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The Case For Human Life

By Matthew Yglesias  

"The Case For Human Life"

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Ingrid Robeyns writes about a radical experiment in fighting poverty by giving people money in Otjivero, Namibia. Specifically:

[A] two year experiment in which the (about) 1,000 residents of a very poor community were unconditionally given N$100 (about 10 Euro) on a monthly basis for two years (from January 2008 till December 2009). The mid-term effects (on income generating activities, health, school enrollment, reduction of the number of underweight children, …) were very positive.

What’s called for now is more research, and one of the issues she wants to investigate is this:

One relates to fertility effects: if we give a BIG to each individual, also to the mothers or fathers of newborns, then there will (at least in theory!) be a financial incentive to have babies. I am one of those people who believes that (at current global fertility rates) it would be better if there were less babies on earth, so if this empirical hypothesis were true, that would be an undesirable unintended effect (which could perhaps be ‘solved’ by additional measures, such as limiting the number of grants the parents can claim for their children to two).

I don’t really understand the concern here. Africa’s less densely populated than Europe or Asia so it’s not like the extra people couldn’t fit. And poor Nigerians have a small ecological footprint. If you imagine a community with a fixed income generating potential, you might worry that population growth means lower per capital living standards but the hypothesis here is specifically that people would be having more children in order to raise their incomes. What’s more, the beneficial impacts here (“income generating activities, health, school enrollment, reduction of the number of underweight children”) seem to point in the direction of increased human capital and greater growth. Meanwhile, I dunno, to me it seems that if people want to have more babies that’s more human flourishing. The idea that we should be trying to manipulate poor women’s fertility as a goal of aid policy strikes me as kind of creepy (see Michelle Goldberg’s awesome book for more).

So mark me down as untroubled by this possibility, and also as someone who thinks that cash grants to Nigerian villagers would be a better way of expressing America’s commitment to human betterment than firing missiles. That said, given a fixed budget constraint it seems perfectly sensible to establish a “one grant per household” rule as a way of spreading the wealth around.

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