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. Christt says:

    Additionally, I am not a big govt person either but I cannot ignore the inevitable domino effects and affects that establishing a “family rule requirement” if you will, similar to China’s “one child laws” would change not only the in’s and out’s of life and parenting, but how it would solve ao many other issues as well. For example, crime and various types of violence domestically, socio-economic status, lost opportunity costs, not to mention the undesirable generational traits that are consistently passed down (I.e. Drugs, teen pregnancy, products of divorce and alcoholism).

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  2. nobody.really says:

    Three points for consideration:

    NEGATIVE EXTERNALITIES: What prompts a Freakonomists to favor intervention in private decisions? Among other factors, we intervene when we face negative externalities – that is, when the person making the decision does not bear the full cost of the decision.

    In this sense, the choice to bear kids is pretty much ALWAYS creates externalities. After all, we expect our kids to outlive us, and thus we can’t really be held accountable for the costs they impose on society.

    POLICIES: I see two kinds of policies: command and control, and after-the-fact sanctions.

    Hard to control reproduction before the fact. People have been trying for years.

    Alternatively, we could try after-the-fact sanctions. To manage the negative externalities related to driving, states typically require drivers to buy insurance (or to self-insure). The same theory would seem to apply to parents as well.

    UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES: But what remedy for breach of the duty to acquire child liability insurance? Here the analogy to driving breaks down. People who drive without insurance are subject to fine and potentially incarceration. And generally that’s a viable remedy: The mere fact that you drove (with or without insurance) yesterday does not create a reason for society to let you drive today. In contrast, the fact that you were a parent yesterday DOES create an incentive for society to let you parent today: the world now has one more child that needs parenting. Society has an interest in furthering the child’s nurturance, and this interest will probably be impeded if we impoverish or incarcerate the parents.

    In addition to impoverishing/incarcerating parents, policies designed to manage negative externalities have other predictable consequences. First, they tend to increase the cost of domestic production and therefore reduce the amount produced domestically. Second, they tend to increase imports, especially from areas in which the externalities are not as strictly controlled.

    Ultimately, any effort to design social policy optimally would need to consider aggregate demand for kids. If we’re in a desperate demand for kids (labor), then perhaps the threat of negative externalities does not weigh very heavily on the analysis. Alternatively, if we anticipate a famine, the externalities of each new mouth to feed may trump all other considerations.

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  3. Mike MacDonald says:

    A government that licenses birth is the definition of tyranny. I find it disgusting to see how many of you don’t recognize that.

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  4. gg says:

    Government is already involved – it’s called Child Protective Services.

    I don’t think you could make it required but you could offer incentives for taking parenting classes and getting a license – some kind of free pre/post natal medical support?

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  5. James says:

    Just for interest, some exerpts from a fairly typical set of dog adoption requirements (Original here: )

    “Level 1 & 2 Dogs:

    Adopters must be 21 years old with valid photo ID, or be 18 with a co-signer.

    All adults in the household must agree on the adoption (written consent is OK).

    Adopters must provide proof of compliance with all applicable laws/regulations in their county of residence (such as vaccine & licensing requirements).

    If adopting a puppy 5 months old or younger, someone must be home to meet its minimum housetraining needs (puppies can not be left alone more than 1 hour longer than their age in months).

    Renters must provide written permission from their landlord to bring the animal home along with acknowledgment that any applicable fees/deposits have been paid.

    Adopters must not have a history of ordinance violations, losing, giving away, selling, or having animals injured or killed by moving vehicles.

    Adopters may be asked to provide non-family references and/or proof of employment or source of income.

    Any application for an animal that will be kept outside or inside/outside will require a home inspection.”

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  6. Rob says:

    It seems to me like a licensing process could actually result in LESS government. If we focused governmental scrutiny of parents at the front-end of the process, i.e., before they’ve had children, then we can safely assume that LESS scrutiny will be needed after the child is borne. A sensible application of this idea could actually result in smaller government. The only problem is that there would need to be some way to control who has children. The American public would (rightfully) never stand for having children seized by the government because the parents failed to fill out the proper forms.
    Reversible sterilization, delivered like a vaccine, to children (just the girls would work) before they were allowed to enter school could solve the problem. The reversal process could be price controlled at a level where anyone who is consistently employed could save the money, say right around $2000 in today’s dollars. The price could even be paid back over a few years in the form of a tax-credit. The point is, that people would have to demonstrate both the ability to raise significant sums of money, and a real desire to have children before they would be able to conceive. With something like that, we may not even need licensing.
    The big problem with any such scheme though is that it starts to look an awful lot like eugenics when you try to envision how it might finally, actually be implemented. Just a little tweak here and there and you’ve got yourself a full fledged selective breeding program.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 3
  7. Skip says:

    The only reasonable way to determine who will be good parents is the voice of the people who know something about it….other parents. In my opinion, the ideal way to implement this idea would be to have everyone begin infertile (genetic engineering? implants at birth?) and then reverse the process during a sort of coming-of-age ceremony. To be eligible for the ceremony, the subject would be required to obtain approval of their parental fitness from their own parents as well as a select group of well-respected community leaders.

    Pretty much impossible to do without some serious social engineering, possibly new technology, and almost certainly the creation of small, self-governing communities (so that you know enough about the people you’re approving). But it’s a nice idea.

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  8. MattV says:

    What about just using incentives? I understand criminalizing childbearing is a bad idea, there’s no way the punishment wouldn’t worsen whatever situation the child would be born into. What about the government subsidizing the birthing costs for families willing to go through parenting classes / preparational counseling / financial budgeting classes or whatever else might be deemed necessary to ensure a more functional home?
    It wouldn’t prevent children from being born, but it could reduce the number of children born into unfavorable situations. Feasible?

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