Democratic Fundamentalism and The Baby Business; or, Debate? We Don't Need No Stinkin' Debate!
By Bryan Caplan
Deborah Spar’s The Baby Business is, by far, the best overview of the cutting-edge technology and sociology of having babies. If you want to learn about in vitro fertilization, surrogacy, cloning, and international adoption, Spar’s book is a one-stop shop. Unfortunately, she is also a caricature of a democratic fundamentalist. Although she describes many horrifying and tragic results of government regulation of reproductive technology and adoption, she repeatedly demands more regulation. What kind of regulation? Whatever kind of regulation emerges from a vigorous public debate.
In the preface of The Baby Business, Spar initially pretends to neutrality: “The Baby Business does not try to resolve these moral issues. On the contrary, it argues that the moral issues surrounding birth and babies will never be resolved.” But three pages later, she puts her cards on the table:
Bluntly put, the book suggests that governments need to play a more active role in regulating the baby trade. This doesn’t mean that governments should control the industry or ban it… If there is demand for babies, there will be supply.
Such a market-based relationship, however, doesn’t preclude the kind of government intervention that exists in a wide range of other industry sectors: in education, in health care, in drugs. Indeed, governments are active players in most advanced capitalist economies, setting the rules that allow economies to function and, theoretically at least, keeping an eye toward the common good.
When Spar actually looks at the baby trade, however, we find that many governments are already heavily involved, and doing great harm. She rarely comes right out and says it, but it’s easy to see. A few examples:
1. Since “Danish sperm is subject to rigorous standards and guaranteed by
the government to remain anonymous, a Danish sperm bank has been able
to corner much of the global market for exported sperm.” Translation:
A Danish firm is the market leader because its government has credibly
committed not to abrogate anonymity contracts.
2. Since many governments around the world regulate the price of eggs, “the high end of the global egg trade has gravitated toward the United States.” Translation: Thanks to regulation, rich foreigners who want eggs endure needless expense and inconvenience, and rest are basically out of luck.
3. The same goes for surrogacy contracts. Some governments don’t allow them at all; others allow them only for “suitable” parents. So the rich endure needless expense and inconvenience, and everyone else has to do without:
Some couples traveled abroad to avail themselves of high-priced services that simply were not available or legal at home: gay Britons, for example, could not easily adopt in the United Kingdom; infertile Australians (or Taiwanese or Kuwaitis) could not legally employ surrogates at home. So they ventured instead to the United States, paying around $75,000 for a child to bring back home.
4. Some countries, like Germany, ban embryonic screening, even to detect awful congenital diseases like cystic fibrosis and Tay-Sachs. The result, again, is that richer parents go abroad at great expensive and inconvenience, and everyone else either remains childless or throws the dice that give them a severely ill child with 25% probability.
5. Virtually all countries heavily regulate adoption. The result: No good deed goes unpunished. If you want to rescue a child from severe poverty or an orphanage, you usually have to pay thousands for the privilege. A “healthy white Russian infant” goes for about $35k. A black Ethiopian goes for $6,700 to $8,000. Regulators desperately try to make sure that the biological family of the child doesn’t get a dime. Instead, these thousands go to facilitators, brokers, and adoption agencies whose main service is helping people navigate their way through the adoption regulations of two countries.
6. While the out-of-pocket cost of adopting foster children is zero, government regulation forces aspiring parents to suffer for their generosity. Out of 534,000 in the U.S. foster care system, only 126,000 were eligible for adoption. The hitch:
Because these children are legally wards of the state, only state agencies can handle their adoptive placements. And the process is typically exasperating: parental rights must be legally terminated, extended relatives contacted, and frequently, racial considerations weighed.
Translation: Regulation forbids an adult and a child to consensually form a permanent family. What for? To protect the “rights” of abandoned minors’ abusive and neglectful blood relatives – plus random bigots.
Spar isn’t a dogmatic opponent of the baby market. When she looks at the real world, she sees much of good that markets do, and much of the the evil that governments do. Still, no matter how much harm regulation does, her solution is more regulation. What kind of regulation? It doesn’t matter! Spar is a pitch-perfect democratic fundamentalist who blesses any result of democratic deliberation:
Usually, this is the point in any provocative book where the author lays out a road map for reform… But the author is not going to do that… Because if markets are political, and if the market for babies is particularly intimate and controversial and complicated, then any single road map for reform – and indeed any top-down strategy of reform – is certain to fail.
Wait, is this a plea for laissez-faire? Not on your life! She immediately continues:
What the market needs, instead, is a politically determined strategy, one that emerges from a dedicated and explicit political debate. This debate will not be cordial. Depending on the climate of U.S. politics, it could well move to forestall or eliminate certain aspects of high-tech baby-making. Yet the debate itself is vital. Without it, the baby business will either disintegrate into chaos or fall prey to the narrow interests of particular groups.
As a society, therefore, we need to engage the politics of assisted reproduction. We need to decide what pieces of this emerging technology are acceptable, and for whom…
Instead of recommending a specific set of policies, therefore, this book advocates a process of political debate…
My objection is simple: Almost all of the regulatory evils I’ve listed are ultimately caused by “political debate.” The public irrationally opposes technological innovation and mutually advantageous exchange in the baby market. But as long as this market stays below the public’s radar, it remains unregulated and progresses rapidly. Whenever voters notice what’s going on, in contrast, they cry out for restrictions, bans, and a bunch of arbitrary “safeguards,” and their leaders oblige them. The result – sometimes intended, sometimes unintended – of these policies is to impede two great goods: creating and adopting children.
Under the circumstances, only two strategies merit our attention. One is education: To clearly explain why popular complaints about the baby market reflect economic illiteracy, if not sheer malevolence. The other is stealth: To help the baby industry keep a low profile so it can survive, thrive, and gradually triumph as a fait accompli. If Spar managed to inspire a grand political debate, in contrast, the probable result would be heavier regulation of what exists, and an outright ban on much of the progress we would otherwise see. Debate? We don’t need no stinkin’ debate!