The forgotten children of libertarianism?

A case for a coherent libertarian perspective on the rights of children to be taken care of.

The issue of children’s rights is particularly difficult for any political ideology short of full-blown totalitarianism that advocates for a central agency taking care and imposing its will upon all of society’s members, including children. The difficulty is also present in libertarian ideology, and because of the fact that libertarianism is in many ways the direct opposite of totalitarianism, this problem may be more predominantly present in libertarian philosophy. After all, if the ideology is based on the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP), ¿Should we be allowed to force parents to take care of their children? And if libertarians uphold only negative rights, ¿Should we be allowed to compel an individual to do a positive act, namely, look out for their children?

¿Should libertarians make an exception in the case of children and put their principles on hold in situations involving them? And if so, ¿How coherent would the ideology be if it has to make arbitrary exceptions? On the other hand, if libertarianism is to be kept fully coherent ¿Does that mean that parents are not responsible for their children? We can easily extend similar questions regarding fetuses, which adds another layer of difficulty to the matter. ¿Should a pregnant woman be forced to give birth to the child? ¿Isn't the woman owner of her own body and if so, does that render the fetus without rights? ¿Is abortion acceptable in libertarian ethics?

All these are very valid questions, especially considering the topics they refer to are debated one amongst libertarians. To tackle such questions from a purely rational perspective, we should do our best to suspend our emotional inclinations. I believe, and hope, that form an emotional standpoint we would all tend to argue that parents must take care of their children. But it is not my intention to propose an emotional perspective, for emotions clearly yield subjective propositions and those could differ in virtually infinite different ways so we would not be able to tell the good ones from the bad ones because there are no good or bad subjective preferences. I intend to present a rational case surrounding the dilemma.

It must be said that not all self-proclaimed libertarians subscribe to either the NAP or to the idea that only negative rights are valid or to both, but I believe that it is safe to say that most libertarians share one or both of those principles. I have come to the conclusion that one is only an inevitable implication of the other. In other words, two different ways of stating the same.

In order to discuss libertarian solutions to social phenomena, both the NAP and negative rights must be defined. I don’t intend speak for all libertarians, however, I believe the definitions I am about to present are very generic within libertarian philosophy.

I would reject Wikipedia’s definition of the NAP which I find worth mentioning since many, myself included, tend to consult Wikipedia when trying to find a quick reference. Here’s what the Wikipedia article on the NAP opens with:

The non-aggression principle (also called the non-aggression axiom, or the anti-coercion or zero aggression principle or non-initiation of force) is an ethical stance that forbids actions that are inconsistent with a right-libertarian conception of property rights and other rights. The principle defines “aggression” and “initiation of force” as violation of these rights.

The reason I reject this definition is that it implies that “right-libertarian conception of property rights and other rights” are antecedent to the NAP itself. It suggests that the principle is conceived as a means to preserve these potentially arbitrarily chosen rights. On the contrary, property rights and other rights are rationally deduced from the NAP, which itself is directly arrived to from axioms including self-ownership. How some libertarians arrive to the NAP is not the subject of this article so for now it will suffice to understand the importance of the principle in libertarian philosophy.

The Non-Aggression Principle is an ethical stance which rejects all initiation of or threat of the use of force against individuals or fraud as a substitute of the initiation of the use of force. All violence amongst consenting adults is not considered the initiation of the use of force. Since the NAP only applies to the initiation of violence, it is not to be confused with the principle of pacifism which would reject all violence including self-defense, the defense of others, defense of property or violence as a means to enforce compliance with an acquired obligation as is the case with contracts or in the case of a person putting someone else in a situation deemed worse than before by that someone else. If I bring you along to a travel through a desert without your agreement (let’s say I take you with me while you were asleep), then I am responsible for you which means I must supply you with the necessary resources to keep you hydrated, fed, and overall safe. Should I attempt to leave you stranded in the desert, the use of force to either take the necessary supplies from me or to force me to take care of you would not violate the NAP since I acquired an obligation to keep you safe by putting you in a situation you had never agreed to to begin with. Defense of property of course is not applicable if such property is willfully put at the disposition of someone else by the owner. That is, I may not assault you for being in my house if I invited you into my house.

A negative right is a universally applicable right that individuals have to be free from others forcing their will upon them. These contrast with positive rights in that the latter are rights that require someone else to perform an action even if it takes the initiation of violence to make it happen. It is important to point out that negative rights do not prevent someone being forced to perform a positive action as a result of an individual freely agreeing to or otherwise acquiring the obligation to perform such action as a result of his own actions. For example, one accepts to perform an action by agreeing to a contract. Failure to perform such action may legitimately lead to that person being forced to perform the action he has previously agreed to. Also, if someone’s action directly affects someone else, an obligation to perform reparations to restore that someone else’s previous situation, to the extent that it is possible, is acquired. That is, if I run over you with my bicycle as a result of my carelessness, I acquire an obligation to make reparations to the damages I may have caused.

But what do all of this have to do with the parent-child relationship?

Let’s use the examples above as an analogy of the ethical relationship of a parent with his or her children. A child is put in a situation he or she never agreed to, namely being alive, by his or her parents. As a result, the parents acquire an obligation to take care of the child in the same way that I acquire an obligation to take care of you in the desert. Should a parent intend to back away from such responsibility, the use of violence to either extract from his or her wealth the necessary resources to take care of the child or to force the parent to take care of the child is not a violation of the NAP. Whether the child was planned or not is irrelevant. If the child is the result of carelessness, the parents waived their right not to take care of him or her the same way I basically waived my right not to be forced to take care of your medical needs that arise as a result of me running you over with my bicycle and forcing me to perform my acquired duties does not violate my negative rights.

In the same way that I am responsible for you well-being in the desert until I can bring you back, parents are responsible for a child until the child is capable of taking care of his or herself at which point the parent’s obligation is over. Admittedly, it is a difficult task to define when a child becomes a person capable of taking care of his or herself. But such difficulty applies to all political ideologies except again, totalitarianism, in which case there is no difference between children and adults since both have their lives managed by somebody else.

And how is this applicable to abortion?

To my knowledge no libertarian, or otherwise, has objectively defined at what point a fetus becomes a human being. While it would probably be hard to argue that a zygote is a human being, it would be significantly harder to argue that a fetus is not a human being an instant before birth but that it is a human being an instant after birth. Where in the middle of that process is a human being created is a question that transcends libertarianism. As a matter of fact it transcends political theory, political philosophy and ethics. It even transcends biology, it’s a question that would require all of these and other disciplines if it’s ever to be answered.

For now, to avoid making unfounded suppositions, I will refer to women pregnant with a human being, whenever that might be throughout the process of pregnancy. While I wish I could be more specific, the problem of specificity is one that applies to all considerations regarding the beginning of human life.

To approach a pregnancy situation from a libertarian perspective, we must differentiate between to kinds of pregnant women: those pregnant as a result of their own decisions (be them willful or as a result of negligence or carelessness) and those pregnant for causes external to her decisions as would be the case of a rape.

If a human being occupies the body of a woman as a result of her actions be them willful (as in inviting someone into her house) or not (as in running over someone with her bicycle), the mother has acquired an obligation to have the baby. While she continues to own her body the way she owns her house, she is responsible for the life it is housing. This is not to excuse the obligation of the father, who is equally responsible for the fetus. It’s important to point out that failure of one of the parents to perform his or her duties does not remove responsibility from the other. The reason that it is easier for fathers to avoid responsibility is a biological one and it has nothing to do with rights being applied differently.

If a human being occupies the body of a woman as a result of rape, the woman may not be forced to have the baby since it is not in her body as a result of her actions and no one must be forced to take care of anyone else. Which is not to say o course that individuals helping others or raped women giving birth are in violation of libertarian principles.

All children have the same rights as anyone else according to libertarian philosophy. The rights of children to be taken care of by their parents is not the result of a different set of rules being applicable to them or them belonging to a separate ethical category or of emotional preferences. It is the same right any individual has to be taken care of by someone if that someone is directly responsible of putting the individual in a situation at no fault of his own. Parents acquire an obligation to take care of their children by being directly responsible for the child being there.