New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin unwittingly stirred up a blustery breath-storm in the steamy halitosis-swamp governed by right-wing bombast Rush Limbaugh when he asked, rhetorically, whether families should be compensated for not having babies. Media Matters has the full story. Among those to cry foul, friend and colleague Tom Yulsman rightly takes Limbaugh to task. Maybe I’ll do the same in a future post. For now, on to more pressing matters.
In Revkin’s original dot earth blogpost, he poses a thought experiment. As a philosopher, I ♥ thought experiments. We philosophers eat thought experiments for breakfast, take them along with us as nutritional supplements, and frequently use them to cap off our long evenings. Unfortunately for Limbaugh, thought experiments require thought, which I think rules them off of his cognitive platter. Here’s what Revkin has to say:
Good question. Rhetorical, but good. The answer should be ‘no’ in both cases. You do not get social props for doing something that you’re supposed to do anyway. If you do something that you’re not supposed to do, you can get blamed, or get fined, or get in trouble, or have your eyeballs eaten out by fire ants, but nobody should be in the business of rewarding do-gooders for not behaving badly. There are an infinite number of things that I could be doing right now, many of which are quite terrible. It is moral insanity to suggest that somehow I should have legions of folks beating down my door to reward me for not doing them. Revkin obviously knows this, which is why he poses the thought experiment in the first place. (There may be other reasons he poses the thought experiment too, but I’ll ignore those for the time being.)
The notion of baby-avoidance carbon credits calls to mind the much more serious proposals that were a part of the once-electric regulatory takings debate, and particularly proposals to legislate fulfillment of the Kaldor-Hicks criterion. This was all predicated on a similar sort of moral insanity.
Opportunity costs, like Kaldor-Hicks efficiency, are a theoretical construct. We cannot trace out costs according to alternate possible universes when those possible universes branch out from our individual decisions; and, more importantly, we ought not to legislate as if we could.
It does make sense, however, to try to find ways to encourage people to have fewer children. It is conceivable that, in a fit of political spinning, these ways might be characterized as credits, but as with all policy outcomes, the population reduction mechanisms could come in many forms, including straight incentives, draconian laws, or positive externalities associated with improved educational systems (for instance).