I read somewhere, ages ago, that the best test of a libertarian, if they are willing to follow through with their selfish-individualist and noeliberal thinking, is whether or not they are happy with the idea of there being a free market in human babies.
I ran across this at the Bewilderness the other day:
Unfortunately, a brief search couldn’t find the source of that specific quote, but I did find the original book ‘The Ethics of Liberty’ by Murry Rothbard (I have read chapter 14):
Applying our theory to parents and children, this means that a parent does not have the right to aggress against his children, but also that the parent should not have a legal obligation to feed, clothe, or educate his children, since such obligations would entail positive acts coerced upon the parent and depriving the parent of his rights. The parent therefore may not murder or mutilate his child, and the law properly outlaws a parent from doing so. But the parent should have the legal right not to feed the child, i.e., to allow it to die. The law, therefore, may not properly compel the parent to feed a child or to keep it alive. (Again, whether or not a parent has a moral rather than a legally enforceable obligation to keep his child alive is a completely separate question.) This rule allows us to solve such vexing questions as: should a parent have the right to allow a deformed baby to die (e.g., by not feeding it)? The answer is of course yes, following a fortiori from the larger right to allow any baby, whether deformed or not, to die. (Though, as we shall see below, in a libertarian society the existence of a free baby market will bring such “neglect” down to a minimum.)
But when are we to say that this parental trustee jurisdiction over children shall come to an end? Surely any particular age (21,18, or whatever) can only be completely arbitrary. The clue to the solution of this thorny question lies in the parental property rights in their home. For the child has his full rights of self-ownership when he demonstrates that he has them in nature — in short, when he leaves or “runs away” from home. Regardless of his age, we must grant to every child the absolute right to runaway and to find new foster parents who will voluntarily adopt him, or to try to exist on his own. Parents may try to persuade the runaway child to return, but it is totally impermissible enslavement and an aggression upon his right of self-ownership for them to use force to compel him to return. The absolute right to run away is the child’s ultimate expression of his right of self-ownership, regardless of age.
Now if a parent may own his child (within the framework of non-aggression and runaway-freedom), then he may also transfer that ownership to someone else. He may give the child out for adoption, or he may sell the rights to the child in a voluntary contract. In short, we must face the fact that the purely free society will have a flourishing free market in children. Superficially, this sounds monstrous and inhuman. But closer thought will reveal the superior humanism of such a market. For we must realize that there is a market for children now, but that since the government prohibits sale of children at a price, the parents may now only give their children away to a licensed adoption agency free of charge. This means that we now indeed have a child-market, but that the government enforces a maximum price control of zero, and restricts the market to a few privileged and therefore monopolistic agencies. The result has been a typical market where the price of the commodity is held by government far below the free-market price: an enormous “shortage” of the good. The demand for babies and children is usually far greater than the supply, and hence we see daily tragedies of adults denied the joys of adopting children by prying and tyrannical adoption agencies. In fact, we find a large unsatisfied demand by adults and couples for children, along with a large number of surplus and unwanted babies neglected or maltreated by their parents. Allowing a free market in children would eliminate this imbalance, and would allow for an allocation of babies and children away from parents who dislike or do not care for their children, and toward foster parents who deeply desire such children. Everyone involved: the natural parents, the children, and the foster parents purchasing the children, would be better off in this sort of society.
Some of this may sound good, superficially, but, it ignores why a child might run-away; a child escaping intolerable abuse has not proven themselves capable of ‘existing on their own’, they are acting out of desperation, and, in the real world, are most likely to be exposing themselves to more abuse. The scenario Rothbard describes above bears no resemblance to the real world, as if any 12-year-old can simply leave home and move in the same day with a nice new foster family who will definitely want them; or perhaps the 12-year-old can go to a hotel to tide themselves over until they can find a flat to rent? Rothbard, surprise surprise, is in favour of child labour, so presumably our putative 12-year-old can find a well paying job, just like that, and they won’t have to resort to survival prostitution, sorry ~juvenile sex work~ to survive economically (Rothbard is also against compulsory education, so this 12-year-old could have ‘chosen’ to be illiterate).
Rothbard’s ideas ignore that there is only a demand (in the west) for healthy white babies, very few potential adoptive parents actively want an older child, especially not one with psychological problems caused by abuse or neglect (presumably, under Rothbard’s system, all disabled babies will be left to die after birth, so how to place disabled children with a new family won’t be a problem). It also ignores that abusive parents may not actually want to give up their children, they may want to keep them to carry on abusing them. A father who is raping his 12-year-old girl or boy, isn’t going to let her/him run away to a nice new foster family – and this assumes that these potential foster parents are all benign themselves, and not just looking for a child to abuse. Rothbard does say that forcing a child to stay is a crime against that child, but he also reinforces the privacy of the family against state interference, and says nothing practical about how such abuse might be detected.
Rothbard also ignores cases of neglect that are not due to the sadism of the parent, but due to poverty or the ill health of the parent. Rothbard’s system would not remove the child from a parent who couldn’t afford to feed them, but it would leave a loving parent with only the options of watching their child starve, or selling them to better-off adults (there is, obviously, no social safety net in this system to help keep poor families together).
Rothbard states that the parental ownership of the child does not extend to the right to torture or mutilate that child, but we know, out here in the real world, that such abuse is carried out in secret, in the privacy and isolation of the family, privacy and isolation that Rothbard reinforces with his libertarian emphasis on property.
He does criticise the fact that children were not (at the time of his writing) fully protected from adult violence:
until recent years, the parents were rendered immune by court decisions from ordinary tort liability in physically aggressing against their children—fortunately, this is now being remedied
But with no acknowledgement of the real-world difficulties small children have in standing up to their parents in any way; cases occurring this year in the UK demonstrate the powerlessness and helplessness of children in the face of adult aggression, and Rothbard also ignores the fact that when children do speak out, they are often disbelieved.
Rothbard then goes on to say:
On the other hand, the two other grounds for seizing children from their parents, both coming under the broad rubric of “child neglect,” clearly violate parental rights. These are: failure to provide children with the “proper” food, shelter, medical care, or education; and failure to provide children with a “fit environment.” It should be clear that both categories, and especially the latter, are vague enough to provide an excuse for the State to seize almost any children, since it is up to the State to define what is “proper” and “fit.” Equally vague are other, corollary, standards allowing the State to seize children whose “optimal development” is not being promoted by the parents, or where the “best interests” of the child (again, all defined by the State) are promoted thereby.
Followed by some cherry-picked examples of children being taken away from their parents for reasons Rothbard finds spurious. The reasons may well have been spurious, and an infringement of the parents rights, but the point is that Rothbard does not think the state should interfere at all in how a parent raises their child, unless they are actively assaulting them – remember, Rothbard doesn’t think that parents are under any legal obligation to feed their children, and in one of the examples he cites, a child was being used to hand out religious literature, strongly implying that Rothbard has no problem with parents using their children as unpaid labourers.
An abused three-year-old does not necessarily have the capacity to call the police, or a lawyer, when they are being abused. If their parent, the person they are entirely reliant upon, and who sets the baseline standards for ‘normality’, is telling them that they are bad and they deserve to be hurt, that three year will likely believe them. If a father is sexually abusing his three-year-old, and tells them that this is what daddies do to show how much they love their child, the child may believe them. Rothbard seems to have no understanding at all of the sheer vulnerability of very small children.
Rothbard is in favour of child labour, and sees education as oppressive. There is, of course, vast room for improvement in the education systems of the western world, and he does make some good points about how children who cannot fit into the mainstream system are criminalised, but it still ignores the vulnerabilities of children. Employers like child labourers because they are easier to control and exploit, and can be paid less (Rothbard, is, naturally, against a ‘living wage’ as being coercive to employers).
The rights of children, even more than those of parents, have been systematically invaded by the state. Compulsory school attendance laws, endemic in the United States since the turn of this century, force children either into public schools or into private schools officially approved by the state. Supposedly “humanitarian” child labor laws have systematically forcibly prevented children from entering the labor force, thereby privileging their adult competitors. Forcibly prevented from working and earning a living, and forced into schools which they often dislike or are not suited for, children often become “truants,” a charge used by the state to corral them into penal institutions in the name of “reform” schools, where children are in effect imprisoned for actions or non-actions that would never be considered “crimes” if committed by adults.
It has, indeed, been estimated that from one-quarter to one-half of “juvenile delinquents” currently incarcerated by the state did not commit acts that would be considered crimes if committed by adults (i.e., aggression against person and property). The “crimes” of these children were in exercising their freedom in ways disliked by the minions of the state: truancy “incorrigibility,” running away. Between the sexes, it is particularly girl children who are jailed in this way for “immoral” rather than truly criminal actions. The percentage of girls jailed for immorality (“waywardness,” sexual relations) rather than for genuine crimes ranges from 50 to over 80 percent.
Again, Rothbard makes some very good criticisms of the juvenile criminal justice system, as it existed, for real, in the USA up until the 1980s when the book was published, but that doesn’t automatically make his libertarian solutions the right ones.
There is something dishonest about referring to any intervention in the life of a child as ‘imprisonment’ – babies and toddlers are simply incapable of taking care of their basic needs, and young children are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse from malign adults when they are ‘freed’ to fend for themselves on the street. It is also dishonest to treat this as a polarised, all-or-nothing issue: if you’re not in favor of child workers competing with adults in a neoliberal anarcha-capitalist free market, that means you want 15-year-old girls to be locket up for being sexually active (I think Laura Agustin must be a fan of Rothbard!). There is, obviously, much room for improvement in the way that society treats children, but giving parents the freedom to starve them until they run away to a nice new foster home (that absolutely won’t be exploitative either, because the world is so cleanly cut into adults who ‘have’ children, but don’t want them, and those who would be absolutely wonderful parents, but just can’t have children – ever considered that such adults might not have turned out well if they’d been able to have their own children in the first place?) is not the solution.