Rights Theory, Liberty

Why Individualism Needs the Family

Defenders of individual liberty need the family, perhaps more than they know. Individualists need to acknowledge the importance of the family for the sake of theoretical completeness and for the sake of public acceptance. But the family isn’t an area in which individualists must make tactical compromises. Acknowledgment of the family actually supports individualist resistance to the overreaching of the state. Here’s just one example of why libertarian neglect of the family actually harms libertarian thought.


A Limited Individualism

Murray Rothbard’s work is a good starting point because he’s considered one of the great libertarian thinkers and he explicitly deals with the family in his work. Rothbard defines crime as “…an act of aggression against a man’s property right, either in his own person or his materially owned objects.” Such a definition is pretty standard in the libertarian literature. Rothbard chooses a minimal definition of crime to underscore the minimalist duties of the state in preventing private coercion.

The problem with Rothbard’s definition becomes evident when we think of individuals not as individuals only, but also as members of important groups—groups with enduring human bonds. By Rothbard’s definition, kidnapping a child is not a crime against the parent; it is a coercive act against the child. Any parent, however, would argue that kidnapping consistitutes a violent act against the parents of a child as well. Because children are neither the person of the parents nor their “materially owned” objects, the harm to the parents falls outside the Rothbardian definition of coercion. Yet children, in our intuitive understandings, are both extensions of the persons of the parents and are at least analogous to property, in the sense that is meant when we say a child “belongs” to a parent or that a child is “mine”. It is precisely the extension of persons into other persons and the blurring of property rights into persons that makes libertarians unsure of the status of the family and how to fit it into the traditional polarity between individual and state.

Rothbard’s essay Kid Lib aims to clarify some of the libertarian position toward parents and children, but it leaves the fundamental relationship unclear. Because parents have no ownership over their children, only guardianship rights, there’s still no reason one person couldn’t take a parent’s child and raise it better than that parent without technically violating the parent’s rights at all. Rothbard emphasizes the rights of the child and the obligations of parents, but never actually answers the crucial question of why and if parents truly have a “right” to their children in the first place. Rothbard determines that the law cannot “force the parents to raise their children properly,” but if parents don’t have an ownership right over their children and their children have not yet consented to parental guardianship, why can’t the state step in? On Rothbard’s grounds, there’s no principle that gives the parental relationship priority over the state’s relationship to those same children.

The libertarian argument fails to solve the problem of why parents have the initial right to raise their children in the first place. Oddly enough, it is the treatment of the child as an individual without reference to the bonds he has to his family, or the rights parents have over (or to) their children, that leaves parents with insufficient grounds for resisting state intervention. Such intervention happens, and not infrequently. The case of kidnapping is not merely a theoretical hole, easily plugged.

Niveen Ismael’s odyssey through the California child welfare system chronicled in a recent New Yorker article is but one heartbreaking example. Ismael finally lost her son to another family thanks to the arbitrary standards used by social service and law enforcement to remove children from homes and even terminate parental rights. The state stole her child, but not on Rothbard’s account. On Rothbard’s definition, the theft of Ismael’s car would have been a more clear-cut crime than the theft of her child, despite the fact that she will never recover from the latter.  Ismael’s story is rage-inducing, but Rothbard and many libertarians couldn’t argue that she is the victim of a crime as she would have been had the state stolen her car, for example. Yet she will never recover from the loss of her child the way she would from a stolen car. If we view children merely as individuals without meaningful connections to parents and if we view parents as discrete individuals without rights over and to their children we lose much of the grounds for the moral outrage we feel at the treatment of individuals like Ismael. She was the victim of coercion by the state. That her son may be better off in material or emotional terms in a stable, two-parent, middle-class family does not undo the irreparable violence that has been done to his relationship with his mother, a relationship entitled to our respect in part because it is so tightly linked to our understanding of who we are as free individuals. Kidnapping, by an individual or the state, is not a crime that Rothbard’s framework can fully address. We intutively feel outrage, but according to the traditional libertarian definition of coercion, we can’t make that outrage stick.


A New Kind of Individualism

Leaving aside the narrow case of kidnapping, libertarians need the family for other reasons as well. The family does more than simply challenge libertarian definitions of crime, coercion, and violence. The family also challenges individualism in ways that are fundamentally healthy for a free society. Most obviously, the family is the ultimate reflection of human dependence and need, something individualists need to pay more attention to (as the very title Bleeding Heart Libertarians suggests). No matter how much we emphasize personal responsibility and the importance of hard work, there will always be children and the elderly, the disabled and the mentally ill, the lonely and the grieving. Human life being what it is, all of us will experience dependence at various points in our lives. When that happens we need connections to other people, who can provide charity, succor, and love. The state can only partially provide these. The family (and the civil society it supports) can and should provide most of them.

Another benefit of the family for libertarian thought is that the family supports individual human freedom, even as it challenges it. The family is where the individual is best known and best valued. Family life is where we learn to be both individuals and group members, citizens and dissenters. It is also where we do our most profound and creative work: the bearing, raising, and educating of other human beings. Parenting is an expression of our freedom in the most foundational way. Ignoring this most central and universal activity, around which much of human life is centered, will leave any political philosophy visibly incomplete.

The family is also useful as a buffer against the power of the state. Because kin connections are largely independent of the state, family ties serve as some degree of protection against government abuse of individuals. One of the more disturbing and often overlooked consequences of China’s One Child Policy is an entire generation growing up without siblings, cousins, aunts or uncles. This isolation and separation of individuals from traditional family networks, combined with a state that readily violates individual rights, is hardly coincidental. Strong family ties might not have prevented the human rights abuses seen in modern China, but the One Child policy makes such abuses easier for the state to commit.

Finally, and the subject of another post, the family teaches us that the traditional libertarian neutrality to family forms creates its own set of dangers to individual freedom. Some types of families support liberty, while others do not. Polygamy, for example, comes with heavy costs to freedom. While state intervention may actually make such costs greater, ignoring the costs that some family types impose on women, children, and the community prevents a comprehensive understanding of how best to support individual liberty in the private sphere. We should not forget that there is an important middle ground between outlawing something and embracing it, and that middle ground – discussion, social pressure, and persuasion —  is the heart of liberal societies.

Libertarians need the family because without it their theory is incomplete, a sliver of the human condition and a caricature of the real value of liberty as a principle. I’ve argued elsewhere for what I call a “social individualism,” or the recognition that humans are fundamentally social creatures and that individualism only makes sense within a social context. This kind of individualism is not a capitulation to those who believe that all rights are social rights. It is, instead, a recognition of the richness of human life and of the incredibly diverse interests and desires that comprise all human lives. Individualism is valuable because it highlights the importance of each individual, independent of the social milieu. But for individuals to remain important, they must also be understood within the social network of family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, and all of the other people for whom that individual has value, meaning, and worth. The failure of libertarians (despite some notable exceptions) to acknowledge and wrestle with the difficult questions the family poses weakens the theory and makes it less persuasive to the mothers, fathers, daughters and sons who grapple each day with how to be individuals in a profoundly social world.

  • I’m a little confused as to how you can on the one hand acknowledge that Rothbard wrote about guardianship rights, but on the other hand insist that this does not mean that kidnapping a child violates these rights. The implication of having guardianship rights is that these rights can be violated. Indeed, Rothbard explicitly says this:

    The present state of juvenile law in the United States, it might be pointed out, is in many ways nearly the reverse of our desired libertarian model. In the current situation, both the rights of parents and children are systematically violated by the State.

    First, the rights of the parents. In present law, children may be seized from their parents by outside adults (almost always, the State) for a variety of reasons. Two reasons, physical abuse by the parent and voluntary abandonment, are plausible, since in the former case the parent aggressed against the child, and in the latter the parent voluntarily abandoned custody…On the other hand, the two other grounds for seizing children from their parents, both coming under the broad rubric of “child neglect,” clearly violate parental rights.

    Source: http://mises.org/rothbard/ethics/fourteen.asp

    As you can see, Rothbard explicitly states that kidnapping children can indeed be a violation of the parents’ guardianship rights.

    • Sean II

      Perhaps you are not familiar with the purpose Rothbard serves around here. The formula is as follows:

      33% Unacknowledged inspiration
      66% Ideological effigy, punching bag, & piñata
      01% “Even Rothbard admits…”

        • Sean II

          You know, jokes are supposed to be a bit unfair. As long as everyone remembers that, it’s not hard to separate the truth that makes it relevant from the hyperbole that makes it amusing.

          • Actually, I wrote the article because people were perceiving a tide where there was, in fact, only a mild ripple. Critical engagement is one thing. A tide of anti-Rothbardianism is quite another. And I think that apart from Jason Brennan, you’ll find rather little evidence of the latter on this blog.

          • Actually, I wrote the article because people were perceiving a tide where there was, in fact, only a mild ripple. Critical engagement is one thing. A tide of anti-Rothbardianism is quite another. And I think that apart from Jason Brennan, you’ll find rather little evidence of the latter on this blog.

          • Sean II

            Well, you say “apart from Jason Brennan” as if he weren’t the first or second most prolific poster on this blog. That’s a pretty big “apart from”.

            But I’ll give you this for sure: we trolls below the line often fail to distinguish between the individual authors and the voice of the blog itself.

            Although, hey…if you wanted to be associated only with your own views (even in matters of partial jest), having 13 co-bloggers – one of whom delights in being a fire-starter – was perhaps not your shrewdest move.

      • Sean II

        I could swear there were four or five replies to this when I last checked. It was an interesting mini-thread, really.

        Where did it go? Why did it go?

        • Um. I honestly have no idea. My comment is one of the ones that disappeared. Without a trace.

          • Sean II

            Weird. Now suddenly I can see them all again, but they only appeared after I clicked on your most recent comment in my disqus update que. What the what?

    • Lauren Hall

      The issue seems to me to be that Rothbard himself does not integrate his understanding of guardianship into his theory on crime. If crime is as he defines it above, then violations of guardianship rights do not constitute a crime against the parent. The problem may not be Rothbard’s. As I argue here and elsewhere, the family challenges strict individualist theories precisely because it doesn’t fit well into any neat category.
      Additionally, I think there’s a very real problem, on Rothbard’s account at least, in that the origin of the original “right” of the parent over the child is never clarified. If the right of the parent over the child is merely a guardianship right until the child can consent, why is the state not as good or better a guardian than the biological parents? I think we need something more robust than mere guardianship. Steve Horwitz has some ideas that I’d like to see fleshed out.
      – Lauren

      • Well, as Rothbard explicitly states, he does see that violations of guardianship rights are violations of parental rights, which necessarily means that the parents’ rights have been violated. Rothbard has phrased the NAP in different ways in different essays and books, so it’s possible that one of these phrasings might seem to contradict his stance on guardianship rights (in this case where he limits violations of rights to one’s own person or materially owned objects), but his other phrasings are not contradictory (where he phrases it more broadly to include property rights generally). I think this might just be a case where a person who normally is very careful with his wording didn’t anticipate how his phrasing might be interpreted differently than he intended.

        Also, in the same essay that I linked to above, Rothbard does address his view as to how parents’ come to possess guardianship rights:

        Suppose now that the baby has been born. Then what? First, we may say that the parents — or rather the mother, who is the only certain and visible parent — as the creators of the baby become its owners. A newborn baby cannot be an existent self-owner in any sense. Therefore, either the mother or some other party or parties may be the baby’s owner, but to assert that a third party can claim its “ownership” over the baby would give that person the right to seize the baby by force from its natural or “homesteading” owner, its mother. The mother, then, is the natural and rightful owner of the baby, and any attempt to seize the baby by force is an invasion of her property right. [And Rothbard then goes on to explain that this ownership is really ownership of guardianship rights.]

        Essentially, Rothbard relies on homesteading to assign the initial guardianship rights to the mother. If the mother were to abandon the baby, then someone else could homestead the guardianship rights. I’m not a strict Rothbardian — I don’t buy into Natural Law –, but I do think his view on this issue is accurate. If you buy into the homesteading of guardianship rights view, then I think that would show why the state or a complete stranger should not be considered as a plausible alternative as a guardian, at least not until the guardianship rights have been abandoned.

        • Lauren Hall

          The homesteading starting point is a good one, but it doesn’t solve the problem of where fathers fit in. As far as I can tell, it’s on equal footing with the state.

          With regard to your broader point, Rothbard’s definition of crime (in various locations) ends up assuming a kind of property ownership in the child, which I’m actually sort of fine with. I like Steve Horwitz’s use of the word “stewardship.” The ultimate point of this post and what I’d like more libertarians to grapple with is that the family takes theories that are based on simple and clean facts (individuals have rights) and makes them messy and more complex. This is a good thing. I’m ultimately not criticizing Rothbard for inconsistencies. These inconsistencies are necessary because the family challenges political views and makes the world a messy and complex place. Collectivists struggle with the family even more and ultimately end up trying to stamp it out, with disastrous consequences. I’d much rather take Rothbard’s approach where he attempts to incorporate the family, recognizes that it doesn’t quite fit, and sort of lets it go. I think that’s fair. But I’d still like libertarians to recognize that there’s some neglect of a central human institution going on and at least think about what that does to the theory as a whole. At the very least, it makes libertarianism less attractive to a wide swath of the population.

          • Regarding fathers, I’ve read a lot of Rothbard, but I can’t recall if he ever explicitly addresses their position (other than on abortion), but I think his particular framework does allow for us to figure out how fathers would fit in:

            1) Mothers have the primary right of guardianship, but they can share this right or extend it to their husbands. This is similar to how parents and guardians sign permission forms for their children to go on school field trips so that the teachers can make reasonable decisions as temporary guardians, except that in this case no formal contract needs to be signed, as it is a generally understood unwritten agreement.

            2) When parents disagree on what is best for the child, they usually do not resort to using law to settle the dispute. They usually resort to other forms of resolving their disagreement, such as arguing and compromising.

            3) When the parents divorce, then it can get a bit trickier, but I think we can still use Rothbard’s framework. Identifying the guardianship rights would depend upon the type of ‘agreement’ that the parents had prior to divorce. If the parents had fairly equal guardianship, then I think we could probably say that this ought to remain even after divorce. This could *probably* be well supported by estoppel (and not necessarily the kind that Kinsella proposes; I mean the kind that is already in existence). For one parent to have primary guardianship rights, then it would have to be shown how they had primary guardianship rights before the divorce.

            4) When children can express whom they want to live with, then that opinion should not only be taken into consideration but also be the deciding factor (of course only if both parents want primary guardianship). The difficulty with this is determining what the child’s opinion is. Obviously speaking is a strong indicator, but that doesn’t mean that the child necessarily understands the situation or that the child’s opinion won’t change, even immediately.

            Ultimately, I agree with you that this is a very messy topic. There is no system of law that will perfectly deal with all human conflicts, but an unhampered market in law has the necessary flexibility to resolve disputes that were unable to be resolved through other norms and institutions. Aside from the gross amount of rights violations by a state, centralized law only reflects the views of the lawmakers (and those who just happen to agree with them). That’s hardly a useful method, as it would require the central planning board to have ‘just the right people in charge’, which is quite an absurd position.

          • Jerome Bigge

            It is unfortunate that the law regarding custody of children does not take into consideration the wishes of the child. At least this was apparently the rule back in 1951 when I was separated from my mother because my father had remarried and that gave him the legal power to sue for my custody.

          • good_in_theory

            It’s my understanding that the wishes of the child are part of the best interest of the child doctrine.

  • Lea Johnson

    Great post, thank you Lauren!

  • WMRoss

    Fantastic post. Where does this leave families who adopt or have children through various reproductive technologies? If the grounds for guardianship rights are the (presumably genetic) bonds between parents and child, what grounds do adopting or for example same-sex couples have for asserting those rights?

    • Lauren Hall

      I also do work on reproductive biotechnologies and their political implications and this is a serious concern. We need to think more clearly about what makes a parent and the kinds of presumed rights parents have over children (and when and why). Adoptive parents and same-sex parents are limited in one sense in that their legal relationship is predicated on state involvement. Of course, men are often in this situation as well. As families change, we’ll see more state involvement in determining these relationships.

    • TracyW

      Isn’t there a strong interest in identifying someone or someones who have responsibility for raising any resulting child?

  • Jameson Graber

    I really like this post. It’s very much in tune with the kind of libertarianism I would like to see better developed.

    Hayek doesn’t seem to talk about the family a lot in his writing, but the importance of the family is implicit in a lot of his arguments about cultural evolution. In The Fatal Conceit, he argues that the human mind is the creation, not the creator, of civilization. It was because humans learned to follow abstract rules that civilization emerged, not because of design.

    So the dependence on our predecessors is even deeper than implied by this post. Not only do we need a social network to help us when we are weak. We in fact need it even to learn to think. Language and concepts don’t just emerge spontaneously from an individual. They emerge from social conditioning.

    But not all social conditioning is equal. If we were raised not by our own parents, but by a bigger social structure, it seems likely that our individual identities would not have as much of a chance to develop. The family unit allows the parent and child to get to know each other intimately, rather than each merely filling a given role in the tribe.

    So I think there are pretty profound reasons to think the family is not only important but crucial, which makes it all the more problematic when libertarians don’t talk enough about it.

    • Lauren Hall

      Your post is precisely why I find Burke such an important writer. His intergenerational compact roots individuality in a social context, but he starts with families and NOT the state. It’s an important distinction. Just as you point out, being socialized by the state is a pretty scarey and not terribly individualistic experience. Being raised by families allows both individuality and socialization without (much) violence being done to either. Of course, great violence can be done to both individuality and/or socialization in some circumstances, which is why Rothbard tries to provide children a way out.

      • Sean II

        “…which is why Rothbard tries to provide children a way out.”

        Of course, he turned a lot of stomachs by also trying to provide parents a way out. So there’s that.

        • Libertymike

          Did you know that the expression, “so there’s that” is one that I have heard Justice Breyer frequently utter during the course of interviews or panel discussions on C-Span?

          • Sean II

            I’m pretty sure that’s an old Yiddishism. It was a big favorite among the kids I grew up with.

            It’s got this wonderful dexterity as a phrase, such that it can be used either to understate a strong point or to mockingly overplay a weak one.

  • Sean II

    You have a bit of a revealed preference problem here. It’s very hard to ignore the fact that, when people possess the means to do so, they usually choose to buy their way out of close kinship. Family ties reliably weaken as GDP climbs. Traditionalists have long noticed this, and of course bitch about it without cease.

    The reason seems straightforward: families are friends we didn’t choose. This poses obvious problems in terms of compatibility. It bodes ill for the long-term success of the alliance.

    And so it stands to reason that the more choice people have – as in a libertarian or even just a psuedo-market society – the less they will cleave to families. One need only remember the awkwardness, the thinly concealed hostility, the “why do we even bother with this charade?” feeling most people experience around the holidays, to understand why.

    Of course you’re right that libertarians need the family, because no one has yet thought of a way to care for dependent children that wasn’t a thousand times worse, and indeed infinitely creepy. But hey, that’s no reason to get excited about families. It’s just a reason to put up with them…grudgingly, the same way one puts up with a tipsy, passive-aggressive Aunt around Thanksgiving.

    As for me, I rank the institutes of soul-crushing oppression this way: 1) The State, 2) The Church and/or School, 3) The Family and 4) The Big Firm. But I have known many people whose families were so oppressive they didn’t mind one bit escaping to such horrible places as boarding school or even the U.S. Marine Corps. Think about that! Think about what that means!

    • Jameson Graber

      Intuitively, there’s clearly something to what you’re saying: family time is quite often a time to practice one’s tolerance rather than one’s liberation. On the other hand, I’m not totally sure about your empircal claim, “Family ties reliably weaken as GDP climbs.” Keep in mind that statistically there is a postive correlation between material well-being and family stability. Sure, a lot of this is social pressure, because family instability is looked down on among the well-to-do. But that’s kind of the point, at least in part–a lot of the social pressure we experience has the tendency to keep us in places that are, in the long run, good for us (or at least for society).

      • Sean II

        That correlation applies only to the small unit of families: the so-called nuclear family. There isn’t a correlation between material well-being and “family” in the sense of giving a damn about non-immediate relatives. Probably it’s the other way around: the more cousins you have in your cell phone contact list, the poorer you probably are. And if you’re poor enough not to have a cell phone, you’re probably up to your malnutritionally softened ear lobe in cousins.

        I interpret this evidence as supporting only obvious conclusions: 1) Being raised by flawed people who more or less care about you is still better than being abandoned, and 2) Bryan Caplan is right: being single is a luxury, so for most people having both parents in the home simply means having better material circumstances.

        What I don’t see is what people so often claim for the family…that it’s some magical force that ennobles its members through – to borrow a phrase from Huey Lewis – the power of love.

        For even the modest benefits of the family come with highly conspicuous costs. Think about, J.G. – how many people have you known who DIDN’T suffer greatly from some bit of family tyranny? For the poor and lower middle class, it might take obvious forms like violence, neglect, bad role-modeling. But even rich kids often have to fight their way through hideous feelings like “What’s wrong with me that I hate the violin” or “I know it’s moral treason if I don’t go to law school, but…” etc.

        My point is: the benefits of family are there, and while not magic, they are at least not trivial. But the family’s contributions to human misery aren’t trivial either. Far from it.

        • Jameson Graber

          In terms of personal experience, to be quite honest, my family when I was growing up was on the whole an incredibly positive influence on me, and quite a lot of people I know have had similar positive experiences. Call me a believer in the “power of love.”

          Of course, it depends on what goal you’re trying to reach. If you would really rather have nothing annoying to deal with ever, I suggest being single and rich and never talking to your family. But that seems to me, well, sad.

          I’m not trying to deny the examples of bad things families do. They exist. But I’m not convinced I should think of the family as, to paraphrase Churchill, the worst social structure ever invented except all of the others. Families are flawed because people are flawed. But good families really do exist, even outside of mythical TV portrayals.

          • Sean II

            “But I’m not convinced I should think of the family as, to paraphrase Churchill, the worst social structure ever invented except all of the others.”

            That’s a good one-liner for what I’m getting at.

            I’m glad you had positive experiences with your family (spoiled brat), and of course I know such things exist outside of TV sitcoms – although its interesting how much fiction plays on the idea of family misery rather than family bliss. I’d say that the former is clearly winning, now that we have more than three networks, with fewer and fewer movies and shows obeying the old production code.

            I put this down as a bit more revealed preference on my side of the argument. When consumers finally got a decent choice, they started voting to see messed-up families rather than idyllic ones.

          • Jameson Graber

            The thing about seeing the non-idyllic family on TV is that it doesn’t actually paint the family as an institution in a bad light. On the contrary, it helps to reinforce an ideal while being realistic about how well we attain to it. If people didn’t want to see families on TV at all, that would really say something.

          • Sean II

            That’s a good point. The ubiquitousness of even bad families in fiction probably shows that, however displeased people are with that they have, they can’t stop hoping for some insight or breakthrough to make things better.

            Quite a few of those more realistic portrayals of family life end on unrealistically upbeat notes, which probably says something about what people really want from their families.

            I take that as a setback for my argument, fair enough.

          • Lauren Hall

            This is a great comment thread because it highlights precisely what it is that makes people so uncomfortable about discussing families broadly. Either families are idyllic loving communities or they are rights-violating oppressive prisons. The reality is somewhere in the middle. Even people who grow up in abusive or neglectful homes feel a pull back to their family later in life and most people who suffered abuse and neglect still want to have kids and try again. Why do we keep doing it? Probably because the family serves an important purpose in crafting our identity, in providing us a place in the world, and providing us a center for affiliative and loving relationships. Does it always do all of that? Of course not. Does it do some of that much of the time? Probably. And this centrality would explain Jameson’s points above about why the family is such a persistent part of TV and movies. We can’t escape it even if we want to and maybe we recognize that even when it’s bad we don’t really want to escape it altogether.

          • Sean II

            “We can’t escape it even if we want to…”

            Well…how could libertarians not love that?

  • Daniel Duarte

    Interesting post, but what I think Rothbard attempted to do with his theory was to provide a framework to more effectively safeguard children against parental abuse. Or else a child running away from a family he doesn’t want to be in would then have to be considered a coercive act against the parents, something difficult to hold for libertarians.

    “That her son may be better off in material or emotional terms in a
    stable, two-parent, middle-class family does not undo the irreparable
    violence that has been done to his relationship with his mother, a
    relationship entitled to our respect in part because it is so tightly
    linked to our understanding of who we are as free individuals.”

    What matters most, then, the child’s wellbeing or the parent’s emotional stability? No matter how entitled a parent feels to raise their children, giving that harm and abandonment happens all the time, I would rather have Rothbard’s easier opt-out way for dealing with this. Securing the children’s right to emancipation or to seek another family to take care of them is a much more effective way to protect them (and for them to protect themselves) from actual violence. Kidnapping by the state is a permanent threat indeed, but the there is also the unseen harm of children forced by state custody laws to remain in violent families.

    • Lauren Hall

      Right. I don’t disagree with any of that. The problem is that the family is a messy institution that both challenges and supports individuals in a variety of ways. There’s always the risk parents will abuse children, but for children raised in foster care, the vast majority of them would much rather have a family of (almost) any sort. The problem is that families, like all human institutions, are imperfect. Rothbard’s solution to the problem of abuse is imperfect or at least incomplete because we have competing rights at play. My right to my child ends with my child’s nose, sure, but who determines when my child’s right has been violated in less extreme examples? The New Yorker article I referenced is depressing precisely because the state rightfully intervened during a crisis and then went too far, which is extremely common once CPS is involved.
      And the problem with Rothbard’s opt-out is that it doesn’t help us before the child is able to opt-out himself. Prior to that moment you simply have parents’ rights pitted against the interests of the state (perhaps in guardianship of the child), which is a problem given the magnitude of state power.

  • Kurt H

    Parents are not owners, and children are not property, any more than any human being is property.

    In the kidnapped child example, it’s interesting that the article seems to dwell on the injury to the parent, when it’s injury to the child that really matters. That, after all, is how we can distinguish between a kidnapping case and intervention into an abusive family. In the first case the child is being harmed. In the latter, assisted. It may be true that inappropriate interventions occur, but that doesn’t obliterate the principle, it just calls out for a better process for determining whether intervention is needed.

    Then there is this : “The family is where the individual is best known and best valued.”

    Really? Than why is it that the types of people who harp about “the family” most in our society are authoritarian jerks who embrace the idea that an individual who express unapproved thoughts or behaviors should be corrected, by force if needed? There are so many examples of cases where this naive aphorism doesn’t hold that they probably outnumber the cases where it does hold. By and large, families are populated by people who don’t really know you as well as your chosen associates and yet they presume to tell you your business. I can think of few things less conducive to a liberal society than giving cultural deference to people who are accidentally in your social orbit.

    • Lauren Hall

      There’s a difference between emphasizing “family values” and arguing that the family is an important human institution that’s not going anywhere. The “family values” people are in fact emphasizing a very particular 20th century understanding of the family as patriarchal, Christian, and (usually) authoritarian.
      Your other points are empirical points and are simply not supported by the actual research. People are more protected against state interference in families, which is one reason why purges often separate family members or attempt to pit them against each other. The evidence is also strong that children living with their biological parents are overwhelmingly better off physically and emotionally than they are when they live with unrelated individuals.
      The reality of course is that it’s not just “cultural deference” to privilege kin. It’s a human universal and no society has been able to do without it. So while it’s fine to dislike families and think they have negative effects on society (which would require empirical support), it’s probably also unrealistic to think they’re going anywhere. So why not try to deal with them head on?

      • People are more protected against state interference in families, which is one reason why purges often separate family members or attempt to pit them against each other.

        Another example to support your point: slave owners deliberately selling the children and spouses of their slaves so as to prevent strong family bonds from forming, thus strengthening their position of domination over their slaves.

      • good_in_theory

        ” People are more protected against state interference in families”

        Conversely, people are more protected against family interference in states.

        “The evidence is also strong that children living with their biological parents are overwhelmingly better off physically and emotionally than they are when they live with unrelated individuals.”

        Is this evidence really so strong? The above quote sounds like the Mark Regnerus sleight of hand where you compare intact biological families to a hodge podge of different family types and then declare same sex marriage and two parent adoption bad.

        Intact adoptive households and intact biological households seem to be similarly good for children: http://www.law.harvard.edu/programs/about/cap/assignments/art-07/packet5supplement.pdf

        “So while it’s fine to dislike families and think they have negative effects on society (which would require empirical support), it’s probably also unrealistic to think they’re going anywhere.”

        But non-intact, non-biological, non-two-parent, &etc families aren’t going anywhere, and it isn’t clear what negative effects they have on society (if any), when one considers the appropriate counterfactuals.

        • Lauren Hall

          A child’s chance of being abused increases 33x if he or she lives with an unelated adult male. I would say that’s a pretty clear indicator that some kinds of families pose more of a risk than others. But my point was about families more broadly, not a particular kind of family. Same-sex families, adoptive families, and all the other ways in which people come together in close-knit multi-generational groupings serve a similar purpose and protect individuals in the way I suggest above. Some kinds of families, like polygamy, create externalities that everyone else has to figure out what to do with, but my point was not that some kind of traditional heterosexual two-parent family is best but that families in every form will continue to exist and challenge libertarian assumptions.
          I do find it interesting though that the Right has so successfully co-opted the term “family” that the relatively uncontroversial statement that the family is important immediately suggests that one privileges two-parent heterosexual families above all else. Nothing in my post implied that and I certainly don’t believe it. But ignoring the strength of biological relationships is problematic, at least if you’re trying to limit children’s vulnerability to abuse and neglect.

          • Kurt H

            “A child’s chance of being abused increases 33x if he or she lives with an unrelated adult male not married to his or her mother. I would say that’s a pretty clear indicator that some kinds of families pose more of a risk than others.”

            Not at all. Even if this soundbite is true, this is exactly the sort of sloppy categorizing that good_in_theory is talking about. There is a huge difference in outcomes between a child adopted at birth and one who was adopted later in life after death of the parent(s) raising them or an incident of abuse or neglect. The bad outcomes in the adopted sample come from the dangerous circumstances that sometimes trigger an adoption — not because these children are separated from the magical power of THE BLOOD.

          • good_in_theory

            What’s the source of this claim about the likelihood of abuse? Other stats say mothers are more likely to abuse their children than fathers, and that parents (of biological or non-biological varieties) make up by far the largest portion of abusers. Of course that’s in part explained by the relative commonality of the arrangements.

            The gloss I can find on unrelated men in the household suggests that their role in child-deaths is highly correlated with the poverty and lack of child-care resources available to the mothers (or other institutions) whose children they end up hurting. The data seems to come from one study on a sample of a few hundred Missouri children, with the shocking 50x likelihood sound bite coming from the raw, uncontrolled comparison between intact biological families and families with dead children. It remains the case that unrelated adults are very unlikely to kill children. Base rate fallacy and all that.

            “the relatively uncontroversial statement that the family is important immediately suggests that one privileges two-parent heterosexual families above all else”

            My response was based on the focus on biological relationships in the quoted comment – in the line of Kurt’s quip about the magical power of the blood. That sort of rhetoric does seem to privilege two parent hetero families above all else.

          • Lauren Hall

            Margo Wilson and Martin Daly have done extensive cross-cultural research controlling for income level, education level, and a number of other confounding variables. They find that the most dangerous housing arrangement for young children by far is when a mother is cohabitating with a man who is not the father of her children. Wilson and Daly’s original data comes from Canada, but they have extended their analysis to include U.S. and other samples as well. The patterns hold true across cultures.

      • Kurt H

        Pointing out that a counter-factual doesn’t apply to all circumstances does not refute it. You made the assertion that the family is good for the individual. I countered that in a great many cases, it isn’t — and that the people most partial to the notion of the family as an institution are also the ones least like to have families that support individualism. The authoritarian aspects of family structures far pre-date the 20th century, as well (unless you meant the 20th century BCE, in which case you would still be a tad shy of the mark).

    • TracyW

      In the kidnapped child example, it’s interesting that the article seems to dwell on the injury to the parent, when it’s injury to the child that really matters.

      I don’t see how becoming a parent means that your own injuries don’t matter. I can see the value of a principle of “child’s best interests” in custody cases, judges need something to guide decisions, and that principle seems to offer the best, or at least worst way, of making decisions as compared to trying to balance the interests of three people in all the mess of a nasty relationship breakdown. Otherwise judges could spend forever listening to parents’ accounts of the wrongs done to them by other parent, and probably often winding up with bad decisions anyway. Though I’d be interested in arguments to the contrary.

      But, in normal conditions as opposed to after a relationship breakdown, I think we can pay attention to the interests of parents as well.

      That, after all, is how we can distinguish between a kidnapping case and intervention into an abusive family. In the first case the child is being harmed. In the latter, assisted.

      But kidnapping of a very young baby, who is then brought up in an affectionate family, may not harm the child at all. It still would be a heartbreaking thing to do to the mother, even if the child never knows they were adopted (or knows but doesn’t care).

  • JBaldwin

    Nobody “needs” family (i.e., blood relations) beyond birth. Kin-relations arose from biological and environmental imperatives in our species’ ancestral past. They persist for reasons explained by evolutionary psychology and culture. People do, however, need close and extended social relationships to survive and thrive. These relationships are entirely consistent with individualism as I understand it. The title of this post suggests that libertarians think that they don’t need other people, which no thoughtful libertarian I know of has ever claimed.

    • Lauren Hall

      I would question the assumption that infants, toddlers, and children generally don’t need family. The rates of child abuse are significantly higher for children living with non-relatives. We have yet to find an alternative to the family that provides the nurturing and support necessary for raising decent human beings. Until and unless we discover such a system, I would argue that we do, indeed, need the family.

    • TracyW

      If you only did things that were needed, you’d live a dull life indeed.

  • Irfan Khawaja

    I hadn’t heard of the book before I read this post (one of the better ones I’ve seen here) and would like to run a review of the book in Reason Papers (which I co-edit). If anyone’s interested in reviewing it, feel free to contact me via the contact information for the journal. http://www.reasonpapers.com

    • Irfan Khawaja

      Just to clarify, I meant Lauren Hall’s book.

  • TracyW

    Family life is where we learn to be both individuals and group members, citizens and dissenters. It is also where we do our most profound and creative work: the bearing, raising, and educating of other human beings. Parenting is an expression of our freedom in the most foundational way.

    Actually Judith Harris argues that, once you control for genetics, and leaving aside the extremes of bad parenting, parenting behaviour has very little to do with how kids turn out.
    She furthermore argues that it’s quite plausible that children are socialised by their peers, and that’s where they learn to be both individuals and group members, citizens and dissenters (though she’s also the first to observe that not much research has been done into this, and one should thus not be too confident).

    • Lauren Hall

      I’m familiar with Harris’ work and find it somewhat unpersuasive. I’m not sure how we explain the increased success rates of children in terrible school districts whose parents have books, for example. I don’t think her work adequately accounts for the fact that parental influence very often determines who one’s peers will be and the kinds of friends one is likely to have. Of course peer groups are enormously influential. But to say parents have almost no influence in who children turn out to be isn’t supported by the data she provides.

      • TracyW

        Well the obvious explanation of the increased success rate of children whose parents have books is genetics.

        I should have indeed mentioned that Judith Harris does explicitly state that parents can control where their kids are raised, and that often does have a big effect, eg if you raise your kids in France and send them to French schools (as opposed to international schools) then they will very probably come up French. Kids tend to pick up their religious identification (eg saying that they’re Catholic, as opposed to how religious they are in daily life) from their parents, though given that most religious organisations have things like a Sunday School that might be through peers more than learning from parents directly. Moving to France, however, or taking your kids to temple each week, in and of itself, doesn’t strike me as profoundly creative.

        (Other exceptions: Harris discusses some tentative evidence that perhaps autistic children are much more influenced by their parents, and there’s some evidence that things like cooking that are mostly learnt at home are more persistent).

  • famadeo

    It’s worth remembering that, if it’s the individual we’re concerned about, abuses of power can also occur at a family level. Even in the genuine persuit of the child’s wellbeing there can be collateral damage. I’m not dissagreeing, just maintianing perspective.

    On the other hand, I don’t see polygamy as necessarily problematic (or, for that matter, any “non-traditional” family arrangement). In principal, any type of family that does it’s part in cultivating the individualist culture mentioned here should be OK.

    • TracyW

      Have you heard the old joke?
      A new and an experienced social worker are talking about one of their cases.
      New social worker: “Well, we have to make allowances for Johnny, he comes from a broken home.”
      Experienced social worker: “I’m not surprised. Johnny could break any home.”

      • famadeo

        I have nothing against bad jokes (I tell a lot of them myself), but I’m confused. That’s either really random or meant to illustrate an extremely sophisticated point…

        • TracyW

          The joke illustrates that the child can cause collateral damage to their parents. It ties in with your statement about how there can be collateral damage even with genuine pursuit of the child’s best interest.

          • famadeo

            I was referring to collateral damage *upon* the child while genuinely persuing it’s good.

            For example, a parent can pressure a child into choosing a specific career path against this one’s will out of sincere concern for his or her economic stability. As a result, the child can end up resentful or unhappy.

          • TracyW

            I figured something like that was what you were referring to. My mentioning of the joke was to widen the idea of collateral damage to include what might happen to the parents.

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