The Natural Rights of the Child
The lack of full choice by children over their human action is offset by their having a moral right to receive care and nurture from their parents and guardians
August 1, 2006
Fred Foldvary, Ph.D.
Economist

On Saturday, August 19, 2006, the Civil Society Institute at Santa Clara University in California will host an international conference on Authority and Autonomy in the Family. Topics include education, critical thinking for children, and the application of liberty and natural rights to raising children. This is perhaps the first ever conference on how libertarianism applies to families and children.

Educational and reformist movements which have promoted liberty and justice have focused mostly on economics, civil liberties, war and peace, and foreign policy, with relatively little analysis and discussion of the rights of children and how to apply liberty and justice within families. The greatest tyranny can come from family life, so this conference is an opportunity to bring family issues into the constellation of free-society thought.

What are the natural rights of the child? By natural moral law, as expressed by the universal ethic, children are persons endowed with moral rights equal to those of adults. Because young children do not have the knowledge, experience, and judgment to be fully autonomous - to choose all their actions - their parents and guardians have the moral authority to direct and guide children. But that does not make children the slaves of the authorities.

Children have the same property rights as adults. If a child inherits property, it belongs to the child. Their parents and guardians have fiduciary moral duty to preserve that property. The child also has a property right to its own body, time, and life, and so the parents and guardians may only exert authority and force to prevent the child from harming itself, both immediately and in the long run.

The lack of full choice by children over their human action is offset by their having a moral right to receive care and nurture from their parents and guardians. When a mother discovers her pregnancy, she has the right to make a choice as to whether to keep the child. If she decides to keep it, or after the child has become a person by acquiring a functioning mind (by the third month of pregnancy), then the mother has made a moral promise and has the moral obligation to take care of the child until its maturity.

The age of maturity is somewhat arbitrary, but it is practical to have some "bright line" so that after that age, a person has complete legal rights to one's human action, including the right to make contracts and be fully responsible for the consequences of zher acts. The age of 18 is a common bright line. However, in the USA, the alcohol-drinking age is 21. The age of maturity (such as 18) should remove all obstacles to free human action, including drinking alcohol. Also, as is the practice today, an individual minor should be able to petition a court to become emancipated prior to the legal bright line.

Parents have the right to pass on their culture to their children, including their language, religion, and ethnic heritage. But a child is also born with its own personality, character, and tastes. The child should not be forced to become a different person than that of his inborn nature. Parents who mean well often become tyrants by forcing their children to engage in activities that they don't want to do, or refuse to allow them to express their preferences or do harmless activities the parents disapprove of.

A good example of parental tyranny is the television program Malcolm in the Middle. The theme of the show is life is unfair. Malcolm is a genius boy with older and younger brothers. His mother, Lois, means well, but is a tyrant. With hubris and arrogance, Lois thinks she knows what's good for the children, and through intimidation forces them to what she thinks is right. She keeps punishing them for transgressions, which makes them even more rebellious, so there is an endless cycle of pranks, fights, punishment, and revenge. The show is an excellent psychological case study of a dysfunctional family, where the parents never seem to learn that punishment is not an effective substitute for seeking to listen to and understand their children.

Good parents minimize the use of corporal punishment such as spanking. Good child rearing seeks to understand the reason for any misbehavior rather. Children need to be disciplined to learn to respect the rights of others and to take good care of themselves, but should otherwise not be humiliated or forced to become robots or clones of the parents.

One topic of education that is morally mandatory is ethics. Children should be taught and trained in ethics so that they grow up to become peaceful and honest. Otherwise, there should be no legally compulsory schooling. However, parents and guardians have the moral obligation to raise the child to be able to economically support itself in adulthood. How this is done should be up to the parents and guardians. So long as there is no harm inflicted on children, the state should not interfere in the upbringing of children. But if a child is deprived of the opportunity to become self-supporting, it should have the legal right to sue the parents for support.

The presentations of the conference on Authority and Autonomy in the Family will be recorded and published, so that they may serve as a forum for further discussion on applying liberty and justice to family life. Like Socrates said long ago, the root problem is ignorance of ethics, and, like Malcolm's mother, we need to overcome the psychology of overconfidence, of thinking that we know what is best for others rather than respecting others' natural rights to direct their own lives.

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Fred Foldvary, Ph.D.
Economist

FRED E. FOLDVARY, Ph.D., is an economist and has been writing weekly editorials for Progress.org since 1997. Foldvary's commentaries are well respected for their currency, sound logic, wit, and consistent devotion to human freedom. He received his B.A. in economics from the University of California at Berkeley, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University. He has taught economics at Virginia Tech, John F. Kennedy University, Santa Clara University, and currently teaches at San Jose State University.

Foldvary is the author of The Soul of LibertyPublic Goods and Private Communities, and Dictionary of Free Market Economics. He edited and contributed to Beyond Neoclassical Economics and, with Dan Klein, The Half-Life of Policy Rationales. Foldvary's areas of research include public finance, governance, ethical philosophy, and land economics.

Foldvary is notably known for going on record in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology in 1997 to predict the exact timing of the 2008 economic depression—eleven years before the event occurred. He was able to do so due to his extensive knowledge of the real-estate cycle.