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The big policy question libertarians can't answer
What to do about poor children?
 
Caught in the middle.
Caught in the middle. (iStock)

Last week a curious debate unfolded at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, a web community devoted to "free markets and social justice." The subject was parental licensing, a type of policy proposal that would remove children from parents if they failed to pass a state-administered credentialing program during their pregnancy. Andrew Cohen, one of the site's main writers, had advocated for parental licensing back in July, claiming that it is consistent with libertarianism since it merely uses state intervention to prevent harm, which libertarians believe is a justified use of government power. Obviously, not all were convinced.

Adam Gurri mounted a very principled libertarian objection to any parental licensing regime, and though the community's commenters were not necessarily pleased with his response, his argument was the clear winner by any sensible standard. After all, it doesn't take much to identify why it would be a huge problem for libertarians to support such a program: It would inject state power into a huge array of currently private industries. Health care, for example, would have to be infused with state presence — since medical programs would be needed to identify who is pregnant or has recently given birth.

So the question is not so much whether parental licensing makes much sense under a libertarian frame (it doesn't), but rather: Why on earth would anyone who considers himself a libertarian gravitate to it in the first place?

One clue arises from imagining what type of parent would be separated from his or her children under a child-licensing regime. Though few detailed proposals ever get discussed, it's fairly obvious that the top candidates would be people with diminished resources or precarious employment. In other words, a child-licensing program would possibly deprive would-be abusers, and would almost certainly deprive poor people of their children.

And poor people having children is a big problem for libertarians.

Consider Rand Paul, who in January lamented the fact that welfare benefits are not cut off to unwed mothers after they've had a certain number of children. "Maybe we have to say, 'Enough's enough. You shouldn't be having kids after a certain amount,'" Paul remarked.

I don't know how you do all that because then it's tough to tell a woman with four kids that she's got a fifth kid we're not going to give her any more money. But we have to figure out how to get that message through because that is part of the answer. [Paul via Think Progress]

Note that Paul didn't explicitly endorse such a solution. And that's the libertarian dilemma: It's morally difficult to refuse aid to children born into poverty, because they don't fit the model that says poverty is the result of personal failure. A newborn living without adequate resources is just unlucky. But rather than saying that vulnerable people living in poverty deserve assistance, a few libertarians argue that such people simply shouldn't exist.

This is doubly important when one considers the fact that children's misfortune shines a particular light on the misfortune of others. Or, if children are due assistance because they can't help their circumstances, then so, logically, are others who are similarly "blameless" when it comes to their poverty. Libertarian thinker Murray Rothbard makes this "slippery slope" view explicit:

Let us examine the implications of the doctrine that parents should have a legally enforceable obligation to keep their children alive. The argument for this obligation contains two components: that the parents created the child by a freely chosen, purposive act; and that the child is temporarily helpless and not a self-owner. If we consider first the argument from helplessness, then first, we may make the general point that it is a philosophical fallacy to maintain that A's needs properly impose coercive obligations on B to satisfy these needs. For one thing, B's rights are then violated. Secondly, if a helpless child may be said to impose legal obligations on someone else, why specifically on its parents, and not on other people? [The Ethics of Liberty via Ludwig von Mises Institute]

It is the helplessness and innocence of children that make their entitlement to assistance so fundamentally clear and therefore so difficult to fold into a truly libertarian polity. This is perhaps why, for all the sex that Ayn Rand's characters have — most of them unmarried, many adulterous — they never seem to have children. It's hard to maintain an ethic of total self-reliance and individualism when a child's dependency so frankly and obviously demonstrates the moral bankruptcy underlying such principles.

Declaring that we're living in a jubilant libertarian moment may, therefore, be premature. Children are not only a major component of society, but perhaps its greatest treasure. Any theory that must resort to wishing them away to conform to its own principles is highly suspect.

 
Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig writes about Christianity, ethics, and policy for Salon, The Atlantic, and The Week. She is a graduate of Brandeis University and received her MPhil in Christian theology from the University of Cambridge as a Marshall Scholar. She is currently working towards her PhD at Brown University. In her spare time, Elizabeth enjoys working in the garden.

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