Bennett’s Point: Babies are Good!

Peter Augustine Lawler

October 1, 2005

Listen, I’m not a charter member of the Bill Bennett fan club, and he certainly doesn’t need my defense. But somebody needs to begin with the obvious: He doesn’t really think we should abort all African-Americans babies, just like Jonathan Swift, the author of “A Modest Proposal,” didn’t really believe the Irish should eat their own babies. I think studies now show that Swift was really engaged in pro-Irish and anti-infanticide satire and criticizing the monstrous insensitivity of the bourgeois and imperialistic English. Swift really believed (I’m going out a limb here!) that justice demanded that the Irish be able to have lots of babies and the resources to raise them well. And Bennett was clearly speaking in defense of the right of African-Americans (really all Americans) to have as many babies as they want without having to think about the crime rate one way or another.

I wish Bennett’s critics were as anti-abortion or as pro-baby as he is. Not so long ago Jesse Jackson, who’s never afraid to exaggerate to make a good point, called abortion “black genocide.” Here’s what he must have meant: White middle class Americans, tutored by our libertarian economists, too readily fell victim to crude utilitarian arguments. So they could even come to believe that poor African-American women had lots of babies so that they could get lots of welfare money. Our bourgeois Americans could even come to believe that if poor women were more responsible they’d have more abortions. Our more mediocre popularizing economists—blinded by their mean and naïve thought that every human action is determined by self-interest—too readily rejected in advance the hypothesis that it’s natural for women to have babies because they’re lovable. And so they also tended to reject the hypothesis that there’s something unnatural or inhuman—or obsessively individualistic—about choosing abortion out of convenience or economic calculation.

That kind of coldly individualistic thinking leads to highlighting the (very suspect) correlation—as the best-seller Freakonomics does—between the increase in the abortion rate and the decrease in the crime rate. That monstrous and misleading presentation of data is richly deserving of Swift-style satire. Well, Bill Bennett, you’re no Jonathan Swift. You could have made your point without people believing you’re.fixed on the thought that black babies tend to have more a criminal future than white ones.

But a reasonable person can still get what you meant: The crime rate would eventually go to zero if the number of babies (black, white, and all the colors in between) were to go to zero. And one way to diminish the amount of suffering and premature death in the world is to cut way back on the number of babies—and not just economically deprived or genetically defective babies (because everyone suffers and dies). But that’s no real argument against babies or no real argument for abortion.

Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor and Chair of the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College in Georgia.