Babies wear the trousers

24th July, 2004

Dear Economist,
My wife and I are delighted with our newborn baby girl, who is a little star. But it feels like a big responsibility to manage this new relationship. Can you give us any guidance as to how to bring her up properly?
Yours sincerely,
Mr T. Monks, London

Dear Mr Monks,
Congratulations, but also a word of warning. You’re thinking about your daughter the wrong way. You are not responsible for bringing her up. On the contrary, she is in control of the relationship.
The economist Mancur Olson wrote of “the exploitation of the great by the small”. At three o’clock this morning, as you toiled over a steaming nappy, you may have grasped what he meant. Often the player who appears to hold all the power is in fact the one who has to make the sacrifices.

For an example of Olson’s theory, witness the current debate over oil prices. Saudi Arabia, the largest oil producer, is also the only country with spare capacity. Viewed another way, every other producer is pumping flat out while Saudi Arabia is forced to limit production to keep prices high. Only a large producer has the incentive to make this concession.

Your young daughter appears weak in the battle for control of the relationship. The truth is that countless generations of babies and parents have fought this battle. The parents who misjudged suffered some sleepless nights. The babies who misjudged never survived to produce new babies. You can afford to make sacrifices, but she cannot. It is obvious who will prevail.

The ancient economist Aesop put it best. Why did the hound fail to catch the hare? Because the hound was running for a dinner, but the hare was running for his life.

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