In the ongoing debate over the limits of libertarianism, some important points about theory and philosophy have been written. When it comes to the art of thinking and pursuing truth, this is a welcome development. Arguing over what libertarianism is and isn’t pushes every thinker to reconsider why minor quibbles matter.
A recent missive by leading libertarian philosopher Stephan Kinsella hits on an important point for anyone exploring the limits of what a political philosophy should encompass. Titled “The Limits of Libertarianism?: A Dissenting View,” Kinsella criticizes Will Moyer for attempting to make libertarianism into more than a political philosophy. Moyer is of the belief that libertarianism doesn’t focus enough on “aesthetics” or private morality. He’s certainly correct about that; libertarianism isn’t supposed to be anything more than a philosophy concerning property allocations. That very notion has stirred a few bushes lately, and it’s unlikely the debate with end anytime soon.
Kinsella, being no novice to the theoretical argument game, keeps libertarianism within its traditional bounds. He makes an eloquent defense of the Rothbardian view that political philosophies are narrow in prescription. On one point in particular, Kinsella humbly admits to not having all the answers. Regarding the treatment of children, he writes that proper action is still “something libertarians are still trying to figure out.” He mentions libertarianism is still “a young discipline – about 50 years old” and that for such a young philosophy, “it is not embarrassing that it does not have everything figured out yet.”
Moyer hops on this open-ended conclusion on children’s rights and uses it to dismiss libertarianism. He writes that it’s “embarrassing that many libertarians have so little moral clarity on this issue” and asks how “many decades will it take before libertarianism can tell us it’s wrong to hit children?” To lump more on the pile of insults, Moyer asserts that it’s,
“an absolute embarrassment that libertarianism does not have moral clarity on whether or not attacking children is okay, especially when a cornerstone of the philosophy is non-aggression.”
But is it really an “absolute embarrassment” that a relatively young political philosophy isn’t exactly concrete about how children should be treated?
Unless you are a heartless sociopath, the thought of children being harmed should strike some emotional chord. Being small in size and intellect, the young among us have little means for self-defense. They must rely on their parents or guardians to live. Their intellectual capacities are not nearly developed enough to make a living in the modern economy.
The nature of children is fundamentally different from that of a fully rational adult. Taking this into account, leading libertarian thinkers have posited various theories regarding the treatment of kids. Murray Rothbard wrote that parents have no positive obligations to feed their offspring because forcing them to do so violates their rights. Walter Block theorized that since children aren’t fully endowed with reasoning capabilities, they don’t necessarily constitute adults and therefore don’t enjoy the same rights as everyone else. Block is even a purveyor of the idea that children can be “owned” partially by their parents through guardianship rights until they come of age and leave the home. This means that children can sometimes be harmed for their own betterment.
To anyone who values life, liberty, and property, these ideas might seem atrocious. As human beings, the majority of us are disgusted when hearing about brutal harm inflicted upon children. Pictures of emaciated babies being taken away from parents are just as disheartening. Why there is a need to harm the most defenseless in society is a question that can’t be answered. Some people just do.
The unorthodox approach some libertarians take towards children can be a turnoff for the larger public. But as Kinsella points out, libertarianism is indeed a young philosophy. It has its roots in various ideal such as Lockean natural rights, the Scottish Enlightenment, and Thomistic rationality. Yet, the fully coherent philosophy known as libertarianism wasn’t fledged out until the mid-20th century. It has roots that go all the way back to Aristotle, but has only been applied recently in what we consider the modern world.
Expecting every problem to have a straightforward answer in the course of around six decades is absurd. How to treat children from a legal perspective isn’t the same as dealing a shoplifter. If you believe rationality and free will are what set humans apart from other beings on the planet, then children are a special case. They aren’t fully in tune with their potential, but shouldn’t be treated like simple animals. Even from a non-libertarian perspective, the notion that all human life, no matter size or age, should be treated with dignity isn’t controversial. As a moral theory, it can somewhat inform political views but shouldn’t get in the way of developing an objective ethic.
For children, it’s not embarrassing to admit that everything isn’t quite figured out. It’s easy to say kids should be fed, clothed, and cared for. It’s harder to determine when the young truly become mature, and if it’s permissible to use force to keep an abandoned child alive. The first is a grey area that depends on the individual intelligence of the person. The second is a contradiction to liberty. This is why libertarians either slip up or offer radical-sounding theories on children’s rights.
It’s hard to see why any of this makes libertarianism look foolish. Wise men know what they don’t know and admit it. Fools act like they know everything, even though such a feat is impossible. We’re never going to have it all figured out. There’s a reason we don’t fully understand the brain and why it functions. Written on Apollo’s temple at Delphi are two phrases with ancient meaning: “know thyself’ and “nothing in excess.” As Donald Kagan writes, these were a warning “to know your own limitations as a fallible mortal and exercise moderation.” Even the ancient Greeks recognized that knowledge isn’t always readily available – that everything we wish to know might not be knowable. Coming to the truth of all things means recognizing our own limits.
At the end of the day, we only do the best we can with the talents afforded to us. That means using reason to find truths that don’t contradict each other. So is it really that depraved to take it slow and easy with the issue of children’s rights?
Moyer criticizes libertarians for being less than certain on all the rights afforded to the young. But even so, there is no set method to raising a child. There is no objective framework from which to raise and nurture your offspring. There are plenty of books out there offering theories on how to raise a smart, athletic, and socially-acceptable child. Sometimes it’s not enough; that’s why there is always room for individual treatment. If basic parenting is still up in the air, it’s hard to see why a political philosophy needs to have all the answers now.
Libertarians still have a lot to think about regarding the treatment of children. Theorist Stefan Molyneux is advancing the debate with his position on the moral obligations owed to children. He is only one of a few who are trying to hammer things out. Whether Molyneux is right – or someone else comes along with a radically coherent and consistent theory on children’s rights – remains to be seen. But sometimes admitting ignorance is the smartest thing someone can do.