Friday, 29 July 2011

If I ruled the world

Just a quickie on what rules I would put in place if I had the chance to design from scratch a society's customs and norms around sex and reproduction. Obviously I dont, because things like cultures unfortunately evolve they are not designed. Which is a shame... because things that are designed (at least ones designed by people with half a brain) are an awful lot better. Probably for the best that I dont get that kind of power though. I plan on becoming morally better, and thus on being disgusted with my current morality in about 10 years time. (I'm certainly disappointed at least by half the things 15 year old me thought). If so it's probably best to leave the omnipotence until I've had some more time to think about it.

  Our story starts at puberty with a simple, safe, 100% reversible operation. To painlessly and without inconvenience sterilise everyone. This is combined with thorough sex and relationships education (actually this starts before puberty). Everyone in the population understands totally the mechanics of sexual pleasure and the mechanics of reproduction. Everyone totally understands the concept of consent, what constitutes consent, what things require consent, why consent matters.

Next job is the start of sexual and relationship exploration. Young people meet, socialise, enjoy eachother's company. Those who desire a particular form of relationship are open and specific about it. Those who desire a particular form of sexual pleasure likewise. (The internet with its vast number of alarmingly specific dating forums is a good approximation to this). Those who do not yet know what they want in both these areas (almost everyone) are expected to experiment and to decide what they do and do not like with no pressure to attempt anything they dont like again.

Next job, after people are in solid relationships (if that's what they want, and with whichever other people they want if they do) they may wish to have children. (I'm not proposing A Brave New World factory bred children, actual mothers would be involved). Those who do wish this would be free to have the surgery required to reverse their sterility. This would be expensive. Deliberately and consciously so.  It would not be available free on the NHS, those who could not afford it would not have children. If possible there would be a whacking great tax on it to help fund primary education.

This is clearly inhuman, monstrous, unethical ...and mind-bogglingly obvious. Raising a child costs money. You cannot do it on the cheep. If you try then you get a few great lovely wonderful kids including a few very dear to me ... and also a far greater number of unsettled, undereducated, antisocial kids who are simply not going to have the life opportunities and potential for happiness they deserve. Now obviously I dont want to breed an aristocracy here ... for genetic reasons alone that's not a good idea. Poor people need to have kids, and society cannot fail to realise this. There are two solutions.

First and most direct, make sperm and egg donations easy and commonplace. Thus curing the genetic problem, but not allowing people from poor households to raise children. This is both a good thing for the child and a problem for society, too limited a pool of childhood experiences and types of parenting does not produce a diverse society. And diverse societies are where you get real invention.

The second more significant possibility is charity or government support to give would-be parents the resources they need to raise a child properly. This probably the most sensible way to run things providing both that children are not raised in poverty and so the greatest number of backgrounds and types of early childhood experiences are run through. This way maximises the experiments in living that make a liberal society better than A Brave New World, and are why ours will reach out to other worlds and ever increase its happiness and lifespan while the people's of a brave new world will stay at the same moderate level of happiness in much the same culture for ever.

There is a threefold problem with this. One cost, but that can easily be ignored, written off as a necessity or simply given to the economists to argue over. The second is the current problem with the British version of this idea, which is paying people who have children regular sums. The problem of course is the phenomenon of having children, gaining this money, and not spending it on the child. This of course produces exactly the antisocial non-fulfilled children we dont want whist costing a lot of money. The solution is to either pay in kind with vouchers for babyfoods, nurseries etc, or to reimburse (on the same system as business expenses) reasonable costs related to the child.

The last problem is the most significant. It's that this doesn't work. Have a look at the vast literature of child development. Good parents, those who produce well adjusted, happy children, on average have a large number of books in the house. Give all parents books to put in the house, no significant effect on the children. Good parents on average give their kids a good breakfast. Give every kid a good breakfast, no significant effect. And so it goes on. The parents of kids with good prospects do a huge number of things, but if you just make all parents do these thing you dont get happy kids. We dont understand yet what those parents are doing that makes their kids more successful and happy. Clearly the books and the breakfasts and everything else is a symptom of this thing, but what it is, we dont

Parenting support could be partly or even mainly in the form of education. No, parents do not instinctively know through evolution how to raise a child. They know how to keep a child alive and fit enough to reproduce ... though actually applying these instincts in the modern world is not necessarily going to work. Parenting is a hard process that needs thought, specialist knowledge and rigorous training, all based on good research and not Oprah's latest pet theory be it Supernany or Tiger Mothers. (Yes that was a pop culture reference, I'm very sorry and promise never to do it  again).

And lastly and most importantly. I would instant a great cultural taboo. An absolute and unbreakable rule. Think of the incest taboo, but much stronger. Which would be nice and simple: never, under pain of being totally banished from civilised company, take a child to an enclosed public place like a restaurant or public transport.

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