May 23, 2005
My adherence to libertarianism, as much as an “Unrepentant Individual” adheres to any set political party or philosophy, is based upon my belief that libertarianism is a fully consistent, logical, and moral form of government. The reason for this is that I don’t accept that other people should be able to make choices for me, a rational adult, and thus I cannot see that I should find myself so egotistical that I should be making choices for them, so long as we do not violate each other’s rights and liberty.
However, in any discussion of libertarianism that I have come across, one issue is typically not handled very well: the issue of children. Libertarianism presupposes that the actors in society are rationally self-interested individuals, and that these people should be given as much leeway to act as possible, so long as they are not infringing on others. Our discussion of rules, morality, governance, all assumes that we treat humans like adults.
But children aren’t adults. What, then, do we do with them? What rules, what guidelines, should we use to protect their rights? What guidelines should be used to protect them from themselves, as they have not gained the maturity to act rationally? And what should be done to protect them from neglectful parents, who do not take the steps necessary to ensure that they grow up to become rational adults? Socialists, fascists, communists, and even nanny-state Republicans don’t have this problem, because they treat everyone like children, under the mismanaged care and semi-watchful eye of an incompetent government. Since they never really expect or desire us to exercise independent, rational thought, they don’t need to be worried about leaving us unprepared to do so. But for us libertarians, we cannot abdicate this responsibility, or our society will cease to be the moral form of government that we believe.
This little topic has been brewing in my mind for a few months now. It all started when I got into a debate with my friend’s wife, who is a very intelligent, committed leftist, and who also happens to be a lawyer and former student of Austrian economics. Now, if you’ve ever tried to argue with a lawyer, you can understand my dilemma (especially since I was about 4 beers into the evening), and the fact that she knew and understood libertarian thought didn’t help me any. During the times that I was keeping the debate towards my own strengths, like Social Security and free-market economics, I think I was holding my own. Later, we got onto the topic of social freedoms, things such as smoking bans/etc. In some cases, these are harder to argue, but again, I think I was still holding my own (which, of course, could be the beer talking).
But it all derailed when we started talking about seat belt laws, and specifically car seats. You see, by the very nature of libertarianism, a seat belt law is immoral. Because the only person harmed when a seat belt is not worn is the driver, and a driver who gets behind the wheel without a seat belt is accepting the possible consequences of that action. Assuming, of course, that the driver is an individual, without ties or obligations to others. Is that still true, however, if the driver has a 5 year old child, or if that child is in the car? While it is obvious that person has a moral obligation to wear their seatbelt to ensure they are alive to care for their child, does that also mean that they have a legal obligation? We’re starting to head into hazy territory. And once we start talking about laws forcing parents to put their kids into car seats, we’ve hit the wall. Because as a libertarian, you are forced to either hold the line that parents should have the right to let their kids die in crashes, or you need to follow the slippery slope that if society has the obligation to force you to put your kid into a child seat, they also might have the obligation to force you to put your child into certain schooling, or to provide them with X and Y, or to deny them C and D?
You see, once we step off the grounds of a rational adult choosing to engage in risky behavior, and start including a child, who does not have the capacity to choose or not choose that behavior, it all gets very murky, very quickly. Because if we state that parents have a legal obligation to educate their children, and they don’t have the monetary ability to do so (because in a libertarian society, the school system would be private), must we as a society provide that money for schooling? Or do we have to take away the child from the parents because they are not living up to those obligations?
Who, then, makes the guidelines of how children must be raised? Because if we leave it up to the democratic process, then we run into the same tyranny of the majority problems that exist in any democracy. Let’s say that I’ve decided that to teach my kids responsible consumption of alcohol. I choose that from the time they’re 10 or so, they’re allowed to have a tiny glass of wine with dinner. I believe that allowing my kids certain types of freedoms, in a supervised and controlled manner such as this, is a good way to teach them how to handle the complete freedom that they must be entrusted with in the real world. If the majority mandates that you should not be able to drink before the age of 18, however, should they be able to punish me or take my children away because of this? I would say “Hell, no!” After all, I know best, so I can choose how to raise my children according to the values and customs that I believe are important. Of course, if another set of parents take the same sort of mindset, starting their kids on heroin at the age of 10, wouldn’t I be first in line to protect those kids from their parent’s stupidity? Despite what they think, I no longer accept that they know best. And wouldn’t that be illogical, since heroin wouldn’t be illegal in my libertarian world? Wouldn’t it be hypocritical, since I think I know best for my kids, but I don’t accept the other parents’ claim that they know best for theirs?
Live and let live makes for a great philosophy. The only problem is that applying libertarian philosophy runs into a problem when it comes across a child, who does not yet have the skills to make the right or wrong decision in a certain situation. And while we can mostly agree on what would be blatantly wrong decisions by parents, like giving your child heroin, it’s the marginal case, like allowing a little wine before a child is an adult, which becomes troubling. And since the marginal case differs widely amongst different people, it is tough to have any standards at all.
Unfortunately, I don’t have the answers to these questions. In my mind, if we can get the world into a state where adults are expected to care for themselves, and where we take away the government incentives to do such things as not work, or to have kids you can’t afford to raise, that the situation will mostly work itself out. After all, right now the government treats us all like children, so the fact that some people are woefully ignorant and unable to raise their children to be responsible adults is not surprising. But “mostly working itself out” doesn’t always quite cut it. How can we reconcile a libertarian philosophy for dealing with adults with some of the necessary modifications to that philosophy that we may need to make to ensure that those children, unable to be treated like adults, have their rights protected? And just as importantly, how can we do this without slipping down the slope towards one-size-fits-all tyrannical government control over child-rearing?
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