The Expected Human
By Bryan Caplan
One spring day about 1969 I visited the U.S. AID office on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., to discuss a project intended to lower fertility in less-developed countries. I arrived early for my appointment, so I strolled outside in the warm sunshine. Below the building’s plaza I noticed a road sign that said “Iwo Jima Memorial.” There came to me the memory of reading a eulogy delivered by a Jewish chaplain over the dead on the battlefield at Iwo Jima, saying something like, “How many who would have been a Mozart or a Michelangelo or an Einstein have we buried here?” And then I thought, Have I gone crazy? What business do I have trying to help arrange it that fewer human beings will be born, each one of whom might be a Mozart or a Michelangelo or an Einstein – or simply a joy to his or her family and community, and a person who will enjoy life.
A further reason adduced by Simon for population growth is the “genius argument.” With 4,000 births there is a better chance of getting an Einstein or a Mozart than with only 40 births. Inept as this argument is in ignoring the unique combination of nature and nurture underlying genius, it should at least have occurred to Simon that the chances of getting another Hitler or Caligula likewise increase.
There are two arguments here. The first is ludicrous: Genius is a “unique combination of nature and nurture”; therefore, it’s “inept” to think a larger population increases the chance of getting more geniuses?! But Daly’s second argument – that a bigger population will have more monsters as well as more geniuses – is one that any economist can appreciate.
What should we make of this argument?
1. The existence of human civilization shows that on average, human beings’ capacity for creation exceeds their capacity for destruction. History’s Hitlers and Caligulas have taken big bites out of progress, but look around. The non-monsters have created far more than the monsters have destroyed. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here to ponder this question.
2. What about the marginal human? It’s admittedly conceivable that the average human adds value, but the marginal human reduces it. How would you measure the contribution of the marginal human? The simplest approach: Check whether the marginal human is, over his entire lifetime, self-supporting in present value terms. A small fraction of people – such as violent criminals, long-term welfare recipients, the chronically sick, and politicians – probably don’t pass this test. But even people who earn minimum wage probably do. If you average the good and the bad, the expected value of the marginal human remains comfortably positive.
3. What if you adjust your calculations to account for the externalities of the marginal human? Simon would remind us that the marginal human creates both positive and negative externalities; he might even add that the existence of civilization suggests that positive externalities greatly outweigh the negatives. Still, the laws of diminishing marginal utility of goods and increasing marginal disutility of bads provide some reason to think that the marginal human adds less than the average human. But is it plausible that this effect is large enough to turn the value of the expected human negative?
In his review, Daly resents Simon’s suggestion that critics of population growth are misanthropists: “neoMalthusians would agree with Simon that ten billion people are better than two billion — as long as they are not all alive at the same time!” Yet on reflection, misanthropy has two slightly different meanings. A misanthrope could be someone who wishes that people had never been born. But that’s a rather extreme form of misanthropy. The more common version, perfectly captured in Moliere’s greatest play, is simply having a low opinion of people. In this sense, neoMalthusians are indeed misanthropists – they expect the marginal human to be more trouble than he’s worth.