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For your reference: Rothbard against the Fugitive Child Act

Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 15 years ago, in 2009, on the World Wide Web.

Roderick recently posted a link to a creep-out ad for this sado-fascist horror showThe Total Transformation® self-help course for parents who are frustrated at their inability to unilaterally dominate their children. (Just as a sidebar, I used to hear ads for this service or one similar to it during the interstices for a nominally libertarian minimal-statist talk radio show — I think it was the Downsize DC radio show. I dunno how that reflects on the show itself; I think it doesn’t reflect well at all on the target audience for the station that was running it.)

Anyway, in reply, Andrea Shepard mentioned some of the child humiliation industry’s private internment camps for wayward youths (which actively encourage anxious parents to force their children into the camp, in secret, on false pretexts). In reply, Anon73 wrote:

Yeah I came across this stuff a few years ago and was horrified by it. I remember having this in mind when social anarchists accused ancaps of supporting private tyranny since most ancaps accept families and family practices generally. If the alternative to having my kid be a pot-smoking starving stoner is to have them sent to American Guantanamo then I’d rather have them be stoners.

Andrea responded:

You haven’t been paying attention to the same an-caps I have. I’m an an-cap and that sort of You’re a slave until you turn 18. It’s for your own good bullshit has always been a rather hot-button issue for me.

I think that Anon73’s point is a fair one against some anarcho-capitalists and not against others, and that it’s important to track the distinction. Anon73 mentioned he wasn’t sure about Rothbard’s view on the matter:

I’m not sure how Rothbard was on the slave until you’re 18 doctrine but I remember at one point he did repudiate it. Not sure about other ancaps. At any rate this is definitely a private tyranny worse than many types of statist tyranny, which was the point I wanted to make.

For whatever it’s worth, here is the deal on Rothbard, as it pertains to children’s rights, and in particular as it pertains to children’s rights to defy parents and not to be forced into quote-unquote Behavior Modification hellholes, whether public or private, by their parents.

Rothbard’s plumbline position in Kid Lib (1974) and The Ethics of Liberty ch. 14 (1982) is that parents have a right to set rules for household conduct, as the proprietor of the household, until children move out and take up living on their own. But also that parents have no right to physically aggress against children[1], that children should be able to legally prosecute parents for injuries committed against them in the name of discipline, that if children do not like how their parents are treating them that they have an unconditional right to end their parents’ guardianship at any age where they are physically capable of running away, that this right shuld include the right to strike out on their own or to take up with any foster parents who agree to take them in, and that neither parents nor the State have any right to force runaway children to return to the guardianship of any adult against the child’s will.

In the earlier piece, Kid Lib, Rothbard aims to position his view as a middle-road between traditional coercive parenting and (his notion of) Progressive anything-goes parenting, with most of the rhetorical energy being spent on the latter, so he spends a fair amount of time grumping about kids kicking adults in the shins and discussing how he thinks that parents should insist on rules of conduct and a certain degree of unilateral authority, but that it must be on a my house, my rules basis and not on the basis of using physical or legal coercion to keep the child captive. But the last, which he views as the fundamental tyranny of the contemporary parent-child relationship, he denounces as kidnapping, and as enslavement of children by parents.

In Ethics of Liberty, Rothbard got more in-depth and went further. Most of the stuff about theories of parenting and house-rules is dropped, in favor of a more systematic examination of children’s rights, with a long section on the violation of children’s rights by statist law in particular. Among other things, this section highlights the use of arbitrary and unilateral legal force to give parents, or the paternal State, near-absolute coercive control over children. He condemns the use of truancy laws and all other Fugitive Child Acts to force children to stay in the places that adults have made for them; he also spends a great deal of time discussing the use of inquisitorial court proceedings and rehabilitative imprisonment — through truancy laws, catch-all punishment of juvenile delinquency (which more often than not encompasses antisocial acts which are neither violent nor criminal and which no adult could be imprisoned for committing), and, in the last resort, the use of arbitrary PINS categorization as a lettre-de-cachet for the indefinite imprisonment of wayward youths. Rothbard’s position categorically rules out the use of force to confine independent children to humiliation-camps for behavior-modification (whether governmentally or privately administered), and in his discussion of the juvenile prison system against children who have done nothing to violate anyone’s rights but who have dared to skip school, have unapproved sex, or otherwise offended against their parents’ or the state’s sense of propriety, Rothbard condemns this use of force against children as nothing more than a legal means to extend and intensify the power of abusive parents over children who would be independent, or for the state to step in if a parent isn’t judged to be vigorously abusive enough for the child’s own good.

As far as I know, even after his paleo turn in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Rothbard never actually declared that his prior position on children’s rights was false. (As a general thing, he actually hardly ever repudiated any ideological positions, no matter how many strategic 180s he did and no matter how unceremoniously he dumped his earlier point on the floor in the interest of his new coalition; instead, he just swapped out his rhetoric and tended to write a if he had never said the things that he said before.) But by 1992, mainly in the interest of demonizing Hillary Rodham Clinton and her association with legal activism for children’s rights, he was scare-quote ridiculing any discussion of children’s rights, declaring that children should quote-unquote get governed by their parents, and denouncing Tibor Machan for supporting children who sued their parents for damages or for termination of custody. (I haven’t read any of Tibor’s stuff from that period, so I can’t be sure, but from the date and from what Rothbard writes, my guess would be that this was in response to high-profile cases like Kingsley v. Kingsley, in which a child was granted legal standing to sue for a transfer of custody from his biological parents to foster parents. Anyone know for sure? If so, drop a line in the comments….)

Anyway, after the paleo turn, Rothbard was looking to hook up with political allies who took rock-ribbed conservative positions on parental control, so all that stuff about the rights of wayward children and the use of state violence to keep children enslaved to their parents was pretty quickly dropped out, in favor of a line about the state’s meddling in parental rights, with folks like Hoppe throwing in paeans to the authority of the paterfamilias and the order of rank within the family, and the occasional casual supportive shout-out from LRC to the wonder and mystery of beating your children in the name of discipline.

Of course, after Rothbard’s paleo turn, there were still plenty of other non-paleo anarcho-capitalists who differed with Rothbard and with his newfound allies on all this stuff, and who generally took something more like the older Rothbard line. (George H. Smith, for example, defends the early Spencer’s position against parental coercion.) And the decline of paleolibertarianism (both as a strategic alliance and as an ideology) since Mr. Bush’s wars and the rise of Red State America has resulted in a pretty significant drop-off.

So is the worry about anarcho-capitalists and non-governmental forms of tyranny, in particular as they affect children, a fair one? Well, for some yes, and for others, no. For Rothbard, both, depending on what period you’re looking at. Paleolibertarianism was an important movement (almost entirely important for ill, rather than for good, but important nevertheless) in the history of anarcho-capitalism, but it’s important not to confuse it with anacho-capitalism as such; there were plenty of anarcho-capitalists before it who took much more radical positions on rights within the family, plenty of anarcho-capitalists at the time who rejected it, and at this point in libertarian history there are few left, especially among anarchists, who would identify with anything like the full paleolibertarian program. But those who did, and those who still would, typically take really awful positions on children’s rights, which ought to be called out and denounced. On the other hand, many anarcho-capitalists, following Rothbard and in the more lefty climate of late-1960s, 1970s, and 2000s libertarianism, took very strong stances against the coercion of children, and indeed often took a stronger stance than most social anarchists. (Social anarchists who devote a lot of writing to education, parenting, or patriarchy typically have taken a very strong line for child liberation; the majority who haven’t, haven’t.)

Most anarcho-capitalists, however, just don’t write about the issue at all. Presumably because they either don’t think about it, or don’t care to talk about it, or both. Which is unfortunate but not surprising: most political theorists don’t spend much time discussing the status of children. Not because it’s unimportant to them (patriarchal authority is very important to lots of theories) but rather because they have reasons for wanting certain bedrock commitments to be left unspoken so that they cannot be identified, and without any explicit defense so that they cannot be challenged.

And for those of us (like me) who are anarchists but not anarcho-capitalists, and who think that the freedom of children from 18 years of violence and despotism is among the most important, pressing, and universal concerns that a modern-day Freedom Movement ought to take up, I think the most important thing is to take what lessons we can from the best work available and to expand it — to talk about how those who believe that children ought to be able to take up a free and independent life as they become ready for it, and who are concerned to help children escape from physical violence, coercive control, bullying and emotional abuse, and any other assault on their bodies, liberty, independence, or dignity, whether committed by parents, by teachers, by the State, or by any other adult — I think the important thing to do here is to learn from the best parts of what Rothbard (among others) had to offer. What we have to stress is that this cannot be brought about by taking out one form of coercive control (by parents or other state-approved guardians) only to replace it with another (through literal nanny-statism, government-controlled schooling, coercive child welfare bureaucracies, etc.). Rather, what I think the older Rothbardian approach rightly stresses — the right of children to assert their own independence when they are ready to do so, not to be held captive by overbearing parents, and to have their decision respected when they decide it’s time to get the hell out of a house that they hate to be in — is the importance of solidarity rather than rescue. We must look towards helping children and adolescents name their own situation and make themselves free — by opposing laws that allow parents to beat and imprison children at will, and by working in solidarity to support the rights and the well-being of so-called runaway children and adolescents; to create alternative institutions that provide them with a supportive place to go; and to struggle against the State’s efforts to force them back into homes that they hate and under the authority of parents that they risked so much to try to escape.

Note. Rothbard talks about mutilating and abusing children as aggressions and as violations of the parent’s role as trustee for the child’s self-ownership. I think his position logically implies that it’s illegitimate for parents to use any form of corporal punishment at all against children, but as far as I know Rothbard neither confirmed nor denied that in his writing on the topic. (back)

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12 replies to For your reference: Rothbard against the Fugitive Child Act Use a feed to Follow replies to this article · TrackBack URI

  1. Brainpolice

    I have found myself bumping into an alarming number of individuals in ancap circles who do in fact take the position of children being the defacto private property of their parents, however. But you’re correct that it would not be fair to characterize all ancaps, or even most, as necessarily having that position. Nonetheless, it’s alarming that anyone in libertarianism takes such a horrific position. This is one of the pet peeve issues of mine.

  2. Aster

    Thank you.

    Nothing made my involvement with libertarianism feel like a self-betrayal so much like reading libertarian after libertarian speak as libertarians to repeat every monstrous threat, lie, and manipulation I heard thrown at me daily as a child.

    But right now it seems like everywhere the ‘evil prevails’ clause of the logical structure of reality’ is being repealed and repudiated.

    Again, thank you.

  3. Roderick T. Long

    Note that in Ethics of Liberty, in the chapter on children’s rights, Rothbard quotes a certain “Hillary Rodham” favourably.

    • Bob Robertson

      I would hope that it’s possible to support a particular position or action, without having to then support everything that individual did or does.

      Ideas evolve. People’s thinking evolves. There’s no one with whom I agree 100% on everything. Or, for that matter, disagree 100% on everything.

    • Rad Geek

      Well sure, I agree with you on the general principle.

      But the point is that Rothbard favorably cited Hillary Rodham’s work on children’s rights in the past (which I think he was right to do), and then later on, ridiculed the same work (which I think he was wrong to do). Of course Hillary Rodham Clinton is reprehensible in any number of ways, but the point here is that her early work on children’s rights was in fact pretty valuable, and Rothbard was wrong to ridicule it later.

  4. Life, Love, and Liberty

    Ben Tucker thought children were owned by their mothers until a certain point.

  5. Discussed at orange-road.com

    Ken’s Weblog » Blog Archive » Anarcho-capitalism and child abuse:

    […] For your reference: Rothbard against the Fugitive Child Act. […]

  6. TGGP

    As part of my radically pro-choice semi-anarchism, I endorsed the children-as-property view Brainpolice mentioned. I favor legalizing full-blown infanticide.

    At the same time, I endorse Rothbard’s idea on children homesteading themselves and disavow any responsibility on the part of society to support parents authority over their children. I got into a dispute with Mencius Moldbug, who tried to defend the Fugitive Slave Act through analogy to runaway children, here.

  7. Roderick T. Long

    Walter Block describes his position as ownership of children by their parents. But given that he thinks it should be illegal for parents to, e.g., kill or injure them, he must really mean something other than “ownership.” (Perhaps “plumbline.”)

  8. Roderick T. Long

    Oh, and FWIW my own views on children’s rights are here and here.

  9. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2009-07-16 – Credit where credit’s due:

    […] my recent post on Rothbard’s position on children’s rights, I lodged a pretty broad complaint against paleolibertarian writing on the family, paternal […]

— 2012 —

  1. Discussed at bleedingheartlibertarians.com

    The Distinctiveness of Left-Libertarianism | Bleeding Heart Libertarians:

    […] action that interferes unreasonably with children’s freedom—and emphasize the degree to which the state is not the protector of children but is responsible in multiple ways for significant threats to their freedom and well-being, […]

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