As a former philosophy major, I resent that the only time philosophers tend to get featured in the press is when they are saying something particularly ridiculous. For example, last Thursday, the internet was abuzz with people sharing a profile of Johns Hopkins University philosophy professor Travis Rieder, who is writing a book about how climate change means you shouldn’t have kids. Here’s a sample:
Rieder wears a tweedy jacket and tennis shoes, and he limps because of a motorcycle accident. He’s a philosopher with the Berman Institute of Bioethics at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and his arguments against having children are moral.
Americans and other rich nations produce the most carbon emissions per capita, he says. Yet people in the world’s poorest nations are most likely to suffer severe climate impacts, ‘and that seems unfair,’ he says.
There’s also a moral duty to future generations that will live amid the climate devastation being created now.
‘Here’s a provocative thought: Maybe we should protect our kids by not having them,’ Rieder says.
Older readers may recall an incident during the Vietnam War when a U.S. Army officer defended the decision to bomb the city of Bến Tre by saying that “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” At the time, this sort of logic was taken to be self-evidently absurd. Now I guess it’s just “provocative.”
Rieder followed up his provocative thought with a provocative proposal, namely that the government should put a tax on having kids:
Rieder proposes that richer nations do away with tax breaks for having children and actually penalize new parents. He says the penalty should be progressive, based on income, and could increase with each additional child.
Think of it like a carbon tax, on kids.
As one might expect, the article got a lot of pushback, particularly from people who have and like kids. But it also earned some counter-pushback from people who claimed the guy actually had a point:
Carbon tax good, child tax bad? Hmm..fewer children is an easy way to go green, esp. with low discount rate.
— tylercowen (@tylercowen) August 20, 2016
Is not having kids a good way to go green? In the short term, the proposition is dubious. It’s true that children need to be fed, clothed and housed, preferably with the air conditioning set at a comfortable 72 degrees. Each of these activities involves some degree of greenhouse-gas emissions.
But they also all cost money. If you decide not to have a kid, the money that would’ve gone toward the child’s upkeep will get spent on something else, quite possibly a something else with a larger carbon footprint. Spending money on a flight to Tahiti instead of on diapers is not exactly going green.
Calling a tax on kids a carbon tax is a bit like calling a tax on Coke (but not Pepsi) a soda tax. The tax might reduce consumption of one type of soda (namely, the best kind), but it’s unclear the extent to which it would reduce overall soda consumption, as opposed to just encouraging people to drink other types of soda.
Of course, eventually your kids will grow up (one hopes) to be productive members of society, start earning their own money and spending it on possible carbon-emitting activities. To the extent they are making the world wealthier, this could result in more carbon emissions. Most people, though, probably wouldn’t consider the fact that a person is making the world wealthier to be a problem that needs to be taxed out of existence.
This leads to a second reason that taxing children is not the same as taxing carbon. Over the long term, the purpose of a carbon tax is not to make people reduce their carbon footprint by consuming less, but to encourage the development of low or zero carbon alternatives. Taxing children doesn’t do that. Not having a kid might mean one fewer vehicle on the road in 2032, but it won’t effect whether the cars of 2032 will run on gasoline. That’s significant, but in the absence of technological advances, having fewer children will only slightly delay the inevitable.
I’ve written before about why I think a carbon tax can make sense as a response to the risks of climate change. But in making that case, I’d rather have fewer allies like Rieder.