Rothbard’s Point About Child Neglect

In response to Rand Paul’s hilarious claim that parents own their children, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig (ESB) posted at The New Republic about a slew of libertarian views about parenting that are stranger than even that.

One of those views comes from Rothbard’s book Ethics of Liberty. In the book Rothbard applies the non-aggression, “no positive duty” brand of libertarianism to children and concludes, correctly, that it means that parents cannot be forced to care for their children and may even neglect them until they die:

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.

A number of libertarians on Twitter said it was unfair to call this a libertarian position because they know a lot of libertarians who don’t believe it. But this is beside the point. It doesn’t matter whether, because of immense socialization to the contrary, self-identified libertarians claim they don’t believe in this. What matters is whether it actually follows from libertarian philosophical propositions. And it clearly does.

If you read this chapter of Rothbard, he actually makes a very good case for why you have to reach the child neglect position. There is of course the straightforward application of the “no positive duties” rule, which I explained above. But more than that, Rothbard actually works to explain why the contrary arguments don’t work:

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? What do the parents have to do with it? The answer, of course, is that they are the creators of the child, but this brings us to the second argument, the argument from creation.

Considering, then, the creation argument, this immediately rules out any obligation of a mother to keep a child alive who was the result of an act of rape, since this was not a freely-undertaken act. It also rules out any such obligation by a step-parent, foster parent, or guardian, who didn’t participate at all in creating the child. Furthermore, if creation engenders an obligation to maintain the child, why should it stop when the child becomes an adult? As Evers states:

The parents are still the creators of the child, why aren’t they obliged to support the child forever? It is true that the child is no longer helpless; but helplessness (as pointed out above) is not in and of itself a cause of binding obligation. If the condition of being the creator of another is the source of the obligation, and this condition persists, why doesn’t the obligation?

Rothbard continues, but the point is clear enough. First, to say someone’s helplessness creates legally-enforceable obligations in others to care for them is deeply dangerous. It might mean, for instance, that disabled people and sick people and people who can’t find work instantiate legally-enforceable obligations in others to provide for them as well. But, as we know, libertarianism is nothing if not the view that starving a disabled or unemployed person to death is not violence and legally forcing people to prevent that (through a tax for instance) is.

Second, the effort to get around this by saying the parent specifically has an obligation because of their act of creation does not a) explain why non-biological parents have any obligations to care for the children they are guardians of (yet I assume these real-life libertarians think so) or b) explain how this obligation would ever have any limit. If it is creation that creates the obligation, then childhood has nothing to do with it: parents should be legally obligated to support their kids during their entire lives.

Once again, a libertarian can just baldly assert that libertarianism is compatible with legal obligations to care for children, but that is not the same thing as explaining how libertarian precepts are compatible with that. In particular, the precept that laws cannot impose positive duties on people, which is the corner stone of voluntarist procedural libertarianism, is simply not compatible with laws requiring children be taken care of. This incompatibility is simply the case even if many self-identified libertarians hold substantive policy views regarding children that are logically contradictory with this philosophical idea.