06
Aug
10

Sex selection

Still reading through Becker and Posner’s book Uncommon Sense, which is really just their blog. Never have I come across so many interesting arguments for positions that I find very unpalatable. This book is very provocative in that way.

Here’s a post in which Becker argues in favor of allowing sex selection of offspring (for the purposes of this post, imagine we can select sexes before impregnation rather than just by aborting girls, which happens in China. This separates the issues of sex selection from those of abortion, which is a separate debate). His test case for this argument is the preference for boys to girls in China.

His argument has many parts, but his basic point is that sex selection is welfare enhancing because parents will take better care of the type of offspring that they want to have. Also, its better to have a boy than to have a girl and give her away to an orphanage (which happens fairly regularly). He also argues that having less women in society is better for women because they are rarer and so more desirable (yea, they’re talking about people, not bushels of wheat, but you wouldn’t really know it by the rhetoric in this post).

Anyway, I think there are several ways to get at this argument. The first is that some preferences are adaptive, meaning they change after experience. In fact, many goods are advertised with this in mind. So-called experience goods often grow in value after they have been sampled. People who sell fast cars try to get people to test drive them because after you’ve experienced the car, you’re more likely to appreciate it. Many other things are experience goods in this way. (this is my post elaborating this point).

So, you see where this is going: girls might be experience goods in that once you have a baby girl of your own, you my re-think your preference. You just need to get hooked first by seeing the smiling face of your young daughter. This is extremely plausible I think given the way biology makes us attached to our offspring. You may decide to you don’t want a girl when you see the ultrasound screen (although that seems hard too) but once you actually see a daughter staring at you, you may become more attached to her needs.

And this has consequences that go beyond a mother and father caring for a girl versus neglecting her. There are studies that show that people who have daughters of their own are much more progressive about women issues such as access to contraception, rape laws, and other health issues. A nice paper about this is here. In other words, people with girls defend the interests of girls in public institutions. This is the democratic flipside to the economic reasoning of Becker. Sure, less girls = economic value of girls goes up, but the reverse is true from a democratic perspective. When there are less women and fewer families with women, the chance of public change defending women is less (of course China isn’t even a democracy really…but my guess is that the effect here doesn’t rely on voting and that families with girls might defend their interests in a variety of ways rather than just simply at the ballot box).

Lastly though, what is the principle behind Becker’s argument? If we cater to people who don’t like girls, then girls will be better off. Ok, maybe, but think of the analogy to something like civil rights. Maybe blacks would be better off if civil rights protesters didn’t agitate for change, but maybe the long term battle for equality outweighs short term utility losses due to backlash from racists (in fact, it seems very certain it does). So maybe, it’s worth not condoning a discriminatory practice and conforming public institutions with the value of non-discrimination, even if some women end up being raised in households that didn’t want them. Not a slam-dunk point, but one worth considering.

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