One possibility is to send a legal as opposed to a moral message. Traffic laws could serve as a model. Morally, it’s not wrong for solo drivers to drive in the far left lane on our local highway, but legally the lane is reserved for high-occupancy vehicles. That’s how we achieve the social goal of making the highway run smoothly. We could similarly make laws that constrain reproduction, consistent with its being true that, morally, everyone is entitled to reproduce (or not) just as they like.

Economist Kenneth Boulding, in a 1964 book, suggested a system comparable to the "cap and trade” approach that would later be proposed as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Each woman would be "capped” based on the ideal birth rate. If that were

  • 2.1 children per woman, for example, each woman would be given
  • 2.1 certificates, or perhaps 21 “deci” certificates. Women could then give and receive these certificates, or perhaps buy them and sell them. Men could only reproduce with women who had the right certificates. Morally, you might be entitled to have a child whenever you like to (as I have argued), but legally, you would have to have the certificates. Not enough certificates? No child! (What would be the sanctions for reproducing without a permit? Boulding doesn’t say.)

This is a system that tries to hold down the birth rate, but what if a society’s problem is the opposite—the birth rate is too low? The permit system would have to give way to some sort of incentivizing. While you might say everyone has the moral prerogative to have no children, it’s perfectly consistent with that position to encourage reproduction through tax breaks or even outright rewards.

In fact, many countries with low birth rates do take the tax breaks and rewards approach to encouraging reproduction, with some even offering outright baby bonuses. Western democracies incentivize procreation as much as less democratic countries. But nowhere, and certainly not in heavily populated democratic countries, is the permit system used. Despite the flexibility that comes with buying and trading, such a system would encroach too much on personal liberties. You can always ignore incentivizing schemes, going your merry childless way, but you can’t ignore a permit scheme. A less intrusive approach to discouraging overpopulation is needed, but what would that look like?

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