Libertarianism: The Problem of Children

Over a year ago, when I was still a new blogger, I posted this entry at The Unrepentant Individual. And I still don’t have an answer for it. Can anyone help me out?


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. There’s a reason that seat belts are worn in cars and that is to try and prevent terrible things from happening if someone is in a car accident. But, there are too many car accidents that happen in this world, some of which are not the person’s fault. That’s why people can easily find a Car Accident Lawyer if needs be. However, 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. Car seats are there for a reason though, they provide better safety for your child. If you are looking for suggests for car seats then it might be worthwhile checking out something like this booster car seat. But going back to the law 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?

  • Greg Clark

    I can’t recall an article on Kid Lib since the 70s but two people I would ask would be Sheldon Richman of FEE and Wendy McElroy of ISIL. I’m sure either could point you toward some libertarian comment on this subject. Sheldon wrote a book on education (his three children were homeschooled) and Wendy is a noted individualist feminist.

  • Brock

    Given that auto accidents are the leading cause of child death, isn’t worrying about someone else strapping their kid in kind of like mandating safety glasses when playing Russian roulette? It seems a false concern for the purposes of erecting a straw man; actual advocacy “for the good of the children” would be for laws prohibiting kids from motor vehicles altogether. Anything less is admission that there is some “acceptable” level of risk.

    Everyone has their own level of risk tolerance. Further, every parent has three levels of risk tolerance: 1) the level of risk to which they are willing to subject an unrelated or unknown child, 2) the level of risk to which they are willing to subject a related or known child and, 3) the level of risk to which they are willing to subject their own child. Because the parent also has a personal risk tolerance level, I would argue that they would be slightly more risk averse with a related or known child than they would be with their own. Their personal risk is higher when subjecting children to risk where personal liability could be leveled against them.

    Certainly, though, parents will be least risk averse when it comes to children that they are not related to or do not know. In this case, they and their’s are not personally at risk, therefore, they cannot be less risk tolerant than they are with their own children. The problem with seat belt, car seat, flammable pajama, etc. laws is that they START with the highest level of risk tolerance a parent could have (that of the unknown and unrelated child) and END as a compromise between that level of risk tolerance and competing factions with even higher levels of risk tolerance.

    The resulting “acceptable” risk level codified in law, then, is only applicable to parents whose risk tolerance for their own children is higher than the “acceptable” level. The law doesn’t change their risk tolerance, rather, it adds risk to the undesired behavior (the risk of receiving a citation for not belting the kids in). No matter the consequences, however, there will always exist some parents (Brittney, Michael Jackson) whose risk tolerance for their own and known children is so high that the total risk will still not induce them to belt in the kids. In practice, then, the law also does not apply to the parents with the HIGHEST risk tolerance.

    In other words, the law will ONLY affect the behavior of parents whose total risk tolerance is just higher than that which would lead them to belt in the kids in the absence of the law. Any cost-benefit analysis, then, can only include the benefit of those parents accomplishing the desired behavior and MUST include the total cost of education/enforcement as well as loss of liberty and the opportunity cost of other means of getting this particular subset of parents to belt in the kids.

    I don’t think it would be hard to show that the same benefits could be realized through less-costly ways (public service announcements, for example) with NO attendant loss of liberty. I would go so far as to say GREATER benefits could easily be realized through private/private partnerships between auto manufacturers (driven by the desire for better highway safety ratings) and the Parents for Belting In The Kids Council (driven by the incessant need to nanny others). Given the possibility of equal or greater benefit through wholly nonrestrictive means, the law is merely an expedient, not an efficient or necessarily the most effective means.

  • Pingback: Below The Beltway » Blog Archive » At The Liberty Papers()

  • Pingback: Private School Web » Blog Archive » Prison once stood where park now is()

  • VRB

    When you have children, I think you will know when the government has crossed the line.
    I think it is hard to have a consistent view when the courts step in. The case Doug described, I think the parents along with the child had a right to refuse treatment. On the other hand, when parents were prosecuted, because their children had died from measles, I was on the side of the government. They had failed to provide any care based on their religious belief, that they should only pray and not take any medication. I thought they could have prevented the deaths, even without medication. They could have done other things, like try to break the fever by putting the children in tepid water, give them lots of fluids and other basic care.
    I also don’t think you should think of children in the context of political philosophy.

  • Brad Warbiany


    You point out the marginal case well. My question goes beyond changing behavior, though, it goes to the question of when high risk tolerance becomes neglect, and whether society has any obligation to rescue the kid from neglectful parents.

    If a parent believes in spanking, we don’t take the child away from the parents. If the parents are beating their children abusively, we do. There is a point at which the parent is a danger to the successful development of a child, and the child should not have to pay for the parent’s sins.

    To a statist, there’s nothing inconsistent here. The state knows best, and when they believe you are over the line, they take your child. But to a libertarian, who doesn’t believe the state knows best, this is inconsistent.

  • Brock

    I would say that not only does society have the obligation to rescue the kid, you would be hard pressed to pay society not to! But, abuse is a totally different ballgame – it’s an intentional act of assault vs. a question of risk tolerance (exactly what you just said, I just had to come to the same conclusion). In all but the most dedicated of anarchist/free market minds, there is the recognition that government is a necessary evil specifically to provide for defense of the defenseless and set the basic rules of fair trade.

    The answer to this question may be as simple as deleting child protective services. My tired, not well thought-out example of how this could work:

    Say, for example, a teacher noticed tell-tale signs of child abuse. He could report his observations to the school’s or school’s consortium’s family advocacy office. That office could offer a deal to the parents: cooperate with a private investigation and participate in counseling/courses/separation/whatever or have the office notify the police and let the state do an investigation and criminal prosecution (assault/battery?).

    It’s a crude example with more holes than Swiss cheese, but my sense is it would be a fairer, more responsive system than we have now, and still be consistent with a libertarian philosophy. The contract for the school’s services would clearly delineate the parent’s responsibility to participate in the process, the school would have to move quickly to avoid liability, yet, the school would also have to treat the parents as the people they are – customers.

    The parent who is guilty of abuse will certainly participate in the entirely free-market process. Those who are not guilty may choose to participate in that process if they wish to retain the school’s services, or let the state investigate and contract for a different school’s services.

    That’s just one example of what might work. Perhaps a contract lawyer could chime in, but I would imagine that ALL contracts (phone, inter-tube, mortgage) would eventually have boilerplate language requiring parents to be covered by some sort of “family advocacy program” in the absence of child protective services. Why? Go back to my first sentence. Society WILL rescue the child.

  • VRB

    Do you think that the abusers will not be hostile to this or any system? Meanwhile what happens to the child? What Brock has desribed is just as much of a bureaucracy as the government’s. If society WAS recusing children they would be doing it now, regardless of the child protective systems that are in place now. In the example I gave, the government only became involved, after the children were dead.

    I don’t see altruism or compassion as a libertarian ideal, I think that comes from a moral system. Raising children is a collective endeavor, even if it only involves another parent. In order for a child to grow up an become a responsible member in that society, that society has to be such; that anywhere the child might be, there are consistent boundaries and expectations.

  • Brad Warbiany


    Your suggestion is definitely one to look into… Perhaps the only libertarian answer is that if the childs rights can be shown to be violated, then the parents should be prosecuted for doing so.

    The corollary to this is the “caretaker” angle. For example, if I were in the hospital, and a doctor causes me harm by his neglect, he can be held up for civil (and I think criminal) prosecution. While I don’t know how easy it would be to apply that sort of statute towards child-rearing, I could see it solving most of the problem.

    Where we still run into a problem is the case VRB brought up from one of Doug’s recent posts. Parents who are Christian Scientists are withholding medical treatment for their kids’ medical problems, thinking that prayer will solve it. I’d contend that this is a case where the neglect statutes could be applied, but it will likely come down to what a jury thinks. I guess there’s always a gray area somewhere, but I wonder just how wide that gray area might be?

    If you flesh this out at all on your blog, Brock, feel free to send the link. I’d love to hear it. FYI, a bloody mary (or three) makes a great breakfast :-)

  • Brock

    “I’d love to hear it.”

    Ha! So would I, but I didn’t mean to get down into the weeds, just give an example of a possible solution. The problem with doing that is that the answer always begs more questions. I’d rather return to your top-level questions.

    It occurs to me that your questions could be rephrased to shift the burden of proof of your original inquiry.

    I’ll spare the proofs and offer these as Given:
    a) a statuatory construct could not possibly encompass all the circumstances where rational individuals could reasonably disagree as to what constitutes abuse (one-size-fits-all tyranny);
    b) a government bureaucracy depends on the “right” people being in place to excercise circumstantial judgement, and;
    c) a free market could produce mechanisms which do not suffer from a) or b);

    How can Statists reconcile the LACK of protection afforded to parents and children under a governmental “solution”?

  • VRB

    What incentive would a free market derive to produce any mechanisms?

  • Brad Warbiany

    In one sense, fear. Say, for example, we have a situation that is very common these days, where there’s a single parent and a second parent without custody.

    The child ends up in the hospital due to the custodial parent. The non-custodial parent does some investigation, finding that the teacher wrote an email to the principal about this child, but the principal decided not to get involved. The non-custodial parent sues the school.

    A few cases like that, and schools will start being proactive. Fear of a lawsuit is a very strong incentive.

  • Brock

    And, for the only other, profit. Think in terms of insurance policies for families.

  • IndianCowboy

    I’ve been playing with this problem for almost a year now (ever since I wrote On Freedom back in like November I think).

    I still don’t have a solution I like. I do have a good stopgap WRT social welfare and subsidized babymaking, but nothing else.

  • Joshua Zachariah

    I think we have to remember that there is no perfect way you can handle this and we don’t live in a perfect world. I don’t think we should have mandatory laws in most situations. In other words there shouldn’t be any special laws for certain situations. Sure a required seatbelt law may seem harmless but it is no different than the state telling you how to raise your child. The state should only empower the parents to have control over their kids and then it will be up to the parents to educate and protect their kids from dangers. I’m sure most parents will raise their kids in a way that we would approve. But yes, there will always be those few parents that “neglect” and even “abuse” their kids. But it wouldn’t be that different compared to right now even if we were to take away mandatory seat belt laws for minors. There shouldn’t be any special laws on how you raise your kids (ie mandatory schooling, seat belt laws, ect.). The only laws against child abuse we can make is if the parents are beating their kids inhumanly. Other than that there is not much we can do. Remember though most parents will raise their kids fine.

    Since we are on the topic, what about the age of major? What should the legal age be? Most countries have it at 18. The higher extreme would be 21 years and the lower extreme would be 15. As a libertarian I would pick the lower extreme as it guarantees more freedom to choose.