Social Justice, Libertarianism

Licensing Parents

As a libertarian, I generally oppose the state interference that is licensing. In most cases of professional (or occupational) licensing programs, I see no benefit that warrants state interference. I am not claiming that there are no such programs (programs to license airplane pilots may be such).

Two qualifiers:
1. By “licensing program” I mean a legal program that makes it necessary to have a state-provided license to practice an activity. We currently have programs of this sort for driving, but also for practicing medicine and law, and perhaps more surprisingly, hair-cutting, interior-designing, etc. I would abolish many of these. I would abolish all that were not necessary to prevent harm to non-consenting others.
2. By contrast, I have no opposition to “certification programs” that would largely mimic licensing programs, but be run by private agencies and thus not be legally mandated. Such would not legally prevent anyone from practicing a trade or profession.

Thus far, I don’t think I’ve said anything controversial for a libertarian.

Over the last few years, with a clearer window into the world of bad parenting, I have come to think parental licensing would be well worthwhile, even in a libertarian state. So here is the controversial part:

3. The state should require parents to be licensed. That is, there is no moral right to raise a child, and we would do well to think of it as a privilege that the state grants and can refrain from granting to certain individuals. If you don’t like that way of putting it, I am comfortable with a weaker claim: whatever moral right to raise a child there might be is defeated when the parent-to-be is significantly likely to cause the child substantial and avoidable harm, or, of course, if the parent does cause the child such harm. Those that should be refused a license to parent a child are those who are likely, in parenting, to harm the child. Those that should have a parenting license revoked are those who do harm the child. (In our society, the latter is called “termination of parental rights” because there is an assumption of such rights. Its worth pointing out that I have not seen a good defense of the claim that natural biological parents should be assumed to have the right to raise the child they create.)

Argumentation below.

I should begin by referencing Hugh LaFollette‘s excellent work on the topic. (See his “Licensing Parents” in Philosophy and Public Affairs Vol 9 #2, 1980: 182-197 and, more recently, his “Licensing Parents Revisited” (gated) in the Journal of Applied Philosophy, Vol 27 # 4, 2010: 327-343). According to Lafollette—and in accord with many US laws and, I think, common sense—we license people in a particular profession when practitioners of that profession are in a position to significantly harm those they are supposed to serve and there is some testable competence for working responsibly in the profession. Since doctors, lawyers, and the like are in positions to harm those they seek to serve and there are testable competencies for their fields, it follows that they should be licensed.

For those enamored with the status quo, the immediate question is “are you seriously suggesting we not test and license medical doctors but that we do test and license parents?” (One can imagine the annoyed utterances following the question.) The answer is simply yes.

Again, I assume most libertarians (RL, BHL, LL) will be with me in thinking certification programs for medical doctors and other professionals are sufficient. The reasoning is simple: what we care about with such professions is quality service. The state licensing someone to perform a service does not really guarantee quality service; if it does, it guarantees minimal quality only (indeed, that is all it is designed to do). Those of us with the wherewithal, though, don’t just go to a doctor that has a license—we check into their credentials (including what schools they went to, where they did their residencies, what hospitals they are affiliated with, etc.). We are not satisfied with a license; we want further evidence of ability and certification programs can offer that. Certifying institutes can offer their own certifications (medical schools basically do that already)—and can offer multiple layers of certification. I suspect they can do so more efficiently than government, but that is beside the point for me since I do not think efficiency is reason for government action.

Importantly, certification programs, unlike licensing programs, do not limit anyone’s freedom to practice medicine (in the sense that no one will stop anyone from practicing without a certificate; not in the sense that anyone will be guaranteed customers/patients). When we require licenses, on the other hand, the state can and does interfere with those that “practice medicine without a license” and those that would purchase their services—even if they have already been successfully helping people. Licensing programs serve to limit the suppliers of services so that the prices of those services are inflated. Of course, it is claimed that they guarantee those that cannot judge well for themselves do not get subpar service. But there is no reason that a certification program can’t do that at least as well, in much the same way that Consumer Reports and Underwriters Laboratory do (directly and indirectly).

In some fields, it should be pointed out, the above arguments are clear to most. Few believe, after all, that we need licensing programs to protect people from bad haircuts or bad interior-designing. Yet in some locales, these professions require licenses, a government-imposed burden required in order to enter the profession. (“You must come to our office, pay a fee, and take and pass an exam; only then can you sell your services.”) When it comes to doctoring and lawyering, I think, licensing is similarly unjust. It serves as a barrier to entry in the same exact way—perhaps more so as you must first finish 3 or 4 years of expensive schooling before you can even apply to take the exam to get a license. Licensing is always the government giving professionals an ability to charge their customers higher prices.

Should someone be able to practice medicine if they did not go to medical school? Certainly, they should not be allowed to practice medicine on anyone who does not, with full information, rationally consent to their treatment. (So they perhaps could not work in emergency rooms.) But if Joe NoMedSkulio develops a reputation as an excellent healer after independently studying biology and pharmacology, I do not think the state should disallow people using his services. Perhaps every doctor should have a large sign in their office indicating their credentials (degree?) and every patient should have to read a short bio of the doctor and sign a statement indicating they understand the doctor’s credentials to be X, Y, and Z. But if those credentials are limited to “studied pharmacology by looking at for 100 hours in February, 2010,” and a medical patient is OK with that, I am inclined to think there is no reason for state interference. To be clear, I would not go to Joe’s practice—and I might try to dissuade those I care about from doing so—but I see no reason rationally autonomous and fully-informed adults should not have the freedom to use Joe’s services if they wish. (I understand that there are many instances where an individual going to a doctor is not—while seeing the doctor—rationally autonomous, but I don’t think that is the standard case and, even if it is, I think we should seek a world in which it is not—in which, in fact, it is only the case in emergencies.)

What about parenting, then? Why require a license there? The first important point here is that the children who are going to be the recipients of the care (or “services,” though “customers” is clearly the wrong word) are not rationally autonomous and fully formed adults capable of making their own decisions. They are, by contrast, vulnerable beings that we hope will become fully formed persons. Until they do, they are decidedly vulnerable to those they come in contact with—and more (and more often) vulnerable to those they come in contact with regularly: parents. The duration of exposure to one’s parents is a factor. The intensity of the exposure is as well (see Note below). No one is in a position to harm a child as often as a parent. And the damage they can do is extreme. We know of a case of a father raping a two week old, a mother throwing boiling water on her daughter, another parent drowning her children, and the list goes on. These are the sorts of harms that a licensing program might avoid. As it is now, these are the sorts of harms that get the state involved—after the harm is already done.

I should be clear: I am not proposing a licensing requirement for pregnancy. I am not sure I would oppose such, but a parental licensing program is not a licensing program for pregnancy. With a parental licensing program, if you get pregnant, you go to get a license to raise the child or you decide to give up the child. You violate no law by becoming pregnant. Once pregnant, you violate no law until the child is born—and only then if you decide to raise it without getting a license. And perhaps you are allowed to take the licensing test multiple times if you fail at first. Perhaps you do so after taking parenting classes.

It will be asked: is it feasible? I think so. To see this, we need to know what sort of licensing test are we talking about. I’m inclined to think there are two tests that are involved. First, a means test—that is, no one that cannot afford to raise a child should have a child. Importantly, though, this is fully consistent with having any number of charitable or state welfare programs that provide the means for the parent. If Susie is pregnant and broke but The Sisters of All Children commit to providing her housing, food, etc. until the child is 18 years old (or Susie gets on her feet), she passes the means test. Similarly, if the state has a program to help poor people with children, they will pass the test (if the state provides the means for all those who have the need, there is no reason to actually test means since all would have it). The second, and more important, test would be a psychological exam that indicates whether the individual (a) understands how to parent and (b) can handle the stress a child brings. Regarding (a), the point is to make sure the person doesn’t think its OK to leave a child in closet, to starve it, to have sex with it, etc.—the point is not to require that every parent raise their child in the same way. Someone might suggest that (b) is impossible to test, but I see no reason to believe that. When the military accepts soldiers into special forces units, they are tested. The soldiers sent to Pakistan to capture or kill Osama Bin Laden had undergone tests (formal or not) to be sure that they would not “crack” under the pressure. We could surely do the same for parents-to-be. Indeed, people that adopt children or provide foster care now must go through some training and can be denied if they appear unstable.

There is an obvious question now: say I am right about doctoring and lawyering, on the one side, and parenting, on the other. What about driving? I have no settled view here. On the one hand, drivers can harm others who in no way consented to the activity (in the extreme, they are in their own home and the driver rams his car through their wall). On the other hand, when you use the roads, you do (or should) recognize the risks. More importantly, I simply don’t know if certification programs can work for drivers, though I don’t really see why not. (Imagine the certification company gives you a device to put on your car and that device is what gives you access to roads—much like “EasyPass” does now on some roads.) However, if it turns out that the only feasible way to keep unsafe drivers from driving is a licensing program, I would be OK with a driver-licensing program. The point here is that I am convinced the only way to keep unsafe parenting agents from parenting is a licensing program. Would it prevent all bad parenting? No, but it would, I think, greatly reduce harmful parenting.

Note: I owe the thoughts about the duration and intensity of the relationship to Shanna Slank. Shanna and Jon Ravenelle both read a draft of this post and gave me useful suggestions to improve it.

Published on:
Author: Andrew Cohen
  • Haytham Yaghi

    Interesting post, Andrew. Arguments on both sides are clearly presented. I wanted to ask: what do you think of gun laws? If driving laws are needed in order to prevent harm to unconsenting others, does that mean that the state should similarly control guns?

  • shorwitz

    I’ve often said that parenting licenses would
    be one exception to my generally anarchist tendencies.  However, it’s
    usually been said tongue-in-cheek.

    More seriously, I think this argument
    overlooks a point that is central to my own thinking about parental rights and
    the state:  “as compared to what?”  Suppose Susie gets
    pregnant and has her child but does not clear the bar for a parenting
    license.  Then what?  She must give the child up.  To
    whom?  Ideally another family who has cleared the bar, but markets don’t
    clear instantly, eh?  In the meantime, the child presumably becomes a ward
    of the state or put into foster care or some similar kind of institution. 
    The question then is:  will THAT situation be better or worse for the
    child than Susie’s sub-standard parenting skills?  Parental rights questions should be subject to comparative institutional analysis just like questions of political economy.

    If we believe that parents in general (and by
    this I don’t mean the “bio” parents, but those who have chosen to
    take on the burden of raising a child) have the better knowledge and incentive
    to care for their children (think Hayek here) than does anyone else, then the
    burden for removing children should be high, and thus the bar for a parenting
    license low to non-existent.  Imperfect parenting is no more a rationale
    for state intervention than are imperfect markets when government failure is so

    The licensing scenario also overlooks three
    other points:

    1.  Are we so certain that developmental
    psychology is in such clear agreement that such a test could be agreed upon?  I’m not.  I’m not persuaded by the analogy of military entrance exams either.

    2.  Are there other ways to improve
    people’s parenting skills that don’t involve licensing?  Don’t we have an
    array of civil society institutions we can draw on to help, short of handing
    the state this power?  

    3.  What are the dangers of public
    choice/capture issues here?  One can only imagine the political wrangling
    that would take place to define the test and the correct answers.  If the state can design a clean parenting test, why can’t it ?  Am I a
    bad parent because I let my kids walk alone to the corner store?  I can
    hear Lenore Skenazy of *Free Range Kids* fame screaming from here. 🙂

    • Steve,

      Why is it that no BHL even considers what happens to dissenters – parents who decline to submit to testing ? This scheme requires the state to take their children from them by force. Isn’t that in itself an obvious, immediate  and insuperable hurdle for libertarians?

      • Ed

        No hurdle for me. I am a libertarian and have worked in the Child Protection field for 5 years. I am an adoptive parent who has adopted 7 children from state foster care. Here’s the thing: we libertarians believe that everyone has these rights as long as they don’t deny those rights to others. Well guess what? Some parents deny their children the basic rights of being safe, fed, cared for, etc. When a little girl has to worry every night that her step-dad or mother’s boyfriend is going to come into her room and rape her, her rights are being denied. 

        I have no problem whatsoever with Child Protective Services. As long as the state recognizes the parents’ rights under the 4th and 5th amendments (among others), I’m good with it.

        • But in the case of someone who is merely a dissenter declining to submit
          to your certification testing and who has not harmed their own child in
          any way – how do you justify taking the child away? How are you
          justified in assuming that I am an unfit parent simply from the fact
          that I refuse to submit to your demand that I be tested for fitness to
          raise my own child?

          (Sorry for the late response, but I didn’t see your reply until now.)

    • Ed

      Here’s the problem. We are currently removing children who have been abused and/or neglected. In order for those parents to get their children back, they are required to do a variety of things, including attend parenting classes. This system costs quite a bit of money…as it is currently done. Were we to “license parents” we may very well eliminate a number of those situations that warrant a child’s removal.

      I know some of the anarchist strain would argue that the state has no business being in the child protection business, but if you’ve ever seen what some of these folks have done (or allowed to be done) to their child, you might rethink your objections. Most folks have no clue what some of these poor children have experienced…being burned with curling irons, cigarettes, boiling water; being struck with baseball bats, fists, curtain rods; sexually penetrated, forced to engage in oral and/or anal sex with an adult, fondled; not fed, not had their diaper changed for days, etc., etc.While not all of these issues would be resolved, if some could be we might avoid the trauma that these poor children have to endure initially, as well as the trauma experienced by being removed and placed with strangers. We might also save a significant amount of money placing in out-of-home placements. As much as I am, and have been for years, a libertarian, I am beginning to believe that licensing parents might not be such a bad idea.

    • Ty

      It’s so creepy that Shorwitz got 13 likes when it’s clear in the person’s language, calling parenting and kids a “burden”, that they’re prone to emotional abuse… How did people not catch that? I don’t think it takes a genius to figure out that highly sympathetic and empathetic people make good parents. Sympathy and empathy levels vary in humans and the ones who have low sympathy and empathy should have their kids taken away. My parents have low sympathy, low empathy, a high selfish level – child services should have taken me and my brother away but they didn’t. My parents only figured out how to abuse us without getting caught after that… so they went from physical abuse to emotional abuse. Since you can’t really teach people to feel things they don’t naturally feel (ie sympathy), you can’t teach them how to parent. What stops bad people is the law, most people are only good because they have to be. They should issue license to be a parent or have stricter laws on child abuse – where it’s not just taking the kid away or visiting the home but also throwing them in jail and making them do community service and pay a fine – that’s how you would raise some money for institutions to take care of abused kids.

  • So let me get this straight. You want to hand over the decision of who can or cannot be a parent to the government, the same government run by corrupt self-centered imbeciles who wish to increase their power over the citizenry at any cost? Let’s just imagine, if you will, some very unsavory characters get into power, and let’s use some hyperbole to starkly illustrate this. If some die-hard conservatives get into power, what if they declare that black people can’t have licenses? Or if some crazies get into power and say the same about Jews? Or radical atheists (who I don’t think actually exist) say Christians cannot get licenses because their religious beliefs harm children, who are not yet ready to think rationally about their theological claims?

    Get the picture?

    I understand the concern that a lot of people out there don’t have the know-how to parent well–I see it everyday–but I think it’s a ridiculous leap to go from that to “the government must license parents.” I see that as a dangerous precedent and one that could lead to all sorts of problems. Better to have non-mandatory “certification programs,” as you say, but not a government-backed, mandatory, built-on-force licensing program.

    • Michael Breuker

      Child Protective Services in many states are already overzealous. As rates of actual child abuse decline year over year, these government bureaucrats need something to do to continue to justify their existence. They have resorted to arresting parents who let their kids play in the front yard alone (supervised through the front window) or who let their 13-year old babysit or who allow a child to wait in a locked car while they pay for gas. Lenore Skenazy writes often about these extremities in her blog,

      The problem is that everyone has their own ideas about how best to raise children, and while I don’t agree with other parent’s choices, I am not so arrogant to believe that my opinion must be absolutely right and force it on everyone else. Just think about this for a minute. Many people think that homeschooling is abusive and should not be allowed. Many states require vaccinations, but allow for religious exemptions. Why only religious exemptions? (I am pro-vaccine, by the way). Some parents are permissive, which other parents think is wrong, and some parents are strict, which other parents think is overbearing and abusive. Everyone has an opinion about what sorts of diet and activities children should engage in. My neighbor took his 9-year old hunting and let him shoot his first deer (which may have been illegal, I didn’t check the law in my state about what age a kid can handle a gun) and I thought that was a terrible decision and makes him a bad parent, but that’s his business. At the same time, I am sure he thinks I am a bad parent for not sending my kids to church on Sundays.

      Obvious cases of physical and sexual abuse and neglect exist, and to me the best thing to do is to keep the bar really low and then give CPS the tools needed to aggressively enforce the law when parents drop below that bar. Licensing sets standards, and standards are the last thing we need when it comes to parenting.

  • Andrew, I was thinking about writing a response to your piece from last week on ideal theory; in my view there’s no such thing as ideal political theory, only idealizations of one sort or another along one dimension or another, and thinking of what one is doing as “ideal theory” typically allows for at best semi-responsible and semi-consistent idealizations of one thing or another.  All too often what gets irresponsibly idealized are state action, state actors, and state capacity, imagined as standing in for philosophical right answers, while private persons and private entities are still imagined in all their flawed human-ness.

    How nice of you to spare me the trouble by demonstrating all these points so well in this terrific piece of subtle satire!


  • Andrew Cohen

    Haytham: I think my response to questions of gun licensing has to be the same as my response to questions of driving.

    1. There is no doubt in my mind that for many children the best thing for them is to be removed from the people who happen to have power over them (such people call themselves “parents” but in many cases that seems an abuse of the word).  No doubt at all that they will be better off with others that can actually parent.
    2. A comparative institutional analysis would be important, but we have to be careful what is being compared.  To be fair, we should compare (a) the state with a parental licensing program but without the other sorts of things that the libertarian state would exclude with (b) what we have now and, perhaps also with (c) some other ideal.  I have no doubt that (a) would beat (b). 
    3. About your first question: I have more faith in psychology than you do.  About your second: Of course there are alternative ways to help improve parenting skills; unfortunately, they do not seem to be working.  Can they work?  Perhaps, but I don’t think they will if the state stays the way it is in other regards.  I guess the thing to do would be to work out the libertarian ideal with parental licensing and compare it to the libertarian ideal without.  I admit that my comparison is with current society only.  Finally, about your third question: the State would otherwise be much more limited in its powers; additionally, this power would have to be very clearly delineated.   If that is not possible, then I would have to give up the program, but I don’t see a reason to think it impossible.  We do driver’s licenses now without too much of a problem, I think.

    Jeremy: The state I have in mind, of course, is a libertarian state.  It would thus have very limited powers.  There would thus be very different people running the operations of the state–with very different incentives.  As I indicated in response to Steve, the powers here would also have to be very clearly delineated (and limited).  In any case, I am a BHL mainly because of children.  I don’t know what you see everyday in terms of bad parenting.  What I see is infants and young children raped, burned, beaten, etc.  We can stop their parents after the fact or before.  

    • Anonymous

      I would think that the past 220 years would have taught us that a coercive monopoly institution such as a state cannot be limited by any constitution, given that the coercive monopoly institution is the one who interprets and enforces the constitution. It just won’t work, Andrew. The very idea of a libertarian state is an illusion. Coercive monopoly institutions do not equate with libertarianism (meaning non-aggression).

  • Joel Hancock

    “No doubt at all that they will be better off with others that can actually parent.” 
    The question is whether they will even be with others that can actually parent. The licensing program is only better for the kids if there is some reasonable likelihood that the kids will end up in better homes. I can’t think of a reason why we should believe that they will. 

  • JW Ogden

    Your post is interesting because it makes it clear that there is a stringer argument for licensing parting which we do not license than professions that we do license.   

    I think though that it is better to give everyone a license to be a 
     parenting (maybe, MAYBE with a very easy test) and then have rules that if broken result in loss of license.  I think the same for professional licensing.  BTW related I think that anyone should be allowed to buy most medicines without a prescription but that one should have to pass a simple test and commit to taking the full regime to get an antibiotic.  

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  • This post is stupid as fuck.  I can’t believe that anyone who could reach a position of respect could think these things, especially in the libertarian community.  You obviously have no clue about licensure and need to look into the actual history of any occupation that you would license.  I’ll give you a hint: it’s totally backfired (or succeeded for the wannabe monopolists who pushed for it) in medicine.

  • Yikes.  I believe this is extremely misguided.  A woman spends 9 months pregnant and goes through labor, but then a bureaucrat gets to decide whether or not she’s qualified keep her baby?  Guilty until proven innocent?  While there are abusive parents, no doubt about it, they are a tiny minority of the population.  A law like this would penalize hundreds of millions of people, and put them at risk of having their children taken away from them on the whim of a bureaucrat, because there are a few thousand people in the population who might harm a child.  I know you’re thinking an ideal libertarian would be holding that bureaucratic position, but it’s just because we can’t trust the government to be run only by ideally intelligent, good, and trustworthy individuals that we don’t have laws like this.  Even among libertarians, there are people I would not trust to license gay parents for instance.  Next, where will the child go?  The state approves foster parents in advance, and they still end up with foster parents who abuse the children in their care.  Additionally, parenting isn’t the same type of skill as brain surgery, which cannot be learned on the job.   Many, many people don’t know how to parent in advance, and they do end up successfully raising the children.  Many people also disagree about the best ways to parent.  Those are the things that occur to me in the first flurry of astonishment at reading such a draconian proposal on a libertarian site!

  • ” The second, and more important, test would be a psychological exam that indicates whether the individual (a) understands how to parent and (b) can handle the stress a child brings. ”

    I don’t have children myself.  But as best as I understand from people who do, very, very few people genuinely understand how to parent ex ante, or are already people who can handle the stress.  Becoming a parent seems to be a developmental experience: it is only by being one that people become capable of it.  

    As for the basic idea: it looks wildly different depending on whether it’s envisioned as “weeding out a handful of people” or “reserving parenting for the truly able.”  That is: do we think that inadequate parenting is a very rare phenomenon or a common one?  How low do we set the bar?  I think that a low bar is prima facie morally defensible, a high bar is not– but that even if we could identify the morally reasonable height of the bar, there’s no particular reason to expect that to be the politically stable height, or to expect it to be equitably applied.  The two standards would both be shaped in response to state actors’ pre-existing views about who makes good or bad parents, with outcomes that would be surely shaped by, e.g., racial prejudice, class-cultural prejudice, and so on.  (The guild-professional practices of doctors and lawyers create an entirely different dynamic.)  And so the prima facie moral defensibility of low-bar licensing tells us pretty much nothing about the moral defensibility of creating an actual licensing regime.

  • I really hope no one is taking this seriously.  Indeed in my heart of hearts I hope the author is just trolling us.

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  • John Kindley

    Does Andrew Cohen have kids? If so, somebody needs to look into yanking his license. Nobody harboring such ideas is psychologically fit to parent.

  • Zachary Johnson

    Man I used to respect your opinions Andrew.  Somebody please revoke this guy’s BHL license, because his is no kind of libertarianism.

  • Parental licensing would hit the poor and minorities disproportionately, just as occupational licensing does. I don’t see a liberal-libertarian argument for _any_ licensing, and this in particular would be a totalitarian move. 

  • okay you said it’s not satire, but clearly this is the ultimate troll, right? someone who calls himself a libertarian cannot POSSIBLY be advocating for the government to decide who may bear children, right? 

  • So, let me see if I have this straight.

    A couple performs a voluntary act of copulation.
    A woman performs a self sacrificing, voluntary, dedication of nine months towards the welfare of the child.

    And now, you want to point a gun at her and threaten to shoot her if she doesn’t take a test that could potentially take this child away from her if she doesn’t do well?

    What kind of an ogre are you?

  • randy streu

    So, the question is, who writes the test? Who decides who will or will not make a good parent? What are the criteria for being “psychologically prepared?”  

    If the criteria are limited only to “sufficiently lacks violent tendencies,” perhaps such an argument can be made. Perhaps. 

    Unfortunately, you’re also forced to look at the decision makers — in this case, Government.  Historically, government, once given power, tends to expand that power. How long before some pop psychologist decides spankings, groundings, or even disciplinary chores can do “irreparable harm” to a child’s “well-being?”  

    Is that far-fetched? In New York City, there are public schools in which having a student write lines on a chalk-board is considered corporal punishment, and may result in the suspension or even firing of a teacher. So how long from when we decide to “license” the parents do these same decision-makers start regulating the home?

    Furthermore, once the government has the right to “license” these parents, will there be licensing enforcement? Do we then have to allow an inspector into our homes to be sure that we’re still providing that “safe” environment? What happens when those who were deemed financially stable enough to raise a child suddenly find themselves on an unemployment line? Do they lose their license? Do their children become wards of the State until such time as the parents get back on their feet?

    This isn’t libertarianism of any stripe, this plan of yours. It is run-of-the-mill, liberal Statism at its worst.

  • What a brain-dead argument. “Since the state licenses things it shouldn’t license anyways, lets expand it to parenting!”

    Also: what happens to children born without a license?
    Do you really suppose that people will quit screwing without condoms simply because they need to obtain a license?

    Does the state confiscate the child?

    Man, that gives new meaning to “welfare state.”

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  • Henry Daveed

    I’m guessing Andrew is practicing satire here, and playing it straight in the comments section. 

    Clearly Andrew knows that the state forcible removing children from poor parents or parents deemed unfit by the government is not only the antithesis of libertarianism it’s about as fascist as one could get.

    Coming next, an article on the merits of forced sterilization!

  • Is today April 1st?  Or Jonathan Swift Remembrance Day? Is the Onion now a contributor for the BHL site?

    I have two objections to this ridiculous suggestion:
    1) There are myriad ways a child can be “damaged” by a parent.  As Dr. Horowitz noted, can child psychologists devise a one-size-fits-all test that determines what makes one an acceptable parent?  You mention physical abuse in this post, but what about emotional and mental abuse?  How exactly would the state even know if a parent had the potential to be emotionally scarring to their children if they have yet to have children to scar emotionally?  Or are you only concerned w/ physical abuse?  

    2) This smells like backdoor eugenics, and I would venture that if such a test were to be implemented, you would see many minorities, single-parents, inner-city dwellers, etc. have their parental rights stripped from them.  You think the state has institutional bias and racism vis-a-vis the drug war and the prison system?  Just wait until this brilliant plan is put in place…

    3) By what basis do you think that the state would be an effective and motivated entity to handle the problem of abused children well?  How well does the state handle child and/or human services now?  How many orphans fall through the cracks because social workers are either stretched far too thin to adequately do their jobs, or they don’t care and are negligent.  Either way, the state has a terrible track record when it comes to handling the problems of broken families and broken communities.  I would even go a step further and say that the argument could probably be made in which the state is causally related to bad parenting in the first place (but that would require real research, not internet pontification). 

    4) Let’s assume the state is 100% efficient at this and that there are no eugenics or racial issues that arrive when this program is implemented.  Let’s just talk economics: how much money exactly would a massive program like this cost?  The expanded bureaucracy, the state psychologists, the increased need for orphanages and foster homes as there will undoubtedly be more kids in transit (and more kids than parents willing to take them), the increased need of social workers to monitor said kids in transit…this is a program that would rival social security in its scope.  From whence will the funds for this come from?  More taxes?  More debt?  More Federal Reserve currency expansion?  5) Um…individual liberty?  Shouldn’t all conversations about schemes begin and end with that consideration?  Sigh.

    This entire post is one mega facepalm.

  • Ethan Pooley (furball4)

    My response is essentially that of Clay Guida Batista and Noah Yetter: I can’t believe this concept got even this far in such a state. At the very least, it seems blatantly obvious that since the vast majority of parents do an acceptable job at a very difficult task, our “licenses” would rightly have to be assumed by the state until proven otherwise: the burden of proof would be on the state to investigate and revoke it. Conveniently, that is exactly how things currently work. We all know some people can’t be allowed to parent their own children, in fairness to the children, and we occasionally have to carefully prove this in order to justify remedying the situation. What needs fixing about this?

    If the split is something like 97% acceptably competent and 3% incompetent, why in the world would we start assuming incompetence as a way of improving the outcomes? And make no mistake, a licensing program is an administrative assumption of incompetence – which is exactly why it’s a terrible and unjust idea in other areas. If the split is more like 70/30 then the other problem arises: you aren’t going to have enough places to put all these refugee children, so the point is moot unless you’re going to kill them.

    Epstein does a great job discussing these sorts of things: how the mere existence of a particular concern or right doesn’t necessarily dictate which legal reactions should evolve to address them. Instead, which reactions are appropriate can be highly situation-dependent. The focus is on low-cost, low-maintenance systems with smart default positions to avoid waste, friction, and failed outcomes.

    I’m going to have to do some more thinking and responding to this, but the simplest fact of the matter is that the state (my fellow citizens) don’t have the right to assume my incompetence in parenting. They must prove it at their own behest and on their own dime, or leave me the hell alone. They have chosen a smart system where they wait for negative indications before even opening the question.

    • “…it seems blatantly obvious that since the vast majority of parents do an
      acceptable job at a very difficult task, our ‘licenses’ would rightly
      have to be assumed by the state until proven otherwise: the
      burden of proof would be on the state to investigate and revoke it.
      Conveniently, that is exactly how things currently work. … What needs fixing …?”


    • Ethan Pooley (furball4)

      The kind of post Andrew gave us, and our reactions to it, are becoming more interesting to me than the content of the post itself. Several thoughts:

      1. I have asked some real whoppers like this in my time, as I’ve explored the edges of my libertarianism. It is important that libertarians not become dogmatic about any of their conclusions; it is equally important that they perpetually reach the – for the lack of a better term – right conclusions through whatever process they are following that is healthier than dogmatism. Andrew’s proposition flies in the face of a lot of what we consider to be “settled” libertarian doctrine, which explains the intensity of our response. But the very best response is still – as usual – a calm and careful explanation of why the proposition should be discarded. After all, if Andrew doesn’t ask it, someone else eventually will.

      2. In retrospect, the more open way to raise and discuss this topic would be to say something like this: “States can properly be involved in protecting children from abusive situations, just as neighbors can. But what mechanisms are appropriate and justified? When can prior restraint be used, as opposed to reactive measures?” If followed by a treatment of various mechanisms that included licensure of parents, I believe this would have produced a more constructive discussion and avoided the visceral responses.

      3. Speaking of prior restraint, I think that is where this discussion touches upon a much larger topic of interest to libertarians, and one that can be constructively discussed on its own. When is prior restraint appropriate and justified as an enforcement scheme? One of the reasons to intentionally remove emotional aspects of a discussion, if possible, is that participants are more likely to see the important philosophical threads that run through it. In this case, it’s a very broad and approachable thread.

      4. Although I don’t see Andrew suggesting it, it seems to me that his question might be driven by a feeling that the state has a duty to protect children from abuse. This might explain his attraction to one of the few mechanisms that would constitute the state taking, in a very visible fashion, full responsibility for this duty. If this is the case I think the premise is flawed: the state has no inherent duty to protect children from anything. In fact, states have no inherent positive duties at all. All of their positive duties consist of things contingently delegated to them by their constituents. A just state could ignore obvious cases of child abuse, so long as it did not punish individuals who took it upon themselves to interfere with the abuser. Only if the abuser appealed to the state for protection from these interferences would the state be forced to pass judgement on the situation. But it would still not have been forced to identify, remedy, or even research that situation: identification and remedy would have fallen to the interferer, research to the legal counsel of both parties. I don’t suggest that we want to do it this way – I am in favor of infusing the state with certain duties toward the protection of children. But it seems a worthwhile distinction to make, and perhaps addresses a point of Andrews motivation.

      • “the state has no inherent duty to protect children from anything. In fact, states have no inherent positive duties at all.”
        Millions of children born in the gutter hope you’re wrong about this: 

        • Ethan Pooley (furball4)

          I don’t see a conflict between my statement and the legal principle you refer to. I haven’t denied that the state can be infused with such a duty by its constituents, or even that it should. I simply point out that having the state do it is a choice, not an obligation. We could have a state that was instructed to remain aloof, and we would still be free to approach the problems of child abuse through other societal mechanisms, including the use of force by organizations or individuals. The state would occasionally be forced to pass judgement on those efforts between disputants.

          I would also deny that we as individuals have a moral duty to protect children who are not our own. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t – or don’t – have compassion that leads to me to choose to protect them anyway.

        • Anonymous

          How does parens patriae fare in practice, in light of decisions such as Gonzales v. Castle Rock?

          • I’m sure there are plenty of instances where the state falls short of its duty as parens patriae, and probably many others where it over-reacts. 

            I just mentioned the doctrine to refute the idea that parents or caregivers should have the right to exclude the state from scrutinizing their child-rearing methods.

          • Anonymous

            The point in invoking Gonzales is not that the state falls short in its duty of parens patriae, it is that it explicitly denies that it  has any such duty.

            Except, you know, where it extends the state’s power, rather than creating an enforceable claim by the citizen against the state.

          • Kenneth, I haven’t studied the case in depth, but in Gonzales the ruling wasn’t that Colorado had no duty to enforce the restraining order, but that the mother had no property right in the enforcement, and also that, given the circumstances (i.e., the husband called to let the wife know he would be late returning the kids), the police exercised reasonable discretion in not rushing to enforce. So, that’s why I said the state fell short in its duty, but I don’t see how the state could have foreseen the husband murdering the kids.

      • Thank you for that refreshingly thoughtful comment.

  • For what it’s worth, I understood that Andrew was not engaging in satire.  Instead, he’s engaging in what I think is a problematic kind of supposedly ideal theory.  He can answer all of our as-applied objections by saying that his question is  “What authority should a state have, assuming that it’s an ideally just libertarian state?”  But the second half of that sentence is the political philosopher’s equivalent of the economist’s “assume a can opener.”

    • shorwitz

      Right.  Which is exactly the problem with his response to my reply.

  • Michael J. Green

    That is, there is no moral right to raise a child, and we would do well to think of it as a privilege that the state grants and can refrain from granting to certain individuals. …I have not seen a good defense of the claim that natural biological parents should be assumed to have the right to raise the child they create.
    This seems like yet one more reason to drop rights-talk in favor of Anthony de Jasay’s emphasis on liberty and the logical presumption of liberty. If people’s freedom depends on their having a “moral right” to do something, then of course you’ll be led to conclusions like the above. I don’t know whether there is a “right” to raise a child, even the child sharing your genes. I do think you have the liberty to do so, unless someone can provide a compelling reason to abridge that liberty. The onus is on you to argue why a parent should not be allowed to raise its child, not the parent to justify its raising the child to you. Assault against the child is a compelling reason to keep the child from the parent, as assault is a tort; “the child’s welfare could be better elsewhere” is not so compelling. If it is, well, you’ve pretty much given up the game: the incrementalist, “pragmatic,” social democratic system is unassailable.

  • Anonymous

     I have not done any serious thinking about this issue, but I would like to offer one point that may support Andrew’s argument:  how would we compare/contrast this idea with the libertarian axiom of homesteading oneself?

    When I have encountered self-homesteading in the past, it usually takes the form that a child must prove himself to be an adult by living independently for a specified period (e.g. one year).  I do not have a citation for this, but it is probably in the Mises/Rothbard tradition.

    Might we be justified then, in qualifying that the child show himself capable of living independently AND capable of raising a child?  Or to argue the converse: would a child who homesteads himself also prove capable of rearing a child “by definition”?

    I am troubled by this concept of “parental licensing”.  I do not like the idea, but I do place a high value on intellectual consistency.  There may be no relationship between parental licensing and self-homesteading.  However, I think it is worth raising the point.

  • Hmm.  I would argue that to the extent that moral rights exist, or to the extent that they are a useful shorthand, then parenting almost undoubtedly qualifies for a moral right.  The problem with moral rights, of course, is that they tend to be a bit axiomatic.

    I think the objections raised upthread regarding the problems of establishing rational licensing standards and the state’s ability to find preferable situations are serious pragmatic problems with this approach.Not to mention that it opens the door to at least memetic eugenics awfully quickly.  See the Australian program to place Aboriginal children with white parents.

  • david bunn

    I’ve a better idea. Perhaps you should need a license to write a blog.  Then the state could take it off you if you write drivel…. 

  • I’m not sure if licensing of parents is the answer, but I respect the attempt to confront the huge problem of child abuse and neglect, which arguably is the root cause of most social problems.

    From a legal standpoint, for quite awhile it’s been my understanding that the more than 30 legal, economic and tax benefits that society confers on the institution of marriage was always intended to benefit and support child-rearing, not to legally enforce an emotional bond between two people. 

    Therefore, to solve the child abuse/neglect problem, I’d favor a re-thinking of when the full array of marital benefits should kick in. 

  • I agree with many of the criticisms that others have raised in this comment thread.  I think Andrew’s position is wrong, and wrong in a way that’s especially surprising coming from a libertarian, insofar as it seems to ignore or gloss over considerations that seem essential to the libertarian view, at least as I understand it.

    That said, I also think it’s much, much easier to poke holes in things that other political theorists have said about the proper treatment of children than it is to come up with a reasonable theory of one’s own.  I think Andrew’s position, wrongheaded as it is, is eminently more reasonable that the position espoused by Murray Rothbard in The Ethics of Liberty, in which he states unambiguously that parents ought to have the legal right to starve their children to death (p. 100-101).  It is more reasonable than the position held by 11% of the respondents to Liberty Magazine’s 1988 readers’ poll who said they would not trespass on someone else’s lawn to save a child from being starved by its parents.  It is wrong.  But the doctrinaire Rothbardians out there are in not much of a position to throw stones on this issue. 

    Children pose a problem for any political theory.  Yes, their parents create them, and tend to know and care about their needs better than anyone else.  But children are independent beings with their own rights and with very special needs.  And so any reasonable theory will recognize that a parent’s dominion over its child is a severely constrained one.  Consider:

    1) All of you, presumably, believe that there are some situations where children should be forcibly taken away from their parents, possibly by the state.  Almost all of you will agree that this is the case when a parent violates the child’s negative rights – when the parent beats the child so badly that he breaks its arm, for instance.  Most of you, I suspect, will also think that removal of the child will be justifiable in some situations where no negative but only positive rights have been violated – when, as above, the parent refuses to provide the child with sufficient food to live.  So almost all of you admit that there ought to be some criteria that ought to be used to determine whether parents are allowed to continue raising their children or not.  That’s not quite licensing, but it’s a pretty big foot in the door.

    2) Andrew’s argument is about raising children, not creating them.  Requiring a license to procreate, it seems to me, is a much graver infringement on individual liberty, and one the enforcement of which would be much more invasive, than requiring a license to raise.  Procreation itself involves two persons using their own bodies in a voluntary, consensual way.  Raising a child, on the other hand, involves exercising rights over another independent being.  Licensing parents might be troubling from a libertarian perspective, but so should be parental authority.  (See Herbert Spencer’s surprisingly sensitive treatment here:  

    Again, I do not agree with or endorse Andrew’s position at all.  But I think some of the commentators here and elsewhere have been a bit too quick to hurl terms like “stupid as fuck” and “brain dead.”  If you feel that way, then please, I ask you, show me your theory of the proper extent of parental authority and the proper role of the state in regulating and policing that authority.  Then cast all the stones you’d like.

    • John Kindley

      Good points about Rothbard. And Benjamin Tucker apparently wrote that a mother has the right to throw her infant in a fire, for which reason I’ve never bothered to read anything he’s ever written other than his obit of Lysander Spooner. Ethan Pooley above I think gets its pretty much right. And I wasn’t really joking by suggesting in my comment that if Cohen has kids maybe his own license to parent should be revoked based on the bad ideas he’s expressed here: After all, it’s not much of a leap for the State to say that a person holding fringe views is likely to harm his children by inculcating them with those views. I think we saw that with those parents who named their kid Adolf Hitler or something, and whom I believe eventually got their kid taken away from them. So, what about parents with anarchic views? Seems the State is quite prone to view those views as harmful, and the parent who influences his kid to appreciate them as harming the kid. What about parents who are fundamentalist Christians? Etc.

    • >  If you feel that way, then please, I ask you, show me your theory of
      the proper extent of parental authority and the proper role of the state
      in regulating and policing that authority.  Then cast all the stones
      you’d like.

      1: Unlimited authority in areas that do not concern physical abuse, such as starvation or beating.
      2: It’s the state’s job to protect individuals from physical abuse.

      What do you people not understand about liberty?

      • Maybe not as much as you, Jimbo. I would have thought, for instance, that abuse implies positive action, whereas starvation implies a kind of neglect. So if non-action can be abusive, what other kinds of inactivity besides starvation qualify? Failure to provide medical care? Failure to educate in basic skills like reading? Or is it really just *physical* abuse that qualifies? So any sort of emotional/psychological damage that parents might choose to do to children is their own prerogative? They have unlimited dominion over their independent-rights bearing children in that respect? That’s liberty?

        • I would posit that starvation is an action. Every parent has the choice to feed either themselves or their child. They make the choice to feed themselves, and the choice to not feed their child.

        • Sorry, regarding the physical abuse, yes, simply because there is no objective measurement of what could be qualified as “emotional” abuse. In example, I consider submitting a child to religion as abuse.

    • ” [Cohen’s proposal] is more reasonable than the position held by 11% of the respondents
      to Liberty Magazine’s 1988 readers’ poll who said they would not
      trespass on someone else’s lawn to save a child from being starved by
      its parents. ”

      I would trespass to protect the child, but I’d have no positive moral obligation to do so. On the other hand Cohen’s scheme requires doing violence to innocent dissenters. The 11%  commit no moral offense, Cohen does.  His plan is just more liberal, not more reasonable.

  • Eric Dzinski

    I don’t see the harm. Considering that state licensing schemes are wholly immune to cartelization and politicization,  I’m sure that licenses will be denied only in cases of demonstrable harm, not when parents merely fail to measure up to the proper moral standards of the majority, or because there’s too many babies (of your sort anyway) already, thanks.

  • Unless you believe in a higher, supernatural power that “grants” humans their rights, people get their rights from their natures AS HUMANS. That is, if you have the right to life at all, you have the right to live a HUMAN life, to the best of your ability and available resources. As well, nobody has the right to prevent you from living a human life, except in punishment for a violations of the rights of others.

    Clearly, humans were designed to reproduce and raise young. Science continues to reveal that this is evident in the evolution of our brains, bodies, and behavior. How can we not conclude that having and raising children, while not the defining core activity of humanity, is an important, major component to living a fully human life? My wife and I certainly know that our lives changed qualitatively and, we believe, for the better, after our son was born. While our key responsibility was to do right by him, and raise him to independent maturity, he, and our experiences and efforts in raising him, also raised US to the next level of our own development as human beings.  We had a right to that, too. We made mistakes along the way. Some people don’t bother to try raising children; some try but fail; some, by choice or fate, raise only the children of others. But all have the RIGHT to try if they wish.

    I didn’t always believe this. Long before I actually had kids, closer to the time when I was one, I supported more state intervention in child-rearing than I do now, because I thought the only rights involved were the rights of children to good homes and proper care. I also had a lot of first-hand experience with bad home situations and bad parental choices.  Time, however, provided some additional information to shape my view: 1) The state isn’t very good at raising children; and 2) the experience of having and raising children is almost as important to the parents as to the children — so important that I eventually came to see active participation in parenthood of one’s own children, or mentorship of others, as among the natural rights of human beings.

    One can abuse one’s rights, of course. Intervention — by the state, extended family, or any other suitable agency — may be necessary in cases of clear abuse, especially physical neglect or injury. But respecting the shared humanity of all parties involved, I now think that all intervention should be aimed at stabilizing the family and nourishing the parent-child bond, unless that proves simply impossible.

    The idea of “parent certification” programs makes sense to me as a strictly voluntary activity — never to be mandated by government — and, potentially, as a means to indicate parental competence in competition with a spouse, during an official custody hearing. Even then, were I the judge, I would view such certification as, at best, proof of one’s good-faith intent to fulfill the role of parent; more important would be one’s actual, demonstrated ability to raise a child in a loving — and, ideally, a stable — home.

    I don’t think a truly libertarian case can be made for government licensing of fundamental life activities, which having and raising children surely are; if such a case can be made, this author has not convinced me that he has made it. Perhaps the proposal is tongue-in-cheek, offered so dryly as to leave my sense of sarcasm undisturbed. In offering it, he has more successfully demonstrated the limits of his libertarianism. For me, being a libertarian means refusing to use force to prevent people from living as they wish to live, unless and until they harm the persons or damage the property of others, or it can be credibly shown that such harm or damage is certain and inevitable, absent prior intervention (as, for example. would be training a loaded gun on a target at point-blank range, with one’s finger on the trigger). Blanket prior restraint of a particular activity is generally rejected by libertarians because, despite the potential for abuse, the consequences of the activity can be benign at least as often (and usually much more often) than they can entail harm or damage. As I see it, the requirement that parents have a child-rearing license falls into that reject category.

    • Anonymous

      “Unless you believe in a higher, supernatural power that “grants” humans
      their rights, people get their rights from their natures AS HUMANS. That
      is, if you have the right to life at all, you have the right to live a
      HUMAN life, to the best of your ability and available resources. As
      well, nobody has the right to prevent you from living a human life,
      except in punishment for a violations of the rights of others.”

      This. We can legitimately argue over the source of natural rights, but the minute — the second — one proposes one or another exception to natural rights one abandons liberty. The only thing left to argue is over who gets to pull the levers, and to what extent we are the playthings (means to an end) of another.

      Referencing another post, one can say “nuance” as much as one pleases, but sometimes it really is binary. One is either an end or a means.

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  • Richard Carey

    If you found this in a Ron Paul newsletter, he’d be in big trouble now!

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  • I’d say interfering with parenting is like torture: It can be justified in some cases but it’s stupid to delegate it to a state.

    In general there is no efficient means of protecting children from their parents. How would you even morally fund such a project?

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  • jhertzli

    You cannot use the Ring. It’s nature is evil and it consumes those who would wield it.

    • Ethan Pooley (furball4)

      One of the best renderings of this sentiment that I’ve seen says simply, “Authority is a solvent of humanity.”

  • Anonymous

    The argument founders on self-ownership, and goes downhill from there.

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  • Daniel Fackrell

    1. Where does the state get the power to raise children, if not taken from the parents themselves?

    2. What government has a demonstrated ability to do a better job raising children than their parents?  Can you say it about every government at every time throughout history, or do you find yourself making exceptions for counter-examples?

    3. What about the necessary, and very libertarian, understanding of the relationship between powers and responsibilities?  Separating those two in any case violates human nature and natural law.  The creation of a responsibility (becoming the parent of a new child) necessarily implies the power to execute that responsibility (raising the child).

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  • Andrew Cohen

    Well, I knew there would be some opposition to this post,
    but I didn’t anticipate the vitriol it would elicit.  Live and learn, I guess.  I stand by what I wrote.  I’ll try to respond to the good comments
    (whether they criticize, ask questions, or try to help).  I’ll try to ignore the rest.


    Before I get into individual comments, I want to note that
    some of the comments make it clearer to me why many people reject libertarianism
    without much thought.  Dogmatic
    insistence that government be limited, without any argument, is not a respectable position.  My
    co-bloggers and I and other respectable libertarians have principled arguments
    for our views.  We have disagreements, of
    course (see Steve, Jacob, and Matt’s comments above, for example), but our
    disagreements are not merely about who wants to limit government more.  Our disagreements are about the proper
    justification, if any, for government action and what such justification
    actually justifies.  None of us would
    say, I think, “You want to limit the liberty of an individual to harm
    another?  You’re an idiot!”  What we might say is “Look, limiting the
    liberty of an individual is inherently bad (or bad because of A,B, and C—or
    both), so any such limitation must be well justified and because X, Y, and X,
    the limitation you are suggesting is unacceptable.”  We would then argue about X, Y, and Z, trying
    to discern if they are true and if, given that they are true, they in fact
    indicate the said limitation is unacceptable.


    Earlier (at,
    I defined libertarianism as “A family of liberal views that take negative liberty (freedom from
    interference) to be the most important (and guiding) value in the organization
    of a just state, insisting it must be present for all.” I think this post
    leaves me a libertarian if that definition is right.  It doesn’t require, after all, that there be
    no interference at all.  Indeed, as Matt
    suggested above, no one really believes that. 
    The question is simply, “when is interference permitted?”  Putting that differently, the question is
    “what justifies interference?”  (The
    question is not, mind you, “how much interference is permitted?”)  On my own brand of libertarianism, harm to
    others always serves as a good reason for interference (which is not to say it
    always requires interference).  So, I
    take myself to be a libertarian.  At the
    end of the day, though, as with Matt in his new post (,
    I don’t much care about labels.  And, at
    the end of the day, I am more committed to being a philosopher than being a
    libertarian.  That is, I am committed to
    following the arguments, wherever they lead. 
    I believe (obviously!) that the arguments lead to my form of
    libertarianism.  If I were convinced they
    lead in a different direction, I would go in that direction.  If that somehow on its own makes me
    unlibertarian, so be it, but I don’t think it does.


    One other general comment: Some people seem to have misread me as suggesting
    difficult exams for parental licenses.  I
    did not mean to suggest that.  Indeed, I
    think there can be a 2-level sort of testing: most people would pass the easy
    test, but if you fail, you go through further examination.  The hope is that the second test would catch
    false positives and we’d learn that someone we worried about would be
    fine.  It may also be that at the
    second testing level, the applicant is given some training.  This is decidedly not about preventing people from raising children–its about preventing children from being in situations wherein they are harmed.


    So, on to specifics:


    Shemsky: I agree that the history of coercive monopolies is bad.  My hope is that we can have one that is (a)
    so limited and (b) so approved of by its citizens, that it can last.  (b) is really important—the people have to
    want to keep the government’s power limited.


    Joel Hancock: There are really great people that do foster care.  Its not without problems, of course, but it
    often works quite well.  In a better
    society, I think, there would be less need for it, so it might be even
    better.  Also, the record is pretty clear
    with regard to adoption: statistically, adoptive parents are far less likely to
    abuse a child.


    JW Ogden: I think what you suggest is pretty much what we have now: it
    is assumed that everyone that has a child is competent to raise the child and
    that can be defeated.  The problem is the
    assumption is only ever defeated after a child is harmed.


    EllenY: (1) I don’t recall saying anything about guilt.  My post was, if anything, about avoiding
    guilt—that is, making it less likely that anyone would abuse a child in the
    first place.  This is in sharp contrast
    to our current system.  (2) Abusive
    parents are a small minority, but that is no reason not to want to prevent them
    in the first place.  In any case, I don’t
    see how my system would “penalize hundreds of millions of people,” unless you think the current
    system for drivers’ licenses also does that. 
    (3) About foster parents: there are many good ones; part of what is
    surprising about foster care is the different ways foster parents are treated
    if they work directly with DFCS rather than through a private agency (hint: the
    latter typically face more scrutiny). 
    The system is not currently ideal, but it can be improved and I think
    the system I propose would help—in part because fewer children would go into
    foster care due to abuse.  (4) Finally, I
    agree parenting skills can be learned “on the job,” but I don’t see any reason
    to think that means parenting classes are not valuable—they are—and my system
    would encourage people to take them so that they can more easily attain their


    Jacob: First, see (4) to EllenY. 
    Second, per my final general comment above, I envision the program as
    “weeding out a handful of people.” 
    That said, I think there is obviously a huge range of parenting
    skills.  I know parents I think are not
    very good at parenting but whom I think should not be interfered with; I am
    concerned with those that do significant harm—and I’ve seen too many cases of
    that to ignore it.  Would the standards
    “be shaped in response to state actors’ pre-existing views about who makes good
    or bad parents”?  Well, standards
    necessarily impose certain views (e.g., the view that blind people should not
    drive), but that doesn’t have to be problematic.


    Anthony Gregory: why would the program disproportionately burden


    Kruger: Obviously, I think we can do this without the use of guns for most
    cases, but if guns are needed to stop someone from raping a 2 week old, I am OK
    with that.  If that makes me an ogre,
    well, OK.


    Randy Streu:
    My only suggestion about how to decide who writes the test and who decides what
    the minimal level of decent parenting is, is that we seek out experts on child
    psychology.  I don’t think the program
    should even be started until we have a well-defined and well-defended set of
    exams.  You ask a separate and equally
    difficult question: “What happens
    when those who were deemed financially stable enough to raise a child suddenly
    find themselves on an unemployment line?” 
    My own thinking is that we try to help them out by connecting them with
    charitable organizations.  But notice
    that I might also allow for minimal financial assistance from the state.  All of this does in fact make me a “statist”
    in that I think we should have a state (though I do waver about this).  As I’ve said numerous times, I’d far rather
    tax dollars be spent to help individuals in genuine need than corporate


    James Padilioni Jr: (1) I am concerned with all forms of abuse that can
    be proven to be harms; but generally, I think we can only weed out significant
    harms, (2) I agree we have to prevent the state from working with racist
    prejudices and the other sorts of prejudices you mention; that should be
    obvious, (3) the state does fail children now, but that is not a reason not to
    try to have a state that doesn’t fail children. 
    I agree, by the way, that an argument could “probably be made in which
    the state is causally related to bad parenting in the first place.”  Part of my hope is that in a genuine
    libertarian society, parenting would be better then in our society—indeed, I
    think the very fact that a libertarian society would encourage people to take
    care of themselves and their loved ones would do that.  If that happens, there would be very few
    people denied a parenting license.  Of
    course, this all sounds utopian.  (4) I
    don’t know why we should think this program would be much more expensive—or at
    all more expensive—then something like drivers license programs.  And, of course, less money would be spent on
    all sorts of things—like corporate welfare, state-run schools, etc.  I do think what I propose would be a far
    better use of tax dollars, (5) Yes.  But
    liberty should not be thought to include the right to abuse children.


    Ethan Pooley: What you think is convenient about our system is exactly
    what I think leaves children being abused. 
    I am not at all suggesting we assume incompetence.  I don’t think drivers license programs assume
    people don’t know how to drive—they just test it.  I agree that “the mere existence of a
    particular concern or right doesn’t necessarily dictate which legal reactions
    should evolve to address them,” and am open to hearing about alternatives that
    would prevent the sort of suffering abused children go through.  From your second comment: (1) thank you, I
    agree, (2) I agree with the first part of this, but I doubt framing the post
    the way you suggest would make a difference. 
    In any case, I remain open to alternative suggestions as to how to
    prevent child abuse, (3) agreed, (4) This is a big one.  We may disagree here, but I am not sure.  I do think the state has a duty to protect
    those within its borders, including children—indeed, I think that is the main reason
    to have a state.  On the other hand, I
    agree that there are different ways the state can discharge that duty. 


    Jacob and Steve: You are right that talk of ideal theory is “the
    political philosopher’s equivalent of the economist’s ‘assume a can opener.’”  But, that goes both ways: where would
    economists be if they never “assumed a can opener”?  In any case, I do believe, as I indicated,
    that ideal theory must precede non-ideal theory.


    Michael Green: I prefer to talk about toleration and what justifies
    interference than talking about rights, but no matter the language, I see no
    reason to think the state (or individuals) should stand by and allow child
    abuse—the whole point of the proposal is to curtail that.  Most of us—myself included—believe they
    should be free to raise the children they cause to be born, but I’ve seen no arguments
    for that claim that are anything like conclusive.  In any case, as indicated, I did not intend
    the testing to be difficult—just enough to prevent the few that would later
    abuse their children.


    Dave: Can you say more about why “parenting almost undoubtedly qualifies
    for a moral right” if there are moral rights?


    Rick DiMare: Thanks for the helpful comments—and for the interesting
    idea of changing marriage law.  I have to
    think about that more.


    Matt: Thanks.


    Anderson Merritt: I like your first paragraph or so, but I don’t see how it leads
    to the conclusion that “ all
    have the RIGHT to try” to raise children. 
    I’m not sure I disagree with the conclusion, either.  In fact, nothing I said goes against it, if
    “trying” includes seeking a parenting license—and I don’t see why it
    shouldn’t.  I also agree that “The state
    isn’t very good at raising children” and that “raising children is almost as
    important to the parents as to the children,” but once again do not see how
    that means parenthood is a natural right.


    Hall: You were addressing J.A.M., but I
    thought I’d point out that whether there are natural rights at all is a big


    John T.
    Kennedy: I’m too much of an optimist to believe there is “no efficient means of protecting children
    from their parents.” 


    Fackrell: I don’t understand your #1. 
    About your #2, I agree governments have a bad history here.  Your #3 assumes that there is natural law and
    that causing a child to be born creates a responsibility.  Both may be true.  I don’t see how it follows that the parent
    has a right to raise the child. 

    I’m caught

    • “Well, I knew there would be some opposition to this post, but I didn’t
      anticipate the vitriol it would elicit. ”

      First day on the internet?

      Live and learn, I guess.  I
      stand by what I wrote.  I’ll try to respond to the good comments
      (whether they criticize, ask questions, or try to help).  I’ll try to
      ignore the rest.
      “Before I get into individual comments, I want
      to note that some of the comments make it clearer to me why many people
      reject libertarianism without much thought.  Dogmatic insistence that
      government be limited, without any argument, is not a respectable

      I think people figure that if you’re posting on a blog with “libertarian” in the name you probably should be aware of basic libertarian arguments. Frankly, suggesting that people ought to submit themselves to your government officials in order to raise children isn’t a respectable moral position. What do you intend to do with dissenters who merely decline to submit? Jail them? Take their children because they didn’t go paws up for you? How could that conceivably be moral? This isn’t tricky stuff.

      “Obviously, I think we can do this without the use of guns for
      most cases, but if guns are needed to stop someone from raping a 2 week
      old, I am OK with that.  If that makes me an ogre, well, OK.”

      No, how are you going to make decent parents like me comply without a gun? Because absent such a credible threat I’m going to ignore you. At best.


      • Andrew Cohen

        Main question: How is it that decent people everyday go and get a drivers license with no problem?

        • I carry such a license because of the gun. I know that if I am pulled over by a cop and I’m not licensed my car will be taken from me at gunpoint. If I persist I will be jailed at gunpoint. If I resist that sufficiently I will be shot dead.

          How many people do you think would apply for such a license if you removed the threat of violence?

          • Andrew Cohen

            There is very little violence done in order to get people to obtain drivers licenses.  I would guess most do not think that they only get a license because of the gun.  Even those that do think it, go along with it.  While raising children is obviously something people get more emotional about, getting a license of doing so needn’t be.  If everyone came to think of parenting licenses as part of normal life, we’d have the same situation with respect to them as we have with respect to drivers licenses: some people, like you would get the license thinking they shouldn’t have to, most would get it without thought, and a few would not get it.

          • “There is very little violence done in order to get people to obtain drivers licenses.”

            …because people know what the result of a firefight with the state is likely to be. So the violence only has to be threatened. A mugger who persuades you he has the drop on you may not have to do actual violence either.

            I asked how many people would get a drivers license if you removed the threat of violence. You didn’t answer because the answer is instructive: hardly any.

            Your proposal requires doing violence to any otherwise innocent parent who sufficiently resists your licensing scheme, does it not? I can’t be allowed to raise my children without your state license regardless of how decent a parent I am, can I? Else your scheme will simply be ignored.

            The fact that the violence you threaten is so massive and ubiquitous that it rarely needs to be demonstrated doesn’t mean you’re not a violent moral criminal.

          • Andrew Cohen

            The violence my system proposes is no more extensive than that currently required for drivers licenses, medical licenses, hairdressing licenses, etc.  And, I would get rid of all of those, so the overall level of violence in my system would be substantially lower than it is today.  Would it be zero?  No, of course not, but getting to zero would be impossible given human nature.  Now, as for your question, would people get the license without the threat of force?  I can’t say–it depends on the prevailing attitudes.  Sometimes, of course, we can work to change prevailing attitudes.  Sometimes we can’t.

          • ” And, I would get rid of all of those, so the overall level of violence
            in my system would be substantially lower than it is today.  Would it be
            zero?  No, of course not, but getting to zero would be impossible given
            human nature.”

            It’s one thing to say “Given human nature there will always be violence against innocents…” and quite another to finish with “…so here’s why I’d do it.”

            So you’re just one of the libertarians who thinks it’s reasonable to have innocent people shot if that’s what it takes to prevent them from raising their children without your permission. Well I guess it’s a big honking tent….

            “Now, as for your question, would people get the license without the
            threat of force?  I can’t say–it depends on the prevailing attitudes.”

            Oh you can’t say? Well what’s to stop us from trying your scheme on a voluntary basis? Get yourself a nice test written up and then tell all parents you think they should come in and take it on a voluntary basis.

            (I think I’m going too be busy that day. Year. Century.)

            Pfft. You offered it as a government program rather than a voluntary one because you knew it would take violence to accomplish your goal.

          • Andrew Cohen

            I would like to live with a legit gov’t, which in my book, means all consent to it.  That does not mean, though, that the gov’t has no right to use violence–it would, in virtue of consent.

          • Andrew,

            Would you be willing to shoot me yourself to prevent me from raising my kids without a license?

            Because that’s the violence your proposal requires and if you wouldn’t do it yourself you might want to rethink hiring someone else to do it.

          • Andrew Cohen

            I would not shoot anyone except out of self-defense or defense of loved ones.  If I were a police officer, thought, I would be fine with jailing you until you got the license.  Obviously you’ll reply “you won’t take me without a fight” or some such, but your insistence that such fights have to come down to guns does not make it so.

          • Daniel Fackrell

            As a police officer, your only recourse in many situations where a person does not consent to arrest is to use deadly force to stop them escaping, and there’s the gun in the room.

          • Damien S.

            It seems rather clueless to suggest an equivalence between licenses of a trivial and unpoliticized area like hairdressing and licensing of what is commonly regarded as a deep human right, need, and even obligation, like raising children, and which has frequently seen highly biased interference.  A world in which eugenics programs and private and public mass child-theft are in living memory, and in which fears of the Other breeding too much are common, is not a world that can license parents fairly.

            Compare with the right to vote in the US, and active Republican efforts to discourage voting by likely-liberal voters by throwing obstacles into their way.

          • Andrew Cohen

            I was not suggesting an equivalence.

    • “My only suggestion about how to decide who writes the test and who decides what
      the minimal level of decent parenting is, is that we seek out experts on child

      How are we going to collectively evaluate experts in areas where we lack expertise? Maybe turn that puzzler over to the experts too?

      You know what you get when governments hire experts to build cars? Crap cars.

      Roll those dice with your own kids if you like, but leave me and mine out of it.

      By the way, do you actually have children? Just curious.

      • Andrew Cohen

        I do not deny there are difficulties.  Why we should think it is impossible to tell what minimally decent parenting is I have no idea.

        • Do you have any idea why governments produce crap cars when they can consult all the experts they want?

          Collective political process does not improve reasoning or decision making.

          • Andrew Cohen

            “Collective political process does not improve reasoning or decision making.”  Agreed.  On the other hand, as it turns out, a collective non-political process can improve reasoning.  It is, in fact, how science works.

          • But science is not coercive. Science can help you make better cars, but governments still make crap cars even with science at their disposal. Your certification proposal is coercive collective politics, not science. You imagine that your bureaucrats will naturally employ the best scientific evidence to achieve the best results but experience with government shows this confidence is unjustified.

    • This:

      “A family of liberal views that take negative liberty (freedom from interference) to be the most important (and guiding) value in the organization of a just state, insisting it must be present for all.”

      …is a bad definition of libertarianism, if for no other reason than that you define anarcho-capitalists out of libertarianism by assuming the legitimacy of the state and that it can be justified in doing something. There are other problems with your definition, such as “interference” being overly broad, but this is the most obvious and egregious.

  • Daniel Fackrell

    –quote by Andrew Cohen–
    Earlier (at http://bleedingheartlibertaria…, I defined libertarianism as “A family of liberal views that take negative liberty (freedom from interference) to be the most important (and guiding) value in the organization of a just state, insisting it must be present for all.” 

    I’m confused how this definition of libertarianism can possibly be compatible with the proposal in the article, even if I take its assumptions — such as the state — as granted.  Freedom from interference is the core of the definition, and a licensing program creates interference.

    As admirable as your goals of preventing child abuse are, they are the same goals that have been used to great effect in destroying exactly the type of liberty your definition supports, which is the exact danger in results-oriented thinking.  If the intended — not necessarily achieved — end is deemed to be noble enough, people are willing to suspend thought about whether the actions proposed to achieve the end are compatible with it.

    What is a license?  It is permission granted by an outside interfering organization to do something that said organization would otherwise consider illegal.  In licensing something, the act being licensed is simultaneously (or occasionally, previously) made illegal.  This has already placed us in a situation in which it is considered illegal to:

    1. Practice medicine.
    2. Marry.
    3. Start or run a business.
    4. Build a home.
    5. Drive an automobile.
    6. Serve food.
    7. Add or extend an existing porch.
    8. Build an office.

    And much more.  Yes, all of these things happen, but only with a great amount of interference by the state, and anything that is licensed is, by definition, controlled.

    Can you have liberty when the only thing you’re really free to do is ask for permission?

    On the subject of children (and taking “rights”, “natural rights”, and even “state” as givens for this purpose and assuming that children have rights inherently), they are not fully capable of exercising the rights that they have.  The purpose of a parent is to hold those rights in escrow or trust until the child is capable of said full exercise.  If a parent exercises those rights on the child’s behalf in the manner which a trustee should, then the child and parent will be enriched by the exchange.  To license parents is to take this very natural trust situation and transfer it by force to the local violent monopoly.

    Instead, we should be doing our parts to help spread the idea of parents as trustees and investigate all the non-coercive methods available to assist parents with their natural obligations.  Understanding and upholding the trustee relationship even de-polarizes the abortion debate, but that’s a topic for another time.

    On to the things we actually can do:

    1. Improve access to various (not government-approved or sponsored) parental training programs such as Love and Logic, perhaps by implementing an open parenting project to build one or more free online parenting courses after the model of the Free/Libre/Open Source Software movement.

    2. Migrate to saner emancipation processes.  You can measure the effectiveness of the process by how many exceptions it requires.  For example, 18 years old!  (unless you’re still in grade school or high school or you’ve been found mentally unfit, or on the other side you’re married or ran away and have been living on your own for N months or …) is not a very good measure.  In this way some of the primitive societies may have actually gotten it more right.

    The point is that a sane emancipation process allows children in a bad situation to decide that and leave it sooner, greatly reducing the harm that could befall them.

    3. Bring back the village.  There’s a cultural problem here and I’m not sure where it came from.  People are hesitant to talk about the topics that are most important, thinking that they are too polarizing.  Parenting is one of those, and the lack of open dialogue at every level of society down to individual fathers and mothers speaking to each other about the challenges they face, and suggesting ways to improve their relationships and techniques has had serious consequences.

    Also, it’s okay for children to receive correction from sources outside the parents, and it must be, because no set of parents can see, hear, and feel everything that even a single child does.

    4. Recognize that in society and the family, things are already on a great trajectory.  My grandfather grew up in a time when it was perfectly acceptable for a parent to batter a child.  My father grew up in a time in which corporal punishment and verbal abuse were the norm.  It was better in my childhood, and far better in that of my children.

    How long has it been since it was readily accepted that children were property and an asset to be worked to the bone in factories or farms for the profit of the parents?

    5. Keep our eyes open for other opportunities, as they are all around us.

    Yes, this is a big issue with big consequences, but we cannot make the mistake of substituting government for our own creativity and struggle.  Especially when the cost is our children.

    • Andrew Cohen

      1. Yes, “Freedom from interference is the core of the definition,” but the definition does not require that we have 100% freedom from interference.  As already noted, everyone thinks somethings should be interfered with.  The only question is what is justifiably interfered with.  I think very little is, in the scheme of things.  For example, of the licenses you name, I would get rid of all except, possibly 5–as I think was clear in the original post.  Keeping 5 and my addition (parental licensing) surely means less interference than keeping 1 thru 8 on your list (and there are many many more we currently have that should be tossed).
      2. “Can you have liberty when the only thing you’re really free to do is ask for permission?”  Well, no, but the question is unfair.  If you asked, “Can you have liberty to do X when you must first ask permission to do X?,” the answer would be “ys.”
      3. I like thinking of parents as trustees for children and agree that when this happens well, “the child and parent will be enriched by the exchange.”  I also agree that we ought to “spread the idea of parents as trustees and investigate all the non-coercive methods available to assist parents with their natural obligations.”  But I don’t see why it would be true that “To license parents is to take this very natural trust situation and transfer it by force to the local violent monopoly.” 
      4. About your list of “things we actually can do.”   I like #1 and #2.  I think we need to be careful about #3–the basic idea might be good, but if we think of the “village” simply as what we’ve had, say, in the middle of the 20th century (or earlier), I am worried.  Its fairly clear, I think, that there was alot of unreported child abuse back then–the village didn’t prevent it any better than our current system does.  About #4: I’m just not sure, for the same reason I give about #3.  I agree, of course, with #5.  So, at the end of the day, if someone has an alternative to offer that would do as well or better than licensing, I’d be happy. 

      • Daniel Fackrell


        I think there was a time my beliefs were much closer to your own.  If you continue your study of philosophy and especially continue learning from other libertarian to anarcho-capitalist philosophers and lay persons, you’ll eventually look back on this article with awe.

        To quote one of them, “Freedom is 100% control of your life, liberty and property 100% of the time, and 0% control over others’ life, liberty, and property 100% of the time.”

        My own journey was harder than most, and involved a government deciding it knew how to raise my children better than I did.  I hope your journey doesn’t involve such a rude awakening to the truth of the nature of government, but you’re on the right path to see that there is nothing moral about government.

        Government is only force, and employing it can only be justified when you would be justified in employing the same level of threats or violence personally.

        It’s clear that you have made a lot of progress in your journey, and I wish you luck as you continue it.

        P.S. Remember to apply Ockham’s Razor as you evaluate various philosophies.  The simpler and more consistent the philosophy, the more likely it is to be useful or even correct.  If it requires a lot of exceptions, even when those exceptions are as tricky as children, it may be time to consider other options.

        P.P.S. In my own attempts to help restrain runaway government, I have chosen not to have a driver’s license.  I would do the same with a parenting license, and would therefore be personally problematic for your proposal.  Would that make me an unfit parent?  Could I be a fit parent who would be subject to fines, imprisonment, or dissolution of my new family?  How would you propose to handle this situation?

        • Andrew Cohen

          Sorry about the (extreme) difficulties on your journey.  My hope, frankly, is that with the reduced need for government interference with families that would be brought about with other policy changes, there would be fewer mistakes in the licensing program than we see with current programs.  That said, yes, you would be a problem for my proposed system.  Nothing about the system would require saying you are or would be an unfit parent.  You would simply not be allowed to raise children without the license; that doesn’t require a judgement about your parenting skills.  So yes, you could be fit parent subject to fines, etc.

          • Daniel Fackrell

            Sorry, but that sounds like excessive interference and tyranny to me.

            “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” – James Madison

            This quote gets to the heart of why the U.S. experiment in limited government was doomed to fail in its goal of creating a government which supported freedom and never outgrew its stated limits.  “Animal Farm” was a great satire exposing the results as viewed many decades ago and its analogy only fails now in that we have gone far beyond the tyrannies of Britain against the colonies.

            Returning to your definition of libertarianism, if negative liberty is the most important guiding principle in the organization of the state (again taking the state as granted for the purposes of this discussion), and this proposal suggests creating interference where none currently exists without a showing of how it can be arrived at from the libertarian philosophy of self-ownership or self-control, then the only logical conclusion is that the proposal lies outside of libertarianism, as others here have stated in other ways.

            At best, it threatens to usurp the parent’s natural place.  At worst, it turns into rampant kidnapping “for the children” and an endless polarizing discussion of what constitutes “good” parenting, what constitutes “abuse”, whether neglect qualifies as “abuse” and what then qualifies as “neglect”, just to scratch the surface.  None of those terms are strictly defined, but exist as a shared understanding, constantly subject to change.

            Where there are differing opinions and situations, and where opinions and understanding are growing and changing with time (hopefully for the better), attempting to codify them in law only serves to centralize decision-making about situations that can only be dimly seen from such heights.

            I think your optimism about the implementation of such a program may indicate that you are an incredibly trusting person, even in the face of the evidence that no government has ever shown itself worthy of trust.  Your (inferred by me) trust does you credit, but should be tempered by experience and history.

          • Andrew Cohen

            This will require further thought, but a couple of quick responses:
            1. The proposal does suggest creating new interference.  It could only be instituted with care.  My guess is this would require several steps, but I do not at all mean to suggest the transition will be easy.  (Though I do not think it would be as hard as some suggest.)
            2. Self-ownership is interesting.  If all humans own themselves, then children should have the same rights as adults.  (I don’t believe this, by the way.)  If that is the case, they have a right to be protected against people that would harm them–including their parents.  The only question then is how to protect them.
            3. “Parent’s natural place” may seem obvious, but its not.  (I think you realize this, given the last sentence of that paragraph.)  Imagine a society in which all children were raised by their biological mother’s brother and his wife.  In such a society, those would seem to be “the parents” and it would be their “natural place” at issue.  They would not be seen as–and, indeed, would not be–kidnappers.  This is only one possibility–just as our own system is only one possibility.  There are many more.

          • “If all humans own themselves, then children should have the same rights as adults.  (I don’t believe this, by the way.)  If that is the case, they have a right to be protected against people that would harm them–including their parents.  The only question then is how to protect them.”
            Andrew, granted, children are generally incapable of understanding what it means to own oneself, and it would be difficult to enforce a child’s self-ownership rights, not to mention the child’s inability to pay for such enforcement. 

            It would also be difficult to determine when a parent inflicts physical or psychological “harm” on a child, but are there other reasons why you don’t believe children should have self-ownership rights that are on par with those extended to adults? 

            In other words, did you state “I don’t believe this” mostly because of the difficulty and impracticality of enforcing a child’s self-ownership rights?  

          • Andrew Cohen

            Rick: Its not because children don’t understand that they have self-ownership rights (or any rights) and its not because of difficulties in exercising such rights.  I’m really not a rights theorist, but on my view, if there are any rights-bearers, they must be autonomous.  That is, I do not believe that beings without autonomy can be rights-bearers.  Hence, young children can’t be rights-bearers on my view.  

          • Daniel Fackrell

            The distinction between kidnappers and guardians is a simple one: did the stewardship over the child come by force or fraud?

            The natural parents can claim original stewardship over a child as the process of creating the child naturally places the child in their proximity, loose possession (I’m not arguing property here), and care.  Any claim which seeks to supersede that claim must by necessity be made by force.

            There are any number of arrangements that could be reached with the consent of the natural parents, and one of such could even become the norm throughout a society, but that doesn’t change the fact that the original and natural stewardship was with the natural parents.

            I’m still befuddled, though.  What do you hope to gain by suggesting that we outlaw parenthood in favor of control by a somehow perpetually-benevolent state?  I understand the claim that this would somehow be used to reduce abuse, but fail to see any evidence that it would in fact.

            The whole idea still seems counter to human nature at a minimum of these points:

            1. Human nature is to take absolute, unquestionable power and treat it as absolute and unquestionable.

            2. Most human parents will fight tooth and nail to protect their children from invaders.

            #2 means the creation of a perpetual war between those who would raise their own children without the oversight of the state and those who would try to control or shatter the family relations for their own ends.  However well-meaning those would-be controllers might be initially, it cannot end well.

            Also remember that most government evils that have prevailed throughout history have been started and perpetuated in the name of some intended good.  At this present moment, there is legislation being considered in the name of preventing some of the damaging effects of child pornography “for the children” that, if passed, would destroy much of the liberty that exists on the Internet, possibly taking many civil liberties with it.

            If you have evidence that this proposal would be drastically different in kind, I’d love to entertain it.

          • Andrew Cohen

            1. Say I agree to paint a portrait of you for a fee.  Our contract stipulates that you have creative control and you use it, directing me to change certain things as I go.  As it turns out, I cannot claim to own the painting, even if it is in my studio, under my control.  Proximity and loose possession do not matter in this sort of case.  I am not suggesting the same is true in the case of child birth, but I am suggesting that its not enough to assert that one should have control over something because of proximity and loose possession.  An argument is needed.  One is seldom given, though if you’re interested, I can point you to one (I don’t think it works, but I admire the attempt).
            2. I don’t think I said anything indicating we should “outlaw parenthood.”  We don’t outlaw driving, practicing medicine, etc when we license them.  Ditto parenting.  Some control is admittedly given to the state, but not extensive control.  I make clear in the post that this is not about requiring specific sorts of parenting; it is only about prohibiting certain specific sorts of actions (actions that are already prohibited by the way; the difference is only that I seek to prevent them from happening in the first place and the current system does nothing until after the child is harmed).  You say you see no evidence that it would work.  What would count as such evidence?  We have ample and clear physical evidence that the current system does not prevent the harms I am concerned with.
            3. I don’t understand your first minimal point.
            4. As for your second minimal point: of course, but the way I envision the proposed program, most would get licenses before a child is even conceived, there would not be “invaders” but trained social workers (yeah, I know the difficulties there).  They would not seek to “control or shatter the family relations for their own ends”–they would seek to make sure children are safe.
            5. I have no problem legislation that prevents child pornography.  I realize that some uses of such legislation are rather absurd, but that only suggests to me that our system needs radical improvement, not that its a bad idea to outlaw child porn.

          • Daniel Fackrell

            In your 1. the ownership of the created work was voluntarily pre-contracted, so it’s not applicable to a discussion of using force to impose a minimum standard on parents, with fines, fees, imprisonment and/or shattered homes hanging in the balance.

            For your 2., a license is defined as permission to do something that is otherwise illegal.  Hence, parenting without going through the licensing process is illegal.  Or to put it another way, parenting is illegal, but you can ask for an exception.  The commonality of such an exception is irrelevant.

            My first minimal point simply points to the obvious slippery slope that the proposal creates.  As soon as we take the position that the state has some power over individuals outside of helping protect their life, liberty, and property from actual damages (not perceived, potential, or future damages), we have stepped outside of any chance of a limited government.  Those in power will continue to expand their power, taking advantage of any complexity, apathy, fear, etc. to mask and advance their agenda.

            Your 4. attempts to create a rosy picture and hide the gun in the room.  So most parents buckle down and submit to the idea that the state magically knows better, spends whatever time is required and pays whatever fees are demanded in order to get the license.  That doesn’t change the fact that there will be those who are unwilling or unable (but mostly not for the reason the proposal intends to address) to do so, and they will be subject to horrors at the hands of the government as a direct result of this proposed policy.

            In response to 5. (and only for clarification, not to start a deep tangent), I’ll stand with anyone in saying that there is great harm perpetrated in the creation of child pornography, and that its use probably results in other, unrelated harms.  My difficulty with government regulation of it include:

            a) In order to do so effectively, the government would require broad powers of monitoring, search, and seizure, which are incompatible with a free society.

            b) Pursuing potential or actual suspects tends to involve means that are dishonest at best.

            c) Most of the efforts appear to be directed at tracking down those who consume instead of targeting the creators who are doing the greatest harm to others.

            d) Giving government broad power to control any type of information will always result in that power being used to control other types of information, eventually compromising political speech.

            e) Where appropriate, the element of consent is not considered, and does not constitute a defense, including possession of “child pornography” that was solely created and distributed by the “victim”, which news reports indicate is becoming more common now that most new phones contain a camera.

            Again, I’d rather not pursue this topic further here, but it does appear to me that you and I differ on the appropriateness of government action in this matter as we differ on some other points.

            As a philosopher, though, I’m sure you’ll take each of these disagreements aside and work to reconcile them from first principles.

          • Andrew Cohen

            About my #1: Its applicable only in that it shows you need an argument that proximity and loose possession showed that parents have rights, which is all it was meant to show.  You have not provided such an argument.

            About my 2:  There is a very big difference between saying we should “outlaw unlicensed parenthood” and saying we should “outlaw parenthood.” 

            About your first minimal point: Have I taken “the position that the state has some power over individuals outside of helping protect their life, liberty, and property from actual damage”? Or did I just include children within that range?

            About my #4: what you are getting at here, I think, is Jacob’s criticism that I invoke ideal theory in a problematic way.  I will have to think about this some more, but I am not convinced at the moment.

            About my #5: I think we largely agree here.  My preference would be to redirect gov’t efforts to target the producers (as you suggest in c).

          • Daniel Fackrell

            (Answered in a new thread for space reasons)

      • “I like thinking of parents as trustees for children …”

        I think this is where the whole argument turns, i.e., whether the parent sees him/herself as owing a duty to the child, and as having a duty to assist the child’s “individuation” process, or not. 

        The parent who doesn’t understand his/her duty from this perspective, i.e., the “red flag” parent (probably much more common), tends to see the child as owing something to the parent, as a liability, or even as a form of private party to be exploited. It is this parental mindset that needs to be confronted, and needs to know that the state is watching.

        • Andrew Cohen


  • Anonymous

    Kenneth Hall: You were addressing J.A.M., but I thought I’d point out
    that whether there are natural rights at all is a big question.

    To whom? I recognize that there is a claim along those lines, but a person either is possessed of inalienable (natural) rights, or is ultimately the means, the tool, the plaything of the most adept (and/or unburdened by conscience) wielder of force. One may dress it up any way one likes, but that’s what it is when one is done boiling it. What lies between Locke and Filmer is varying degrees of weak-form Filmer, leading in the end to strong-form Filmer; I got several thousand years of history says so.

    • Andrew Cohen

      “To whom?”  Philosophers.
      One must have rights or be a tool?  Not so.  That’s a false dichotomy, unless what you mean by “rights” is really thin (perhaps shorthand for something more substantive).

  • Anonymous

    I’m really at a lost on how to respond. Between this and the idea that we might really consider voting rights to those who meet the criteria (yes, you don’t go quite that far) I’m hard pressed to understand why you claim association with the libertarian agenda. This seems to be more a Plato’s Republic (lite maybe) mind set you’re offering.

    • Andrew Cohen

      I don’t think I understand.  What do you mean by “the idea that we might really consider voting rights to those who meet the criteria”?

      • Anonymous

        Sorry Andrew — I was confusing you with Jason (Ethics of Voting); it’s been a tiring week.

  • Anonymous

    I’m glad this blog is willing to post such provactive ideas such as this one.  Keep it up. 

    I can agree with the argument that children are unwilling victims of bad parents and parenting should then be regulated.  I can see how that may pass a classical liberal philosophical test.  But simply, I don’t trust the state to do this.   This is a far too powerfule priviledge.  If the state can license parenting, it’s far to easy to change the political process such that the state favors certain groups for parents.  Maybe Souther Baptist’s are better parents, or households where both parents work, or maybe where one parents works, or gay couples or straight couples,  etc.  It nevers stops.  If gov’t licenses parents, it’s a short hop & jump to gov’t social engineering, and that’s a guaranteed way to inflame populace passions.   Yikes.  No thanks.  

    The only way this works is if gov’t is far more voluntary, or if enforced through voluntary associations.  The old Mormon system of polygamy actually was a method of doing this (not advocating, just informing.) 

    • Andrew Cohen

      First, Thanks!
      Second, I definitely worry that government would abuse the power.  My thinking is (a) if we have a classical liberal gov’t, people would expect it to behave in extremely limited ways and that such an expectation–widespread–would help prevent the abuses we worry about and (b) part of what encourages that expectation is strict constitutional limits, including limits regarding what would make it such that any individual could be denied a parental license.  I realize, of course, that gov’ts manage to get past all such limits, which is why the expectations of the people matter so much.  If people were shocked at any and every trespass of those limits, they would not (or so I hope) stand by and allow them to continue.  And if people had those expectations ingrained in them, they would not be tempted to use the government for their own gain.  

      • No, see, restraint of government requires the production of a public good. Citizens must make individual voluntary donations of effort to restrain it.  But their individual efforts make almost no difference in whether the government will ultimately be restrained or not. So the individual has negligible incentive to make such a donation of effort – he’s almost certain to get the same regime whether he donates effort or not.  This leads directly to free riding, rational ignorance and rational irrationality in political matters. Thus restraint is underproduced.

        If you could produce restraint of government by voluntary donation of effort you wouldn’t have  a reason for government in the first place – the public goods you want government to produce could be produced through voluntary individual donations of effort.

        Government is a far greater problem than parenting.

        • Andrew Cohen

          It seems like what you suggest is a collective enforcement system where all are voluntarily committed to the system.  That is, at the end of the day, what I would want.  (This gets to matters of state legitimacy though, rather than justified state action.)

          • No, I was suggesting free markets, which are not what I would call a collective enforcement system.

        • “Government is a far greater problem than parenting.”

          Perhaps with better parenting, better governments would be formed.

      • Anonymous

        As you say there’s no guarantee of those things.  The US has strong constitutional limits, and they’ve all been violated at some point and some don’t ever come back.   A “strict constiutional limit” is something which only exists in theory, not in the real world.  1936 at the supreme court contains a number of examples of that.  Secondly, there’s no way to guarantee liberty loving expectations in people (but maybe if that happens, we’re all done anyways, right?).  Take any point in american history, give gov’t this right, and you’ll see it abused against various minorities.  And I think americans used to have a better appreciation of liberty. 

        I like the idea, but I think the only way to make it work is via voluntary groups (no I’m not an anarchist).  Maybe society finds a means to pay people to self-sterilize or to give up their kids, allow kids some choice at age 12, maybe religous groups practice polygamy, etc.  I’m not advocating them and disdain some, but I think a voluntary agreement is less likely to suffer abuse.  It’s harder to imagine how that works, but it’s simply too powerful of a privledge to be placed in the hands of the state.

  • Damien S.

    Oh god.  Drivers’ licenses, of all things, are not an exercise in arbitrary state power.  You don’t need one to drive a car; you can do that all you want on private property.  You need a driver’s license to drive on PUBLIC ROADS, paid for by public taxes, for the safety of other users.  A similar system of purely private roads would likely demand similar pre-screening for competence and safety.

    • How do we get public roads and public taxes without arbitrary state power?

      • Andrew Cohen

        why do you think it must be “arbitrary”?  What do you mean by “arbitrary”?

    • Anonymous

      Damien, by what right do governments build roads? Private roads are built by the consent of the owner(s) of the property. They have every right to set conditions on the use of their property.

      • Thus becoming little governments. And then some of the little governments consolidate and become bigger governments. And then libertarians complain about them.

        • Anonymous

          How do two or more individuals consenting to work and trade with each other become little governments, Rod? I don’t see your argument.

          • If owners of property, specifically land, have, as you say, “every right to set conditions on the use of their property”, then the only difference between a “private land owner” and a king is just the size of their spread. Read a history book. Or better yet, go hang out on one of the geo-libertarian web sites. They know how to talk to you in libby-lingo.

          • Anonymous

            In case you haven’t noticed, Rod, this is a libertarian web site. Most of us talk in “libby-lingo” here. So I don’t see any need for me to go somewhere else. You are free to go wherever you wish, or stay right here, with my blessing.

            If a king legitimately owns everything in his kingdom then, yes, the only difference between the king and the private land owner is the size of their spread. Sometimes people refer to homeowners as kings of their castles. But what’s your point?

          • Geo-libertarians have a well-developed, deontological, argument against absolute property rights in land. But it’s not really the way I think so I don’t feel competent to argue in that particular frame.  I wouldn’t want to butcher the argument in my ignorance.  And I wouldn’t want to waste your time with said butchering. OK?

            My point? The American experiment was a revolt against the tyranny of monarchist government. Anarcho-capitalist style libertarianism, with absolute property rights in land is just monarchy writ small as you pretty much admit. The nation-states we see today, particularly in Europe, started out as collections of smaller kingdoms and principalities and through what we would today call “mergers and acquisitions” became the dreaded governments you so revile.

            Is libertarianism anything more than hitting a reset button on history and hoping it works out differently the next time?

          • This is a bit glib, don’t you think? If you’re going to make a very short, very weak argument in political theory, perhaps it’s best not to follow up with the somewhat insulting “go read a history book.” Lest it invite the rejoinder, “go read a political theory book.”

          • Glib? Perhaps. But a lot of libertarian political theory seems to hang on slogans and bumper stickers accompanied by a very selective reading of history. I’m sorry if you find that insulting, but that’s just the way it looks to a lot of us on the “outside”.

            Regarding this particular thread digression (which admittedly has very little to do with the OP), I would submit to you that a truly serious bleeding-heart libertarian site very much needs to be willing to re-examine the land question. Please, please, please invite a geo-libertarian to join your stable of bloggers. Perhaps Fred Foldvary, Mason Gaffney, or a left-anarchist like Kevin Carson.

          • Which serious libertarian theorists have you read who rest their theories on slogans and bumper stickers?

            I’m quite interested in exploring the land question. Fred Foldavry is a good suggestion; perhaps I’ll send him a note. You are aware though, right, that we have two left anarchists already on our roster?

  • Natural rights are the core of Libertarianism. Any who would oppose natural rights for any reason cannot claim to be a libertarian. You sir, are no libertarian.

    Parental rights are instinctual. Unless one is defective and/or brainwashed, people want to raise their own children. The fact that we naturally want this as human beings is proof enough on its own that to attempt something different through state action will not work in the long run. Free markets work because they work with human nature rather than making a vain attempt at opposing it. Your parental licensing theory will likewise fail, and miserably.

    Part of the reason it would fail is that many would oppose it with any means at their disposal, myself included. I feel it is my duty to unborn generations to prevent this sort of tyranny from ever taking hold of my family and destroying it. As a last resort, I would use lethal force to stop it. I hope that it wouldn’t come to that, but if it did, I don’t see anything morally wrong with killing tyrants to protect the natural rights of my offspring. As a parent, I owe them nothing less.

    And make no mistake, there are millions if not billions of people like me, and a great many of them are as well armed and trained as I am, if not moreso. Anybody who has a self-preservation instinct should stay far away from any attempt to impose such a thing on their fellow man.

    • Andrew Cohen

      1. I am not convinced that natural rights are the core of libertarianism, though its clear that there are many natural-rights libertarians.  There are also consequentialist libertarians, etc.
      2. Instinct is not, on its own, a justification for very much.  Some instincts are quite problematic and, as rational beings, we work to overcome them. 
      3. I suspect that marketing & advertising can overcome instinct.  This can be bad–as when people are convinced they want crap that is advertised well.  It can also be good–as when we advertise the problems with using hard drugs, for example (the “this is your brain on drugs” campaign comes to mind).  
      4. As for your last two paragraphs: first we’d have to explain why the program is not as tyrannical as you are thinking it is and second we’d have to use a good marketing technique.

      • Anonymous

        Thus far, Mr. Cohen, you’ve called “false dichotomy” (in response to me, because a true dichotomy doesn’t permit you to carve out an exception to use coercion for your preferred outcome), said (in response to Jeremy above) “it will work if the right people are in charge,” and said (in response to Dusty Sensiba) “we just have to have the right message.”

        Those are garden-variety progressive arguments.

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  • Matt Zwolinski: “Children pose a problem for any political theory.”

    Perhaps. But they only pose a really significant problem for libertarian theories. That’s because libertarian theories are the only theories that start and end with the individual, full stop.

    In your role as a philosopher, I understand your emphasis on theory, but I think it’s interesting that among ordinary people I talk to, libertarians are the only group where EVERYBODY seems to spend a great deal of time theorizing. Your garden-variety conservative or liberal tends to operate much more on gut-instinct. And I don’t think that’s necessarily an indictment; they just have more important and productive things to do with their time. If you’re reading this and disagree, ask yourself, “How has my theorizing changed the world?”

    Apropos to the topic, I think you can fairly characterize the prevailing conservative and liberal dichotomies as representing something more like attitudes or even a moods, rather than a theories. The conservative political attitude is, broadly speaking, paternalistic; seeing the state’s role, vis-a-vis the citizenry, as setting the rules and punishing. “Just wait until your father gets home!” On the other hand,  the liberal attitude is more maternal, seeing the state’s role as protective and nurturing. “Come here, honey, let me fix that boo-boo.”

    Extending the metaphor, I see the libertarian “attitude” as reflecting the bachelor uncle, who neither has nor wants to be responsible for the welfare of others. I emphasize I’m only referring to the political philosophy here, not individual libertarians. I’m confident there are wonderful and responsible libertarian parents out there.

    So just like mothers and fathers sort of naturally and instinctively have different roles and approaches to parenting, so the conservative and liberal approaches to the social welfare of children differ. But both attitudes, being parental in nature, at least can at least integrate children and other less than fully competent individuals into their core philosophies. Not so with libertarianism. It starts with a core assumption of fully competent, mature, moral agents and then fully, meticulously, excruciatingly logically, fleshes out the theory from there. Anyone who doesn’t fit the description of competent, mature, moral agent doesn’t mesh well and has to be treated as a “special case”.

    But children are hardly a special case! We all fail the basic axiomatic assumptions at some point in our lives. We all start life as children and we will almost all of us find ourselves in similarly vulnerable situations at some point in our lives. For instance, my 93-year old mother, who we had to consign to a nursing home due to failing memory issues (forgetting to eat), I would argue no longer fits the basic libertarian assumptions for a competent moral agent, and has in some ways come full circle to a state similar to childhood.

    I don’t find myself agreeing with Andrew’s licensing suggestion, but I applaud his willingness to confront the issue head-on without feeling constrained by the reflexive, get-the-hell-out-of-my-life, libertarian attitude.

    • Andrew Cohen

      Thanks Rod!

    • You write that children “only pose a really significant problem for libertarian theories. That’s because libertarian theories are the only theories that start and end with the individual, full stop.”

      I’m not completely sure what you mean by this, but I doubt it’s true. Non-libertarian liberal political philosophy seems just as individualistic as libertarianism in most respects. And I’d suggest that liberal political philosophies like Rawlsianism have had just as much difficulty coping with the problem of children as libertarians.

      You say that most people have “better things to do with their time” than theorize, and ask how my own theorizing has changed the world. But of course, the paltry effects of my own theorizing are hardly a fair standard by which to judge theorizing as such, no? But if you’d asked me instead for the real-world effects of other theorists, I take it that it would not be able to come up with answers. So perhaps you’re giving theory somewhat short shrift.

      I think your characterization of libertarianism in what follows is somewhat simplistic, as is the characterization of conservatism and liberalism. There’s some real psychological literature on this issue, of course. Jonathan Haidt in particular has an interesting working paper up on SSRN, that was written up in Reason’s Hit and Run blog if I recall.

      • Andrew Cohen

        Rod-I may be wrong, but I take it Matt meant to say “if you’d asked me instead for the real-world effects of other theorists, I take it [I WOULD]  be able to come up with answers.”  
        John Locke had a big effect, for example.
        Frankly, even today, political philosophers and theorists are sometimes called on to help in various ways–writing constitutions of emerging states, for example.
        And of course, there is the old standby for many of us: we hope our students will go on to make practical differences.  And some of them clearly do.
        In any case, I think Matt is right that children are a problem for all liberal theories.
        Thanks again!

  • Anonymous

    This case for parental licensing looks very much to me like some good unintended promotion of paleolibertarianism 🙂

    • Andrew Cohen

      I don’t see that.

  • Here’s a complication to the idea that certification beats licensing for professions such as medicine:

    Bad doctors have a motivation to hide the fact that they are bad doctors. Bad doctors have a motivation to confuse the public as to what constitutes good doctoring. In fact, bad doctors have a motivation to confuse the public as to what constitutes evidence for how good a doctor you are.

    We see this with “faith healing” and other sorts of what the skeptics call “woo”. Practitioners actively push the notion that you should not rely on objective, publicly accessible evidence when assessing their claims, but on faith, good feelings, or the like.

    This seems likely to push up into certifications. In the IT field, those with the most interest in making impressive-sounding certifications, and promulgating the idea that certifications should be trusted, are not the most competent. They are often the less-competent at the field, but very good at selling themselves.

    • Andrew Cohen

      fubarobfusco: This is a good point.  There has been some work on information science and the philosophy of information science that suggests there are ways around the problem.  I’m not familiar enough with the material to go into it.

  • Interesting post, Andrew.

    You state that:
     “I am not proposing a licensing requirement for pregnancy. I am not sure I would oppose such, but a parental licensing program is not a licensing program for pregnancy.”

    Whilst it seems unrealistic to impose a licensing program for pregnancy in the majority of cases, it could quite easily be tied to receiving IVF (especially if state-funded). I suspect these are probably the parents who are least likely to deliberately inflict harm on their child, though there could be a risk of smothering the child/imposing unreasonable restrictions on their child’s behaviour because their child means *too* much to them. So it could still be useful to impose a test to encourage them to think about why they want to be parents (and why, for example, they desire to have biological children so much more than adopting).

    Perhaps rather than having a license, there should be some other incentive to promote good parenting.  How about a tax-break or increased child benefits if you take and pass a particular parenting course? It seems likely, again, that parents who would be most likely to take such a course would be those who need it least. But if only a small number of those who need it most took it, and many of those who need it least took it, the cumulative benefits could still be large.

    There would no doubt be debates about what it means to be a good parent, but some of the traits involved in good parenting are simply dependent on having accurate knowledge about, for example, nutrition. And since nutritional deficiences in childhood can have such a big impact on later intelligence/IQ, eliminating these deficiences should benefit both the child and society at large.  Furthermore, rather than imposing a particular style of parenting, such courses could simply focus on getting parents to consider the right sort of *questions*, and then show how a range of different cultures provide different answers to those questions. So a course/test wouldn’t involve providing an answer to “what is the correct method of parenting in situation X?” but rather along the lines of  “In situation X, what are the apparent pros and cons of applying Y methods of parenting?”

    Matt Zwolinski wrote:
    “Children pose a problem for any political theory… And so any reasonable theory will recognize that a parent’s dominion over its child is a severely constrained one.”

    I’ve recently started a PhD on the ethics of genetic enhancement, and one of the key issues is, if implemented (as ultimately seems likely given the potential benefits), who would decide which traits should be enhanced? Allowing the parents to choose very specific traits could seem to limit ‘the child’s right to an open future’, and what Habermas calls being ‘an author of one’s own life’. Yet government regulation is hardly attractive either; it could lead to a black-market for genetic enhancement and unless implemented in a particular way could lead to the state discriminating against particular characteristics or ways of life.

    I’ve written a blog on this issue, and would be interested to hear the thoughts of reasonable (i.e. not dogmatic) libertarians on this issue:

    • Andrew Cohen

      Matt-Thanks for this.  Given the current state of affairs, I very much like the idea of tying tax breaks–or some other incentive–to better parenting.  Excellent idea.  
      Quick comment about the idea of genetic enhancement limiting the child’s possible futures.  I gather you know of Joel Feinberg’s famous article about this.  Less often read, but also really worth reading, are Claudia Mills’ “The Child’s Right to an Open Future?” and Shelley Burtt’s “The Proper
      Scope of Parental Authority: Why We Don’t Owe Children an ‘Open Future’.”  I’ll take a look at your blog post also.


      • Thanks for the suggestions of articles to check out; I’ve added them to my reading list.

  • Daniel Fackrell

    (continued from too-deep thread above)


    I think I see the core of the disagreement.  The proposal and the argumentation in its support seem to stem from a belief that government is more and fundamentally different from the people it consists of.
    If we drop the labels and just see individual men, women, and children behaving in particular ways, things become clearer.  If we then re-apply labels, does it matter which labels we re-apply, and how do we determine which ones to add?

    If we say “terrorist”, is that fundamentally different from “freedom fighter”?  If we say “government”, is that fundamentally different from “mafia”?

    There are aspects to parenthood that transcend labels, however.  In most cases, there is a genetic bond that can be tested.  There are also emotional bonds that start to develop in the womb.  Then you have the time, effort, and monetary costs involved in the creation of the life.

    To take the results of the labor of another is theft, and while children are much more than property they only come into existence through such labor.  Every day that they are cared for is additional labor invested in their wellbeing.

    Maybe that labor isn’t up to the standards of some other person, but the only person who can ever be in a real position to judge that is the child herself when she reaches adulthood (by whatever mechanism).

    To pre-judge all parents as unfit and require them to undergo brainwashing and violations of their privacy in order to prevent some theoretical harm goes far beyond any proper role that government can have, and cannot possibly stem from first principles based on individual rights.

    To suggest otherwise is to not only invite, but welcome and demand the slippery slope that leads to total subjugation in every matter.

    If this fails to resolve the differences, I may have missed the mark.  In that case, we may be differing too greatly on first principles.  My assumption has been that we are working from:

    1. Life, liberty, and the ability to create, possess and manipulate property (the “Big 3”, but not necessarily only those), along with the power to attempt their defense, are the fundamental attributes of a moral agent.

    2. Governments are created in the attempt (perhaps misguided, as there may be other, more creative ways that do not harm the Big 3) to pool the power of defense.

    As an example (and not claiming to state your first principles), if you are starting from:

    1. Government does some things I can see are injurious or just don’t like or am not willing to pay for.

    2. We must protect the children at all cost.

    Then we would have a fundamental and irreconcilable difference on our hands.

    Again calling your attention to the label issue, how would you accomplish your proposal in the absence of a government?  How many moral agents must band together in order to override the stewardship of one or more other moral agents?  And please don’t fall back on the “society” label (which I’ve seen before) as society is a very arbitrarily-defined group of moral agents who may or may not consent to participate in a particular society argument.

    Answering these questions with an eye toward first principles is vital to an understanding of whether a case can be made for government involvement or whether such involvement would be meddling interference.

    • Andrew Cohen

      1. There is a sense in which I think “government is more and fundamentally different from the people it consists of” and a sense in which I do not.  I think government is the people plus the rules governing their roles in the government.  I do not think the government has any moral value independent of the people.  
      2. There is a lot written on whether children are property, as you seem to say “children are much more than property.”   Most today think not, I am not so sure.  But no one really thinks there should be no restrictions on property anyway.  You might own a gun, but you are restricted from shooting your neighbor, etc.  One way to approach the question is thus: what sorts of limits on property rights over children (or drop the “property” if you prefer) are appropriate.  I am quite willing to say no one is permitted to significantly harm their child and doing so eliminates their rights.
      3. I think its false that “the only person who can ever be in a real position to judge that is the child herself when she reaches adulthood.”  This strikes me as no more true than the claim that only a parent knows what her child needs.
      4. In no way did I suggest we “pre-judge all parents as unfit and require them to undergo brainwashing.”  I believe I have answered this in other threads already.  Requiring a license to X does not mean we assume you cannot X.
      5. I am fine with your #1 and #2.  I don’t understand the #1 (I think) you attribute to me.  “At all costs” may be too much for me in the #2 that (I think) you attribute to me.
      6. How to accomplish the goal without government?  I am not sure, but it may be do-able if people are all willing to interfere when they see one harming another.  Arguably, this would be more likely without government.
      I’m not sure this helps.  Sorry.

      • Daniel Fackrell

        For your #1, I think we are in agreement that government has no moral authority separate from that of the individuals that comprise it.

        For #2, if children are legally deemed property until emancipated, harming one must be considered the legal equivalent of damaging any other property in your control.  This does simplify the nature of laws surrounding children and could reap many benefits, which I’ll leave as an exercise.

        My preference is strongly for the stewardship paradigm, however, because it does help emphasize that children also possess life, liberty, and property even if they are not able to fully exercise choices on their own behalf with respect to them for a time.

        As for limits, I would lean toward sane emancipation as mentioned before, perhaps accompanied by emancipation-time reckoning for the stewardship being transferred.  There is lots of room for creativity here without resorting to violence.

        Additionally, the presence of two parents in the stewardship does greatly reduce the likelihood of harm, as either can make a claim for abuse of stewardship prior to the transfer to the child.  Maybe I should elucidate this in the context of abortion to show how effective it can really be, while still allowing for parents to exercise their stewardship according to their consciences.

        On your #3, I would challenge anyone to claim to be a better judge than the person who lived through the situation, just as I would challenge anyone to claim to be enough better a judge of what the child needs to trump the parent without consent.  There are lots of ideas about parenting, but until you find yourself in the situation, it’s all theory with no application.

        The theory can be helpful, but only the people in the trenches know the full scope of the challenges they face, and that applies to children as well as their parents.

        Your #4 neglects that instituting a licensing program that incurs costs in time and money for every parent to prove they meet some bar is inherently distrusting.  Being willing to use government to implement it, with all the demonstrated waste, complications of definitions, costly and polarizing legal battles, etc. only solidifies that perception of distrust.  Unfortunately, when people are treated as if they are untrustworthy, a significant percentage will rise (fall?) to the occasion.

        In your #5, I tried to be clear that I was not attempting to attribute any particular first principles to you, but I did provide an example set of first principles that might arrive at this kind of licensing proposal.  If you are willing to work from my #1 and #2 proposed above, then we can build on that.

        Your #6 gives me great hope, and I thank you for that.  I’ve long tried to help others realize that there are many goods that don’t happen in our culture because “that’s someone else’s responsibility,” and unfortunately, I’ve seen more and more decisions and positive actions moving that direction.

        One example among many is that study after study has shown that parental involvement in education is the number one predictor of academic success, and yet because we have laws that require particular kinds of education, and copious regulations about how that education can be provided, and further standards for who can provide it, and so on, the majority of parents now think that the involvement they should have is only to get them to the bus on time and attend a mandatory meeting a couple of times a year to hear the teachers give an accounting and beg for help.  Even the cost of the whole thing appears to be someone else’s responsibility through forced taxation, to the point that it’s considered “free education” even though “slavery education” is probably a more fitting term.

        My outstanding issues with the proposal:

        1. If government is going to issue permits and licenses for parenting, it must gain the power to prevent or punish unlicensed parenting from powers that individuals wield.  I don’t yet know what those individual powers are or how they coalesce into taxation, regulation, and fees for this, nor how that process aligns with the first principles discussed above.

        2. The focus is on creating a necessarily complex and costly system to deal with a small and shrinking minority of cases.

        3. Issues will arise with black market parents out of failure to pay the costs of becoming licensed or fear of failing to obtain the license after paying the costs to attempt it.  This new black market will result in loss of opportunities for children that would not have occurred without a licensing requirement, and possibly new neglect, social avoidance, or even abuse while trying to stay under the radar.

        4. Any person who takes moral issue with asking for permission of people who are not truly involved in the parenting process will become a target of the business end of the state.

        5. Parenting will be added to the list of productive and common human activities that has been banned so that it can be re-permitted on a (slightly?) reduced basis.

        6. Governments in general, and the government of the United States or each of the several states in particular have not shown themselves to be worthy of the slightest trust.  On average, the trustworthiness is certainly far less than that of parents.

        7. It qualifies as penalizing the many to address a problem caused by a few.

        8. It has yet to show any demonstrated ability to achieve its end of reducing abuse.

        9. The margin for error in defining and applying any definition of abuse is not clear, and the consequences of misjudging it in even a single case are severe (the pain of separation of a family, with possible mental health effects for parents and children up to and including suicide).  If we were to apply the Hippocratic creed to government (paraphrased: “First, do no harm.”) the proposal could not pass the test.

        10. There are many creative and effective directions that don’t require government involvement or the expansion or migration of the police state into parenting.  We’re nowhere near the need to use government as a means of last resort.

        11. The direction our culture is evolving and the speed of technology mean that abuse and its consequences are coming more into light and that the incidence and severity are already on a steep decline.  This trend appears to be stable and accelerating.  Due to the nature of current news reporting, the rare cases get reported widely, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are rare, and diminishing.

        All reckoned, I think the case stacks up pretty well for adding parenting to the long list of things that governments shouldn’t be licensing, regulating, or attempting to enforce.  It’s rather clear that it would become just another well-intentioned train wreck.

        The non-governmental (read: “not by force”) options suffer from none of these shortcomings, however, and have the potential to be much more effective in the short and long term.

        • Andrew Cohen

          Just a few replies.
          a. You claim that “the presence of two parents in the stewardship does greatly reduce the likelihood of harm.”  I doubt this is true.  Anecdotally, I’ve heard of far more abuse cases in 2-parent homes than in single-parent homes.  In any case, its an empirical question and I assume there is real data available.
          b. About the idea that you have to be in the situation to judge it well, etc.  I simply see no reason to believe this.  If you can learn all of the details of the case, you should be able to judge it.  We do this all of the time, by the way.  Similarly, the idea that only people with children can know how to raise children well is simply absurd.  Look at the professional nanny–Supernanny etc–many have no children of their own and know far better how to raise children than biological parents.  Its true they are in the “trenches” quite often–but usually not the same trenches where the problems that they fix occur.  And they might be good from the start without having been in the trenches.
          c. We are in agreement about education.  I may think the current situation is worse than you do.  As a matter of social criticism, I think one of our biggest problems is that we have a system that encourages parents to think someone else will care for their children.
          d. I think I’ve dealt with your 2 and 3 in previous replies to others.  If I understand your 1, its an issue of state legitimacy–a big issue.  I’m not sure I understand 4.  5 and 6 seem right; 7 seems wrong.  8 and 9 would take longer responses than I can provide now.  The first part of 10 seems right; I am not sure about the 2nd part.  Anecdoctally, I think 11 is wrong, but I’d like to see hard data.  SO, in short: I think you have faith that there are non-governmental means to prevent child abuse that would be more affective than a licensing program, but you haven’t given any hard data to support that claim and I suspect such data would be impossible to find (which is not to say you are wrong–I simply think collecting data for non-governmental means of handling child abuse will not be available). 

  • Andrew, I think your argument is rationalistic in the extreme. I know you’ve expressed shock at the vitriol this article has caused, but if you don’t understand why you deserve it, I guess you never will. The reactions you’re getting aren’t simply libertarian gut-reactions. Ask liberals, conservatives, or really any large group of human beings outside the bubble of academic philosophy and I imagine you’d get similar responses.
    If you don’t feel in your gut that there’s something horribly wrong with your proposal, then there’s just a fundamental disconnect here.

    • Andrew Cohen

      Jameson-I am a philosopher, so yes the argument is rationalistic.  I understand why the vitriol came; I just doubt I deserve it.  Those are very different things.  
      In any case, if we stuck with the idea that a “feeling in the gut” justifies, we would still not let African-Americans or women vote or allow mixed marriages, etc. etc. etc.  We are rational beings and should realize that sometimes reason must tame antiquated gut reactions.

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    Just being a biological parent does not guarantee the
    ability or the interest in being a loving and educationally concerned parent.
    In the free ebook series ‘In Search of Utopia’ (
    in parts of books 1,3, 4, and 5 licensing parents is proposed with some
    criteria that societies might consider in issuing licenses, such as age (maybe
    14, 18 etc.), knowledge of what infants and children require (such as love),
    being drug free, etc. While in a science fiction genre, the message is

  • Robert

    This could work out very badly for libertarians.
    ‘”A British couple lost custody of their three foster children after social workers called them “racist’ and said they were ‘unsuitable’ caregivers — because of their political party affiliation.

    “The anonymous couple support the UK Independence Party, a libertarian political party that seeks Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union….”

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  • futureboy

    Easy solution: sterilize everyone at birth. Then, only when a couple has proved that they will be biologically, psychologically, and economically fit parents/procreators, they are granted the right, and the ability to do so.

  • Clarence Whorley

    I don’t think you understand Libertarianism, you seem to be confusing it with Fascism

  • MK Lords

    “Indeed, people that adopt children or provide foster care now must go
    through some training and can be denied if they appear unstable.”

    Even with all the training foster parents go through, you have huge problems with abuse in the system that takes away children from unfit parents–many times they are arguably better off with those parents because of how easy it is to justify taking kids away. No one is against finding better solutions to child abuse, but your licensing idea if used within the framework of the current system would funnel more children into foster homes via organizations like CPS which at this point is so corrupt it is terrifying. Were CPS not in the equation it might be different, but it’s not going away any time soon and your argument for licensing would add more bureaucracy to an already bloated system that doesn’t protect children.

    Perhaps it’s more of a problem with the laws that exist, too. If there are licensing requirements, how do we determine what are acceptable standards? If issued by the state then you would have to conform to the laws of it which at the moment find it perfectly justified to take away kids from parents who smoke weed but are not abusive. A ground up approach like changing how we view child rights and how we treat them, though it may take longer, would err on the side of caution and be an arguably better approach than licensing.

    I also wonder about the class implications of requiring licensing to raise a child. Wouldn’t that unjustly target low income families?

  • Murray N Rothbard

    That is some fucked up commie shit right there. You should be ashamed of yourself and this website should be fucking ashamed of publishing you.

  • Davy Goossens

    Why do you faggots still insist on being called libertarian, though?

  • Dewaine McBride

    There might be nothing more heart wrenching than seeing the powerless suffer, yet that is the common fate of so many people on the planet, as well as animals. There is little that can be done with government laws to prevent such suffering, and as little can be done by governments to stamp out cruelty. A strong argument could be made that the greatest cruelty suffered by humans has been at the hands of their own governments. So many humans are cruel, that we cannot afford to give guns, militaries, and legal protections to those who most want to use these weapons against the weakest people.

  • JoyceEarly

    bleeding heart libertarian is an oxymoron. You are not a libertarian and none of your ideas of beliefs can be confused with libertarian ideals. Liberal is not the root word for libertarian. No libertarian on the planet would support licensing parents. Or creating anymore bureaucracies. You don’t redefine what a libertarian is you miss use the term and quite badly.

  • J_W_W

    Let’s up the ante on trashing this fucking idiotic idea.

    Do you really think that if the state gets this power, that they will wait until birth to judge parents as acceptable? It would be so much easier for the statists to demand forced abortions for unlicensible parents. If this idea were accepted that’s what WOULD happen.

    Libertarian, you keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.

  • JW

    Wow, I would say that from a Libertarian view point parental licensing should be offensive. Chairman Mao Zedong agrees with your logic for it though and is practiced in sorts in China. The idea that I have to get permission to procreate and it somehow is a privilege completely violates both Libertarian and human values.

  • TribeofLiberty

    The state as the source of parenthood? If this is libertarian, then the libertarians are off the rails.

  • Squid Hunt

    This is absolutely the most horrible idea I’ve ever heard. The fact that you decorate it up like it’s a rational libertarian conclusion is hilarious.
    You list out your thoughts as if 1 and 2 logically conclude in 3. I don’t know if that was intentional, but that you are balancing licensing parenting against the view that it’s dumb to license doctors makes your argument more ludicrous.
    If you are crediting Shanna Slank with the thoughts that are expressed in this post, then you should immediately stop speaking to Shanna. She’s an idiot. And a dangerous one at that.
    In the meantime, I recommend that you take down your blog until you understand the concepts of non-aggression and governmental abuse of power. Or just retitle your blog to “” It would help to prevent confusion with true libertarianism in the future.

  • anonymouse

    I choose to believe that this article is an exercise in Swiftian satire.

  • MPH

    So what you’re saying is that people can’t be trusted to “properly” raise their children until they’ve had the magic fairy dust of government authority sprinkled upon them via passing a test for a license? Exactly what kind of magic fairy dust will you use to determine who can be trusted to create the test?

    Yeah, a system like that would never be used to produce properly indoctrinated slaves for the state no more than government controlled schools would.

    No libertarian would produce an article like this except as satire. I even checked to see if this was published on April 1st. I do hope that you’ll follow your own advice, and not raise kids until you’ve gotten your license.

  • getfreight

    Regardless of the argument for or against what is proposed, how can you state you are libertarian and propose government control of family? They are diametrically opposed to each other so you believe in one or the other. Yes, some people should not have children, but who decides?

    Starting your article with a blatant falsehood like that discredited anything else being discussed. It shows an agenda is being pushed. Try again.

  • ADisquietingSuggestion

    I can’t tell if this is a joke or serious. My gut feeling is that it’s a joke. (We’re libertarians, not communists, after all.) But why go through so much effort to elaborate the point? I think it would have been funny enough after only a paragraph or two. Otherwise it looks like you’re actually making the case for licensing parents. There is a fine line between “reductio ad absurdum” and “absurdum” itself.

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  • Wayne McLaren

    I can’t think of a worse idea than parental licensing by the state. I live in Canada, and in my province we can’t renew our driver’s license if we haven’t fully paid up our parking tickets and our traffic fines, and I think also our back child support (not sure on child support, but I think it’s the case here). And that is only for driver’s licenses. Imagine the leverage the state would have over us if they could put conditions on our parental licenses. We would do anything or sign anything to get our kids back. Hell, I’d even vote for Hillary to get my kids back!