The rock on which anarchism rests is the axiom that every human being has sole ownership rights over his or her own life. That works fine for adults, but what about children? Do they too have the right to own and operate their own lives?
The short answer is “yes, certainly” but that hides much complexity. One might ask “how can a baby be said to be a self-owner when she cannot even find her own food, talk or walk?” Others will want to know “what about the unborn?” This article attempts to answer some of these reasonable concerns.
When the rights begin
Our underlying premise is the axiom that each human owns himself. Therefore the self-ownership right takes effect when a human being begins to live. Therefore to determine when the right becomes operative we need to know when human life starts.
There are differences of opinion about that. On this site we’ll choose a premise that is rational, and it is that a human becomes a human at birth, though not before; because before birth, the developing baby is manifestly a part of the mother’s body. The mother is a human with full rights to dispose as she wishes of her own life and body; ergo, the foetus can have no such rights independent of hers — whereas after birth he has a separate life, therefore he can, therefore he does. Below, we’ll explore some of the implications of this premise that even a newborn baby has full self-ownership rights as a human being.
“Parenting” is the fashionable word for this, if you prefer. The key question addressed here is, how can there be any obligation on a parent to go to the large trouble and expense of bringing up a child when that child has (as a self-owning person from birth as above) no obligation to obey instructions? Put bluntly: Why not let a crying baby starve?
Sometimes an attempt is made to solve this dilemma by assuming that a contract exists between parent and child. Many frustrated fathers may even give it voice, when facing a rebellious teenager: “As long as you live under my roof, you’ll do as you are told!”
But no such contract has ever been written; or not one that operated from the moment of birth, which is (as above) the moment that matters. Babies can neither sign contracts nor even grasp what a “contract” might be. Then, could such a contract be “implicit”? — no, it might not, for “implicit contract” is an oxymoron. An essential element in a contract is that it is explicit; that both parties understand and agree to their respective commitments under its terms.
The understanding proposed here is that at the moment the mother decides to give birth, she is making a solemn resolution, a promise to herself. She undertakes to nurse, love, care for and bring up her new child, without any quid being promised in exchange for her quo. So obligations rest upon her, but not upon the child; as the child grows and begins to understand what his mother has undertaken in his interests, then he may return that love and take obligations upon himself in response.
The mother, in other words, goes right out on a limb. She accepts a huge responsibility, knowing the possibility that some years down the road, her child may repudiate her and walk out — having no contractual obligation to obey or stay.
This is realistic — it’s exactly what mothers always do, often without putting it into words — but is it rational? — would a mother normally and reasonably do that, if she did put it in to words and think it through?
Yes, she normally would (and adoption and abortion options exist in the contrary case) and the risk is rational. Much of human existence has to do with investments made in the hope of gain; here, the pregnant mother is committing to invest several years of her life, in expectation of the enormous pleasure of helping her child grow up to maturity.
The great success of the human race suggests that the investment usually pays off.
The resolution above, with our premise that even a newborn baby is a full self-owner, is the key to understanding other difficult questions about childrens’ rights. Yes, a growing child has full human rights at all times, and as he matures he will become able to exercise them; and so parents, in a free anarchist society, will respect those rights just as they respect the rights of any other member of society. Of course, control will be exercised to prevent injury — the baby has a right to stick a fork into a power outlet, but a wise father will prevent that anyway, and so take the small risk that later on, the child will resent the restrictions and walk out. For that reason, the father will in his own interests exercise such control with care, with explanation and gentleness, and not shout “Because I damn well say so!”
Such “explanations” are critical, for they teach the child to respond to reason instead of to authority. In a very well-reasoned article Stefan Molyneux suggests that the habit of responding to authority is only too easily taken by government schools and transferred to the State — hence the widespread, irrational respect for that blood-spattered institution.
Suppose, anyway, that one or both parents blow it. They nag and disrespect and restrict the child so that when she becomes old enough to understand her rights, she wants to quit. Does that mean a degrading life on the streets, as it usually does today?
Not at all! That’s one beautiful consequence of understanding that children have full human rights, from the get-go. If a child is dissatisfied with her parents, in a free society nothing would prevent her negotiating a change!
The Internet makes that particularly easy, but in a free society there would be several ways for an unhappy child to obtain better parents. A brokerage industry might arise to meet the demand, offering the service of advising both parties about compatibility, etcetera. The child would essentially be advertising “Good parents wanted for the adorable cutie shown below” and (no longer being a baby) this time making a full, two-sided contract with quids for the new parents’ quos. Note that the act of designing her advertisement would oblige her to think hard about what qualities make her desirable to new parents; she’d have to “sell” herself, and that process would greatly enhance her own self-esteem and help rub off any rough edges.
Such mobility of children between parents would form yet another major benefit of an anarchist society, for the knowledge that that option existed would be a powerful incentive for the natural parent to respect his child’s rights, so as to avoid such a loss, while providing a real safety-valve in the few remaining hard cases of incompatibility. The net result would be a large reduction in hostility by teenagers, with the friction and aggression to which today it so often leads, and a healthy increase in the proportion of well-motivated and well-adjusted young adults.