NOTE TO SELF, BASED ON QUAKER TESTIMONIES OF INTEGRITY, SIMPLICITY, PEACE, EQUALITY, AND COMMUNITY:

1. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul, and your neighbor as yourself.
2. Do what you say, say what you think, think what is true.
3. Subtract superfluities from your life, speech, desires and thoughts.
4. Don't initiate aggression against the persons or property of others, nor support people who do, including the people who "constitute" the government.
5. Respect life and natural law.
6. All people are endowed by their Creator with equal and inalienable rights to the earth and to the fruits of their own labor, and a "Citizen's Dividend" funded by a "Single Tax" on the unimproved value of land and other natural resources would be the fairest way to protect these rights.

For supporting materials, see the Archive and the Recommended Reading and Videos section at the bottom of this page.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Court TV's "13th Juror Question" of the Day

In the context of its coverage this morning of a criminal trial of parents accused of causing the death of their young son through child abuse (the parents admit to physically disciplining their son but claim the death was caused by a skin infection), Court TV asked its audience "Should the government determine whether and to what extent parents may physically discipline their children?" [My memory and transcription of the question is not exact but close.]

This is an important question from a libertarian perspective. Benjamin Tucker, the turn-of-the-century editor and publisher of the journal Liberty, who was in many other ways a good thinker and is a major influence on many left libertarians, infamously argued that a child (at least until reaching the age of being able to contract and provide for himself) is the property of his mother and the mother therefore had the right to throw her child into a fire (though he did say that "it is highly probable that I would interfere in such a case" -- what a guy!).

On the other hand, answering Court TV's question in the affirmative brings us to the brink of many "slippery slopes": If the principle is that the government may prevent and punish harm caused by parents to their children and determine what constitutes "harm," does this not provide a basis for government determining that homeschooling and thereby depriving a child of public education harms the child, or determining that even grounding the child or sending him to his room (let alone spanking him for punching his little sister in the eye) constitutes harm?

My own view (which to non-libertarians may seem utterly uncontroversial) is that we have the right and sometimes the duty to stand up not only for our own rights but also the rights of others, especially those not in a position to assert their own rights; that obviously children have rights independently of their parents; and that even animals have certain rights. I agree with Thomas Paine in his The Age of Reason, "That the moral duty of man consists in imitating the moral goodness and beneficence of God manifested in the creation towards all his creatures. That seeing as we daily do the goodness of God to all men, it is an example calling upon all men to practise the same towards each other; and, consequently, that every thing of persecution and revenge between man and man, and every thing of cruelty to animals, is a violation of moral duty."

When it comes to the relationship and potential conflict between the rights of children on the one hand and the rights of their parents to direct their upbringing on the other (which I believe are primarily derived from and determined by their duties towards their children), things are complex and uncertain, and to avoid error it is right and proper that the limits of those respective rights be determined by the judgment of the community (which for better or worse is assumed to be reflected in the judgment of the government), rather than be left solely to the judgment of any individual or pair of individuals (including the child's parents). From that perspective, an undue emphasis on "parental rights" appears misplaced, since about the only parental right I can think of off the top of my head that is not derived from parental duties is the right to expect help around the house (or the farm, as the case may be). On the other hand, it makes sense to think in terms of parental rights insofar as the very complexity and uncertainty mentioned above argues for deference (within the limits established by the community) to the judgments of the people most directly involved in the upbringing of their children, and whose primary duty it is to provide for their moral and physical well-being.

These reflections lead to no definitive absolutes. But it is nevertheless important for the community to protect the rights of children by setting some limits, and equally important for the community in setting such limits to recognize its own fallibility concerning differing philosophies about child-rearing. The community should set the limits for parental conduct at things that are obviously and excessively cruel, obviously counter-productive, and/or obviously likely to lead to permanent harm (including withholding important medical care because of religious beliefs). My own view is that a parent should never take down a child's pants and spank him with a belt, and it would not strike me as beyond the pale if a community outlawed such parental conduct. On the other hand, it would strike me as outrageous if a community outlawed all corporal punishment, even though by my lights I think such punishment should rarely if ever be used.

These issues appear particularly important to me because theoretical anarchism is at the heart of my libertarianism (see my post "Why be a libertarian?"), and anarchism at first glance does not seem to provide for the protection of the rights of children and others who are not in a position to assert their own rights. In an anarchist society personal security and corrective justice would be provided by private protection agencies and mutual protection societies, less preferably by a group of friends and neighbors formed in response to a particular threat or injustice, and if necessary and feasible by self-help. A child obviously would not be able directly to avail himself of any of those means of protection. Any sensible mutual protection society, however, formed say at the neighborhood level, would provide for what happens when an individual becomes aware of child abuse in a neighbor's home and exercises his right or duty to stand up for that child's rights, and would protect and support that individual's intervention. More specifically, it would likely provide for the intervention of the society as a whole when such abuse is brought to its attention, to preclude the neighbor of the child from taking matters into his own hands with potentially violent results. On the other hand, the written policies of a respectable and viable private protection agency, like today's modern cost-conscious insurance agency, would not protect its clients from the consequences of any damned thing the client might do, and certainly not from the consequences of abusing a child (though it would of course ensure that due process is followed).

Incidentally, hearkening back to Tucker's view that an unemancipated child is the property of the mother, libertarianism per se has nothing to say about abortion, contrary to common perception. I was heartened (though this doesn't necessarily say anything about my own views on the legality of abortion) to see this admitted recently by Brian Doherty (who is generally a socially-liberal libertarian) of Reason Magazine:

"[Ron] Paul does, though, believe some things many libertarians don't, and some libertarians think these issues are so important that his libertarian credentials should be revoked. For example, he'd like to eliminate Roe v. Wade and would be happy to allow states and localities to ban abortion -- and personally considers abortion a moral crime. But this position, however hard to explain to one's liberal friends who ask a libertarian about this Ron Paul guy, doesn't place him outside the libertarian pale. If you see a living human fetus as a human life the same in morally significant respects as any born human, then supporting a ban on it is as consistent with libertarianism as laws against murder."