Edward links downblog to a piece by Ronald Bailey in Reason magazine. My precis of Bailey’s thesis runs something like this. Having children, per se, isn’t so expensive. Educating them, on the other hand, is very expensive. This is because the levers of a modern, free market, rule of law, enforcement of contract society are complicated and you need a lot of training in order to know which lever to pull, and when. In actuality, lack of training generally leads to denial of access to said levers and hence a lifetime of poverty, and no one wants that for their child. Hence the expense of education deters prospective parents from actually going ahead and having children; this is the ‘invisible hand of population control’. And it’s a good thing! This is because no one wants a tragedy of the commons situation, like you’ve got in all those poor countries.
I can see the following problems with Bailey’s argument, in no particular order, and not worked through, since this is not an essay:
(1) There’s your local commons, and then there’s the global commons. Further, population and global resource depletion need not be coupled; the small population of a developed society may take more in the way of resources from the world than the much larger population of a less developed society;
(2) The length, complexity and cost of education need not be coupled to the total skill demand in a society; to take a picturesque example: piano tuning is a difficult skill to acquire, but it’s easy to imagine a society that generally prefers simpler instruments and has no pianos at all;
(3) In actuality, the length, complexity and cost of education is often to do with status display; in many (most?) societies, education is a positional good purchased by the parents;
(4) The cost of education need not be the only, or even the main deterrent to having children; it’s possible to find low birth rates in actual societies where most (or even all) formal education is state provided (and hence, obviously, the cost of that education is shared between all taxpayers);
(5) It’s fairly well established (I think) that freedom is not something that necessarily flows from rule of law and enforcement of contract; it’s possible to have a society where many citizens have relatively little freedom yet all contracts are honoured;
(6) In the context of (5) above, we should probably ask what Bailey means by ‘economic freedom’; his gist seems to be ‘those freedoms enjoyed by the better off’;
(7) A society where a majority composed of not so well off people is deterred from raising children – and where, by contrast, a few well off people have lots of children – is not necessarily a very nice society. I’d suggest there might be gentler ways of avoiding tragedy of the commons situations.