The Market for Reproductive Rights

Yesterday I proposed a Population Planning Authority of India which would have the mandate for formulating policies for population control and for enforcing compliance. Today I would like to outline a policy very briefly and then over time spell it out in detail.

At its core, the population problem can be characterized as an instantiation of the classic tragedy of the commons. If there is one problem that is very well understood by economists, it is that of open-access resource which leads to the tragedy and consequently the solution to the problem is also very well thought-out and sane. It is basic commonsense, really. Afterall, economics is codified commonsense. (Aside: that is why physicists insist that giving a “Nobel” for economics is sort of silly.)

The entire corpus of economic insight in the human condition can be boiled down to the two simple statements that I made yesterday repeated below:

  1. Markets work, and
  2. Incentives matter

(Aside: this is something isomorphic to the two statements a computer science professor of mine had made about programming:

  1. A program is a state to state mapping, and
  2. A state is a name to value mapping

End of digression.)

So therefore we use markets to solve the population problem by getting the incentives right. The central idea is to assign what is called property rights to every human with regards to reproduction. Every person should have an equal and limited right to reproduction and no person should have the right to an unlimited access to the common property resource by exceeding his or her quota of reproductive rights.

That is the core idea and the rest is mere details which should not detain anyone who has other pressing things to do. For the rest who are in no particular hurry, I will take a couple of minutes to go into some broad details. The finer details I will leave for later.

Imagine, if you will, that each person eighteen years or older has a right to have half a child ab initio. So if you want to have an offspring, you have to find someone who also has the right to have half a child. If and when you do find another person, you can now get yourself one child. Once you have that child, you and your mate will be required to undergo sterilization — with one small exception. You will not have to undergo sterilization if and only if you get yourself a permit to have another half a child at least before you spent your given reproductive right. How do you get a permit to half a child? You buy it off someone else who is willing to sell you his or her reproductive right. Who is able to sell his or her reproductive right? Some who has not had a child yet and who has undergone sterilization. That person has a permit for half a child and that permit is available for someone to buy it in the market.

So the basic point is this: as long as you hold a permit for having at least half a child, you will not be sterilized. The moment you don’t have the permit, you get sterilized immediately. You start off with a permit of half a child the moment you are of age to have a child, say at age 18. You can continue to hold that permit until one of two things happen. One, you submit to sterilization and you sell that half-child permit on the market. Or, two, you find someone else with half a permit and together you have one offspring and both of you have spent your ab initio reproductive right permits.

The above scheme allows a person to have an unlimited amount of children — provided they can buy the permits required. The price of the permits will be determined by the market. If half the population is willing to sell their reproductive rights, the other half of the population can potentially have twice the number of children that they could otherwise have. If no one is willing to sell his or her permit, then every person can have only half a child on average. If there are more sellers than buyers, the price of a permit will be low. If there are more buyers than sellers, the price will be high.

Frequently asked question: what about the fact that the rich will have more children by buying more permits? Answer: Yes, that is right. The rich do get to have more children. The rich are also able to take care of the children. The rich also get to buy more cars, and food, and more of all sorts of goodies. This way at least they will pay for having children and if the poor cannot afford to have children, at least they will be compensated for not having children by those who can afford to have children.

Well, that is it. The scheme is as sound a scheme that you will ever come across in this world or beyond. This is an idea that is brilliant even if I say so myself. It is the second most brilliant idea I have had[**]. Seriously though, I think that some policy makers with brains (tall order, I know) should take this up and implement the Population Policy Regulatory Authority of India and implement this policy. Who was it who said, “Sir, I have found an argument. I am not obliged to find you an understanding.” (Note to self: google and find out the exact quote.) So also, I have stated the solution. I am not obliged to implement it.

More to come.

** In my list of brilliant ideas, RISC ranks 10th. Somewhat like the Star Wars movies, I will reveal the ideas in a random rather than in ordinal order.

For the humor impaired: only the last bits were said in jest. The rest is deadly serious stuff.

Author: Atanu Dey


18 thoughts on “The Market for Reproductive Rights”

  1. isn’t the sterlization part – too much like a police state (unless you were joking). How about economic incentives like tax breaks – if you have no kids or only one kid …stuff like that.

    I do agree with you that the population problem is getting way out of hand.


  2. Your right brain is seems to be all over the LEFT. If I recollect your wrote “People—the Ultimate Resource” not long back.


  3. Tell me you are kidding man!

    The right way is through education. In this era, when we are talking about individual freedom (and with freedom comes responsibility too), this is an absurd idea. I guess the Chinese commies have affected the Indian leftist far more than I thought (and I mean that in least disrespectful way).

    And how do you propose to handle “unplanned” pregnancies? What if a couple loses its child at a very young age, but AFTER getting steralized? What happens in case of rape pregnancies, wherein the woman decides to keep her baby?

    The way to control population is through education and awareness. Also, the “replenishing rate” to maintain healthy population is slightly more than 2 children to a couple (the value is 2.3, not sure… will dig up source later).

    And what do you suggest for situations where the poor people get exploited… forced to give up their half-baby?

    What about adoption? If I adpot a baby, do I lose my credit? Man I cant believe I just asked that question!


  4. Larry Niven explores this idea fairly thoroughly in his Known Space novels. The way it works is this. Every citizen has the right to one child. After that, rights to further children can be obtained through various means: money (the wealthy can buy them at market prices), talent (athletes and scholars get extra birthrights), luck (the ‘birthright lotteries’), mortal combat (loser loses his own life and birthright, winner gets two birthrights, so everything evens out), and so on. To quote Niven himself, “Think of it is evolution in action”.


  5. [Atanu, please delete this post if you think it was wrong on my part to include part of your personal communication (email) in this comment]

    In response to my comment above, Atanu wrote to me: “[Y]ou have got to hang in there and
    listen to the whole argument. Don’t jump to conclusions till you have heard out the whole

    I am sorry. You are right; I posted those comments coz the idea seemed “absurd” to me. I am willing to listen to the entire story; I doubt that “debates” such as this would make either of us change our views; but knowing each other views makes our thought process that much better. So, I WILL listen.

    It doesn’t quite ring as right to me that this basic freedom bestowed to me by mother nature, should be taken away. I, for one, would much rather adopt children than have two-three biological children. But thats my CHOICE. I wouldn’t want anyone to force that upon me. I admit that freedom is a funny thing: its as much a mirage as it is a tangible fact. or example, if prostitution or drugs were legal, making a law to change that would be looked upon as an infringement of freedom. Still, I value my right to choose to have (or not have) biological children.

    My next point is that perhaps this is a wrong way of tackling the problem (that population is a problem is point of another debate). The birth rate amongst peaple with better socio-economic and educational backgrounds is less than 1.5 per couple. On the other hand, people with poor educational/socio-economic backgrounds, on an average have more than 3.5 children per couple. That is the more appropriate place to target: improving education and economic standards within th ecountry.


  6. atanu: in india, it is the social norm to grow to your mid 20s (or even earlier), marry and then start reproducing. in response to niket’s point of education, educating people will bring it down to people having 2-3 babies instead of 8-10. but if the social structure demands (almost tempted to use “enforces”) that people marry and have kids – then will this really solve the problem. if someone decides to put off marriage or having kids, its almost looked down upon socially.

    several european countries have a negative growth rate, because the people there do not think its necessary to have kids. would more people thinking like this in india be a part of the solution to india;s population woes – it would be much harder than enforcing sterilization or limiting reproduction by law, since it would mean fundamentally changing people’s mindset.


  7. Hi Everyone,

    Every living species has in it the seeds of birth and death. It goes through a natural life cycle and also contains in it a natural balance to guard against over-breeding – the ecological cycle.

    Man is the only animal capable of manipulating his birth rate and death rate. Ironically, though the death rate is well managed, we all (in India) get paranoid if someone suggests controlling the birth rate. Since we also have brains, it would not be wrong to assume that we misuse it to proliferate more people (and thus more suffering) and in that, we destroy the capability to restrain even after knowing the consequences.

    This has happened due to:

    Incomplete education: People are striving for literacy, but not for education that compels one to think for himself and the implications of our choices. That is where the West has succeeded – their education in terms of content may be simplistic, but they learn to think for themselves at a very young age.

    Lack of common sense: That is a major problem. I dont think I need explain more – the lack of mindlessness of the majority causes suffering again. Also I reiterate – this is driven by apathy and lack of community sense. This is where the failure of collective action also comes in.

    Cont’d in Part2


  8. Part2:

    We call the right to give birth as our biological right. I do not consider it a right – it is a gift. But since we call it a right – we also use it freely and mindlessly. That is dangerous. And unfortunately, when Mother Nature made man, she overlooked this small point – that of reproduction. We stop reproducing too late – in terms of age. But that too can be tackled by our ability to think. Since man is an interdependent social animal, we should realise the consequences of too much interdependence.That is what India is suffering from now. The privately poor people who reproduce blindly represent an economic burden to society and that means EVERYONE (including YOU and ME) in terms of education, health, jobs and non renewable resources. (Ironically I would call common sense and enlightenment a non-renewable resource). So every time a child is born, the tax payers are taxed to look after the needs of that child, directly and indirectly. Every new child puts a burden on its environment’s resources – public and private. We (the privately poor and privately middle-class and privately rich) have not realised this form of social interdependence exists, otherwise we would on a personal and public level restrain our biological ‘right’ to reproduce – blindly. This is what we dont realise, how our public apathy comes and hits us in the face. The burden of the government to keep providing is also growing, but then we have a history of terrible policy makers, who did not address this problem at the right time and on a continous basis. Even the myopic privately rich, who sit in their ivory towers and think they are not affected by this problem – are. But the common man suffers the maximum impact due to everybody’s and his own stupidity and mindlessness. Its almost like we are all thinking,” I will drown, but I will take you down with me”.

    Cont’d in Part3


  9. Part3:

    We are all human, but very few are humanitarian and think of the broad picture, inspite of being bestowed with the ability to think. This is perhaps why scientists say that we use only 2% of our brain capacity in our lifetime. I think our fellow Indians use only 0.02% to make personal choices. This once again is because they are attached to their own false pride in perpetuating the family name, needing someone to look after them in old age and such trivial crap. Children here are not seen as people in their own right – they are perceived as free labour and insurance in old age – which is now backfiring. If lesser children are born, then there will be more resources and public wealth to look after everyone right from their birth to death. Atanu once told me – after our Independence Indian leaders made factories, but American leaders made institutions. What a irony, considering that India’s reputation is that of giving premium to learning! We still bask in the sunlight of our past glories, but dont realise that we have made no contributions to perpetuating the glory. Sacrifice is imminent – when we forfeit our privelege to think, we also forfeit the control over our choices. If we sacrifice the ‘right’ to have children, we need not sacrifice public good. If we dont sacrifice the right to having children, they will consequently suffer – they will sacrifice the right to a good life. We have reached a stage where having children and public good have become mutually exclusive.

    Even as we are drowning now, we are shouting from the rooftops about our right to reproduce (pardon my mixed metaphors). Difficult problems have tough solutions, and if these are enforced even for a short time, may have a positive long term effect. If we dont start acting – the difficult problem will get more difficult and need even tougher solutions.

    Correct me if I am wrong. I am aware that all that I rambled on above was common sense, but then we seem to be deficient in that one vitamin.


  10. Here is a scenario that comes to mind.

    I am a poor soul of 20 years living in Mumbai’s Dharavi slums and survive on a salary of Rs. 150 a day.

    I cannot afford to have children and so I decide to sell off my child-credit and get myself sterilized.

    I now don’t have the worries of having to support a family and so with that much weight off my shoulders I can think a little more clearly about just my own life.

    Eventually I land up doing much better at work and being getting promotions and making some more money. With some ingenuity I invest that extra income into a small business within my means. In a course of a year now I am making 5 times that I used to earlier. I decide to move out of Dharavi and find myself a better home in one of the far suburbs of New Bombay.

    Another year passes and my business skills having improved, I’m now making Rs. 3000 a day. I have a nice house with all amenities that I can think of. Except, now I want to convert this house into a home.

    This is when it hits me hard. I cannot have a family with my own children because I sold off my credits and got myself sterilized when I could not afford the children.

    What am I do to?

    Any answers Atanu?


  11. Atanu,

    I find your credit-based system for population control very inhumane.
    Just the thought of having to give up my ability to have a
    child with my spouse is unacceptable at a personal level.

    Bearing and raising a child is one of the greatest joys known to
    mankind. I can vouch for this even though I do not have any children
    yet. However, I have seen close family members of my age group have
    children and their life has blossomed after the event.

    I find it unacceptable that any national authority comes and forces it
    on me to have myself sterilized.

    The above are personal views and cannot add to the debate. However, I
    would gladly like to add my bits to your debate on this issue.

    The first problem I have with your proposal is voiced in my previous
    comment. You justify the loss of credit of the poor by saying that
    they anyways cannot afford the cost of raising a child. However,
    monetary conditions of people change over their lifetime.

    Thats what a market economy does, doesnt it? Give opportunities to
    everyone to succeed and grow their monetary worth.

    In such a situation then, what happens to your credit system of child birth.

    In a true market if you sell something because you need the money, you
    have an option of buying it back when in the future you do have the

    How does the credit system achieve this?

    As a sidenote: I don’t even want to try debating this economic topic
    with someone who holds a PhD in economics! 🙂 But I’ll try and throw
    in my common sense into the argument as and where I see fit.

    As regards to your challenge, for the reason mentioned above, I can’t
    see myself accepting it. However, I will still keep that coffee
    promise I made to you while I was in Mumbai two weeks ago. Don’t ask
    me when, but if your travels find you in Champaign-Urbana, give me a
    holer. 🙂


  12. Atanu
    The attempt by the poor to procreate is a form of naive diversification that they employ to manage with the resouces.

    So if you have three children, Munna,Thullo & Sundro.

    Munna will work on the cows, thullo will do the farming and Sundro will go to the city and attend college blah blah…

    Now how will you compensate this risk averse behavior appropriately within your framework??


  13. thinking about it, I have very little to lose and a lot to gain… so here goes… I’ll take yu up on the challenge Atanu.

    Although there are a few things I agree with you on this population issue… there are some I can’t seem to find myself to agree.

    Waiting to hear more on this from you…


  14. This proposal definitely sounds interesting … however, I would like to understand what are we trying to achieve.

    If we are trying to decrease the population of the country, then simply saying a couple can only have one child solves the problem. What do we gain by giving individuals the ability to buy and sell their right to reproduce ? Allowing people to buy and sell definitely has its side-effects, but are these side-effects desirable is my question, infact to we even want them?

    Let me give an alternative perspective to this population problem. I read this chapter in economics in the 9th grade … “human resources”, i.e., humans are a resource that need to be harnessed.

    Imagine how much other countries have benefitted from the individuals of our country … by pulling people into their country, by outsourcing work to India etc. And here we are saying instead we shall diminish this resource.

    The problem is that there are more people and less work. Instead of saying we decrease the number of people I would say lets figure out how to create work and utilize this resource that our country has rather than diminish it.


  15. Population is our country’s single largest problem.

    At this juncture, it does not matter what method we are to follow. It is the time of CRISIS.

    My opinion is that, instead of debating on the methods of stopping population explosion, it is more important to accept SOME method guaranteed to work first (without caring for its ‘aesthetic appeal’) and then working on implementing it efficiently.

    For a physical phenomenon like this, there is no one hard and fast rule. People have to make compromises; If it means giving up rights, then so be it.


  16. The “market for reproductive rights..” is only wishful thinking. If you implement it, you complete the dehumanising process, like an assembly lines.
    “We will produce these many items this year at this cost price and sell at this price because this is the point of maximum profit”.
    How much distant is this view from the view that if you have to remove the poverity, remove the poors. Are you really serious or are you making a mockery of poor? I hope next time you will suggest a permit for marrying(poor will not have a single wife and rich will be alowed to have as many wives as many million rupee he owns because we are having an imbalanced sex ratio); after that a permit for setting up a new industry(because of pollution, greenhouse effect and all), and many more permits like this ad infinitum. Welcom to the new Licence-quota-permit Raj of AUTHOR. Good intentions indeed lead to hell after all.
    Wise people have said time and again(Gandhi being one of them)”There is sufficient on this earth to satisfy everyone’s needs but there is nothing which can satisfy even one man’s needs.”
    Cannot we learn something from example of people like Baba Amte, Anna Hazare,Aruna Roy who work selflessly for fighting people’s problems.
    It is very easy and brilliant for economists to introduce the Licence-quota-permit Raj, sitting in their AC chambers.
    I tell you a small story:
    A son of a diplomat was studying an American University for his bachelors degree. He was invited to deliver a talk on India. After dinner, when he rose to give the talk somebody asked: What are the problems third world is facing? He went to a dustbin nearby and said: “Do you want to solve the problems of third World?” After that he inverted the dustbin full of half eaten food items and said pointedly: “First solve this problem” and walked away. He gave up his studies and came back to India without getting an “American” degree because it was meaningless for him. AFter coming to India he joined Aruna Roy and draws the “daily minimum wage” for his livelihood alongwith Aruna Roy.
    Have you not read Amartya Sen or have you forgotten your school education. I am sure you might be knowing about Grameen experiment in Bangladesh.I was taught in 8th,9th and 10th class and Amartya Sen only reinforced that thinking that problems like Population, employment, education, healthcare etc. are all interrelated. You cannot solve these problems one by one. These have to be attacked simulatneously and the best strategy I think is rapid development.(rapid does not capture the meaning of a better hindi word–prachand).
    By the way, if this post had changed your point of view give that dinner of yours to some hungry children around you which I am sure you won’t have to try hard to find.


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