Strange moral calculations
By Scott Sumner
The Economist has an interesting article discussing regulatory changes regarding child safety seats:
During the Reagan era, only the truly wee—tots aged under three—had normally to be secured in child-safety seats. But states’ governments have, since then, gradually ramped up the requirements. Today, most places in America make children sit in safety seats until their eighth birthdays. That concern for youngsters’ safety has had the unintended consequence, Dr Nickerson and Dr Solomon suggest, of fewer three-child families. . . .
They discovered that tightening those laws had no detectable effects on the rates of births of first and second children, but was accompanied by a drop, on average, of 0.73 percentage points in the number of women giving birth to a third while the first two were young enough to need safety seats. . . .
They estimate that laws requiring children to sit in special seats until they are eight years old saved about 57 lives in 2017 and contrast that number with the 8,000 children who might have been conceived and born in the absence of such rules. There is, they conclude, no “compelling social interest” in requiring child seats for children over four.
This seems weird. Comparing putative lives forgone to actual lives saved is, to put it politely, a strange moral calculation.
The writer for The Economist seems to think the government’s moral calculation is more sensible than the one employed by the authors of this paper, but doesn’t explain why. Do they entirely reject cost/benefit analysis (an approach The Economist generally favors), or do they reject the specific moral calculation in this case? And if so, what’s the numerical equivalence that they think is more accurate? Does one life lost equate to one foregone child? To 10 foregone children? To 100 foregone children? How about a million foregone children? A billion?
It seems to me that the “strange moral calculation” is being made by the government regulator that believes they are better positioned than the child’s parents to solve these difficult moral problems.
I’m completely agnostic on this issue; I don’t have a clue as to how one should weigh 57 lives lost against 8000 children never born. If you are confident that you can do that sort of moral calculation, then please tell me your conclusion. What is the correct equivalence ratio to employ in this sort of cost/benefit analysis?
Because I don’t know the answer, I’d prefer to leave those decisions up to parents, not government regulators.
PS. This has nothing to do with my view on the value of a higher birth rate. I use the same agnostic moral reasoning on issues like abortion, where deregulation cuts in the other direction.
PPS. The decision to have children is implicitly a decision to risk the life of a living mother in order to gain a potential human being.