Sarah Conly

Previously published in the Orange County Register

Sarah Conly is a Bowdoin College philosophy professor who has recently gained some fame/notoriety/attention with a New York Times piece Three Cheers for the Nanny State (which argues that sometimes government should protect us from ourselves.). That piece has been rebutted by, among others, Jean Yarbrough, another Bowdoin College professor. However, Yarbrough’s rebuttal includes a quote from Conly’s university website that brings up an entirely new set of issues.

Here’s the quote: “opposition to population regulation is based on a number of mistakes: that the right to have a family doesn’t entail the right to have as many children as you may want; that the right to control one’s body is conditional on how much harm you are doing others; and that nothing in population regulation entails that those who break the law can be forced to have abortions, or subject to any sort of punishment that is horrific. If population growth is sufficiently dangerous, it is fair for us to impose restrictions on how many children we can give birth to.”

Apparently, in Conly’s world forced abortions and prison for overly prolific parents is just fine. There is so much wrong with this.

To begin with, the assumption that the world is facing inexorable population growth is wrong, and demographers have known it’s wrong for decades. Birthrates are declining worldwide. By the end of this century, the world’s population will be declining, presenting an entirely new set of challenges.
If we did have a population problem, it wouldn’t take government action to fix it. For thousands of years prior to the industrial revolution people worldwide lived in a Malthusian Economy, an economy where population size is constrained by food availability. Gregory Clark has shown, in his book A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World, populations adjusted to constraints by adjusting the birth rate, through later marriage, fewer marriages, decreased fertility in marriage, and the like. Often, these adjustments were made counter to the exhortations of religious and government leaders.

The biggest problem that I have with the Conly quote is the idea that babies are dangerous. Babies, across time and culture, have always been welcomed into the world with joy and celebration, except when it is known that a baby’s life will be terrible, such as in war, famine, and concentration camps.
In these cases, the baby’s birth is greeted with sorrow. The sorrow is not because of the baby’s impact on society. It’s the baby’s own prospects that cause the dismay at its birth.

In economic terms, Conly is saying that the present value of the baby’s negative externalities exceed the present value of its expected benefits to society. So, we should kill the kid.
That can’t be though. Finance theory tells us that an option’s value increases in volatility. An infinitely variable option is infinitely valuable. So it is with babies. The baby may be a Lincoln, a Hitler, a Newton, or incapable of learning to read. We don’t know. In economic terms, the baby is an option with infinite variability. Immediately after birth, red, wrinkled and lying on its mother, a baby is infinitely valuable.

People who are terrified of more people forget that every advance in the world’s quality of life came about because of people. The wheel, the miracles of modern medicine, the super crops that have so reduced world starvation, they all came about because of what statisticians call outliers, people with the rare combinations of skill that allowed them to change the world.

We need more outliers. So, we should continue to welcome every baby with joy. That little person may change the world.

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