The Unrepentant Individual

...just hanging around until Dec 21, 2012

May 23, 2005

Libertarianism: The problem of children

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?

Posted By: Brad Warbiany @ 3:54 pm || Permalink || Comments (11) || Trackback URL || Categories: Uncategorized


  1. Brad, I think you just stuck your toe into a pot of boiling water. You don’t have to answer this one, but have you discussed this with your wife? Do you have the same ideas on raising children?
    Have you ever played a game of Monopoly without using any rules? What happened? We do have to have some basic rules in life, even if they are self imposed ones. I’ll bet you were a hard little boy to raise. Did your mom make you wear a seat belt? I’ll bet she loved you so much that she didn’t want you to get hurt. You aren’t a father yet so you don’t know just how much a parent can love a child. I do believe that children need to be in a car seat and wear seatbelts. They are top heavy and could easily be killed in a crash. If you are going to bring children into this world, then you are going to have to take responsibility for their care. Being a parent is not easy, but it makes life interesting. It’s like riding a roller coaster, up one minute and down the next. What a ride.
    TF is a lot like you in not wanting the government to tell him what to do. He didn’t like them telling him that he had to wear a helmet when he rode his motorcycle, but he cared enough about himself to wear one. I don’t know how many times I have seen people ride motorcycles without helmets, and I think “Are you crazy”. I think they have a death wish. More later as I think this one out a little more.

    Comment by Lucy Stern — May 23, 2005 @ 7:25 pm
  2. Brad, as a parent of little ones, I deal with this daily. As you know, I’m a maximum-liberty kind of guy. However, I realize that minor children lack the resources to navigate this modern world. As Lucy said, the love one has for ones own kids is immeasurable. They are literally my primary concern, so for their protection, I limit their ‘freedoms’ until such time as they reach the age of majority.

    What to do with irresponsible parents is altogether more difficult. As it happens, my ex-wife is one such person. After our divorce, she bore a child from a ‘boyfriend’. As an alcoholic, she managed to have said child taken by the ‘State Protective Service’, due to alleged neglect. I got an education, as I was called as a character witness…in Family Court. I felt compelled to question the State’s attorney, in an attempt to determine with whom lay the burden of proof. Long story short…the allegation was made by an anonymous, yet suspect individual. An agreement was reached so that my ex was mandated to receive rehabilitation. The scary thing is that, without assistance, she would have all parental rights abrogated by the State…she’s not the brightest bulb, but that’s no excuse for government malfeasance.

    Comment by Robert — May 23, 2005 @ 10:17 pm
  3. Brad –

    One possible dividing line for the interplay between government and parents would be that of life. If we agree that the parent (guardian) is responsible for keeping the child alive until 18, then it is reasonable to have laws which hold parents accountable for taking actions which place the child in grave danger.

    This would also prevent the slope from slipping other places, like education or socialization, where the state REALLY doesn’t belong.

    Just a thought.

    Comment by Quincy — May 23, 2005 @ 11:11 pm
  4. Lucy,
    The alcohol thing was a hypothetical, I’m not going to start boozing my kids up at the age of 10. It was the best example I could come up with of a marginal case of teaching responsibility in a fairly non-traditional manner. But I do think you need to slowly let them get tastes of freedom before you send them off into the world, or they’re going to be shocked by it. I saw several people who once they got out of their parents house and went away to college, went nuts with their freedom and abused it. As for me, I’m like TF, in that when I would ride the motorcycle, I’d always wear a helmet (and gloves, and a jacket, and boots and full leathers if I was riding in the mountains), even though I’m completely against helmet laws. I try my best to make the right decisions for myself, with complete disregard for whether the law says I have to or not. I make those decisions as an informed individual, not as a subservient obeyer of government for government’s sake. When government always thinks they know best, sure, they’re going to be right part of the time. My point was that I’m going to do the right thing to raise my kids when I have them, but what do we do about the parents who don’t know any better?

    I hate to hear that. I have a friend right now who is going through a divorce, with a 4-year-old daughter. Right now his wife has moved out and is shacking up with some boyfriend. Neither the wife or boyfriend have any sense of a work ethic, and my friend is worried that his daughter is going to be raised thinking it’s okay to go through life hoping that everyone else will just “take care of you”. The worst thing is that with Illinois law, it’s nearly impossible for him to get primary custody, as he can’t really show that his daughter is truly in “danger”, even though letting someone grow up without being raised to be responsible is plenty dangerous.

    Is “keeping the child alive” the tipping point? After all, libertarianism requires a self-governing populace. Keeping a child fed and alive doesn’t do much to make them capable of self-governance. Neither do government schools, of course, and that’s what makes this such a hard problem.

    Comment by Brad Warbiany — May 24, 2005 @ 8:59 am
  5. Brad, Go back and read my comment, did I say the word alcohol anywhere? Nope, I was talking about car seats. But, since you brought it up you must think I am judging you for your drinking. I am not judging you. I will tell though that as a parent your children will judge you. They watch your every move. You and your wife will be setting examples. If you don’t want your children to be an excessive drinker, then don’t do it yourself. Are you going to be the kind of parent that says, “Do as I say, not as I do.” You want your children to think for themselves, but you also want to set good examples for them so that they can choose to live a good life. Believe it or not, what you teach now will follow down the line for generations to come. I can see that Robert and Quincy know this by the comments they made.
    You asked what you do with parents who are irresponsible. It’s hard to say. There is a family that I know that had 5 children. The step-dad worked on an oil rig out in the Gulf and was not home a lot. The mother of these children, let them go where ever they wanted. They were seen walking down the streets at all hours of the day and night. She let the children feed themselves and her house was absolutely filthy. Friends tried to bring the kids to church, but their shirts and pants were wrinkled, their hair unwashed and they were in general disrepair. Good people tried to help this family. I think the mother loved her children but she just didn’t take care of them. One day a neighbor found the two year old walking down the middle of the street, she was wearing a dirty diaper and her little bottom was raw. Children’s protective services had already been to the home, but this time they took the children away. They ranged in ages from about 8 months old to around 16 yrs old. She cried when they took them away, but she still hasn’t complied with the CPS in order to get the children back. Her house is still a mess and she hasn’t shown that she will change a thing if she gets them back. I don’t know what will happen to them. CPS kept the children in the area so they would not be taken out of the schools they were already in. (all that would do was disrupt theirs lives even more.) I have seen the older boy a few times and he now has his hair cut and looks much better. He doesn’t smile much and I know he is hurting inside. Those children will need a lot of tender loving to heal their hearts. It is sad.
    Brad, I think you will be a good dad. The fact that you are asking these questions tells me that you care. Be there for you children. Be a good example to them. Most of all, love them. There will be times when you will want to literally ring their little necks, but don’t do it. Believe it or not that is the difference between a parent and a child abuser. Even when we, as parents, have done all we can do to teach our children, they are going to make their own choices in life. Hopefully you will have given them a good base to work from.
    Another thing, you story title: Problem with children. It makes them look like a bother. Glass, half full.

    Comment by Lucy Stern — May 24, 2005 @ 10:53 am
  6. Lucy,
    My kids are going to be in car seats. When I’m asking these questions, I’m not asking “Should I put my kids into car seats?”, because I already know the answer is yes. It’s obvious to me that if I want my kids to be safe in a vehicle, that they should be in car seats. In fact, the questions I am raising here have nothing to do with how I should raise or protect my own kids. In my mind, once I have children, raising them right becomes job #1, and I plan to do it to the best of my ability.

    My question is, is it correct to legally require kids to be placed into car seats, and if so, what else is it correct to legally require? How should we structure our government and laws to ensure that the rights of children are protected? This is a question about the fundamental nature of how we should create a just government, that respects individual liberty but ensures that the rights of children, who are unable to protect themselves, are protected.

    The title, “Libertarianism: The problem of children”, is not meant to say that kids are a problem. It is meant to mean that the question of how to handle children in a legal sense is a problem that must be addressed in the wider philosophy of libertarianism.

    Comment by Brad Warbiany — May 24, 2005 @ 12:51 pm
  7. Brad, That’s a mouth full! I have no doubt that you will do whatever it takes to raise your children in a proper manner. I also have no idea how much “government” we need to protect the rights of our children. I know that they have gone overboard at times. I know that the law they are trying to pass that says we can not spank our children is crazy. There is a difference between spanking and beating. My dad spanked me ocassionally, and when I got a spanking I deserved it. I was not scarred from the experience. We had family rules and when you broke them there were conquences to those actions. Many times a spanking was not warranted, we would have privileges taken away.
    I don’t like the idea that the government can tell me that I can’t spank when needed. Now, if I beat my children, that’s a different story. That is a case where children need protection from out of control parents. Fraser would be a better person it ask about the Libertarian aspect of this.
    Brad, Sorry I misunderstood what you were after in you title, it just sounded so negative.

    Comment by Lucy Stern — May 24, 2005 @ 1:33 pm
  8. Lucy asked me to insert my opinion regarding the Libertarian aspect of raising children. I tend to thing that government has overstepped the line on several issues regarding individual decision making. I have mentioned some of them in various blogs or in the comment section of them. Seat belt laws rub me raw, I wear them because I think enough of myself to protect myself; the idea of having another enforce that law makes me boil. Ditto for motorcycle helmets, I wore them because you’d have to be an idiot not to, not because some legislator wrote it on paper. I would include most of the legislated “illegal drugs” as well as prescription drug laws as they remove individual choice and give it to others.

    When I was working as a police officer I had agreed to a 40 hour week for a set amount of pay. I was eligible to work extra jobs, either as a police officer or any other venture that was legal. Since I was a qualified self employed locksmith at the same time I was required to obtain an extra employment job permit through the chain of command. I complied with the requirement; but only after having exhausted the grievance procedures of the department. I have my original letter archived if anyone would be interested in reading layers of bureaucratic blood pressure elevating text.

    I should end my comment/rant and say that I have one suggestion for any parent, small children or all grown up. Let your children see you humble yourself in the attitude of prayer on a regular basis. Make sure that each member of your family hears your supplications and that you are concerned for them, calling each by name as you plead for their well being to the Lord. It is hard to be angry with your children for any length of time when you follow this advice. The same holds true for children being angry or rebellious toward a parent who has observed this. It does not matter how you love your children as long as they know they are loved; the rest will take care of itself.

    Comment by T. F. Stern — May 24, 2005 @ 6:22 pm
  9. “I thing, therefore I yam!” If I could learn to edit and spell, wow!

    Comment by T. F. Stern — May 24, 2005 @ 6:27 pm
  10. Brad:

    This post is very similar to a future post I plan on writing. I frame the question somewhat differently: What rights should children have?

    What sparked this idea for me is this debate I was having with a co-worker. He thought it was hypocritical that I believed that as an adult the government should not force me to wear a seatbelt but should force me to put my child in one (or a car seat until a certain age). My argument was that ‘I do no own my children, but I am responsible for their well-being. As an adult I am responsible for myself.’

    I think we have to look at this issue from an individual rights perspective. Because I do not own my children, I cannot lawfully harm them. Children are also individuals with individual rights. These individual rights are very hard to define however. Where do we draw the line? That is a question I am still not sure what the answers are.

    I think at the very minimum children have the right to safety, nourishment, healthcare, and education. The problem is who is supposed to provide them this if the parent does not step up? Unlike when adults don’t take care of themselves, we cannot apply the personal responsibility argument to a seven year old can we?

    That’s all I will say on this matter for now. I will explore these issues in much more depth in a future post and I hope you will leave a comment or two when I do. You certainly hit on many of the same problems I am having with this issue.

    Comment by Stephen Littau — May 25, 2005 @ 3:15 pm
  11. Stephen,
    I definitely look forward to reading, and hopefully having something to comment on, when you post. It sounds like you have all the same questions I’ve got… Hopefully we can find some answers!

    Comment by Brad Warbiany — May 25, 2005 @ 7:13 pm

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