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Everyone’s A Social Engineer

Here’s a letter to Bloomberg:


Interviewed by Ramesh Ponnuru, Lyman Stone said this: “We know from surveys that Americans actively intend and plan to have 2 to 2.3 children on average, yet at current rates will have just 1.64. We know that Americans say they want to have, or think it’s ideal to have, or say they’d be happiest having somewhere between 2.2 and 2.8 children. So it’s very clear that low fertility is ‘bad’ in the sense that it is not what Americans say they want.” (“Want More American Babies? Make the U.S. More Livable,” May 11).


People’s true preferences are much more accurately revealed by their actions than by their words. Because Americans are free to have more children, the fact that they have fewer children than they say they want is evidence only that surveys are a poor means of discovering what people really want when fully confronted with reality. Unlike surveys, reality confronts each person with the actual need to make many trade-offs and to personally bear the resulting costs while enjoying the resulting benefits.

And as for Mr. Stone’s conclusion that Americans would have more children if Americans’ costs of having more children were lower – well, yes. No one needs a survey to reach the conclusion that as the cost of some benefit falls, more of that benefit will be pursued.

While government should not artificially raise the cost incurred by individuals of having children, it also should neither artificially lower that cost nor artificially raise the benefit.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030


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