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Bryan Caplan asks why economists are agnostic about whether receiving “the gift of life”, meaning being born, makes someone better off, when they are so certain that receiving a gift of $100 dollars clearly does. I think the reason we can be confident about one and agnostic about the other is that we have a good conceptions of the two separate states being compared in the $100 scenario, and don’t in the other. In the gift of money scenario one state is with $100 extra dollars, the other is a state without. It is easy both conceptually and, if we wanted, empirically, to consider well-being in these two states and determine in which the individual is better off. We have good information about what it means to be in both states.

In the other scenario, one state is controversial and we don’t have good information about what it means to be in it. What is the expected level of utility of being in the state of never being born? Immeasurable or inconceivable might be just as good of an answer. It strikes me as a philosophical question that, at the very least, economists aren’t trained to think about.

Perhaps Bryan understands that the philosophical answer here is actually clear-cut, and the problem is a lack of sophistication among economists (and myself). I’m not convinced this is the case, but I am willing to consider it. My main objection is that it holds radical moral implications that seem to violate common sense morality. For instance, if you take seriously the notion that the utility of not being born is less than the utility of being born, it seems to me that the moral imperative is for everyone who is capable to be reproducing at the maximum rate possible, because the marginal utility is likely massive. Surely the positive marginal utility of a life of poverty with 20 siblings relative to the utility of not being born is greater than the negative marginal utility of the 20 siblings and parents being burdened with one more family member. So when do you stop? Are Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar the most moral people on the planet?

If you argue that individuals should act selfishly, which somehow I think Bryan would, then there is a huge market failure whereby the unborn are unable to contract with their potential parents to pay for life. This argues for taxation of everyone (the set of people who are born) in order to subsidize reproduction. Yes, we indirectly do some of this already, but this should trump all other charitable and redistributive concerns.

So maybe Bryan is right and the utility of not being born is lower than the utility of being born, but if he is I think we are living in an incredibly immoral world with the largest market failure that has ever existed.

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