Unusual disclaimer: This post will probably make me sound hateful, or like a colossal elitist jerk — the latter of which I have repeatedly said that I am, so nobody should be surprised. This post is not genuinely intended to cut, it is observational only. I wish I had an idea of how to resolve these anomalies so that society could advance (ideally by concurrently rewarding excellence and mitigating suffering), but I don’t. I’m just me. And even if I sound hateful or like an elitist jerk, I’m still me. So let me start by quoting somebody with a reputation even worse than mine.
The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself. –Friedrich Nietzsche
An unusual pairing of headlines generated a chunk of cognitive dissonance for me over the weekend. The first was a report of yet another protest against the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision which effectively legalized abortion in the United States. This was paired with concern about voting on a couple of tax increases. A lot of the state-employed teachers and coaches I work with are concerned about taxes not going up, but some of them are concerned for their small-business owning relatives in case the taxes do go up. The Oregonian has several shots of its own against the tax increases.
We’ll get back to the taxes, but first there’s Roe v. Wade. This particular Supreme Court decision holds a special cold place in my heart because it tends to make people stupid (and I used to be one of them). The ruling was not that “a woman has a constitutionally guaranteed right to an abortion” or even anything to do with choice or life. The precise summarize ruling was that the work necessary to prosecute abortion would “violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which protects against state action the right to privacy” — or put another way, if the state can’t reasonably expect that you are viably pregnant, then the state has no just cause to expect that your non-pregnancy is the result of having an abortion. It is also worth noting that the Roe v. Wade decision also includes its own limiter, promptly following the line quoted above, noting that the state has “legitimate interests in protecting both the pregnant woman’s health and the potentiality of human life, each of which interests grows and reaches a ‘compelling’ point at various stages of the woman’s approach to term.”
The thing that really strikes me about Roe v. Wade — especially that last clause — is that it is why people who are very pro-choice should be very afraid of government involvement in health care. Government involvement in health care increases the government interest in “protecting both the pregnant woman’s health and the potentiality of human life” and reduces the barrier between state and citizen such that there is less privacy to be violated should abortion be outlawed and prosecutions follow. All it would take is a conservative court that could actually, and with reasonable legitimacy, cite the original precedent of Roe v. Wade to not overturn it at all, but instead adjust the legal implications to be in-tune with the new social status quo. Then again, there are people who earnestly want government to subsidize abortions for the economically disadvantaged without realizing how close they’re coming to promoting eugenics.
Conversely, a lot of the pro-life people should be thankful for Roe v. Wade because Roe v. Wade’s staunch re-assertion of the right to privacy also allows people who are so desperate to become pregnant to do so in unnatural ways which run counter to at least several thousand years of natural selection, if not making headlines for their gross abuse of society’s generosity. (Just for the record, if you ever have to choose between “life finds a way” or “mad scientists find a way,” bet on the mad scientists.)
The point here is that “abort or not” isn’t really the choice here. The real choice is “parenthood or not” and the government is staying away from that decision, too.
Or it would be if it weren’t mired in that decision for reasons of tradition and future et cetera. In much the same way the religious institution of marriage has been recognized by the state with special statuses and tax breaks, so has the very private, intimate (or personal in some cases) decision to raise children been marked in public policy from the public school system to the tax deductions that reduce the amount of funding schools get from the people who are sending their children to them. This means, conversely, that the people with no children are being taxed an astonishing amount (compared to the lack of resource consumption) to subsidize public education for other people’s children given that the private nature of the decision to have children, which the government wants no part of.
There is some strange economy at work here. Erik Naggum, in responding to Atlas Shrugged, claims that an open capitalist economy gives people something more desirable to do than procreate, so they’ll do it.
The single factor that best defines civilizations as they become richer and therefore offer more freedom, is that people procreate less and at a later age. Capitalism has proved to be inordinately effective in keeping people from procreating when they could not produce enough to feed and care for their offspring… By giving women something that it costs so much to give up by having children that they weigh the cost that having children is and decide against it, capitalist society has short-circuited the senseless wastes of procreation with wild abandon that have marred every pre-capitalist society that happened to overproduce.
Paul Graham, meanwhile, notes that kids produced in a suburban-oriented society are an economic liability to the society in question.
Now adults have no immediate use for teenagers. They would be in the way in an office. So they drop them off at school on their way to work, much as they might drop the dog off at a kennel if they were going away for the weekend… Teenagers now are useless, except as cheap labor in industries like fast food, which evolved to exploit precisely this fact. In almost any other kind of work, they’d be a net loss. But they’re also too young to be left unsupervised. Someone has to watch over them, and the most efficient way to do this is to collect them together in one place. Then a few adults can watch all of them.
The point behind this is these is that our capitalist society has no intention of having generally well-paid teachers due in no small part to the fact that the people who are making the most money and paying the most taxes either don’t have children or simply can’t put their career on hold long enough to pay that much attention to them because, if/when they do, the ongoing role of the public schoolteacher is diminished.
To clarify: for the people who made the private economic decision to not have children, the public economic burden of educating children that were the result of other people’s private choices is a strange one.
And now the state is asking voters, of which I am one, if we should raise taxes on the people who are focused on making money — and probably not consuming so many state resources — to subsidize the (pejoratively pigeonholed) breeders’ so-called “public” education system (and, honestly, general budget). Put that way, I’m really rather disinclined to agree to putting further fiscal support behind the state-entitled education system, especially since I know I disagree with its general educational priorities. But the galling aspect of this is that there is no upper boundary on how much we may be asked to give to publicly mitigate private consequences — that is, subsidize the education of other people’s never-ending kids. At a some point, freedom to choose must necessarily be read as freedom to choose the consequences and entitlements that scale to mitigate consequences prevent that point from ever being set.
I can only be and accept responsibility for being my brother’s keeper inasmuch as my brother, as a free moral agent, allows himself to be kept. This is the point where all solvency breaks down. But interestingly enough, this is also why making abortion illegal would not increase the net morality of our society.
Update: Going through the backlog on my RSS feed, we’ve got “Oregon State study says having fewer children is best way to reduce your carbon footprint.” Of course, the other interesting thing is that “the rich” are having more children (The Economist from August 6, 2009 — subscription required at this point), representing a change in demography from the trend assumed above (particularly by Naggum) and further undermining the presumed necessity of having a fully public education system.