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Existence externalities and policy choices: Is population ethics relevant to policy?

Blog Post2 min read

I'm on vacation (my idea of a vacation is to visit a resort called the Research Program in Development Studies/Centre for Health and Well-Being and then a demography conference, so form your own judgments about my credibility), so I hope r.i.c.e. readers will indulge me in an unusual blog post. Readers, you can do me the favor of giving a friendly smile as I unburden myself of a worry that has lately kept me up at night: are we overlooking something important when we overlook existence externalities?

“Existence externality” is the cumbersome name I've provisionally given to the fact that more (or fewer) people might be born or caused to exist because of somebody's decision. For example, providing health insurance coverage to a young family in the U.S. might allow them the security and stability happily to have a baby that they would not otherwise have had. I don't recall the policy debate including the benefit to this baby of getting to exist (or the children this baby will someday have). Or, educating a young girl in rural Uttar Pradesh may improve her life in many ways, potentially including the consequence of reducing by one the total number of children she has.

In both cases, there may be many consequences of of these policies, some good and some bad. There are also well-known possible good and bad consequences for other people of an extra person existing. In different contexts within the wide variation of human lives, having an extra child has made some women much better off and some women much worse off than they otherwise would be. Here, I'm highlighting a particular consequence that is rarely taken into explicit consideration: a person exists, and gets to live a life, who otherwise would not.

Assuming the extra person gets to live a life worth living (a non-obvious assumption that this literature often makes) it seems obvious to me that this is an additional benefit of the policy. Conversation, however, makes clear that what strikes me as obviously true – that extra happy lives worth living are sometimes one benefit to be considered alongside others – strikes many people as obviously false. This is – perhaps puzzlingly – despite the fact that essentially all such people agree that it is preferable not to shorten (painlessly, instantly, and surprisingly) the life of a person with no social ties. Insofar as my fellow economists evaluate policy on the basis of its effect on average GDP per capita, or the fraction of people who are poor, they are implicitly defining existence externalities out of, well, existence.

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Read more after the link! It goes like that, I'm afraid, here: http://riceinstitute.org/wordpress/?p=1367

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r.i.c.e. is a nonprofit research organization, dedicated to understanding the lives of poor people, especially young children, in India, and to promoting their well-being.

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