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Mar 31, 2008 7:57 am

More Shameless Self-Promotion

Joining in the spirit of shameless self-promotion, I wanted to let L&P readers know that my article "The Functions of the Family in the Great Society" has been published in the September issue of the Cambridge Journal of Economics. You can access a PDF version here.

This article represents what I hope to be the first of many on classical liberalism and the family. Those of you who read my piece on Rand and Hayek that appeared in The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies have a sense of the approach I'm taking to these issues. The CJE paper is an attempt to articulate a more full-blown Hayekian approach to the social institution of the family. Peter Lewin and I have a couple of working papers on a more narrowly (Austrian) economic approach to the family that we hope to return to soon. In the meantime, the CJE piece lays out the framework.

The family has been a neglected institution in much classical liberal thinking, lying as it does in the realm of civil society rather than market or state. Thinking about the role the family plays both as an institution central to forwarding the morality of a free society and as an evolving discovery process of its own accord has proved to be endlessly fascinating for me. And working from a libertarian perspective on the more narrow question of the proper extent of parental rights (e.g., should deeply religious parents be allowed to withhold traditional medical treatment in favor of prayer for an ill child) has left me with far more questions than answers. Investigating the economics, sociology, and public policy of the family should be an area ripe for ongoing intellectual and political debate among libertarians.

As always, feedback from L&P readers on the CJE piece, whether public or private, is welcomed and encouraged.

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More Comments:

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

You write:

And working from a libertarian perspective on the more narrow question of the proper extent of parental rights (e.g., should deeply religious parents be allowed to withhold traditional medical treatment in favor of prayer for an ill child) has left me with far more questions than answers.

Really? There are tough questions when it comes to parental rights, but that particular one seems like a no-brainer to me, especially if you rephrase it slightly: Should any parent be allowed to withhold an efficacious treatment for a child's illness in favor of no treatment?

The answer, pretty obviously, is "no." Parents have a duty of care to their children; that goes with bringing them into existence. At a minimum that duty implies caring for children when they're sick. We could quibble about how much care that entails and at what cost, but when the alternatives are as stark as "medicine or quackery" there's nothing left to quibble about. And surely prayer is the medical equivalent of quackery, so I don't see where the difficult questions arise in this case. Religious belief can hardly be an exemption from a duty of this sort.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

To accept that we have no positive obligations to children, one would have to accept the principle that one can willfully put someone else in a position of dire, helpless need knowing that one's action will cause their death. To regard this as a libertarian position is essentially to regard murder as consistent with libertarianism.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

(To Rod)
Those are complicating points, to be sure, but Horwitz's claim seems to be about the uncomplicated case. And my point is that the following sort of case is uncomplicated: A child is seriously ill. The medical diagnosis is relatively clear, as is the proper treatment. The family refuses treatment for the child on grounds that prayer will do the trick. Yes, there can be complications, but my point was that the just-described case is not particularly complicated.

As for your second question, under a certain age, children are incompetent to decide. In that case, I would say, since failure to provide medical care to the child would be a rights-violation, the state should intervene.

Stephan Kinsella - 12/19/2005

I tend to agree w/ Irfan's substantive points though that is not mine, and I would tend to be more deferential to the parents' decision; but the point for me is a general one: by having kids, you incur certain obligations to them: to feed, shelter, educate, etc. In law school in Louisiana I used to bristle at the state's forced heirship regime. Now I am not *as* opposed to it as before: if you have a kid, and the kid needs support until he's 70, well, better you than the taxpayers.

There is in law this example: you have no obligation to be a good samaritan; you can let someone drowning drown. No obligation to rescue. But if you are the one who pushed them in the lake, you do have an obligation to rescue them. You placed them in a position of peril.

Likewise it seems to me that if you, by voluntary actions (sex) conceive and bear a child then you have created a rights-bearing being (baby human) that is by its nature in a position of dependency and helplessness--much like the person you push into the lake. You have created the baby into a situation of need and peril, where he will perish without your positive assistance. In other words, it's not a surprise that you have some needy baby after you make him.

Roderick T. Long - 12/13/2005

Incidentally, for some of my own thoughts on the issue of children's rights and parents' rights, see this article.

Stephan Kinsella - 12/12/2005

Well, Hmm, I admit, I could be wrong. I may be too used to Rothbardian and Randians (of which I am a variant and an ex-/symp-, respectively). But in my experience, libertarians as a rule seem to be pretty die-hard about this: they repeat over and over the idea that there are not positive obligations and no positive rights. They do this to oppose the assumption of *non-consented-to* obligations imposed on people by the modern welfare state, so it is understandable; but in this opposition to imposed positive obligations, they seem to lose the realization that there can be positive obligations, as long as they are voluntarily incurred. I think that most libertarians think the only way you can incur a positive obligation is to sign on a white piece of paper in the presence of Judge Narragansett. They seem to forget that criminals, for example, incur positive obligations by *their actions*, as do tortfeasors. So there is no reason why procreation can't be a source or obligation.

Anyway, I think this area is woefully under-developed by principled libertarians, a deficit I hope to remedy as soon as I win the lottery.

In any event, the question of whether most libertarians believe in positive obligations to kids is merely an empirical one, and therefore, not really relevant. :)

Stephan Kinsella - 12/12/2005

(To Irfan)
In your hypo, "The family refuses treatment for the child on grounds that prayer will do the trick." I think the point is they should not have the *right* to "refuse" treatment for him. If the legal system gives them this discretion, can they be blamed for using it? The point is, should they have this discretion?

What do you think, Irfan?

As for your second question, under a certain age, children are incompetent to decide. In that case, I would say, since failure to provide medical care to the child would be a rights-violation, the state should intervene.

I am curious why you think it is a rights violation. I think it is, but not because the child is incompetent. Anyway, even if it is, it does not follow that the state should intervene. What follows is that it is a rights violation. To say that the state should intervene is to interject a view of the propriety of the state into a question of rights.

What do you think, Irfan?

Steven Horwitz - 12/12/2005

Agreed Roderick. I was surprised at Stephan's assertion as well. I certainlhy believe that parents have positive obligations towards children as a general principle.

Roderick T. Long - 12/12/2005

Aack, that one ended up down here too. I don't know why.

Roderick T. Long - 12/12/2005

Stephan, I'm surprised at your saying that most libertarians think parents have no positive obligations to children. Certainly it's a controversial question exactly how these obligations get generated in a manner consistent with libertarian principle, but it's my impression that the vast majority of libertarians (you and me included) that they do indeed ordinarily get generated.

Roderick T. Long - 12/12/2005

Sorry, that was supposed to be a response to Irfan's December 12, 2005 at 12:47 AM post above; not sure why it ended up down here.

Roderick T. Long - 12/12/2005

To re-complicate:

1. But whether something counts as "prayer" or as "health care" or as both is often going to be precisely what's at issue; that's why I gave the example of Christian Science treatment (which some medical practitioners endorse as efective while others dismiss it as quackery).

2. Sure, children are incompetent to decide, but what standard should be employed in deciding for them. It seems to me that the standard in general for making decisions on behalf of incompetent people (children, the brain-damaged, the comatose) should be not the person's good but the person's counterfactual preferences, i.e. what they would (most likely) desire if competent (a fact for which their actual preferences are relevant but not decisive as evidence), which is not the same as what they would desire if "ideally rational." (To out it another way, "paternalistic" behaviour is justified only insofar as its justification isn't paternalistic.) But then it becomes a slippery question what the child's counterfactual preferences are.

Stephan Kinsella - 12/12/2005

Well, it's not *that* simple--the way you put it is a bit question-begging, where you inserted "cause". That is the question. My personal view is that the parent is indeed a cause of the infant sufferering if he is not provided for; most libertarians, I believe, would not agree with this.
I discuss a more general theory of libertarian causation that would encompass such a view in Causation and Aggression, and have written before on a related issue (Louisiana's forced heirship law) in this LRC post, License to Breed?.

Steven Horwitz - 12/11/2005

Thank you Michael, those are all valid and helpful concerns. I think as this project becomes broader, I will be addressing those more thoroughly. This particular paper had a different purpose in play. But again, thanks so much.

Roderick T. Long - 12/11/2005

Two complicating points:

1. Under the present system, what counts as effective medicine and what counts as quackery is decided by the government, often in the interests of the medical establishment. Forms of treatment (ranging from acupuncture to Christian Science) are often rejected as quackery for reasons having more to do with dominant state-enforced paradigms than with real differences in effectiveness.

2. Certainly libertarians will grant that an adult has the right to refuse medical treatment on religious grounds. What about a child -- is a child competent to exercise religious-freedom rights on his or her own behalf? And if not, is it the state or the parent that has the right to exercise religious-freedom rights on the child's behalf?

Stephan Kinsella - 12/11/2005

I tend to agree that parents have duties to kids--libertarianism has no problem with positive obligations that you voluntarily incur by your actions. Arguably procreating is such an action. However, it is my experience that most libertarians would say parents have no positive obligations to their kids, so the question is not as obvious and you and I might think it is.

Michael Joseph Enright - 12/11/2005

Reading your article, I couldn't help but feel that your analysis was a little too uncritical of the family in general. The family is part of a larger set of interlocking societal relationships, orders, and organizations that can be highly oppressive. For example, familial organization played a large role in the oppression of wome throught most of history.

It seems that you take the approach that coercion inside the family is no different from coercion anywhere else (there is a footnote that seems to be roughly on this point). However, improperly coercive behavior towards young children performed within apparant relationships of trust and love can be extremely damaging. There is probably a good deal of truth to the claim that young children who were treated improperly will later treat others improperly and participate and support larger social movements of political coercion. They will also probably be inclined to trust in and support of coercive authority (an authority that like their parents both mistreats them and loves them--and that they are also inclined to love). This is a point largely advocated by Alice Walker as well as libertarian internet writer Arthur Silber. The main fear is that the family is not just possibly oppressive, but that the family is the cradle and nurturer of much oppression outside the family.

Furthermore, from your article it appears that the role of the family in instituting proper behavior is an unqualified good. In reality I think it is somewhat problematic. Social rules of behavior can be quite harmful. It may be true that parents may see reputational effects as a motivation to teach their children proper morals and etiquite. On the other hand, parents can also be too concerned with reputation--wich can cause them to do cruel things. Perhaps I find this the most frustrating part simply because I know of unwed mothers whose family forced them to give up the child--not because of any practical reason but because of their parents fear of reputational effects.

As a final note, I find it interesting that you highlight the civilizing effect of parents on children. It may be interesting to look at the civilizing effect of children on parents. Furthermore, most of your analysis seems to treat families as an instrument that society uses to train people in morality. It may be interesting to look at the impact of familial relationships on social change.