Bryan Caplan says that parents who are outraged about Jamie Lynn Spears' pregnancy should just calm down--teen pregnanc is much less of a big deal than we assume. Will Wilkinson responds:

I appreciate the concluding sentiment: that other people’s reproductive choices are none of our business. But then why not say just that?

Bryan has this pet theory that it is a good idea to sire a teeming brood in order to maximize future happy-making grandkid visits, thus staving off loneliness and despondency in old age. But I’m afraid the theory is at bottom mostly a theory of why Bryan thinks his wife should have more kids, rather than a theory of what will make people in general better off. For one thing, it seems mighty, um, gendered to me, failing to take the opportunity costs of childbearing for women very seriously at all. A sixteen year-old girl gets pregnant, and the perspective Bryan assumes is that of a grandparent? Weird.

Yes, little Miss Spears is rich and will be fine. But for most sixteen year-olds, the cost of having a kid is simply immense, possibly destroying any serious ambitions before they develop. So what’s the problem with a woman who decides to devote her life to meaningful life-constituting projects that do not involve stretch marks and minivans? Apparently she is a bad example to sixteen-year-old girls who might otherwise consider ruining their lives to make grandpa happy sooner. Really? April Fools? Reading Bryan on kids, you sometimes gets the sense that he thinks the primary function of women is to serve as incubators of grandfatherly delight.



I'm not sure I understand what the argument is about. This is about the objections of (potential) grandparents; looking back on my own experience of having been a sixteen year old girl, I doubt that many of the (potential) mothers are desperately concerned that Ms. Spears may be setting them a bad example.

If Darwinian evolution, and simple observation, hold, most people love their kids more than their grandkids. They don't want their children to procreate because they are willing to screw up their childrens' lives in order to secure for themselves the priceless boon of a grandson to spoil. They seem to believe that this will make their children happy. Bryan's point, as I take it, is that if you are choosing a role model who will result in more lifetime happiness for your child, you should prefer Jamie Lynn Spears to the increasing number of role models who will encourage your kids never to spawn.

Bryan may be incorrect about this, and the parents may be wrong that reproducing will make their children happier. Obviously, if I didn't think it was possible to have a happy life without children, I would already have some--though I'm not sure that Will and I, two childless thirty-five year olds, will get very far lecturing people who have actually raised children on its hedonic aspect. But I don't think that the question is which role models we should allow parents to selfishly impress on their children. And I don't think that Bryan Caplan does either.

I also don't think that this maps very well onto the idea of patriarchal men pressuring women--at least in my experience, women are both more likely to panic both about the idea of their daughter having a baby at sixteen, and at the idea that their daughter will never have a baby at all. They also seem more likely to want children from their daughters than from their sons. This could be the insidious patriarchy, or it could be the fact that women think their experience of having children was too special too miss; I have no way of establishing which is true.

What I do think that Bryan misses is the fact that the grandparents panicking over a pregnant sixteen-year old girl, and the example it sets for their children, probably are fairly focused on the costs to themselves. When a girl who isn't rich gets pregnant, it usually means that her mother has to heavily co-parent an infant, just when she thought she was ready to relax. Even if you think that your children will be better off having early children than none, or that you will be better off having grandchildren than none, when you add the extra cost to you of your daughter's early childbirth, your preferences may change.