A friend recently told me he was glad he could give his son a name that “carried on the family name.” Because he had a son, his last name would propagate, and by “re-using” a family first name he could honor other relatives. This resulted in a non-unique name, one that dozens of other people likely also hold.
As I’m sure it did for you, this naturally directed my mind toward negative externalities. A negative externality occurs when an action you take adversely affects an uninvolved person.
I’ve explained before how becoming a parent yields a positive externality on society. But, giving your baby a non-unique name causes negative externalities on everyone else.
Parents choose names for their own benefit and their child’s (as I have explained before). When parents choose a name they arguably are not thinking about how their choice will affect everyone else in the world.
By giving their baby a non-unique or common name (e.g. John Smith), parents make it harder for the rest of society to find a specific person with that name. If a person is named “Xyzapple Sugar Smith,” they will be easy to find in Facebook, Google, or the phone book. However, there are thousands named “John Smith,” and naming your baby “John Smith” makes it even harder for anyone else searching for a certain John Smith. Finding a certain John Smith via Google is like looking for a needle in a haystack. These parents just added another piece of hay to the haystack!
If everyone would just given their kids unique names then it would make it easier for everyone to find everyone. If you want to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” then you will give your child a unique name. Celebrities seem to be best at this. Penn Jillette is doing his part for society, naming his child Moxie CrimeFighter.
Presidents, Princesses, and Serial Killers
Above, I explained how parents hurt everyone by giving non-unique names because this makes it harder for everyone to find a specific person.
However, some parents will actually do substantial, irreparable harm to specific individuals by their name choice. For example, if your child becomes an unpopular president this may decrease the “value” of his or her name. Other people with that name will then be stuck with the same name as a lousy president. I have explained before and offered empirical evidence for this.
Also, let’s say you are named Kate Middleton (but not the KM). Suddenly, you can be sure your name will never, for the rest of your life, show up in Google. Parents of the Kate Middleton have imposed an enormous burden on you because you have been essentially wiped from the internet. If you are a lawyer, try to get to the top of Google search. If you run for office, try to make your campaign website stand out. Good luck.
Lastly, consider those poor, law-abiding people who happen to be named Ted Bundy or Timothy McVeigh, monikers of a serial killer and terrorist, respectively. The criminals’ parents have imposed very real negative externalities on others. If you are a salesman, try making cold calls with that name! (Update: My unofficial fact-checkers have alerted me that Ted Bundy was originally named “Theodore Robert Cowell.”)
Of course, the parents don’t know their kids’ names will ultimately have this effect. Yet, in expectation every parent should believe this could happen. Unless the parent knows their child will be unremarkable and law-abiding (which they don’t), there is a positive probability they will hurt someone else quite badly by giving their child a non-unique name.
Anyone who paid attention in Econ 101 knows the standard solutions to negative externalities are to tax the behavior or establish property rights. Either is a possibility here.
If parents want to choose a non-unique name, the government could impose a tax on this decision which would encourage parents to choose unique names. Or, perhaps better, you could get a subsidy (=opposite of a tax) for choosing a unique name. Instead of a $2000 child tax credit, parents choosing a unique name might get a $2500 credit the first year. If perfect uniqueness is too strict, there could be a sliding scale based on how prevalent a name is.
Another approach would be for parents to obtain property rights for a name (much like web domain names). The government could auction off the ordering for choosing a name, like a sports draft pick. Once someone has that name, it is theirs alone.
Both arrangements, a tax/subsidy or naming rights, would encourage diversity in names. Not only would this reduce the negative externalities parents are imposing but it might also help poorer members of society. Economists have shown that “different” names, often associated with ethnic groups, can hold people back in the job market. However, if “different” names became the norm this might prevent employers from using the names as a basis for discrimination.
Do unto others and name your kid uniquely, but not too uniquely. Names that are difficult to read, say, and spell could impose other negative externalities!