Mass Sterilization, Reconsidered
By Bryan Caplan
Last week Tyler entertained this hypothetical: “A freak solar event ‘sterilizes’ the half of the planet (people, animals, etc) facing the sun. What happens?” His answer:
I would predict the collapse of many fiat currencies and the immediate
insolvency of most financial institutions. Who could meet all those
margin calls? Unemployment would exceed 20 percent and martial law
would be declared, food rationing and guys with rifles on street
A couple days later, David Brooks took up the challenge:
Within weeks, in other words, everything would break down and society
would be unrecognizable. The scenario is unrelievedly grim. An
individual who does not have children still contributes fully to the
future of society. But when a society doesn’t reproduce there is
nothing left to contribute to.
Given my current book project, you might think I’d be even more pessimistic. But I’m not. Cowen and Brooks vastly underestimate the power of inertia, adaptation, and hope:
1. Inertia. Suppose you suddenly found out you were sterile. Would you still go to work today? Probably. What else are you supposed to do? Even when you face a big change, it’s easier to just go about your business and pretend like everything is normal. So in the sterilization hypothetical, I predict that almost everyone would be back to work within a week.
You could object on the basis of group dynamics. Maybe a big group of sterile people acts differently than an isolated sterile individual. That’s probably true, but it cements my case. If just one person is sterile, he feels alone in his tragedy. If everyone around you is affected, you’d want to signal solidarity with those around you by showing up for work and putting on a good face.
2. Adaptation. When bad stuff happens, not only do people get over it; they get over it far sooner than you’d think. That’s the deep truth of hedonic adaptation. Most people would feel an emptiness in their lives if they knew they couldn’t have children. A few would never get over it. But most would, especially if no one else around them had it any better.
3. Hope. What would Obama do the day scientists confirmed the mass sterilization? Mr. Hope would give an audacious national speech proposing a Genesis Program to cure mankind’s problem. The nation would rally around the crusade, and we’d spend a Paulson Plan’s worth of money on R&D. Then we’d cross our fingers, get on with our lives, and wait. People would gradually give up hope, but there’d be no focal point for despair, no identifiable moment where the incurability of the problem became common knowledge. Even if a later president openly admitted defeat, a couple decades of accumulated inertia and adaptation would easily prevent social collapse. Affected nations would go extinct not with a bang, but a whimper.
The sterilization of half mankind would still be a horrible tragedy of epic proportions. But we wouldn’t be losing the society we’ve got. We’d just be losing the society we could have had: Millions of new creative geniuses, and billions of additional people who’d enjoy being alive. If human beings were built differently, we might inconsolably miss the descendents we never had. For most of us, though, it’s “out of sight, out of mind.” We miss people we knew and lost a thousand times more than people who were never conceived.