As a libertarian, it pains me to admit flaws with libertarianism as a philosophy. But one problem in libertarian theory I’ve become increasingly sensitive to is the problem of how children are handled in a libertarian society. I believe I know where the problem stems from, and also why certain existing arguments are flawed, but don’t have much idea on how to rectify these flaws without violating a certain amount of libertarian theory. Oh well. Here is my attempt, at least, to look at one of the more interesting arguments for how libertarian theory should treat kids: Murray Rothbard analogies parent/child relations to house-owner/houseguest relations.
Before getting into that, I want to briefly outline why I think libertarians have such a hard time with the “child problem.” Libertarians, I think, are good at dealing with two different ideas: people (in the sense of autonomous adults) and property. To put it bluntly, children are neither of these and are probably best seen as somewhere in between the two in resemblance. Children resemble, but are not, autonomous adults in certain ways: they are physically autonomous and their brains/minds are not linked to other brains/minds in that they can decide certain things for themselves. But in other ways, children resemble, but are not, property: parents are legally responsible for taking care of children and children are in some sense ‘acquired’ by choice, children do not have a real choice in who their ‘owners’ are, etc.
But children are neither persons nor property. They are not quite autonomous persons because we – except some libertarians – recognize that children lack the mental ability to make certain decisions on their own or have the type of absolute freedom we grant to adults. Nor are they property because, morally, it strikes us as horrendous to think about parents being able to do anything they would like to their children. Unlike property, children have at least SOME freedoms.
We talk of how we are going to improve public education, what subjects to teach or not in public education, or how to teach certain subjects in public education. Rarely do we talk about the issue all of these questions presuppose: whether to have public education or whether it is the best way to educate children. If nothing else – and there IS plenty else – Murray Rothbard’s short essay “Education: Free and Compulsory” serves to offer up the seldom heard argument against public compulsory education.
There are roughly three arguments used in this book, each taking up about a third of the book:
The first section talks about pedagogical reasons why public compulsory education is not an ideal. Every child, it is noted, has different capacities, interests, and proclivities. Some are bright in mathematics and like bookish knowledge. Others are more creatively inclined, have no aptitude for math altogether, and are more comfortable with hands-on things. Others may really have no ability for academic kinds of knowledge whatever, but could be best served by technical training.
Public education, of course, is the antithesis of this: by its nature, it is standardizing and “averagizing” (in that, for numerical reasons, compulsory universal education cannot focus on differences, but only similarities). Additionally, public compulsory education ensures that students are not schooled in what their talents/interests are, or what their parents want them to learn, but rather what the state believes they should learn. (Why must high schoolers understand Algebra II? Because the government says it is a good idea.) (more…)