Books, Uncategorized

We Need A Baby Market

Murray Rothbard (1926-1995)

Today’s newspaper says that a court ruled that Indian couples should be given preference in child adoption over NRIs, Overseas Citizens of India (OCIs) and foreigners.  Why?  I do not understand this. In the first world, the living standards are higher. The child abuse laws are stricter. Why would the Indian government want to cause gratuitous suffering to babies who would have otherwise had a wonderful life in the first world?

The news report says that the child should  first be shown to Indian couples. If it does not work out, the child should be shown to NRI couples, then to couples with OCI cards and then to foreign nationals. This makes no sense to me because there is little incentive now for foreign couples to adopt Indian children.  

 If Indians, NRI’s and OCIs do not find a baby worth adopting, why would a foreign couple fly down to adopt this baby? If Indian couples are not willing to adopt a baby, why should NRIs and OCIs fly down to adopt this baby? More importantly, if foreign couples are allowed to adopt only unwanted Indian babies, it is quite probable that the foreigners who do it despite this are guided by not-so-noble motives. As Tyler Cowen observed, not many people are willing to fly across the country for a peck on the cheek:

In their 1972 textbook “University Economics” they presented a theorem that later became known, appropriately, as the Alchian and Allen Theorem. In less technical terms, this simply means that most people won’t fly across the country for a mere peck on the cheek. If access is difficult, you bother only if a special someone or special apple makes it worth your while. When access is easy and nearly free of charge, many of the low-quality apples or small bits seem acceptable and thus they do not get filtered out.

We badly need a baby market. People should be allowed to sell babies, by auction. The great economist Murray Rothbard had once argued that we need a free market in babies:

In a free market society, every parent would have the right to sell their guardianship rights to others. In short, there would be a free market in babies and other children. What? A free market in babies? Isn’t this equivalent to slavery, to the treating of babies as mere objects? No, what it would mean is that parents who now neglect or dislike their children would be able to sell their offspring to those parents who would desire and care for them properly. Every party involved would gain by the actions of such a market: the child would be shifted from cruel or neglectful parents to those who would desire and care for it; the neglecting parent would acquire the preferred amount of money instead of the unwanted child; and the new foster parents would at last be able to adopt a child.

A parent is not allowed to sell his kid; he can only give it away for nothing. As with all maximum price controls, fixing the price at zero means a great shortage of valuable babies on the baby market; as a result, government-licensed adoption agencies are granted the monopoly privilege of acquiring and rationing out those babies to the foster parents clamoring at their doors. Often, would-be foster parents must grovel before the social workers at the adoption agency, prove they are “fit parents,” pay a fee to the agency, etc. The result is that unwanted babies remain with bad parents, and good foster parents are deprived of the right to care for and bring up offspring. In the free-baby market, of course, there would be no title to absolute ownership of the baby; only guardianship rights would be traded.

The New York press heralded the fact that an evil, enslaving “baby ring” had been broken up by the vigilant government authorities. Babies were being smuggled in from Greece by diligent entrepreneurs, and sold (horrors!) to relatively affluent foster parents in New York City. The busting of this baby ring, I suppose, gave the snoops and enforcers a sense of high accomplishment. But what exactly did they accomplish? They busted up a situation where babies were being sold by their impoverished parents in Greece, there to leave a life of starvation, for a life of comfort, love and care in New York; both sets of parents, as well as the babies themselves, benefitted from the transaction; yet busybody Big Brother had to step in and outlaw voluntary arrangements for mutual benefit.

Bryan Caplan has an equally rigorous argument:

If you want to drastically improve a child’s life, adopt from the third world. Twin and adoption studies almost never look at people in Third World countries. You shouldn’t conclude that Haitian orphans would turn out the same way if raised in Sweden.  Yes: Adopt from the Third World—from lands where poverty, disease, illiteracy, and oppression stifle human flourishing. Twin and adoption research only show that families have little long-run effect inside the First World. Bringing kids to the First World often saves their lives. Over 13 percent of the children in Malawi—the African nation that initially denied Madonna’s petition to adopt a four-year-old orphan—don’t survive their first five years. And survival is only the beginning. Life in the First World spares children from hunger, disease, and harsh labor, and opens vast opportunities that most of us take for granted. Merely moving an adult Nigerian to the United States multiplies his wage about fifteen times. Imagine the benefit of giving a Nigerian child an American childhood and an American education. Adopting disadvantaged children from the First World probably improves their lives in similar, but more modest ways. But if you don’t adopt an American baby, somebody else often will. There are even waiting lists for domestic adoption of special needs children. In contrast, the baby you don’t adopt from the Third World is likely to stay there.


  1. Julia Wise

    In countries with poor human rights standards, it’s hard to tell that the transaction is really voluntary. I know an Ecuadoran whose infant cousin was simply stolen from the hospital. After birth, the nurses took the baby for a minute and it was never brought back to the mother – no one knew what had happened to it. It was probably adopted by Americans who believed it was an orphan or unwanted.

    Given cultural differences in people’s willingness to adopt, showing a baby to local couples first may not significantly decrease the availability of healthy children for foreigners. My understanding is that in countries like Russia where adoption is much less popular, there just isn’t enough local demand to adopt even all the healthy and beautiful children. So Americans can adopt left-over children who probably have nothing wrong with them beyond what was caused by spending their first year in an orphanage. That said, anything that delays adoption (like requiring them to be shown to certain parents first and other parents later) lengthens the time the kids spend in orphanages, which certainly is bad for their physical and mental health.

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