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date: 26 September 2022

Population Issues in Welfare Economics, Ethics, and Policy Evaluationlocked

Population Issues in Welfare Economics, Ethics, and Policy Evaluationlocked

  • Kevin Kuruc, Kevin KurucDepartment of Economics, University of Oklahoma
  • Mark BudolfsonMark BudolfsonDepartment of Environmental and Occupational Health and Justice, Center for Population-Level Bioethics, and Department of Philosophy, Rutgers University
  •  and Dean SpearsDean SpearsDepartment of Economics and Population Research Center, University of Texas at Austin; IZA; Economics and Planning Unit, Indian Statistical Institute

Summary

Nearly all large policy decisions influence not only the quality of life for existing individuals but also the number—and even identities—of yet-to-exist individuals. Accounting for these effects in a policy evaluation framework requires taking difficult stances on concepts such as the value of existence. These issues are at the heart of a literature that sits between welfare economics and philosophical population ethics. Despite the inherent challenges of these questions, this literature has produced theoretical insights and subsequent progress on variable-population welfare criteria. A surprisingly bounded set of coherent alternatives exists for practitioners once a set of uncontroversial axioms is adopted from the better-studied welfare criteria for cases where populations are assumed to be fixed. Although consensus has not yet been reached among these remaining alternatives, their recommendations often agree. The space has been sufficiently restricted and well explored that applications of the theoretical insights are possible and underway in earnest.

For reasons both theoretical and empirical, the applied literature studying optimal policy and its robustness to welfare criteria has documented a surprising degree of convergence between recommendations under quite different ethical stances on existence value. This convergence has appeared even in cases where population size itself is the choice variable. Although it may not always be the case that policy recommendations are invariant to population welfare criteria, tools have been developed that allow researchers to easily and transparently move between such criteria to study the robustness in their context of interest. The broader point is that the remaining theoretical uncertainties need not prevent population ethics from playing a role in policy evaluation—the tools are available for determining whether and which policies are broadly supported among a range of ethical views.

Subjects

  • Economic Development
  • Health, Education, and Welfare Economics
  • Labor and Demographic Economics

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