The Charge of Creepiness
By Bryan Caplan
CK, an EconLog reader, writes:
I find your obsession with the topic of people’s personal choices to be deeply creepy. Also, the fact that your starting point
is that they are in error is a textbook example of bad logic, e.g.,
assuming what you need to prove. Furthermore, it is highly against the
logic of economics to assume that you know people’s preferences and/or
utility function better than they do (cf., consumer sovereignty).
I’m not sure how many other people find my “obsession” creepy, but I doubt that CK is alone. My defense: I don’t see why it’s any more creepy to give advice about family size than advice about personal finance or home theater design. I’m not trying to bully anyone, just share some relevant arguments and evidence with the world. What’s wrong with that?
Perhaps the complaint is that having a child is much more “personal” than picking a mutual fund or a high-definition projector. I agree with the premise – whether to have a child is especially personal. But that’s no reason to spurn advice, as I explain in the preface to Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids (work in progress):
Whether to have a child is obviously one of life’s most
personal decisions. Just because a
decision is personal, however, does not mean that that “Whatever
decision you make is the right one for you.”
Precisely because the decision to have a child is complicated, its
consequences are easy to misjudge. Your
personal decision can be way off – and if you make up your mind too quickly,
you’re only cheating yourself.
Is it creepy to claim to know someone’s preferences/utility function better than they do? A key point in my argument is that I don’t need to claim any such thing. When an economist tells you to diversify your portfolio, he isn’t trying to overrule your values; he’s trying to explain the best way to achieve your values. The same thing goes with my advice about family size.
I’ve also noticed that some libertarians see my arguments as somehow unlibertarian. But I’ve never called for government to pressure people into having children; indeed, I favor many policy changes that I admit are anti-natalist (such as abolishing public schooling). The key point, though, is that there’s nothing unlibertarian about giving advice.
So is there anything creepy about my project? I just don’t see it. I’ll admit there’s such a thing as unwanted advice. Face-to-face, I rarely give advice unless someone asks for it. But what could be less obtrusive than putting advice in writing on a blog, where the curious can read it, and the not-so-curious can scroll down to the next post?