Saturday, January 12, 2019

Constructing a Libertarian “Children’s Bill of Rights”

At least the beginnings of one.  A difficult task – what rights does the child have under the non-aggression principle?  Of course, a child has many of the same rights as the adult – not to be murdered, not to have his stuff stolen, etc.  The difficulty comes in the relationship between parent and child.  Michael Rozeff offers a starting point on this topic:

In the Ethics of Liberty, Murray Rothbard argued that parents have no legal obligation to feed their children that can be derived from the theory of rights of self-ownership.

This inference is, I believe, faulty.

Rothbard suggests that having to feed the child is a positive obligation, and libertarian theory holds no room for such an obligation.  I, of course, disagree with Rothbard on this issue of feeding a child, and I also disagree regarding positive obligations…well, not exactly, but bear with me.

The more specific point: I find it perfectly consistent with libertarian theory to hold specific performance clauses in contracts as valid and enforceable.  There are many libertarians who do not: in their view, the only valid and enforceable contract is a contract for an exchange of property.  I have written on this before – a post based on Walter Block’s views on this matter, where Walter also agrees as to the enforceability of a specific performance contract.

Rozeff concurs, albeit not using the phrase specific performance.  When dealing with a way out of this issue of positive obligations vs. starving a child, he offers:

The way out is through the idea of self-limiting one’s rights by willingly choosing positions of responsibility, such that abdicating that responsibility causes aggression.

One can commit to perform an act – in fact be obligated to perform an act – based on one’s voluntary prior action.  Call it voluntarily taking on responsibility – after which one is obliged to fulfill the responsibility.  Of course, under the NAP, one is free to take on responsibility; if another depends on your fulfilling this duty – even to the point of life or death – well, they have the right to hold you to this duty.

The parents limited their own rights when they made the child and brought it into this world.

When does this obligation end?  It is easy to say that it ends when the child reaches adulthood.  But when is that?  Rozeff offers an answer (although in a slightly different context):

The obligation may be understood by custom, common sense or by formal legal code.

There can be no one uniform answer – each child is different, as is every parent.  But society has developed a general understanding of this matter, and the understanding has been free to evolve over time – or at least would be absent any laws.

Now…does the parent also have an obligation to feed the mind of the child?  To train the child in ways that will make him acceptable to society?  Or is keeping the child in a cage – fed, for sure, but in a cage nonetheless – sufficient to have fulfilled one’s obligation?

Look, it wasn’t the child’s choice to come into this world.  Whoever brought him to the world inherently carries a responsibility – one voluntarily accepted: to prepare the child to live properly in it.


One can apply this same thinking to abortion, although some would argue that there was no child with which to make a deal when John and Jane were doing their thing.  I have, of course, dealt with this also – a reward contract, which is also a type of specific performance contract, is a perfectly valid tool within the libertarian toolkit. 

The individual who claims the reward need not have been known to the individual offering the reward; he need not even have been alive…or conceived at the time the reward was offered.


  1. "The way out is through the idea of self-limiting one’s rights by willingly choosing positions of responsibility, such that abdicating that responsibility causes aggression."

    Limiting one's own rights for the sake of another is called love. Good law is fulfilled in the statement, love one another. I think I read that somewhere once.

  2. And again, "Now…does the parent also have an obligation to feed the mind of the child?"

    The wisest man of all said this, "He who withholds his rod hates his son, But he who loves him disciplines him diligently." The idea matches up with my previous comment.

  3. The idea that some "libertarians" want to reject consequences of their own actions is so baffling to me that I would suspect mental problems to be the cause of this particular notion.

    1. Rien, I must say I have never understood this either. I don't even understand how libertarians such as these miss the fact that rejecting the consequences of one's own actions will result in pretty much the opposite of a free society.

  4. Curious of your reaction to this incomplete thought:

    I don't use rights to arrive at the NAP, such as "the right to not be murdered." In the Bible, I don't see a right to not be murdered or stolen from. Rather, I am commanded to avoid sin. It is a sin to aggress upon others. But nowhere does my religion say I have the right to a peaceful and free life void of others aggressing upon me (just that they are sinning in doing so).

    And with that, you have the NAP with a more moral society. (Roughly speaking)

    1. My reaction will be about as incomplete. I am working through a post on natural law taken from Feser's book; in this section, Feser writes the following:

      "And every human being has a natural right to life, which can be lost only in the way other rights (such as the right to liberty) can be lost, viz. by committing a serious crime."

      My natural rights are only derived from the natural law that binds all men. I do have the right not to be murdered, based on the law that binds you from murdering me. I think it also follows that I have no “rights” that are NOT derived from the natural law that binds all men.

    2. "That great political idea, sanctifying freedom and consecrating it to God, teaching men to treasure the liberties of others as their own, and to defend them for the love of justice and charity, more than as a claim of right, has been the soul of what is great and good in the progress of the last two hundred years." - Lord Acton

  5. "Now…does the parent also have an obligation to feed the mind of the child? To train the child in ways that will make him acceptable to society? Or is keeping the child in a cage – fed, for sure, but in a cage nonetheless – sufficient to have fulfilled one’s obligation?"

    They do IMO, but is that obligation to the child or to society? If the child grows up and can’t support itself, are the parents liable to the child-now-adult? If it becomes a thief or murderer, do they share the liability with the child-now-adult for the harm it causes?

    My understanding of libertarian law is that intent, ignorance and bad luck do not alter liability for harm. So the parents seem to be facing enormous potential liabilities for events that may well be beyond their control. I’m trying to place this within the boundaries of libertarian theory, and think it falls short.

    Incidentally, I do like your/Rozeff’s approach to this, especially the reward contract concept.

    1. Jeff, I think this is where custom and tradition will have to step in; I don't see a clear cut answer based on the NAP.

      The NAP cannot even answer when a minor enters maturity, let alone answer if / when / how liability transfers from parent to child.

  6. So. Who established that I am not to bring violence on another for my benefit and the benefit of all.
    Is the requirement that I refrain from, Fill-in-the-blnak not a positive law?
    Genghis Khan, son of Khabul Khan, son of Ambaghai, son of Hotula Khan.
    (just in case, Genghis Khan didnot really make thae statement)

  7. A book that has helped me flesh out my thinking on children is _Teen 2.0_ by Robert Epstein.

    He is coming at it from the point of view of a psychologist but I found that his conclusions meshed very well with libertarian positions on, e.g., child labor.


  8. Walter Block
    So if A takes B for boat ride, he cannot just through him off the boat. Because A willingly let him on. But if B hides in a closet in A’s boat, A would have a right to through him off – even in the middle of the Atlantic where he will certainly die. This is because A did not willingly let him on, and he is not obligated to let B use his property (his boat). So my question is, how is this moral?

    Looks like some movement in the right direction, from what is a NAP violation to what is the proper punishment.

    1. I find it movement in the right direction; I would like to see this applied to abortion - even evictionism.

  9. "When does this obligation end? It is easy to say that it ends when the child reaches adulthood. But when is that?"

    This is an interesting question for libertarians. It's easy for the statists: just have the state pick an age and arrest anyone who has sex with people under it and arrest anyone who consumes state approved drugs before it.

    But for those of us who recognize the problem with arbitrary monopolistic solutions, we basically have the market and custom to solve this issue. Custom is easy if everyone generally recognizes a certain age.

    Somewhere between 16-20 it is generally recognized that people can take on adult responsibilities, but each person is different. Another complicating factor is that maturity isn't just a function of age but of conditioning as well. Some parents prepare their children for the rigors of adulthood much better than others.

    I think an interesting solution would be if a private law association would certify a young man or woman as an adult based on an exam available starting at a certain customary age that tests for essential adult skills like communication, conscientiousness, and emotional maturity (or whatever). Once you pass, you're a certified self-owner and able to apply for membership with the law association (you'll no longer be covered by your parents' membership).

    Of course, custom and culture are still needed to guide this process. Since you can imagine that in the absence of good culture and custom, a private law association may find it profitable to cater to perverse desires by certifying young girls as adults.

    I still think a polycentric rivalrous structure of authority will be better able to serve and preserve customary law and prevent abuses than will a centralized monopolistic one, but there is no substitute for good culture. You just can't have good laws without good people.

    1. ATL,

      I hope I can call you ATL :).

      I think preceeding Western (or Western-adjacent) culture groups have done this through public-proclamation/contests. The parents would either announce that their progeny was "of-age", or there was some sort of "contest" that confirmed that the "child" had now become a "man".

      The Romans had adoption (the one analogized in the New Testament), wherein the father would publicly proclaim that someone (usually, but not always, their own seed) was officially his heir (and therefore an "adult").

    2. I vote for a debutante ball:


    3. Mr. M,

      LOL. Yeah, I guess I was focused on the male coming-of-age, but some of our feeder-cultures obviously had corresponding female procedures, as well.

    4. Ron,

      Of course! Lol All my friends call me ATL. This anonymity thing is a bit silly sometimes, but I promised my wife I wouldn't be open about my identity online since my views (and her's thankfully) are extremely anti-state and that could mean problems if something like the "Alien and Sedition Act" returns, however unlikely that may be. I often wonder if it isn't safer just to be open about your identity though - I digress.

      Whether we're talking about a debutante ball or a public proclamation, I think it is important to have some sort of recognized process or event that marks the passage of children into adults. I think this sort of 'rite of passage' is something we've lost in modernity that was important both culturally and psychologically.

      In a wild coincidence, I was just talking with my brother earlier this week about coming up with a sort of rite of passage of boys into men in our family. Any ideas?

    5. ATL,

      Obviously, I've eschewed the anonymity thing, lol. I can't help but wonder now (thank you very much Mr. M., he said sarcastically ;-) if losing that process is a natural consequence of the elevation of the individual at the expense of the tribe/family...

    6. Here are a few coming-of-age rituals from around the world: Peg

  10. Legislating morality issues usually ends up a non starter. Especially so those which hope to change our civil and moral society as it was founded.

    1. Murder is a morality issue; what do you suggest be done about it?