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The Limits of Libertarian Ideas for the Family

libertarian familyOne of the major mistakes a socialist makes is to try to extend normal family relationships to interaction between all adults. When I say ‘normal,’ I mean the type of relationship wherein people share and care for each other because of a mixture of love and obligation, without wages. The family members live together in a way that both makes this possible and necessary. This type of cooperative relationship cannot be substituted for by hiring someone to be part of your family.

A libertarian can be at risk for making an opposite sort of mistake. That is, if they take principles which rightly should guide interaction between independent adults and try to apply those to families. The responsibilities of parents for children is the most obvious example, however there are also times when adults in a family must attend to a situation in ways that non-family members shouldn’t or don’t have the family insight for. Again, you simply cannot hire someone to do these types of things. People may pretend hired help is just as good, or someone who is hired may become a good friend, but it is never the same as family.

The trouble is the foundational principle for most serious libertarians is the Non-Agression Principle (NAP). This principle indicates that no one has authority over anyone else. It is often restated to say that ‘no physical force should ever be initiated against another person.’ This poses difficulties in the family, particularly for parents, since parents assuredly must impose some authority over their own children in order to properly care for them. Up to a certain age, there has to be the option of forcing children, whether for their own safety, to help them learn very important and useful lessons, or for the sake of family harmony. The absence of appropriate, guiding force would rightly be called neglect.

What is regarded as appropriately initiated force is, by the very nature of the problem, something that libertarian principles cannot address. In the family, the deeper and broader principles of familial love are applied to such choices. Children are not little adults capable of or to be held responsible for adult decisions. Parents are not primarily their child’s friends nor simply their caretakers who provide resources, then stand aside to let a child deal with all consequences, because, oh well, that’s what the child wanted.

It is for these reasons that while the concepts of libertarian thinking can equally welcome adults of diverse world views about adult-to-adult interactions, it cannot moderate differences of opinion about how to raise children. The family and the raising of children will be based on a particular world view, a moral perspective that cannot help but influence foundations of relationship. Such basic moral concerns cannot be ignored. Everyone has some sort of moral code, and it is the basis for the how families interact.

Thus it is, with authority being a necessary part of parenting, that the concept of obedience is not out of place in parent-child relationships. Obedience is part of the authority/responsibility equation. A child always has the choice to obey, but the parent can provide compelling incentives that help a child tap into their own self-control and realization of the need to respect others. In my experience, a child who is taught/trained/influenced to respect a parent’s authority from an early age will be more at ease with it for the rest of their childhood.

Someone will always bring up ‘but what about abuse?’ Too often, such people want to impose their own world-view of child-raising on everyone, based on their own feelings and questionable studies on human behavior. The fact is that family bonds are inexplicable and irreplaceable. Any interference in them should only be attempted with great humility and caution. The family is a unique unit that snaps back into place like a rubber band against outside attempts to artificially construct it. What family members do to mess up their own relationships with each other is another matter, but even in the midst of that, there are aspects of family that are always different from people you meet in other venues.

Based on all of these unavoidable truths, it seems that we (libertarians) should be as reticent to remove a child from a parent as we would be to deprive another adult of their freedom. There will never be an easy formula for either issue, but the desire to interfere arises much more readily than any real need to do so. Let us rather concentrate on doing the best we can with our own families, showing by example what love looks like in practice. This will take considerable time and effort. If we are giving proper priority to our own children and families, we will likely have little time to bother other people. If we are really problem solving our own family situations, we will probably develop more humility about what advice we offer.

The libertarian principle of non-aggression is good as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough to deal with family. Only love goes far enough for that.