Keeping Up With the Cloneses

"Arguing in My Spare Time," No. 5.08

by Arnold Kling

May 29, 2002

When competition breaks out, it is hard to stop. It is in the interest of each individual to compete, regardless of whether the aggregate outcome is desirable.

Economists tend to look at the positive results of competition. It leads to economic efficiency, innovation, and growth. In some situations, however, competitive outcomes are not obviously superior. For example, this week, a story broke alleging that many baseball players use illegal steroids to enhance their abilities. This made many fans and commentators unhappy.

Another example is SAT preparation courses. Few parents would argue that these courses represent education with intrinsic value. We would prefer that such courses not exist for anyone. Nonetheless, we do not want our own children to be at a disadvantage, so we enroll our children in these courses.

The same competitive dynamic that drives the use of steroids and SAT prep courses is going to be at work with genetic engineering. At least, that is one of the main ideas I took away from reading Gregory Stock's book, Redesigning Humans. Parents are going to have the opportunity to give their children genetic traits that will make them better baseball players, better test-takers, or what have you. If humanity is going to be divided between "the enhanced and the unenhanced" (the title of one of the book's most important chapters), how could parents choose to leave their children unenhanced?

Should Competition be Outlawed?

Because competition is so natural, it can only be prevented by collective action. We need regulations and enforcement mechanisms.

As a baseball fan, I believe that an outcome that bans steroids is better than the competitive outcome. However, that is because for baseball I value continuity more than progress.

In baseball, steroid use is not legal. It is the enforcement mechanism that is missing. If we want to stop baseball players from using steroids, the baseball officials will need a drug testing program.

As a parent, I would like to see an end to SAT preparation courses. However, if we want to stop parents from sending their children to SAT preparation courses, we will have to take away the incentive for students to take such courses. I doubt that we can ban the courses altogether. Perhaps we could permit students to sign an oath saying that they have not taken such a course, and in return for signing the oath the student gets put into a different scoring pool from those who do take prep courses. Of course, enforcing this policy would require some kind of random spying on students to catch liars.

All right--now for the crux of the issue: do we want to outlaw genetic engineering, in order to prevent an outbreak of competition? Do we want to try to prevent a world in which parenting becomes a matter of keeping up with the cloneses, so to speak?

For example, I am short in stature, and so are our daughters. In today's world, that is fine. However, in a world of competitive genetic engineering, there probably would be few people under five feet tall. If that world had prevailed when we were having children, we probably would have felt pressure to have them altered--otherwise they might be freaks. However, I would prefer a world in which no one's height is altered by genetic engineering to a world in which I could create tall children for myself.

At the other extreme, genetic engineering to avoid awful diseases seems to be desirable. That is, if you could prevent leukemia or multiple sclerosis in your child, would you not want to do so?

In Redesigning Humans, Stock argues that genetic engineering is inevitable, because it offers results that are different in degree, not in kind, from those that we embrace when they are brought about by different means. For example, if there were a pill that could cure Alzheimer's, would you be willing to take it? Of course. Then why would you not accept a genetic modification that accomplishes the same thing? If you are willing to wear glasses, then why not accept genetic modifications to enhance eyesight?

My Position

At this point, my position is that I am in favor of genetic engineering to try to prevent illness that produces misery. However, I am against turning the human reproduction process into a contest to design humans who are stronger, smarter, more attractive, etc. If there is a way to draw a line between a misery-producing illness and a possibly-undesirable characteristic, I hope that we can draw it. If there is a way to draw a line between "natural" ways to improve one's mental or physical characteristics and "artificial" ways of doing so (including steroids for baseball players or genetic engineering for humans), I hope that we can draw it.

My position, if it is tenable, would allow genetic engineering to reduce individual human suffering. My concern is that once competition breaks out to design "better" human beings, the result could be that everyone is made worse off and less happy than if such a competition could be prevented. The discomfort that I now only feel about SAT tests and prep courses would turn into the essence of being a parent. I hope that sort of competition never breaks out.