The assumption of “free disposal,” as applied to children

This rather horrifying link has been making the rounds on Twitter, here is the bottom line:

When a Liberian girl proves too much for her parents, they advertise her online and give her to a couple they’ve never met. Days later, she goes missing.

The practice is called “private re-homing,” and it seems plenty of it goes on, and without government scrutiny (in many cases a simple notarized statement may accompany the handover).

Maybe I’ve read too much Walter Block ($2.99 on Kindle) in my day, but well, um, well…you know.  Is the solution to make the initial adopting parents keep the girl?  That seems doubtful.  Are the children better off being sent back to an orphanage rather than being re-gifted?  Possibly so, but this is not obvious.  From a legal point of view, for sure.  But as for the utilitarian and Benthamite angle?  A lot of evil parents might keep their newly adopted children (and to the detriment of those children) because return to the orphanage could be bureaucratic, costly, and also humiliating, at least compared to giving them away rather rapidly over the internet.

Should we screen adopting parents more rigorously, so as to prevent lemon parents from adopting in the first place?  Well, maybe, and if you read the article you will see some cases where better upfront screening would have been highly desirable.  But tougher screening as a general rule?  I don’t know.  Adoption is already costly and bureaucratic, it is on average welfare-enhancing, and maybe we can’t easily screen out most of the lemon parents anyway.  Etc.

On the other side of the issue, limiting free disposal likely would improve the average quality of adopting parent through positive selection.  Quite possibly that effect will predominate but I would ask for the same standards of evidence here that we apply to other policy decisions.

I say we don’t yet know the proper policy response to this issue, but it’s worth thinking this through with more rigor than a simple “mood affiliation” response might suggest.


"Re-gifting" ? Really?

Why not start accepting payments from the "gift" recipients while we are at it? And why limit it to kids? Oh, you call that human trafficking... that's just "mood affiliation" and not thinking objectively as an economist should.

Richard Posner disagrees.

Make all children free citizens. No obligations to obey adults, no rights to get stuff from adults for free.

Let them choose where to live, and if they can't find anything, have them get a job. Or live on the streets. Or commit suicide.

This obviously doesn't work for toddlers, which should be treated like pets. But it works for older kids, which should be treated like citizens.

Yes, it is always nice to see they have Internet access at the asylums these days.

It is good to see the inmates at asylums get Internet access these days.

It sounds like some state and/or private group homes might be best, provided they don't get underfunded and turn into dangerous places.

Well, you are ignoring the market solution.

While you have criticized "What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets", you have failed to argue for a market solution for disposing of unwanted children.

Why not sell them to the highest bidder?

The market in sex slaves and child porn is likely rewarding.

Why slaves? Children own their own bodies, so the true market solution would be voluntary child labor and prostitution.

As long as their lives are voluntary, and their ways to earn money are voluntary, it would be an obvious benefit for them.

Just make child support voluntary. This immediately removes disincentives to have children, giving more children the option value of a voluntary life. (for an in-depth exploration of this scenario, search for "libertarian utopia" on

For the moral critics who are horrified: You can always support them for free, using your own money.


Maybe not, she might just be (stone cold) ignorant of how children's brains develop. It's easy to have outlandish ideas about things you know nothing about.

Strike that -- couldn't tell the difference between an insane hyper-libertarian and someone mocking same. Sorry Terri, I'm having a bad reading skills day. I hope.

Poe's law strikes again...

Still, I can't help but imagine what life must be like for a hyper-believer blog poster, with people refusing to believe that you aren't making fun of the beliefs you do, in fact, hold.

It's not as bad as you'd think. That's because I was never under any illusion that people could be swayed by the views I hold. I have enough experience with other humans to know they don't think like me. Most notably, that they don't take logic as seriously as I do when the results conflict with common sense morality.

Posting anyway is more like a hobby.

I am also a practical hypocrite.

I have no real qualms making children not exist, or suffer poverty, or starve to death, by omission.

> The market in sex slaves and child porn is likely rewarding.

Isn't there a Coasean solution here? I'm virtually positive that the aggregated disutility of disgust that 99.9% of people feel at child sex slaves is way larger than the aggregated utility of the small number of perverts. So if there was an open market in children, it seems highly likely that the disgusted majority would subsidize the non-sex use of children to make the option untenable for the pervert minority.

I think in reality the 99.9% (really so high? you sure?) use violence to destroy the utility - not just for perverts but also for the extra children those perverts would have financed.

They pass laws that ban the use of children for the perverts, but they don't prevent the perverts from burning their resources on big cars or yachts instead. Oh, and the taxes go to build more prisons, rather than support more children.

Childhood is more expensive, less children get born, poor children in other countries starve or live in poverty against their will, out of sight.

Of course, if children's lives and the sex aren't voluntary, preventing their existence may be a good thing rather than a bad thing.

Don't quite get what you mean -- so my only comment is that it's "fewer children," not "less children."

Always happy to help.

Thank you. Let's say wealthy perverts can

a) buy sex robots that need a lot of energy to run
b) pay human prostitutes for voluntary sex

Which one is better for the prostitutes? Which one will lead to more real humans getting to live a voluntary life?

Sorry, false choice fallacy alert -- does not compute.

karl, can you elaborate why it's a false choice?

Resources can be spent only once, if you spend them on something other than humans, there will be fewer humans. (Yes, some humans will profit from making the sex robots, but resources and energy will still go to sustain those robots instead of humans.)

Or do you mean they can just donate all their money and/or have as many kids as they can afford? Because people can already do that, but don't.

People used to joke I treated my dog better than many people were treated. I now have proof this is literally true.

Take one step back, this isn't hard. These people are selling their children to sexual predators. They should, of course, go to prison for the rest of their lives. I don't care if the kid is biological or not, U.S. born or not; I don't care if the remuneration they get is a bundle of cash or relief from the financial burden of raising a child. It's clearly human trafficking and worthy of extreme prosecution.

I do not see how this is "mood affiliation" as opposed to normal old-fashioned traditional morality.

We do let random people become parents of their own children without advance checks, so this is just applying the same logic to born people...

The process by which "random people" produces a child sufficiently well-developed to anything more than an annoying drain of time, energy, and resources to a dispassionate observer, require years of intense and dedicated effort. Not coincidentally, human beings have evolved in such a manner that putting in that time and effort almost always results in a strong emotional bond that highly disincentivizes parents(*) from harming or abusively exploiting their children. So the danger from allowing "random people" to produce children the usual way without screening or supervision, is modest.

Extending this to the point of allowing complete strangers with no emotional investment to claim or purchase, not a newborn infant but a no-assembly-required walking, talking, potty-trained child or even an adolescent capable of profitable labor and of sexual interest to a broad population of potential abusers, may seem like "the same logic", but it's applying that logic to very, very different circumstances.

In other words, we can usually trust parents to love their children. Slave traders, not so much. It is perhaps a legitimate function of government to sort out prospective alternate parents from aspiring slave traders.

(*) In this context, "parent" means caregiver from infancy, genetic relationship irrelevant.

This states the problem as well as I could. To argue that it might be a good idea to have a private child exchange network with literally no oversight is insane. Argue for less bureaucracy if you wish. I'd probably agree with you. This is not about mood affiliation. It's about recognizing that opening the door to widespread sex trafficking is a terrible idea. I don't think TC has though through this carefully (did he even read the whole article?).

John Derbyshire said it well the other day:

"This is one aspect of what I call the underside of life. Most of the time we live oblivious to it. We get a good night's sleep, eat a hearty breakfast, go off to do interesting work among colleagues, play with our kids, take our wife to dinner, mingle with friends, watch TV … Meanwhile, out of our sight, old folk sit in nursing homes waiting for visitors who never arrive, little kids cry themselves to sleep wondering why Daddy doesn't come home, and healthy, loving dogs are killed and cremated because nobody wants them.

It's the underside of life. Adult people all know it's there, and most of us, when it crosses our mind, try to do some little thing to ease the suffering, if it's only put a twenty in the church collection plate, thinking to ourselves that we should probably do more: but there's the mortgage to pay, and the kids to feed, and don't we have a welfare state?"

There probably should be some better policy or better laws or better enforcement of the current laws that would limit these adoption horrors. Even the most fanatical of human societies, however, come to terms with the fact men are not angels. No set of arrangements will make them so. You patch up these torn edges of life as best you can, live with those that you must and hope for the best.

As usual, in my stumbling towards libertarianism: an ongoing series, we already do this with the no-questions asked hospital and fire station dropoffs.

What? I wasn't aware that the hospital and fire station passed the children on to whomever with no additional oversight. Or are you pointing out that giving up children easily is already permitted by the state?

Tyler - I think you are mis-attributing the source of the outrage.

It's not for the children, it's that people are doing something without prior government approval.


The correct response is to be horrified. The fact that these people care so little for the children they have accepted responsibility for that they would give them away to a stranger is horrific.

Maybe your argument that it can't be fixed is true. And certainly clear-eyed thought about the effect of any policy change is needed. But that doesn't mean that people are wrong to have the gut reaction that they have.

Tyler isn't saying the correct emotional response isn't being horrified. This is obviously a terrible thing these parents did. The real question how do we use that perfectly reasonable horrified response to address the issue. It's not the horrified response that's the mood affiliation, it's the automatic assumption of a particular answer without fully thinking out the pros and cons.

lol @ "correct emotional response"

How old are you, 12?

Not sure how, but the above is falsely attributed to me.

Originally, the post referred to people being outraged, without linking to any examples or referring to any specific policy changes that were being advocated. This made it seem like the post was a criticism of people's emotional response to the issue. It has since been edited, I think, to remove that impression (I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure it has been changed).

I agree that any policy response to the issue needs to be based on analysis of what the policy's effect would be, not just emotion (as I indicated in my original comment).

While I agree with Tyler that we should be basing our adoption policies on empirical evidence rather than moral sentiments, I wonder if Tyler believes his fallacy of mood affiliation applies across the board or whether it's some sort of defeasible fallacy, some sort of heuristic or frame useful in some instances but not in others.

Is this all that different from adoption in the West circa Dickens?

If you didn't read the article, it's about adoption in the US now.

and yes, it's a weird quote that makes it sound like it's about adoption in Liberia

No adoptions for men with big testicles?

Based on the cases discussed in the article, I got the feeling that this was primarily driven by financial motivations. People adopt children in part because they receive a stipend for doing so but don't want to "dispose" of those children via legal means because there are significant financial penalties (paying child support, in at least one example). Why are US states subsidizing international adoptions in the first place?

They're not, and they don't. These people generally paid significant amounts (tens of thousands for the Chinese kids)

Those are specific examples given in the article. That said, it sounded like a lot of the fear of state retribution discussed in the article was deserved. I find it hard to feel sympathetic for anyone profiled in the article (okay, okay, some of the children).

The specific examples (at least the ones I encountered, I didn't finish the entire thing) are of American kids from the foster system

And having finished it now, yes, they were both talking about American foster kids, not international adoptees

This is one of the everything, the Internet has already solved.

It's called FedEx and Biometric data from a private company that authenticates users.

If we can track a package, we can track who "owns" a kid. All that's left is proving they are who they say they are before they take receipt.

Once that's in place, Tyler's right, regifting is prolly optimal for IDing the most people who can be good at parenting, and getting kids to their best option.

That article is making its rounds. Here is some perspective: Home studies are already invasive, yet bad parents slip through.

Are you sure they don't hurt? I'd suspect adverse selection.

I think the sad thing is that we as a society fund a set of organizations that will let you drop off a cat or dog that you can't handle or provide for. The animal will typically be treated as well as the people working in the place can manage. Great effort (and screening) will go into finding a good home for them.

For human children the option is (in some places) drop them off at a hospital or emergency services...but basically even people who want a good outcome face pretty big obstacles from social pressure or lack of choice. Where there are choices, the outcomes seem dubious.

The late James Q. Wilson provided some cultural context for this in his book "The Marriage Problem:"

"Children in West Africa are often raised by people who are not their parents. In some communities, more than half of all of the children spend much of their young lives away from their parents, often living with close kin but sometimes with adults who are not related to them at all. This practice is called fostering. So far as we can tell, fostering in West Africa is a centuries-old tradition… It occurs for many reasons, but mostly because one parent is dead or missing."

Wilson goes on, summarizing West African family organization:

"If the husband is dead, the mother may find it difficult to remarry, especially if she brings another man's child into the new household… Whatever the motives, many West Africans regard fosterage as a perfectly acceptable means of raising children. Families there approve of delegating parental roles to other people, often beginning at a quite early age, especially if the mother is unmarried or is part of a polygamous family. But even when they remain at home, children in much of Africa, especially south of the Sahara, grow up pretty much on their own… The father is usually absent."

Robot Steve Sailer takes a brief break from posting "Thank God, Schumer and Rubio have a plan to fix this."

Frankly, Siri is already smart enough to perform your job.

To the contrary, contrarianism may be the only safe job from the social networking robotization that merely free rides on the zeitgeist.

Proof that you do not follow Steve's work.

as mentioned above: this post has nothing to do with Liberia or Africa.

"But as for the utilitarian and Benthamite angle?"

Or how about from the "blood sacrifice to Moloch" angle, if we are going to be worrying about long refuted theories?

Ha, it's not often that Tyler decides to stir up the hornet's nest. I think of this post as only partly thought-through; I'm not sure Tyler intends to defend this adoption process in its entirety, but rather to poke people and to get them to think through the consequences of their knee-jerk reactions. It is all too-easy to yell, "protect the children" without really thinking through the consequences of what that protection might mean.

FWIW, "Defending the Indefensible" is available, free of charge, on the website:

The ultimate end of libertarianism is Liberia-tarism

Again, this article is about the U.S., not Liberia.

It's about X fucked kids getting Y of a chance of which Z end up fucked. Solve for X, Y, and Z.

I initially misread "Liberian" in the parent post as "Libertarian", which made it a ... very different thing.

If people can "re-gift" children they don't want to anyone who wants them, why have them go through a lengthy rigourous adoption screening process in the first place?
Once someone has obtained full custody rights on a child, they should be subject to the same rules as biological parents. The fact that they adopted the child is irrelevant. If biological parents can unload unwanted children online then adoptive parents can. Otherwise, it's pretty simple.

Once again, people want to ignore responsibilities by pretending they don't exist.

Do you have reason to believe biological parents are treated differently than adoptive ones? I think biological parents just don't want to give up their kids...

Tyler is treating them differently. He is suggesting "re-gifting" but really he should be suggesting that any parent, adoptive or biological, be able to "gift" unwanted children online.

I seem to remember a law somewhere in the Midwest that allowed parents to abandon children of any age. The law had to be changed hurriedly because scores of parents were dumping their teens and preteens.

That is of course cost-shifting, not problem solving. Also it is interesting in light of compulsory education. Interesting to me anyway.

Nebraska. 35 kids from all over the country.

First you link to Sailer now you refer to selling children into slavery as "re-gifting". Your true colors are finally showing, Cowen. The filmmaker W.G. Grifiths covered this topic and Browne or Ebert would recognize and applaud your efforts. You call yourself a libertarian yet applaud child slavery with a hearty clap, clap, clap. Freedom is slavery, no? Since you obviously have no interest in reading history may I suggest you read George Orwell's Animal Farm?

There's a German word for what you are doing, Cowen. A German word.

+1, pitch-perfect

Because he sounds exactly like Prior_Approval?

Where is the proof of child sex slavery.

1. Find child slavers
2. Violate them with a broom handle
3. Execute them at the Super Bowl half-time to save us from Miley Cyrus

Um...he said it was horrifying. Does anybody disagree?

Is that a conversation stopper? Or is it possible to consider maybe the status quo ain't so great, but there are no obvious appealing alternatives? Geez, Tyler Cowen did not make this planet and put us all on it, did he?

Actually, dirk "Troll" is the same word in English and German. (And yes, you're fluent too.)

Dirk just thinks he understands status games better than Tyler Cowen. Everyone makes mistakes.

Isn't free disposal of children a part of the Democratic Party's platform?

Yes, Virginia, there is a slippery slope.

...and it seems plenty of it goes on,

That was not my impression. My impression is that this is another lame "trend" story.

For those interested in a bit more than twitter level discussion -

The post's title, 'There's an app for that' even fits well into the current trend at this web site to tout algorithmic determination of proper action, without regarding such things of unquantifiable complexity, such as human decency.

Might human evil be of unquantifiable complexity as well?

No - evil tends to be banal. At least in the 20th century.

Which is why the question of decency seems so complex, as discussed in the metafilter thread, among people who have adopted internationally, among people who were adopted internationally, among people who did not adopt internationally after investigating the process, among people who adopted without turning to international sources, among people who did not adopt but were foster parents, among people who were adopted, but whose sibling lived in foster care, people who actually worked in the adoption field - and a number of other configurations. With a vast range of opinions, based in large part in attempting to find decent answers in a very difficult world.

Not that anyone of those people were quite so crass as to use the word 're-gift' - though the apparently standard term of 're-homing' was found to be more than repugnant enough.

Decency involves work, conviction, and the courage to not surrender oneself to the putatively better judment of those in a position of power who are engaged in evil, often justifying their actions as being preventive, data driven, or for the greater good. But in the age of joystick controlled Hellfire and the neverending tale of Gitmo's hell for those entrapped in it, the sort of civil courage to end such barbarity seems in short supply in the U.S.

Nah, the twitter level discussion was already too much.

People lecturing us on libertarianism don't even understand the Walter Block reference.

Obviously you should take one of these children into your home, because your utilitarian moral philosophy demands it.

When can we have the robot baby to give to the high school girls in Liberia? The best logical and logistical birth control is a baby/toddler.

Literally replace humans with robots - that's what I call misanthropy!

Just let kids make their own choices, earn their own keep, and make the pie bigger on a voluntary basis.

Too harsh? Too perverted? Okay, then the moralists should pay the difference.

The guy who wants your non-existence is not on your side!

I think you made your point clearly enough several posts up-thread. No need to keep rehashing it, as like most ideas, it only gets weaker if the same author keeps making the same point over and over again.

Only if it nurses.

asdf, you assume that taking in a child is the best utilitarian thing a professor can do with his time/resources, which is false.

That depends on what department the professor is in.

This looks like a story of the failure of existing regulation - these kids were adopted by people who were not ready to handle the challenges of parenting kids from backgrounds which predispose them to be difficult. The article implies (or suggests - I didn't read all the parts) that potential adoptive parents should be screened better. Well, perhaps they should be, as the parents giving up their adopted kids perhaps should have been prevented from becoming adoptive parents in the first place.

One could easily have written a story about the horrifying failures of regulated adoptions - children placed with abusive or neglectful (or both!) parents who had been screened by the state and found to be fit parents. In fact, it shouldn't be too hard to find such stories already, though it might be easier if you read Russian.

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