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Why Parental Obligation?

by John Walker
Libertarians for Life
Copyright 1991

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A major debate among libertarians is over parental obligation. Do parents owe their dependent children care and support? Or do libertarian principles permit parents to abandon their children, even if harm results?

John Walker of Libertarians for Life defended parental obligation at the Children's Rights panel at the 1983 Libertarian Party Convention in New York City. The following is a slightly edited version of the statement he made during his initial presentation.

His remarks were carried in The Natural Law Familist, January/February 1984. Opposing views by two of the other panelists -- I. Dean Ahmad and David Morris -- were also carried in the same issue. [Libertarian Familist, 5205 Fairbanks, #4, El Paso, TX 79924, 915/755-6940.]

In discussing children's rights among libertarians, I think we've got two rather different worlds. One is what we're actually going to do in our own lives. And the other is the theoretical justification that lies behind it -- whether or not we ever actually have to worry about it.

I don't think there are many people in this room who are going to be selling their children to the fertilizer factories. And so I think for libertarians, if for no other reason than we are primarily concerned with principles, the primary problem we confront is in the field of theory -- in principle.

Two Kinds of Rights

I want to suggest that when we talk about rights, there are two meanings to the word "rights."

One is what we can call "universal" or "natural" rights. The other is what has to be called "particular" rights. I have a right not to be killed. Everyone here has that; it is a universal right. However, I also have a right to this wristwatch; it is mine in particular. You have rights to homes. You have rights to a paycheck you haven't received yet -- a very particular right against a particular person at a particular time. Maybe it arises out of contract, maybe not.

But there are different kinds of rights.

The dichotomies we see in the children's rights debate are, almost, that people have sort of lined up on the four possible alternatives, with true or false for each of those two alternatives. There are those who hold that children have no universal rights and no particular rights; they are property or something like it. Now, that's probably not many people. But theoretically, they probably get heard as having significant arguments in the libertarian movement.

There are next those who say, well, yes they have universal rights, but no particular rights. (Just by virtue of being children, anyway -- I mean they could receive a will or something like that, and have a particular right to that property.)

There are those, and they are probably in the conservative movement, who will say they have no universal rights. But they do have a mess of particular rights against the parents (or, if you're a liberal, against society) for food, clothing and shelter. But, for instance, they have no right to liberty as such. Oh, they may have some universal rights -- the right not to be killed. But to speak of a 12-year old as having the right to leave home is out of the question for these people.

And finally (and this is the position I'm going to be taking) there's the position that they have the universal rights of persons, the same as everyone in this room -- which are primarily negative, which effectively say you can't stomp on them. But they also have particular rights -- against their parents.

The Fact of Dependence

Now, [responding to a comment by a previous speaker] parents' bringing children into the world in the state of dependence is not, as far as I can see, an "alleged" fact; it's a pretty obvious one. Agreed there was no one there before. But when we have sex, we know there is a possibility to bring someone into existence who will be in very grave danger, who will be in harm's way. He will be, or she will be, intimately dependent upon whatever the woman does for the first nine months; and then -- for about what? at least six years thereafter -- upon what all the adults, primarily the two that brought them into the world, are going to do.

Now, some have raised the "disability model" when we talk about this. Again, this is something subject to debate among libertarians. If I run someone down without intending to, do I owe them anything? I think most libertarians would concede, yes I do -- to put them back on their feet, to recompense them for their pain.

Now, some libertarians have made the dangerous mistake of looking at the child in that way, as if being dependent were something horrible, like having your leg broken.

No. But you're in danger of something horrible -- like being dead.

The Responsibility Not To Inflict Harm

The responsibility of parents is, then, not to recompense for any wrong done, but to make sure it doesn't happen. Because they put their kids in that position. The kids are totally dependent upon them, totally subject to their control. They put them in harms way. Well, in some sense, there is no injustice committed by being put in harm's way. The injustice happens when they let the harm befall the kid.

Now then, but some people will say "Wait a minute, wait, wait, wait." Why? Gee golly whiz.

Who Assented?

Well, there's one fact, again, that comes into play here. This was the action, for most parents, of their own free choice. It was not the free choice of the child.

In a manner of speaking, if you're a couple, and you go out on a joy ride, then, well, neither one could be argued to commit a crime against the other because the car cracks up. We both knew we were putting ourselves in harm's way.

The child was not asked for his consent. And, moreover, there's a reasonable presumption that children, like anybody else, prefer to live rather than die, prefer to be healthy rather than to be sick. And since we caused the situation by our choice and imposed it on them against their choice -- without their choice, to be more accurate -- without their choice, then we're responsible for it.

Now, a lot of people will start worrying: oh, gee golly whiz, what if we actually had to pay attention to that right?

But for libertarians, the first question is not going to be: what are we going to do when we pay attention to that right? The first question is going to have to be: is that right really there? Do the children have a particular right [against their parents]?

What Rights?

I'm afraid libertarians lots of times get suddenly worried about the state -- and with good reason. And public education is just the most glaring example, you know, that most of us have gone through. That's entirely prudent to be worried about. But you can only start worrying about it after you first of all ask the question: does the kid have a right to some sort of education?

Does the kid have a right to food? Does the kid have a right to clothing? Does the kid, to put it more simply, have a right to have his parents provide him with the means to [live and] become independent? To make his own choices, to go his own way?

I would suggest that the general libertarian principle is that when you impose something on someone else without their consent, and at your free will, then, yes, you are obligated.

You do incur particular obligations to that particular individual, whether it's somebody that you ran down or whether it's a kid that you brought into the world without their consent

A Conditional Right

I would suggest that, as far as the practicalities are concerned, quite frankly, the libertarian premises make those practicalities an awful lot easier. Because they recognize that the kid is a negotiating partner to this obligation. The word, a "right" -- when you have an obligation, and I have a right -- means I can say "that's O.K., forget it."

Moreover, the child's right is not even a right in the sense that I have a right to the paycheck. The child's is a conditional right. More like the right that you have from your insurance policy. If the kid were to come into the world uniquely already fitted out to be independent, then the parents would have no obligation. So, also, your insurance company has no obligation -- until you get hit by a car, or fit whatever is in the terms. And, therefore, they have no right to sweep you off the street and say, "We've decided, by the way, you really need help." You can always say no.

So also, because libertarians recognize the child is a negotiating partner, the child can also say no.

I suggest, for the Libertarian Party, the problem may not be any of these things that we've talked about. The problem may be (and we may get into it when we talk on the plank) that I'm afraid the Libertarian Party has gotten hold of the hope -- in what they call "compromises" -- of finding a formula of words that will cover the differences between me and him and him. So we don't have to get around to ask: does the kid have a right to care? We'll just say parents ought to, you know, give care and be nice and what not. And we won't talk about the law or anything like that. We'll find compromise words.

The Questions to Face

Quite frankly, I think the major challenge for the Libertarian Party may be to confront the differences of principle within the Libertarian Party.

And many of us don't particularly disagree on certain fundamentals -- you know, we're not going to torture the kids. But we've got the question: let's say I did just fail, and the kid starves. Does the kid have the right to call the parent to account?

I mean, I think it will happen in a libertarian society and cousins and neighbors will take up the slack.

But we still have to ask the principle question: whether kids have particular rights against their parents.

An Addendum

In looking at my statement recently, we discussed whether it should be rewritten before we reprinted it. We decided to leave it pretty much as I gave it. Basically, it has already been printed once, and I dislike having two significantly different versions of the same alleged event floating around. So, you'll have to put up with my style of conversation.

I would like, however, to explain further a critical point in my argument.

The Question of Power

Let's say parents do permit harm to befall their kids -- either deliberately or negligently. Is the harm merely an unfortunate corollary of a rightful action? Is it like a store's going out of business because we don't trade there anymore? Or is it an initiation of force? Is it as if we had walked over and broken someone's arm? (Or burned down the store, say.)

Please note that this question cannot be answered by philosophy alone. We also have to ask what the practical facts are. We have to look at the situation: Who or what caused the harm?

Looking at the situation of a dependent child, the critical practical fact is one of power. First, the relation between parent and child originates with the assent of both parents, generally -- but without the assent of the child. And just as importantly, the power of the parents is virtually absolute.

Let's say, then, that the parents abandon the child, and harm results. The practical fact is that the parents caused that harm just as if they'd walked over and broken someone's arm. Perhaps other analogies might be that they caused the harm just as if they threw someone into the path of a flood, or dropped them out of an airplane. They can't attribute the harm to the flood, as if the harm were merely an act of God. Nor can they blame it on the victim for not being able to swim, or to fly.

To me, it's strange that libertarians (of all people) seem ambivalent about confronting the practical fact of the power that adults have over children. Yes, we are willing to talk about the right of children to leave home; but we are not enthusiastic about asking what obligations are incurred by parents because they unilaterally imposed the relationship of dependency in the first place. Similarly, we're not enthusiastic about facing the fact that unilaterally terminating that relationship is also an exercise of power.

Indeed, some libertarians prefer to believe that either bringing a child into existence must be aggression, or that the act must be absolutely free of obligation. Besides being a false dichotomy, that's a very handy way to dodge serious discussion. The simple fact of having the power is not aggression. It's how that power is exercised that determines whether aggression takes place.

Negligently or deliberately letting harm happen to the child is aggression. It is an initiation of force. And that fact is the foundation of parental obligation. Parental obligation is not an obligation to recompense for harm; it is, rather, the obligation to refrain from inflicting it. And that's what the basic libertarian principle of non-aggression is all about.

LFL explains and defends the libertarian case against abortion choice. Our reasoning is expressly scientific and philosophical rather than either pragmatic or religious, or merely political or emotional.

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