Book Review: Bryan Caplan's Selfish Reasons To Have More Kids

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Back in the mid ‘80s while on vacation with my parents, my mother handed me an article from Discover Magazine (?) which discussed the University of Minnesota's research on identical twins. Specifically, the studies covered identical twins separated at birth.

The article confirmed fairly plainly that "nurture" in the nature vs. nurture debate was vastly overrated. The twins, despite growing up in completely different environments in terms of economics, parents and educational attainment had turned out remarkably alike. The discoveries confirmed my own anecdotal observations about environment, in that kids growing up in the same house and being raised by the same parents often turned out quite a bit different from one another. Genes made sense, while environment rarely stood up to observable realities.

In the 25 years since I've had to suffer regular commentary from friends and acquaintances about how their "upbringing" caused them to only strive for middle management positions, or better yet foretold their great success, that their personalities were the result of being the "first child", and the biggest howler of all, that they would raise their own children to be top level athletes, academics, great givers, and all manner of other things actually predetermined by genes. None of it has ever made sense, and in each instance I'd reference the obscure article (long since lost) given to me by my mother many years ago.

Now I don't need to. Thanks to George Mason professor Bryan Caplan's brilliant new book, Selfish Reasons To Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent Is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think, I've got a handy reference to beat back all the claims of the human somnolents who ascribe every personal virtue and malady to something mommy or daddy did while raising them. Though most will buy the book for Caplan's advice on parenting and why they should have more children, I bought it and will value it (no children as of yet) for it being an excellent study of why we are the way we are.

Needless to say, much of what we are in terms of personality, looks, intelligence and drive is determined not by our upbringing or what school we went to, but by the very individuals (mom and dad) who created us. Or, as I like to remind my wonderful parents with great regularity, whether I'm good or bad was largely determined at conception as opposed to the nurturing, attentive way in which they raised me.

But first up, Caplan's book is one meant to encourage parents and prospective parents to have more kids. As he puts it, "Unless your baby is truly unlucky, he will almost certainly be happy to be alive." As for the parents, "people are not having enough children for their own good."

In Caplan's opinion, "parents can sharply improve their lives without hurting their kids", "parents are much more worried [about their kids] than they ought to be", "many of the benefits of children come later in life", plus the world is made a better place with more children so in reproducing, parents can enhance their own lives all the while improving the world.

To make the act of parenting less painful, Caplan advises mom and dad to relax. No matter what they do, no matter how much or how little television they allow the children, no matter how often they take vacations without the kids, and no matter their desire for more personal time away from shuttling the children to myriad activities they don't much enjoy, "Odds are, your kids will painlessly inherit your brains, success, charm, and modesty."

But as is well known now, there's a growing body of evidence that married couples without kids are happier than those with them. Caplan doesn't shy away from these studies, rather he points out that the happiness differential isn't that great even with the first child, and then with the second it largely vanishes. To Caplan, parents are somewhat "myopic" about childbearing, focused too much on the difficult early days with less thought given to how rewarding children are once they emerge from early childhood.

Basically parents "overcharge themselves", let their children dominate their lives, and Caplan seems to say that this explains any happiness deficit. His response once again is that parents should relax, take more time out for themselves (sometimes he'll go see a movie on the way home from work rather than racing home to the kids), and don't take on the role of overburdened chauffeur.

Indeed, as Caplan notes throughout Selfish Reasons, "The best available evidence shows that large differences in upbringing have little effect on how kids turn out." Translated, if you're a good, hardworking, conscientious, law abiding person, and you marry someone sharing those attributes, odds are your kids will turn out fine regardless of whether or not you're a "helicopter parent".

If so, the alleged burdens of parenting shouldn't be that great. Parents should enjoy their lives, let their kids watch television, read or whatever else they like because in the end "Nature wins, especially in the long run. If your child had grown up in a very different family - or if you had been a very different parent - he probably would have turned out the same." Caplan acknowledges that parents can modify behavior in the near term, but longer term the studies show that kids will turn out the way they turn out, and odds are they'll "still turn out fine."

Evidence supporting Caplan's claims abounds thanks to a growing body of work in the area of "behavioral genetics". The latter reveals that "Identical twins are much more similar than fraternal twins - even when separated at birth - and their similarity often increases as they age."

Parents often enter parenthood with grandiose visions of creating model children, or great athletes (think Todd Marinovich), but Caplan has found that much of what we are is predetermined. As he puts it, "genes strongly influence both height and weight, while upbringing influences neither.

What the above tells us that is that Marinovich would have been a great quarterback no matter his upbringing. More broadly, and surely anecdotally, I was in touch with a very successful female hedge fund manager (married to a hugely successful hedge fund manager) recently, and she bemoaned the lack of time spent with her baby daughter. My response was that she needn't worry, that odds point to a very smart and driven child given the makeup of the parents.

The hedge fund manager in question has her daughter regularly in the care of a nanny, and to that Caplan would likely applaud. He strongly advises that if parents have the means that they use that money to make parenting easier. Again, upbringing is vastly overrated.

Considering intelligence, all of us have doubtless suffered the semi-intelligent parents who've magically produced - through books in the house, family outings at highbrow cultural locales and limited television time - several geniuses doubtless destined for academic scholarships to elite private universities. This not uncommon scenario is surely amusing, and also nonsense.

As Caplan reveals, "large scientific literature finds that parents have little or no long-run effect on their children's intelligence." As for the individuals who plan to adopt with an eye on molding the child into the next Einstein, the evidence provided by Caplan through the Texas Adoption Project is that there's "no effect of upbringing on the IQs of late adolescents."

Basically "Today's Typical Parents strive to mentally stimulate their children and struggle to protect their brains from being turned to mush by television and video games. Yet by adulthood the fruit of parents' labor is practically invisible", according to Caplan. More to the point, Caplan makes plain that kids "literally inherit educational and financial success from their parents", and the best predictor of a child's success is "not money, connections or help with their homework, but the right stuff (my emphasis)." Marry well seems to be the answer.

Evidence supporting all of this is everywhere in Selfish Reasons. According to a study conducted by the National Study of Adolescent Health, "Genes had a strong effect on grades. If you're in the 80th percentile of your class, expect the identical twin you've never met to be in the 71st." Parents make great sacrifices to send their kids to the best schools, but all the evidence points to a little or a lot or average intelligence no matter the schooling. The answer as always is to relax.

Considering economic success, though we're bombarded with evidence-free assertions that the "right" environment in which kids are encouraged by well-to-do, doting parents fosters commercial achievement, studies reveal otherwise. Caplan cites a study done on Korean adoptees which shows that "the income of the family you grew up with has literally no effect on your financial success. Korean adoptees raises by the poorest families have the same average income as adoptees raised by the richest families." Genes matter, and they're highly predictive.

Some parents, particularly those with means, worry that they're giving their kids too much, that in spoiling them they're "raising" wastrels. Caplan feels otherwise, and the empirical evidence he cites leads us to the greater truth that as opposed to us being molded either into titans of commerce or layabouts on the dole, "wealth and poverty run in families." Caplan's point is that heredity, not environment is the bigger driver of success. One college friend of mine, a major success on Wall Street but also a lover of late nights in the bars, keeps alcohol out of the home so that his kids aren't exposed to it.  I tell him this won't work, that his kids will probably be funloving like he is, and now I'll just hand him a copy of Selfish Reasons

Considering criminal activity, as opposed to "society" making us act in criminal ways, twin and adoption studies unearthed by Kaplan point to criminality being more of a function of genes. More to the point, the offspring of the law abiding tend to be the same way even if adopted by criminal parents. Regarding marriage and divorce, we're not raised to have stable marriages as much as that too is heritable. As Caplan puts it, "marital stability depends on personality and values, which in turn depends upon genes."

Looking at the economics of increased child-rearing, Caplan is bullish. He notes that productivity enhancements make life and the upbringing of a child increasingly less expensive (education is the costly factor, though as mentioned earlier, the impact of a "great" education is hard to discern in terms of IQ), after which he stresses that we must look at the myriad positives that result from more people producing more kids.

Put simply, and to paraphrase Adam Smith, humans are capital. Or as Caplan puts it, the "main source of progress is new ideas." If parents act in their own self interest to have more children, it's a fair bet by Caplan's calculations that more than a few Bill Gates-type individuals will emerge, and the world will be made better for it.

After that, Caplan's main theme repeated throughout is once again to not worry, to "show more modesty, and get more happiness. You can have a better life and a bigger family if you admit that your kids' future is not in your hands." So while this reviewer read Selfish Reasons for its chapters that explained in high resolution the power of genes over environment, if you're a tired parent or skeptical non-parent unsure about how to proceed, this book is for you.

Regarding disputes, there weren't many as much as there were questions, or a desire for more clarity. Certainly Caplan skillfully shows that the general quality of children's lives is determined at conception, but doesn't he leave out that for many parents it's in their own genetic code to worry, to overparent, and to let what shouldn't consume their lives consume them?

If so, aren't overly conscientious and overworked "helicopter" parents in possession of the kinds of genes that lead to kids that turn out alright? Caplan offers sound advice strongly backed by empirical evidence that parents can relax and concentrate more on themselves, but isn't this to some degree a genetic impossibility, and if it were possible for parents to step back a bit, wouldn't it foretell different kids for it describing genetically different parents?

And while he makes plain that the brains, values, and commercial success of parents is fairly predictive of what the kids will turn out like, sometimes kids are quite unlike their parents. Does Caplan believe, or do studies show that kids often inherit genetic qualities more similar to cousins, uncles and aunts? My mother once had a friend who said her upbringing made her a perfectionist, my mother nicely scoffed and asked if she had relatives who were perfectionists, at which point the friend mentioned an aunt who was very much that way. Does Caplan feel such scenarios are credible?

Concerning education, it would be great to know what Caplan thinks about educational vouchers and other right-wing reforms meant to remove kids from "schools that don't teach." Having long believed everything that Caplan lays out in his essential book, I've felt that vouchers are vastly overrated, that bad schools aren't that way thanks to bad instruction and evil teachers' unions as much as bad schools result from unruly children who are the offspring of shiftless parents. His thoughts on the effectiveness of vouchers, and whether or not they simply shift problematic values to other schools would have been a great addition.

Lastly, what about abortion and birth control? It would be interesting to know if Caplan feels both, for essentially allowing parents to select into parenthood, have in fact led to better behaved kids thanks to children being conceived by more conscientious, caring parents.

Importantly, the questions laid out don't detract from Selfish Reasons as much as they beg for more books by Bryan Caplan meant to explain why we are the we are. I found this one truly interesting, and strongly recommend it to all individuals regardless of age, marital status, and whether childless or not.

John Tamny is editor of RealClearMarkets, Political Economy editor at Forbes, a Senior Fellow in Economics at Reason Foundation, and a senior economic adviser to Toreador Research and Trading ( He's the author of Who Needs the Fed?: What Taylor Swift, Uber and Robots Tell Us About Money, Credit, and Why We Should Abolish America's Central Bank (Encounter Books, 2016), along with Popular Economics: What the Rolling Stones, Downton Abbey, and LeBron James Can Teach You About Economics (Regnery, 2015). 

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