimism

I suspect most will have grown tired of the kids/freedom debate so I will read my response to David’s post under the fold.

Jumping to first principles feels cowardly like jumping on the safe zone in a game of tag but it seems to me that the root of the disagreement between David (and many others who have a similar outlook) is that I’m fundamentally an optimist about human nature and human progress.

If you see the world as closed and humans as mostly bad, then adding more people will make things worse. If you see the world as open and humans as mostly good, then adding more people will make things better.

And, we could leave it at that, except that I believe I have some evidence of my optimism, at least in this matter.

So, for example, David points to the fact of world hunger:

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.

World hunger is obviously a tragedy, and David is correct in noting that it exists. The stubborn fact of the matter, however, is that things have never been better. They have obviously gotten better over the past few centuries when famine (or at least drastic food insecurity) was the norm, rather than the exception. But they have also gotten better for many years more recently :

The world hunger problem is real, and tragic. It has also been, on the whole, meaningfully and steadily improving.

If you had to choose to become a random person in the world, stuck in that person’s life circumstances, at the time of your choosing, the time that would give you the best odds of leading an enriching life would be now. Of course, you might end up as the King of France in 1500, or as a North Korean peasant in 2011, but now is the time frame that would give you the best odds. (And even North Korean peasants have TV and radio, with just one channel for sure, but still one more than what the King of France got.)

David also correctly notes that not all is well in global politics, and that there are many dysfunctional regimes around the world that make millions of people suffer.

But again, this has been—infuriatingly slowly, but steadily—getting better all the time. Africa, which David alludes to, has simply never been more prosperous or democratic. Is everything perfect? Of course not. There are patches of horror, and even more dysfunctional government. But by a reasonable account, things have never been better, and they are steadily improving.

Even war is also at an all-time low. That’s a pretty big deal. No one’s talking about it.

Of course, we may be on the eve of another Great Depression or, God forbid, another World War, which may be the last. (I would actually view this as even more reason to fuck till we drop make kids, but let’s skip that.) But we shouldn’t decide policy based on the assumption of imminent armageddon, and as I understand it that’s not what David is saying.

What does this have to do with anything?

Well, everything.

The tremendous increase in prosperity and freedom of the past 300 years has gone hand in hand with the tremendous increase in human population. Which way does the causation go? Well, I would argue, both ways. Obviously, being richer and safer means people have more kids, but more kids means more people to solve problems, make things and make the world a better place. Which makes us richer and safer and on and on. Sorry for battening on, but any problem which we have that can be solved can only be solved by people, and having more people increases the odds of solving the problem.

I’m pretty sure it’s no coïncidence that the Industrial Revolution happened in one of the then-densest, most highly-populated places, and the role that density and collaboration played in that innovation (as with almost every other) has been well documented. When England invented the steam engine, it became richer so its population grew, and the new people invented more stuff, which made it richer and so on. And Great Britain’s population grew at a literally unprecedented rate, and so did its power and wealth. (And also: Darwin and Lord Byron!)

And I’ll readily grant that the growth was not bumpy: Victorian Britain could be an awful place for a while for some people (though worse than 1650 Britain? Doubtful.). Today Britain is one of the nicest places in the world to live. How did this happen? Britain made more people. As Britain made more people, its economy got more sophisticated which allowed it to get rid of its horrible polluting factories, its doctors built remedies for childhood ailments, it invented modern macroeconomics and the modern welfare state …with people.

If a well-meaning 1890s social reformer had said “Wait a second, this can’t go on, we’ve never been worse off, we need to stop with the baby making!” (as many did!), if people had listened to him, they would have a) been wrong about where their country was relative to the rest of history; b) condemned tens of millions of people to massive unnecessary economic and human impoverishment.

When I meant that stuff is people and more people means more stuff, I really wasn’t being glib. It’s true, and it matters.

If you look at history, from Athens to the Quattrocento to Industrial England to today, demographic, economic and cultural prosperity have always been linked. Conversely, if you look at the countries around us experiencing demographic slide, they are also experiencing every other kind of slide, including moral. (Spend some time in Russia if you don’t believe me.)

(Some people will point to China’s fast growth and its one-child policy as the exception—not so, for two reasons: a) China is headed to a world of hurt because of its demographics; b) China’s growth comes from being a massively impoverished country that suddenly decided to adopt relatively non-crazy policies and it’s still a very poor country on a per-capita basis. There’s no doubt in my mind that China would be much richer if it hadn’t had the one-child policy. Mao had the right idea: one mouth means two arms.)

What the lessons of economics and history scream at me is that the world is a positive-sum place, where people win by making other people win and where we all build on the shoulders of everyone else, and so the more people are added the better off everyone is.

So while David finds my views baffling, I’m the one who’s baffled upon reading this:

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.

What we’ve seen throughout history is that the more people you add to the system, the better it gets, so of course the logical conclusion is that to improve the system you mustn’t add people.

From my perspective, David and I are in a brand new BMW Series 7 that is driving out of a storm toward the sun. I suggest that we should fill ‘er up. David then informs me that the BMW we’re driving in is actually an immobile clunker, and that everyone knows that if you want to start a car the first thing you do is drain the gas tank. (And then, presumably, push it off a cliff.)

But let’s leave here the realm of history, economics and public policy and into the world of ethics, where David ventures.

David argues that it’s “cruel” to want more kids, because some of those kids might lead lives of suffering:

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?

If you’ll pardon me, David, who appointed you to decide whose life is and isn’t worth living?

How can anyone claim to believe that somebody else’s set of human experiences has a certain worth that they know and that is less than the threshold they decide?

David gratuitously (and, from my perspective, wrongly, but I’m open to the possibility that I may be biased about my own beliefs) ascribes my views on children to my religion, but since he is also a Christian, I have to ask how can he believe that some lives aren’t worth living? I for one believe that every life is worth living. (Both as a Christian and as a secular-Enlightenment type.)

Anyway, my answer to his question is: you don’t know, and neither do I.

David can probably tell by now that I do believe that by having more people Somalia would increase its odds of fixing its many problems. And that that Somalian woman’s eighth child might end up being a musician, an athlete or a political reformer. (Why not? How do you know?)

Just to be clear: if David’s hypothetical poor Somali woman with seven children came to me and said “What can I do to make a better life?” I wouldn’t jump up and down and scream “Have more kids!” In fact I might say that given her particular circumstances she might want to hold off on having another child. I’m fine with people postponing or spacing out births. Heck, I’m fine with some people not having kids at all! I don’t want to make people have babies, and I want to respect people’s choices. (Kids are great, though.)

But, to close the ethical-religious chapter, I stand by with all the arguments I’ve made: – Kids are awesome; – More kids are awesomerer; – Policy should make having kids easier because it’s good for freedom and prosperity and The [Your Country]an Way. (And also for the reasons Noah said.)