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.


I am the parent of two wonderful children, the joys of my life. Both are adopted. I would love to think I'd adopted them because I was doing a "noble, generous act," but that's not true. I adopted them because I wanted children, so I suppose my decision was selfish. I'd like to think my decision has also immeasurably helped my children, but it wasn't especially altruistic. (Some adoptions truly are altruistic, but many are not.) If Brian can only see adoption as some expression of super-duper altruism, then he's never thought hard about the subject. Which would just make this one more subject Brian is writing about withing doing some serious thinking and research beforehand (see, History: United States: 19th century).

"I might add that his current children are very appealing." Oh God, you're not planning to eat them, are you?

"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."
Actually, (a) I've never particularly wanted lots of stuff, so that (b) what I've ended up getting has been pleasing, whereas (c) you are underestimating my ability to ascribe much of my life to the slings and arrows.

-- William

I'm guessing the argument that Tyler may be selfish for not having kids runs about as this: The children of smart, functional people overwhelmingly turn out to be smart and functional themselves. They create huge amounts of value in their professional lives, not only value for themselves but also surplus value that benefits society. They also pay lots of taxes but use few public services.

Had elites -- defined broadly, say as people who attended selective colleges -- cranked out four or five kids per woman over the past five decades rather than just over one child per woman, neither Social Security nor Medicare would be facing any big deficits down the road. Unfortunately, for the past half century or so, elites have seen children as an expensive burden that interferes with the lives they wish to lead: foreign travel, four meals out per week, time at home to read or work or entertain without interruption. So they have one kid, late in life, to have the experience, leave it at that and society suffers gravely.

You may not buy that people have any obligation to society to have kids, but it's a serious argument and it certainly is true that society suffers for the fact that smart, functional people have so few kids while stupid, dysfunctional people have so many (average woman who does not complete HS has 4.8 kids, while average woman who completes 4-year college has 1.2).

Cowen is being selfish towards me and my children and, actually, all of us and our descendants, by not having lots of biological children. I judge that we would all benefit greatly from having more people on earth who have not only been raised and enlightened by the wisdom of this particular person, but who also have inherited what is inheritable from Tyler Cowen. Come on man, get cracking!

I look forward to the other volumes in Caplan's continuing series: "Selfish Reasons to Eat" and "Selfish Reasons to Breathe."

Most parents will agree that their children change their point of view. Mine certainly did. And in most ways for the better - certainly made me less selfish. I estimate that raising each child to adulthood, including college, cost approximately $200k-$250k in costs out of pocket and lost opportunities. I have no regrets, even though one of them barely speaks with me.

There is a family in my (pro-life) church that has 3 or 4 of their own biological children and another 5 or 6 who are adopted. (Families of that size are no longer the norm in my church, but there are a few other large families in the church.) All of the children are educated in good schools and all, so far, attend college. The family lives in a nice home and one of the parents makes a good living. The family is not ostentatious, and I only found out about the number of adopted children by happenstance.

Regardless, it's very impressive to me, considering that having and raising a child in the DC area and helping them attend college can represent a large financial commmittment. Especially for this family with so many children. I admit I'm not that generous with my time (and no longer have the money).

I have friends who are not able to have biological children and who do not want to adopt (or at least one of the spouses does not want to adopt), and I don't see any problem with that.

The largest impacts my children had on me was helping me appreciate my own parents and the sacrifices they made, and giving me a "longer view" about life, liberty, governance, and charity.

If you read Brian's post, he seems more positive about adopting than the perception you get from reading the quote above.
In any case, the desire for a clone and the reluctance to adopt can be explain by the same variable: level of narcissism. I don't mind narcissism, but let's be honest about it.

Which of Tyler's claimed insights from having kids can't be derived from volunteering to help with various kid oriented organizations?

Also, why do people often think, "I often can't stand other people's kids, but mine are (relatively) divine"?

What is there about 'ownership' of a child that makes the child and the experience seem more rewarding? Is it a biological trick or is it because of some shared, long history?

My oldest son is adopted and my mother-in-law -- a good old country women from the hills of Tenn with an eight grade education -- first started out making comments about how great we were to love someone else's child.

Finally I said to her you sure seem to love someone else's grandchild an awful lot.

The remarks about out loving someone else's child stopped.

I was adopted and am now a parent. I would only consider adopting as a last resort after failing to have my own kids. It is so much easier raising your own kids from the nature standpoint. Both of my kids are very similar to me, which I attribute to genetics. My parents and I had a more difficult time relating due to the dissimilar genetics.

From a guy's perspective, adoption seems like a lot more work than the natural thing. It also seems riskier. You either may have to give the kid back if the biological parents change their mind or take risky trips abroad. Please correct me if I'm wrong. Those are my uneducated ideas about the process. As you can see, researching whether those are real or myths is also too much work for me.

I know that's selfish, but if adoption was a lot easier I might try it.

I was adopted as an infant in 1959. I enjoyed an excellent upbringing, and, I hope, I have been a pretty good son for all these years to my (adoptive) parents.

One thing to keep in mind, however, is that it's very hard these days for middle class American couples to adopt the infant children of middle class or higher Americans. My biological parents' were more upper-middle class than my adoptive parents, which wasn't unusual for a child up for adoption in 1959, but is very rare today.

So, Mr. and Mrs. Caplan are much more likely to produce a child on Bryan's intellectual level themselves than they would be by adopting in today's market.

Jim, Bryan Caplan cites "The Nurture Assumption" all the time.

Jason Malloy - alternative explanation for any linkage.
At school those trans-racially adopted Chinese children tend to make friends with other children who obviously look like them (kids are very fond of excluding from their peer group anyone who is obviously different - not just race but weight, glasses-wearing, etc). Thus the transracially adopted girls pick up on the culture of their immigrant peers - and by all acounts Chinese immigrant culture places a very high value on education and hard work.

A noticeable example of children picking up the culture of their peers, not their parents, is that most children will pick up the accent of their peers if that's different to their parents' accents. Another example is the continuation of Deaf culture despite most deaf children being born to hearing parents, and Deaf parents often having hearing kids.


If your explanation is correct, then Chinese adoptees' performance should be strongly affected by whether they went to grade/high school in a place with a substantial Chinese immigrant population. I wonder if anyone has ever looked to see if this is so.

Dennis T.,

You might want to read Dawkins' the Selfish Gene. I think it hits (indirectly) two mechanisms for evolution to support adoption.

(1) Why do other birds raise baby cuckoos, even though they are obviously of different species? Most likely because the evolutionary impulses that cause them to properly rear their own children are broad enough to cause them to bond to many baby birds. (i.e., feed and protect cute little featherless things). And there either isn't enough selective pressure to narrow the behavior, or the cost of narrowing the behavior is too high.

(2) If you take an atomized view of evolution as Dawkins does, then adoption may be sub-optimal, but is certainly worth doing. You're increasing the chances of reproduction of someone that probably has 99.5% of your genes.

Perhaps adoption is selfish, but it's the good kind of selfishness--the kind that spills benefits onto others. It's like the selfishness that makes you get the flu shot to avoid getting sick, and thus keeps you from passing the flu to your immunosuppressed coworker and killing him.

This really isn't a bad comment thread on a rather challenging topic -- about which I am an undeniable expert.

My personal contributions (adoptive parent, special needs, etc):

1. Even if you don't go to the absurd but logical extreme of redefining all voluntary acts as hedonistic, adoption is a compromise between selfish and altruistic acts.

2. Adoption in modern America is very complex. It is best understood at the state level. It is difficult to generalize. Infant adoption is different from child from at risk from special needs from foster from international from relative and so on... Really, you can't generalize.

3. Adoption is traumatic for adoptees. We can maybe mitigate that, but, really, we don't know the "right" answer to a question with so many wrongs. Trauma varies, but to a first approximation many adoptees are post-traumatic.

4. All parenting can be incredibly hard. In general though I think adoptive parenting shifts the mean upwards.

5. Between hereditable traits predisposing to parental poverty or early demise, and the impact of poverty and behavior on intrauterine environment, adoptees have common challenges. On the other hand, the costs, challenges and complexities of American adoption mean American adoptive parents tend to have more than average resources.

Interesting topic. Worth remembering life is painful, but generally preferred to the alternative.

Interesting discussion.
I've adopted 3 older children, 2 as "special needs". My motives were never high-minded, certainly not in the sense of wanting to "help" a child. I feel a bit embarrassed when people, from my Social Worker onward, tell me I've done a good thing. I have always felt that I was incredibly lucky, that other parents were too foolish to want these kids and so I got to be their parent. I am priveleged. Perhaps I am even selfish.

Somebody like Bryan who has qualms should definitely not adopt, though. I think that "blending" a family can be tremendously difficult. You can't say, "well, just adopt a boy, or an older child." Especially with an older child, you are going to get a kid who is very, very different in many ways from your home-raised children, ways it is hard to even conceptualize. A child who actually needs to be treated differently, which you may not want to do.

If you care about intelligence and IQ, this may not be for you either. I've been told that one of the biggest risk-factors for adoption disruption (termination) is highly-educated parents, parents who cannot face the prospect of a truly average kid, even a kid who might not be destined for college, much less for Harvard. That's not to say that there aren't incredibly smart, nerdy little adoptees--there are. But I do remember being told that my oldest daughter had a IQ that was, er, half of mine. I knew I had to accept it and love her, but I still cried. (In retrospect, that test was totally wrong, but OK--it could have been right).

With the story of that boy whose mother sent him home to Russia in mind, I think we should all agree that many people just are not flexible and adaptable and outward-looking enough to adopt. It shouldn't be about motives at all. For the child, it really doesn't matter if you are "selfish", by somebody's definition, or "altruistic." It should be about being able to love and nurture whatever child you get.

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