Freakonomics Poll: Should Being a Parent Require a License?

Toward the end of our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast, “The Economist’s Guide to Parenting,” Steve Levitt points to the loads of social science research demonstrating that the one sure-fire way to have a bad life, is to have a mother who doesn’t love you. Which brings him to a rather radical point: should parenting be licensed? Here’s a bit from the transcript:

LEVITT:There’s a lot of research on un-wantedness and tremendous historical data sets from social science of the last fifty years that suggest that if your mother doesn’t love you, nothing good will happen to you in life. The lowest common denominator for having a kid who turns out well is the kid being loved. And if I were president for a day, maybe dictator for a day, one of the first things that I might do would be to make it harder to be a parent, to make the standards for being a parent more difficult. You should have to demonstrate some proficiency at parenting perhaps to be a parent.

DUBNER: So, you need to get licensed, let’s say?

LEVITT: Yeah. I mean, we make people prove they can parallel park before they can get a driver’s license, maybe we should make people prove that they can interact in a productive way in teaching their kid. Now there’s nothing more un-American than intervening in the family. People just hate the idea of big government looking over their shoulder and telling them how to be parents.

DUBNER: And you’re not a big government guy by any stretch.

LEVITT: No, I hate big government. But on the other hand, I could imagine there being a sensible set of things that you would want to do to make sure that people were ready to be better parents.

We thought we’d put the question to our readers with a Freakonomics Poll.

Should You Have to Get a License to be a Parent?

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  1. AaronS says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

    Disliked! Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 13
    • AaronS says:

      Hidden? Hmmm, I see now why we have a problem.

      This makes all the sense in the world. Oh, wait, now I get it.

      Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1
  2. PN says:

    The thing is… there is really no reliable way of predicting or indeed measuring the competencies of a parent until they’ve actually had a child…

    Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1
  3. Tim Dellinger says:

    Parenthood has an interesting built-in bias with respect to the mechanisms of human procreation:

    The careless will always outbreed the careful.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 0
  4. Geoff says:

    Fascism: a “great idea” enforced by the state upon the masses for the universal good.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 2
  5. Beamish says:

    I never took the suggestion literally – even when Keanu Reeves suggested it in _Parenthood._

    Literally requiring a “government license” is something any reasonable liberty loving individual should oppose but the underlying goal: preventing unsuitable parents is completely understandable. Unfortunately there is always that “road to hell” and its “good intentions” to consider…

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1
  6. Tim says:

    I’ve had similar thoughts in the past, but obviously have issues with the government intervention. The following program would have a similar effect, but would be optional to the individual:

    1) Offer vasectomies or tubal ligations to people between the ages of 20 and 35.
    2) If the individual’s income is below $30,000, they receive $3,000 for having the procedure performed.*

    It would be entirely optionally to the individual, and I think would save the government a lot of money overall in welfare. And likely prevent future bad parents.

    *Numbers are arbitrary now. The amount received would need to be less than the cost to have the procedure reversed, to avoid gaming of the system.

    Thumb up 3 Thumb down 2
    • AaronS says:


      A good point. But wouldn’t the money factor ensure that poorer folk were the target of such a campaign? I would think that rich families can make quite poor parents too.

      WAIT! I’ve got it! ALL rich people are sterilized. This means that their wealth eventually flows back down to others. And all poor folks who WANT to be sterilized for the appropriate price point, are.

      I am a genius.

      Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1
  7. Chad says:

    Plato had these licenses in his Republic 2400 years ago. Then he speaks about eugenics and exposure.

    This post is too silly to even be interesting theoretically.

    Thumb up 4 Thumb down 5
  8. Adam says:

    As Levitt loves for someone to change the question or look at it differently, how about we instead ask “If people must pass a variable set of tests/interviews to become adoptive parents (and for that matter, dogs), should people pass these same requirements to be a natural parent?”

    I have an adopted cousin and after hearing about the battery of test like questions/interviews the parents had to go through to be considered, maybe this should be implemented for would-be parents. I mentioned “dogs” in the above question because I recently wanted a dog and decided against adopting simply because of the lengthy, drawn out, what I think to be ridiculous process to be “approved” to own a dog. I understand shelters and other agencies want to ensure a dog or any animal for that matter is placed in a great home. (I found a breeder and got my dachshund there and am pretty sure she is quite happy with her new home). Anyway, I propose a better argument may be this rather than simply stating that if we need a driver’s license then maybe we should require a parenting license. I agree whole heatedly that children are at the mercy of the home in which they are raised. I have not thought out a way in which this method would be implemented, but I’m hoping I’ll get some feedback from other viewers.

    Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1