In the history of libertarian theory, a number of absolutely abhorrent ideas have been proposed as “the” libertarian ideal on parental rights and responsibility. Everything from partial birth abortion, to “evictionism”, to assault, to letting children starve to death, and beyond. It is absolutely sickening for me, one who is not easily offended, much less made queasy, some of the things libertarians have attempted to justify in this particular field of libertarian thinking. I can only imagine how it comes across to those who are not yet convinced of libertarianism’s virtues. So many people are so concerned about the image of libertarianism, that they would attempt to alter its core principles. I say perhaps they should join me in addressing this topic using those principles instead.
I’ll be the first to recognize, that using provocative and even abhorrent concepts to wake people up can be an effective tactic. In many cases, offending someone is a way to make them think about a subject they would not have otherwise considered. It is also important not to condemn the radical thinker for stumbling across a seemingly abhorrent idea, and throwing it out there for the world to analyze. By putting the terrible idea out there, he invites criticism, and that criticism may well lead to the next breakthrough that makes the world a better place. Please keep this in mind as I thrash the opinions of two people I deeply respect in the following paragraphs.
I’ll also recognize that parenting can be a terribly difficult subject to tackle. We’re talking about balancing a child’s right to his body and life, with a parents right to their body, and life, and property, all things libertarianism holds equally sacred, in addition to traditions that libertarianism need not take a back seat to, but ought to treat with a certain level of respect. I just don’t see how piercing the skulls of infants, leaving undeveloped fetuses out in the elements, or starving toddlers to death, helps address it.
This stems largely from the idea that a parent has no implicit obligation to the child. In large part, we can thank Murray Rothbard for this. From Rothbard’s Ethics of Liberty;
It has been objected that since the mother originally consented to the conception, the mother has therefore “contracted” its status with the fetus, and may not “violate” that “contract” by having an abortion. There are many problems with this doctrine, however. In the first place, as we shall see further below, a mere promise is not an enforceable contract: contracts are only properly enforceable if their violation involves implicit theft, and clearly no such consideration can apply here. Secondly, there is obviously no “contract” here, since the fetus (fertilized ovum?) can hardly be considered a voluntarily and consciously contracting entity. And thirdly as we have seen above, a crucial point in libertarian theory is the inalienability of the will, and therefore the impermissibility of enforcing voluntary slave contracts. Even if this had been a “contract,” then, it could not be enforced because a mother’s will is inalienable, and she cannot legitimately be enslaved into carrying and having a baby against her will.
This appeals to the pro abortion crowd, but I hope those folks will see how awful this line of thinking becomes with this later paragraph from the same book;
Applying our theory to parents and children, this means that a parent does not have the right to aggress against his children, but also that the parent should not have a legal obligation to feed, clothe, or educate his children, since such obligations would entail positive acts coerced upon the parent and depriving the parent of his rights. The parent therefore may not murder or mutilate his child, and the law properly outlaws a parent from doing so. But the parent should have the legal right not to feed the child, i.e., to allow it to die. The law, therefore, may not properly compel the parent to feed a child or to keep it alive. (Again, whether or not a parent has a moral rather than a legally enforceable obligation to keep his child alive is a completely separate question.) This rule allows us to solve such vexing questions as: should a parent have the right to allow a deformed baby to die (e.g., by not feeding it)? The answer is of course yes, following a fortiori from the larger right to allow any baby, whether deformed or not, to die. (Though, as we shall see below, in a libertarian society the existence of a free baby market will bring such “neglect” down to a minimum.)
I find it amusing that one chooses to write a book titled “The Ethics of Liberty” then fails to address the immorality of starving a child to death. Amusement aside, the level of depravity that this would require far exceeds that of the common murderer. To put a gun to a grown mans head and pull the trigger, to me seems far more civilized than to watch and listen as an infant starves to death over the course of days and weeks. I of course don’t advocate for either, but I hope you can appreciate the comparison. There is a reason society panics when we hear stories of a young mother putting her newborn baby in a dumpster. To have such people in our society rightly shocks us, because they have such a disregard for human life that they pose a threat to others, especially the weakest and most helpless amongst us.
Walter Block makes a similar case in his argument for what he calls “evictionism” as some alternative to the traditional pro life vs. pro choice dynamic on abortion.
Moving past the pro-life versus pro-choice issue, I offered the libertarian position of evictionism, which provides the best compromise on this issue. In a nutshell, the argument for evictionism is as follows:
- The unborn fetus is trespassing into the womb of the woman.
- The rights of all fetuses are equal.
- Therefore, the only right choice would be evicting the fetus. Killing it would be wrong.
Both go on to rightly point out that in a free market, there would be a demand for babies. Be it from homosexual couples, or people who are infertile for whatever reason, or folks who are single and just want a child, or any number of reasons. There exists no shortage of people in this world who love children. So absent State regulation, transferring rights to, and responsibility for, a child whether for a fee or any number of other reasons, would be very easily accomplished. This stands in stark contrast to the world we presently live in, where adoption can be a costly and complicated and time consuming process, causing millions of American children to be slain in abortion clinics or brought up as wards of the State, while parents import children from all over the world.
Surely, Rothbard and Block propose solutions far superior to those the State presently provides us with, and for this we can thank them for their contributions to making the world a better place.
However, being better than the options the State presently provides does not a libertarian ideal make. Saying for example that a 10% sales tax would be superior to the present income tax laws in America is a true statement. Many who call themselves libertarians would agree with this, but taxes, however low and easy to understand, will always be less than libertarian because they are coercive.
Block and Rothbard both make the case that life begins at conception. I’m not sure that this is true, but absent some scientific breakthrough that properly defines a human life it is not a libertarian justice system’s place to say. Whether or not I know when life begins, is the same question as whether or not I know someone is on the other side of a door before I put a bullet through it. If I fire a gun through a closed door, and on the other side a life is lost, I am responsible for that life. If the life lost is that of an intruder, I am justified. If the life lost is that of a guest, spouse, or child, then I can expect to be brought to justice in a free society by the agents of whomever I have killed.
Aside from the parents and the general moral outlook of the society at large, an unborn child has no agents. He has produced nothing to exchange for protection, and in any case he lacks capacity to make contracts. Due to this, women may always rest assured that for better or worse, libertarianism will forever lack the capacity to punish abortion, or eviction of a fetus. For those of us who see abortion as a terrible act of violence against the most helpless in our society, our only recourse is ostracism.
We can no more do violence to a woman who aborts or evicts her fetus, than we can to a husband who strikes a wife who apologizes for making him hit her. Libertarianism recognizes that the man has no right to strike the woman, but if the woman does not call out for justice, then the society at large has no agency in the matter. If she chooses to live as an abused spouse, we may all recognize that this is a terrible thing, but we have no right to force some other lifestyle upon her, or to take her husband from her, just because we disagree with their choices. Just as we lack agency in the case of the abused spouse, we lack agency in the case of the aborted or evicted fetus.
So to the question of justice in the case of abortion or eviction, libertarianism is lacking. Some will find this good, some will find this evil, and in this regard it is no different than any number of matters such as racism, sexism, or homophobia. Non-aggression cares not for aesthetics.
Thus, the question is a moral and philosophical one. Libertarianism is more than a justice system, it is a standard of conduct. If I murder an adult, and nobody catches me, then I will escape justice in a libertarian society. This does not mean it is permissible for me to murder in secret. And so the question returns to the parent’s moral obligation to the child, which Rothbard neglects to address.
Block makes the case that all fetuses have the same rights, and because of this, an egg fertilized by a rapist, is equal to an egg fertilized by a consenting partner. This is an interesting argument for sure. In the case of rape, the fetus in question did no violence to its host. That act of violence was committed by the rapist, and the life now growing inside the mother is an innocent one. To kill the rapist would be seen as justice, but to kill the infant would be murder, assuming that life begins at conception, which is the case that Block makes.
If we accept this, then evictionism makes a great deal of sense. We have no right to kill the child, but if it is unwanted, we can expel it, come what may.
I take issue however with both Rothbard and Block’s case that consensual sex does not bind mother to child, or for that matter, father to child. To them, an unwanted infant is a parasite and a trespasser no matter how it arrived. By this math we do not require evictionism, we could kill the infant like any traditional abortion.
I need not inquire as to the intentions of a intruder inside my home. Maybe he didn’t set out to harm me, maybe he was just drunk and stumbled into the wrong house, maybe someone else beat him senseless and dropped him on my front lawn, how he got there is not my concern. What level of force I use to expel him is at my discretion. Whether I shout for him to leave, or drag his corpse out the back door is entirely my decision because the intruder has violated my property and I am justified in protecting it. I am not obligated to put myself in harm’s way by notifying him of my location, or trying to lay hands on him, the potential threat to my safety inside my own home is justification enough for deadly force.
If I invited him into my home, this becomes a radically different equation.
There is no question that pregnancy is a life threatening condition to women. Countless women have died over the years due to complications caused by pregnancy, and while medical advancements have made this much less frequent, the threat has not been eliminated. Thus, if we accept that consensual sex does not bind mother and father to child, then an unwanted fetus is not only a parasite, and trespasser, but also a potential threat to the life of the mother, and thus, deadly force is justified.
So we may say that evictionism and abortion are matters of mere preference. Just as I may opt to throw the living intruder out of my home, or drag his lifeless body to the trash heap according to my own system of values, then if I am justified to expel the parasitic uterine infection of the fetus, I am also justified in terminating its life, according to the same.
I do not accept this. As I write this document, it is April 19th 2014. There are no human beings of child bearing age alive today who do not know where babies come from. To say that consensual sex does not bind both mother and father to child, is to say we may murder guests in our home, and to throw off all responsibility for one’s actions.
To say that one can create a child, then cease to care for it, reasonably expecting this will result in the child’s death, is the same as saying that one may recklessly dispose of a bomb. If I decide to prepare for the zombie apocalypse by building pipe bombs in my garage, then lose interest after the season finale of The Walking Dead, I cannot simply throw my improvised explosive devices in the trash can and wait for the garbage man to come. I know that those bombs have the potential to destroy, and I should reasonably expect that the garbage truck’s trash compactor could cause them to detonate, killing the trash collector. Call it murder, call it manslaughter, call it criminally negligent homicide, the result is the same, an innocent life lost due to my carelessness. Modern law rightfully provides that I should be held accountable, and so would the agents of the trash collector in the absence of the State.
The fact that the infant has no agent in the State’s absence, has no bearing on the rights of the child or responsibilities of a parent. By creating the bomb, I become responsible either for its proper storage and disposal, or for the life and property it destroys. By creating the child I become responsible either for its proper care and feeding, or for its death. The only way I can escape responsibility for either is to get someone else to accept it.
When one sets in motion a course of events that they reasonably expect will cause the death of another, and a death does in fact occur, they become a killer. If abortion be the one crime libertarianism cannot punish, so be it, but let us not become cold blooded advocates of child abandonment, by glossing over the fact that it is an unspeakably horrific act of irreparable violence to murder helpless innocent babies with our carelessness.
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