Bryan Caplan on adoption

I am now more rather than less puzzled.  Bryan writes:

On adoption: I think that adoption is a noble, generous act, and admire those who do it.  But I personally don't want to adopt. 

I can't disagree with any word in that first sentence, but it leaves me uneasy.  Bryan's forthcoming book — Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids — is about…selfish reasons to have kids.  (It will, I promise you, be very interesting and make a splash.)  So here is my challenge to Bryan: write down the ten most important selfish reasons to have kids and then ask how many of them apply to adopted children.  Most of them will.  Which isn't to say those are the only reasons to adopt (or have) kids, but they are real nonetheless.  So why do the adopting parents seemingly get described as selfless martyrs?  It's almost as if the selfishness, without the replication angle, has to be stuffed into a box somewhere.  Do all those selfish reasons for having kids require replication as a kind of amplifying mechanism, without with we are left with the slightly underwhelming purely altruistic motives?  

I think Bryan understands the selfish reasons for having children differently than I do, though I will defer to his own statement of his view.  I put a big stress on how children help you see that a lot of your immediate concerns aren't nearly as important as you might think, and how spending time with children brings you closer to — apologies, super-corny phrases on the way — The Great Circle of Being and The Elemental Life Force.  In some (not all) ways, adopted children may be teaching you those lessons more effectively than do biological children.  It's an oversimplification to say that "children make you a better person," but they do, or should, improve your ability to psychologically and emotionally integrate that a) you want lots of stuff, b) what you end up getting remains, no matter what, ridiculously small and inconsequential, and c) you can't control your life nearly as much as you think.   

I would sooner say that these realizations are gifts which children give to us rather than calling them "selfish reasons" to have children.  The concept of selfish requires an understanding of our interest and children, very fundamentally, change our understanding of our interests rather than fulfilling our previous goals.  That, however, is a moot point and I do understand why Bryan's title packs the proper punch.

(I might add that the cross-sectional variation — who actually has more kids — suggests that religious reasons persuade people more effectively than do "selfish reasons," noting that the religious reasons may well have a significant selfish component.  Bryan portrays himself as an intellectual elitist, but he has an oddly unflattering portrait of the elite.  When it comes to the dreamworld of political debate, elites are relatively rational but that is exactly the sphere in which individuals are least decisive over actual outcomes.  When it comes to the really big, important decisions, such as how many kids to have, individuals in the elite are highly decisive in steering outcomes yet quite irrational.  They underappreciate the joy of kids.  On net, it would seem that the rational ones are the poor, the undereducated, and the highly religious, at least according to Bryan's latest book.  Bryan is a fascinating mix of an anti-elitist elitist, or should I say an elitist anti-elitist?)  

I can see why Bryan is keen to have more children of his own, given his charm, intelligence, enthusiasm, and general good-naturedness; free will or not, those qualities likely are heritable to some degree.  I might add that his current children are very appealing.

But I still don't grasp why, within his own framework, he is reluctant to adopt and to adopt for (partially) selfish reasons.  If you want "similarity," adopt a boy.  You can adopt an older child too.

It's not either/or.  What about when the pump runs dry or some other obstacle intervenes?  What if it's an adopted kid at the margin or just staying put with what you've got?  Why not take the plunge?  Is an adopted kid so bad on average as to negate the postulated large selfish returns from children?  Which of the selfish reasons to have kids are actually most important?  Are the selfish reasons so dependent on framing in terms of the Darwinian urge to replicate?

I await enlightenment from my very dear friend.


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