Back in December of 2011, I posted “Licensing Parents,” defending a view Hugh LaFollette had introduced into philosophical literature in 1980: that the state should license parents (LaFollette further defended this stance in 2010; see Note 1). LaFollette is not a libertarian and as I indicated then, I disagree with him about a lot–including the need to license medical doctors and lawyers. I nonetheless think he is right that we ought to license parents. In this post, I explain why libertarians—or at least minarchist BH-libertarians—ought to endorse parental licensing. The basic idea is simple: parental licensing could reduce overall regulations, regulatory bodies, and governmental interventions in private life, while also significantly reducing the harms to children, providing better respect for their rights. See more below the fold. I’m writing a paper on the topic, so serious objections are welcome.
As I have noted before, I take Mill’s harm principle to be the core of my libertarianism. That means I believe the only reason for government action of any kind is to prevent or rectify harm—where a harm is understood not merely as a pain or hurt, but as a wrongful setback to an individual’s interests. All else equal, causing harm to anyone, including a child, is sufficient (and necessary) to justify interference. In more standardly libertarian terms, violating an individual’s rights, including a child’s, is sufficient (and necessary) to justify state interference.
Children are vulnerable—especially to those who raise them. A policy meant to reduce harms that happen to children and so ensure their rights are respected is worth taking seriously. Parental licensing is such a policy. This is not a requirement to be licensed to get pregnant, carry a baby to term, or give birth. It is a requirement to be licensed to raise a child. With such a requirement in place, if you have a baby, are not licensed to raise children, and do not get licensed, the baby would be removed from your home and put up for adoption by someone licensed. The point is not to punish you but to protect the child. It should be clear that parenting is potentially extremely harmful. I also think–as does LaFollette–that it requires a certain competency that can be tested (the nature of the competency is developed in LaFollette 2010). If that is right, licensing parenting can reduce significant harms and rights violations. Libertarians should thus take it seriously.
I think BHL readers will raise 2 main objections.
The first objection, I suspect, will be an aversion to regulation of all sorts. I share that aversion but remain a minarchist (with admitted anarchist sympathies) because I think the state serves a legitimate purpose when it has (and upholds) laws that prevent or rectify harms (i.e., protect rights). Laws against rape and murder are the most obvious examples worth endorsing. Parental licensing is similar: its purpose is to help ensure the rights of children, preventing them from being harmed. Moreover, parental licensing has the potential to render many more government regulations and interventions unnecessary while simultaneously reducing the numbers of harms in society. To state the obvious, if we could be assured that parents would do their jobs minimally well–at least not horrifically badly–we could reduce the size and role of DFCS, CPS, and HHS. (Granted, we would need a licensing institution.) Moreover, we would need fewer regulations regarding schooling, childrens’ toys and clothing, etc. And it doesn’t end there. Consider that abused children are more likely than unabused children to commit violent crimes when adults. In 2010, LaFollette tells us
The damage [of child neglect and abuse] does not stop with the [immediate] victims. Their maltreatment affects how they will treat others when they grow up. They are far more likely to abuse their own children, and they are more likely to become criminals. Some researchers claim that child abuse creates ‘an additional 35,000 violent criminals and more than 250 murderers’. Others found that ‘child maltreatment roughly doubles the probability that an individual engages in many types of crime’. This is much higher than the effects of factors normally thought to cause criminality—including unemployment and crack cocaine use (LaFollette 2010, 5).
This means we can reduce the numbers of crimes—violent crimes—in the future by reducing the number of abusive parents now–the point of parental licensing. Reducing crimes means we can reduce police forces, courts, etc. (Of course, the police, courts and such would be needed to deal with violations of the new licensing law as well as remaining crime, but the overall change could be great.) Admittedly, a parental licensing program would require interference before there is any harm—but so do laws against drunk driving, laws requiring clear and honest labeling of foods and drugs, etc.
A second reason many here might oppose parental licensing is a belief–contrary to my claim–that we do not have the means of testing parental competence. We lack knowledge, the claim might go, about good parenting and how to test for it. Importantly, though, I am not advocating a scheme that requires good parenting nor a system wherein everyone must raise their children according to some state-approved method. I—and LaFollette—only favor a program that rules out bad parents. Especially abusive parents. If you think its OK to pour boiling water on a child you are wrong and should not be allowed to raise children, just as someone who thinks its OK to use a car to run over people they dislike is wrong and should not be allowed to drive. Some will say “but we can’t know with certainty that someone will abuse their children.” This is true, but while we can’t guarantee 100% accuracy, I think we can do a lot—and offer 3 considerations in defense of that claim (the first and third appeared in my original post about this).
Consider (1) how we test people to go into special ops in the military. A large part of that is psychological examination to be sure the soldier would not “crack” under pressure. There is tremendous pressure in child-rearing. Likely, some child-abuse is committed by biological parents who “cracked.” Ruling out those who are likely to crack seems like a way to prevent child abuse.
Consider (2) that we can ask people fairly simple questions to see what they might do. Asking a man if he would rape a 2 year old girl isn’t likely worthwhile, but asking if he has ever “been in a situation where [he] tried, but for various reasons did not succeed, in having sexual intercourse” with a child, or if he “ever had sexual intercourse with [a child] when they didn’t want to because you used or threatened to use physical force (twisting their arm; holding them down, etc.) if they didn’t cooperate?” of if he “ever had oral sex with [a child] when they didn’t want to because you used or threatened to use physical force (twisting their arm; holding them down, etc.) if they didn’t cooperate?” might get some positives. Lisak & Miller got surprising affirmative responses when they asked men these sorts of questions about sexual interactions with other adults. They asked roughly 1800 men (college students, but of significantly varying ages); 120 said they had done one or more of these sorts of things to women; 76 of those admitted to committing an average of 5.8 of these acts. If these men admitted to what they did; child rapists might also. And that would be reason to think they should not be parents. (See Note 2.)
Finally, consider (3) that there is significant, even if flawed, testing—including a home inspection—for people that do foster parenting or that adopt children. Current application procedures for adoption require more rigorous testing than what I would propose for licensing. Those procedures—and their associated costs—surely exclude some that would make good parents. Adoption of an infant, domestic or foreign, can take years and usually costs a minimum of $30,000. Costs of $50,000 and higher are normal. I don’t think it’s surprising that adopted children are “5x less likely to be abused than children reared by their biological parents” (LaFollette 1980, 194; see Note 3)—adoptive parents have generally worked hard to be able to adopt. They are also more likely to provide two-parent households. (See Note 4.)
Given the existing exams for soldiers entering special ops, the fact that rapists will admit their crimes if asked in certain ways, and existing tests for foster and adoptive parents, I submit that we likely can test for parental incompetence and that disallowing the parentally incompetent raising children would save some of the biological offspring they would create from harmful rights violations. This, to my mind, would be a huge advance over the current system wherein DFCS or CPS interferes only after harm has been done—and then creates further trauma for the child. That is what happens in our system. A teacher, doctor, nurse, or neighbor notices a problem and calls DFCS. A social worker investigates. If there is convincing evidence of significant harm, the child is removed from the home, inevitably causing the child trauma because of the separation from her parents, even if it is for the best. Both (some of) the harm the biological parent does and the trauma DFCS inflicts would be avoided with a parental licensing program. Unlicensed individuals would either not have a child in the first place or would have the child removed from their home and adopted out before the child was old enough to experience the situation as traumatic.
So, if your libertarianism is, like mine, largely a view that there are very few reasons for a government to interfere with an individual but that an individual’s harming others (violating their rights) is one such reason, you ought to consider endorsing parental licensing. It can reduce harms throughout society—not only to children that would otherwise be abused but also to those the grown victims of child abuse might harm later—and it can reduce the need for many other government regulations and interventions. In a nutshell, it can make smaller government more possible.
Note 1: Hugh LaFollette, “Licensing Parents” (Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol 9 #2, Winter 1980: 182-197; available here) and “Licensing Parents Revisited” (Journal of Applied Philosophy Vol 27 #4, 11/2010, 327-343).
Note 2: See David Lisak and Paul M. Miller , “Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending Among Undetected Rapists” (Violence and Victims, Vol 17 No 1, 2002: 73-84). Note that “Participants who completed the PH [Perpetration History] questionnaire and who were subsequently interviewed yielded a 87.8% agreement in their classification as perpetrators (kappa = .75). This cross-method verification yielded no false positives … and 12.2% false negatives” (77). See also Stephanie K. McWhorter, et al, “Reports of Rape Reperpetration by Newly Enlisted Male Navy Personnel” (Violence and Victims, Vol 24 No 2, 2009: 209-224).
Note 3: This claim is supported by more recent data—indeed the data support a stronger claim. According to the United States Department of Health & Human Services Administration for Children and Families, in 2012, 80.3% of the perpetrators of child maltreatment were parents and of those, 88.5% were biological parents of the victims. (http://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/cb/cm2012.pdf)
Note 4: “A 1997 Federal study indicated that the overall rate of child maltreatment among single-parent families was almost double that of the rate among two-parent families: 27.4 children per 1,000 were maltreated in single-parent families, compared to 15.5 per 1,000 in two-parent families.” (https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/usermanuals/fatherhood/chapterthree.cfm)
Also: Thanks to Matt Z for pushing me to get to the point far more quickly than I had in an earlier version of this post and for other suggestions to improve it.