Parenting for Freedom article series: This is the first in a series of articles that analyzes how freedom-loving people can align their parenting with their political philosophy, and how doing so will allow ideas about personal liberty to carry on to the next generation.
For most of my adult life, I have believed that respecting an individual’s freedom should be the first goal of society. It seems so straightforward. All people should be able to do what they want, as long as what they want doesn’t hurt someone else. Simple, right?
Then I had kids, and suddenly it didn’t seem so simple.
The idea of “live and let live,” which I thought I could apply to every situation, didn’t hold up. It seemed like my children were within their rights to demand more of me.
Despite what is often called a “right” in the United States, true rights can exist only in the negative. They describe an individual’s state in nature before anyone has acted on that individual. To preserve rights among adults, you must NOT act: not kill, not steal, not destroy.
But when it came to my children, I had a legal obligation — and I felt a moral obligation — to do more for my newborn babies than leave them alone. It definitely seemed like they had positive rights — to food, shelter, and comfort — and that I had the obligation to provide them.
On a human level, most parents find it instinctual and easy to care for their children, as I do. But on a philosophical level, freedom-minded parents like me might struggle with why we are legally required to care for our kids.
I wanted to reconcile two ideas: 1. Children are complete humans who deserve freedom. 2. Children are vulnerable and dependent on their caretakers. So I looked more closely at freedom and what I meant by it.
When I think of freedom, I think of a few related guiding principles that make freedom possible. The first is self-ownership, that your body is your property to do with as you please. The second is non-aggression. No one should act upon another person’s body except in self-defense. The third is voluntary association. You should only have to interact with people whom you choose.
Right off the bat, it’s obvious that babies’ freedom is being violated. They are brought into existence by their parents without their consent, carried to term (or not) and birthed, without any say at all. That doesn’t sound like self-ownership or non-aggression. Then, they have no choice in who cares for them, holds them, changes them, and feeds them. So that’s voluntary association out the window.
It’s easy to laugh at this concept of an infant having his rights violated by being created and snuggled by his parents. But just because most people think of something as a good thing doesn’t mean it should be forced on you. Life is often good and joyful. But it is not freely chosen.
So what are we left with? A tiny, vulnerable human whose very existence proves that his rights were violated. And his parents, who violated his rights.
Someone who violates our rights owes us restitution for the crime. The criminal serves a sentence, which should repay the victim.
So I propose that parents are serving a “sentence” of caring for their kids as retribution for bringing their kids into existence. Yes, the children’s rights were violated by being created and born without their consent. But parents pay for this crime by caring for their children.
I will admit that this is an insulting and no doubt unpopular view of parenthood. As a parent myself, it does seem a little unfair. After all, I gave my children life! I quit drinking alcohol and eating sushi for nine whole months for them! Shouldn’t they be grateful? Don’t they owe me a debt of gratitude (not to mention care in my old age)?
But what if we use the same argument to talk about citizens in society? Each person was born in a certain country, a citizen of a certain place. We didn’t choose when or where this was. We are governed by laws we didn’t create, taxed to pay for things we do not want, subject to decisions made by our peers. We are told that if we don’t like it we can leave, as though that were easy. Is there anywhere on earth we could go and not be governed and taxed? And on top of all that we are told we should be grateful to live in our society because so many people have it so much worse! It’s infuriating.
And that’s the exact situation all children are in. They exist without any say in a certain time and place. They are subject to decisions made by others. People are always acting upon them.
When you think of it like that, it’s obvious that parents owe their kids, not the other way around.
The idea that parents owe their kids a sentence of care is in direct contrast to the writings of Murray N. Rothbard, an American economist, political theorist, and historian. Rothbard argues that because rights are negative, parents legally only have to leave a child alone to respect its rights:
“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.2 The law, therefore, may not properly compel the parent to feed a child or to keep it alive.3 (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.)”
I affectionately call this idea “Live and Let Die.” Rothbard argues later in the article that a child must legally be allowed to leave his parents and find a better living arrangement, if he so chooses. But that doesn’t much help the infant who is unable to hold up his head, let alone seek out new parents to feed him. Rothbard says it is in fact the child’s helplessness that should allow parents to leave the child for dead. Otherwise the parents’ rights would be violated by being legally forced to provide for the child.
Rothbard also responds to the creation argument. That is the idea (which I argue as well) that parents are responsible for the child’s care because they have created the child without his consent. Rothbard asks, somewhat rhetorically, if parents must care for a child because they created him, why would that care ever end? He also questions what constitutes adequate care. He asks whether parents must sacrifice their own quality of life “to the point of self-extinction” to care for a child. His argument seems to be that since there are not clear-cut answers to these questions about care, the child should not have a legal right to care at all.
I am arguing that there is room for interpretation about how long and how well parents must care for a child. It is not easy to come to a consensus. But that does not mean that the parents shouldn’t have a legal obligation to meet some minimum standard. This is much the same way that we can quibble about rights among adults. When does your right to run your leaf blower interfere with my right to sleep? There isn’t one right answer, but that doesn’t mean that it is right for the leaf blower to always — or never — be running.
I know it’s messy. I want rights to be simple and black and white. But even among adults, I guess it isn’t a simple calculus of leaving everyone alone. There should be a legal line for behavior. Just because these lines seem arbitrary doesn’t mean (if you’ll pardon the horrible pun) we must throw the baby out with the bathwater.
In this article, I answered the question of why parents should legally care for children: they are serving a sentence. This view is different in theory but not in practice from what is already required of parents in our society in the form of child neglect laws.
But our current legal system is not the best way to determine the specifics of how to care for a child. Cultural norms, common law, and mediation are better alternatives. There are many right answers to how long a parent must care for his child, depending on the particular case. The amount of material goods and attention that make up “care” changes based on the situation too.
But if you, like me, value freedom as one of the highest goods for human beings, then your parenting should reflect that.
Click here to read the next article which explores the specifics of the parent-child relationship. I give you my thoughts on what the child deserves and what rights the parents still have as we attempt to parent with freedom in mind.