(From the Ask Dr. Ruwart section in Volume 19, No. 24 of the Liberator Online. Subscribe here!)
Question: In his book The Ethics of Liberty, libertarian economist Murray Rothbard says: “A parent does not have the right to aggress against his children, but also … 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.” This sounds barbaric. How do you respond?
My Short Answer: Children’s rights are perhaps the most contentious part of the libertarian philosophy; not everyone agrees how to apply the non-aggression principle to issues involving children. Feel free to join the debate!
Some libertarians believe that bringing a helpless child into the world obligates the parents to support it. Libertarians who hold this position don’t always agree on what this means, although generally they expect that the child will be responsible for itself when it becomes an adult. Libertarians who believe that parents have an obligation don’t always agree on specifically where it starts and ends.
Some libertarians, like Rothbard, do believe that giving the gift of life does not obligate the parents to maintain that life. However, in my opinion, in a libertarian society, that would not mean that the child would be allowed to starve; in fact, it would probably have a better chance at survival than it does today. Although the parents might not want to feed the child, other adults almost certainly would, especially since so many parents want to adopt, even if the infant is impaired in some way.
Since the child is not parental property, but a separate person, if there is someone who will feed and protect it, the parents have no right to prevent its champions from nurturing it. Since an infant is helpless, concerned care-givers could certainly claim to represent the child and gain custody. This is likely to be much easier than in today’s society, which often acts as if children are “property” of their parents.
Indeed, the non-aggression principle, in allowing us to defend our rights, does not allow us to harm others, even aggressors, beyond what is necessary. In other words, if you threaten me with a weapon and I disarm you, I have protected my rights. If I then go beyond that, to maim or kill you simply to satisfy my thirst for vengeance, I am now an aggressor too.
Similarly, if parents stop others from feeding a child that they don’t wish to care for, they would be considered aggressors, as there is no need to starve the child to protect the parents’ right not to provide support.
Just as today many women choose to give up their baby for adoption, so too would parents be able to give up their baby in a libertarian society if they didn’t want to nurture it. A baby with parents who don’t care enough to feed it is going to be much better off being adopted than staying with parents forced by law to support it.
LEARN MORE: Suggestions for further reading on this topic from Liberator Online editor James W. Harris:
* “Defending the Non-Aggression Principle: A Reply to Matt Zwolinski Part 4” by George H. Smith. The distinguished libertarian philosopher looks at Murray Rothbard’s controversial argument, while also explaining why he thinks Rothbard is wrong on some key points; most importantly, Smith argues that parents have an obligation not to harm children and, if they do not wish to care for them, to find someone who will.
Excerpt: “No guardian can legitimately claim, ‘This infant is mine, and I will do with it as I please.’ All persons have the enforceable duty not to aggress against an infant by harming it physically, etc., but a guardian voluntarily takes on the additional positive duty of sustaining the life of her ward — first, because it is only the helpless nature of an infant — its need for a guardian to survive — that generates guardianship rights in the first place; and, second, because a guardian cannot claim the right to exclude third parties unless she accepts the positive duty of sustaining the life of an infant.”
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