An Alibertarian Case for Reproductive Laissez-Faire
By Bryan Caplan
Libertarians often highlight “the right to do wrong.” We are often morally obliged to tolerate the wicked and foolish behavior of others. A quote wrongly attributed to Voltaire beautifully captures the intuition: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Fruitful as this insight is, however, it is often superfluous. If a law forbids actions that are good, or persecutes beliefs that are true, critics might as well start attacking the law by defending the merit of the violations. If the law persecutes creationists, it makes sense to appeal to freedom of belief. If the law persecutes evolutionists, on the other hand, it makes more sense to make the alibertarian argument that evolution is true.
Lately I’ve been reading the classic arguments in favor of regulation of reproductive technology. They usually take the rights-based position as their main foil. They’ll propose a ban on human cloning for the greater good, and libertarians will object, “You’re violating human rights.” On reflection, though, defenders of reproductive laissez-faire can do a lot better. Artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, surrogacy, and yes, cloning deserve an affirmative defense. Here’s an outline:
1. Creating new human life is almost always good.
2. Voluntary exchange is mutually beneficial for the participants.
3. Third parties are also better off, at least on average.
When Leon Kass proposes a ban on human cloning, for example, the most obvious reply is, “Cloning creates human life. What kind of a monster would want to stop that?” When feminists say it’s “exploitation” to hire surrogates from the Third World, the obvious reply is, “The women we hire earn money that they need to buy extra food for their families.” When Malthusians complain about the evils of overpopulation, the obvious reply is to refer them to the work of Julian Simon.
You could say, “All of those arguments are open to objections.” Indeed they are. Creating a person who lived in constant horrible pain wouldn’t be good. Extremely irrational people might predictably lose from voluntary exchange. And there is a point where population growth would make third parties worse off.
That’s OK. When the objections stick, you can still fall back on libertarian arguments about reproductive rights. Under normal circumstances, however, the objections don’t stick – and focusing on the right to do wrong sells the case for reproductive freedom short.