Let Them Have Vasectomies

One of the main social issues facing American society is the seemingly never ending cycle of fatherless families, poverty and criminality.

This Vox article shows the strong relationship between the household income of a child and their chance of going to prison.  children from lowest decile income households are as much as 20X more likely to end up going to prison as those from the highest, and of course way more males go to prison than females. One of the biggest causes of low household income for a family is an absent father:

Approximately 60 percent of U.S. children living in mother-only families are impoverished, compared with only 11 percent of two-parent families. 

This  new paper has some striking statistics about the relationship between fathers living in the home with children and life outcomes. The paper documents the disparity between black and white income, controlling for parental income. It finds that:

The intergenerational gap in individual income is 10 percentiles for black men across the parental income distribution – similar to the overall gap in family income. In contrast, black women earn about 1 percentile more than white women conditional on parent income.

The authors find that the circumstance that lowers this gap the most is for the children to grow up in low poverty neighborhoods where the majority of fathers are present. However:

Less than 5% of black children currently grow up in areas with a poverty rate below 10% and more than half of black fathers present. In contrast, 63% of white children live in areas with poverty rates below 10% and more than half of white fathers present.

The fathers and sons in this situation remind me of Robin Hanson’s farmer vs. forager distinction. For millions of years foraging (aka hunting/gathering) was our way of life. Agriculture arose only about 10,000 years ago, so we are not as adapted to the lifestyle it requires. Farming requires a much more disciplined existence than foraging. A lazy, undisciplined farmer that does not plant at the right time or harvest at right time, manage the crops, ration the food during the winter etc. will likely starve. Farmers have to be much more conscientious than foragers who basically can go searching for food when they are hungry. Foragers are at the mercy of their environment,  but as long as food is available, the actual lifestyle is much easier and requires little self-discipline. Anthropologists have famously called hunter gatherers “the original affluent society.”

Hanson’s view is that as wealth increases in a society, the lure of the more natural forager lifestyle will become enticing.  When the choice is a disciplined lifestyle or death, then discipline is worth it. But once all the necessities are cheap and plentiful people can feel free to seek out less responsibility and more leisure. The present day male “farmer” archetype is the suburban family man. He gets up early and suffers through a miserable commute to go to work for the sake of his family. There is a lot of sacrifice and a lot of delayed gratification in that lifestyle. Many men simply don’t want that lifestyle.  Forgoing marriage and family allows men to have an enormous amount of freedom. In a wealthy society they don’t even need a steady job. They can get along working intermittently, maybe sometimes living with a partner, perhaps sometimes living with parents. They can play a lot of video games, smoke a lot of pot and have very little responsibility.  Of course, many of these men also end up committing crimes and going to prison.  In neighborhoods where the fathers have adopted the farmer mentality, boys seem to do the same. But in areas where the fathers are absent the male children also seem to end up in the less responsible, less regimented forager lifestyle.

Many of these forager men do not particularly want to be fathers. They don’t want to be tied to women or children. They won’t be good fathers. But because they have low conscientiousness, a lot of them end up fathers at a young age. They are not very responsible in general, so why would they be responsible about birth control? These men have a preference for more freedom, more leisure and less responsibility. As far as I am concerned that’s fine. As long as they are not hurting anyone else they can have that preference and live that life.  But once they start leaving a trail of broken homes behind them and boys who will follow in their footsteps, they are harming others.

What if we can create a circumstance where men who don’t want children default to not having children? Say, by paying them to have vasectomies? What if we paid every man who wanted a vasectomy something like $5,000. It would need to be enough to overcome the inertia of doing nothing,  but not enough so that responsible but poor young men who eventually wanted children would feel tempted by it.

Assuming that the men who did it truly did not want children, they would be more free and more happy. Perhaps their lives would be empty, but vasectomies are reversible, and there are sperm donors and adoptions.  If they change their minds then there are options available. But the easy default would be to have no children rather than to have and abandon children.

There would be a decrease in the number of children living in fatherless homes. Those children wouldn’t grow up to be poor and/or criminals. That would ease the burden on society caused by the forager lifestyle.

At the margin it would raise the status of fatherhood. Having a child would mean making a positive choice and forgoing some quick money. The people who made that choice would feel more attached to that choice than the people who became fathers simply because they didn’t like condoms.

The birth rate would probably not be much affected. Women are the bottleneck in the reproductive process. Its doesn’t take much time or effort for men to do their biological part. The reason that men exist is to accelerate the process of natural selection by competing for mates. The survival of the species requires that a fairly high percentage of females need to reproduce but many males can have zero offspring if the most successful males with the best adapted genes have many.  If women simply shift at the margin from reproducing with men who want to “hit it and quit it” to men who want to be active fathers, then the traits of those men would be passed on and the poverty cycle could be broken.

The biggest downside I can foresee is that these irresponsible men might become even more irresponsible. They might end up feeling like they don’t have a stake in society and that might make them behave antisocially. The film “Children of Men” deals with the scenario where everyone has become infertile and the subsequent societal breakdown. Absent the feeling of contributing to the future, life can feel empty and meaningless. That is clearly a risk if the program is very successful. However, I think even that would have an upside. If sterile men realized that their lack of attachment to society and the future was making them miserable, then maybe the “forager lifestyle” would start to lose its appeal in general.  Since that lifestyle seems to lead to sloth and criminality, and away from human progress, I think that could potentially be a big win.

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