school children

Children’s Rights – A Libertarian Dilemma with a Christian Answer

Note: This is a provocative piece that had a lot of back-and-forth email conversation before publication here. It is an important debate to have, but should not be construed as the official position of LCC or any particular writer other than Doug Douma. Let’s start the conversation!

The central claim of libertarianism is that rights are universal. In other words, the rights of life, liberty, and property are valid for all people regardless of race, gender, culture, or the era or place in which they live. However, extending this universality to age raises challenging questions for a consistent defense of rights; specifically regarding the issue of children’s rights. Such questions include:

  • Are the rights of children the same as those of adults?
  • If not, how does a person transition from having the rights of a child to those of an adult?
  • Are parents morally obligated to provide for children?
  • Are children morally obligated to obey their parents?
  • How can obligations exist without aggressing on the liberty of another?

This essay presents two competing theories popular in libertarian literature; contract theory and self-ownership. These theories attempt to address the questions above, but each has its flaws. Therefore an alternative Christian libertarian theory is presented which assumes the truth of the Bible and uses a Biblical conception of rights (which varies from the secular libertarian theory) to propose logically consistent and practically applicable answers to these questions.

Contract Theory (2-tiered theory)

According to this theory, parents, by virtue of having children, make an implicit contract in which they agree to raise the children until the point at which the offspring are able to “fend for themselves.” Children have rights, but as the children are not fully developed, and lack the knowledge, experience, and abilities to effectively understand what is in their own best interests, they are, in effect, held in trust by their parents, who act as stewards of the children’s property (i.e., themselves) until such time as their children reach maturity. There are thus two tiers of rights; those of parents and those of children. Parents, in this theory, can bring up their children in line with their own moral principles, and can force their children to live in accordance with those principles as long as they don’t abuse their children. When children reach adulthood, and thus become full self-owners, they are no longer under the authority of their parents and are then responsible for supporting themselves. At this point the “contract” is terminated.

There are numerous problems with this theory. First, concerning how and when a child becomes an adult. In our society a child is legally considered an adult at 18, but surely this is arbitrary. There is no good argument as to why 18, or any other age, is the correct cut-off point at which a child to gains full status as an adult.

Although this theory gives a plausible reason (an implicit contract) for parents to be obligated to their children, it gives no such reason for children to have obligations to their parents. Children are born into the situation and must obey their parents whether they like it or not.

Contract theory also fails to define acceptable parental “moral principles” and what constitutes “abuse.” Therefore, it is begging the question. The definition of contract theory cannot defer to external moral principles when that is exactly what it needs to defined. Delineation is needed to separate discipline from maltreatment.

Additionally most adults lack the knowledge, experience and ability to properly understand what is in their own best interest. If in the case of children this lacking necessitates parental oversight, then in the case of adults it perhaps necessitates governmental oversight. This conclusion, to make a colossal understatement, is unlikely to satisfy a libertarian.

Self-Ownership and its Logical Conclusions (1-tier theory)

The rights generated by the theory of self-ownership are often called “negative rights”. To abide by these rights (life, liberty, and property) no positive obligations are required; one must simply not murder, coerce, or steal from others. Any “positive right” or positive obligation, such as a right to food stamps or healthcare, cannot be held side-by-side with negative rights because to enforce a positive right necessarily entails the coercion of others to provide these goods or services.

It logically follows, then, that a consistent support of rights through self-ownership means that parents have no obligations towards their children and children have no obligation to their parents. Thus parents are not required to provide for their children and children are not required to obey their parents. Indeed, a supporter of the theory of self-ownership could propose that those obligations are arbitrary or only cultural and could just as well be reversed; why is it not that a child be obligated to take out loans against his own future in order to provide for his parents while the parents be obligated to obey the child? If you reject this latter situation, why not reject the former?

This leads to the belief that since a child is his own self-owned person he can emancipate himself from the “tyranny” of his parents at any age. From this theory it also follows that a child should never be forced to attend a school; forced neither by his parents nor by the state. Private schools are acceptable and children who want to go there and have the financial support to do so should be permitted to do so. Homeschooling is also an option, but only if it is acceptable to the child. The version of learning most consistent with the principle of self-ownership is unschooling, a non-coercive learning process without required textbooks, homework, or tests of any kind excepting that which the student chooses to undertake.

This view is obviously quite extreme for most people. Likely most people are unfamiliar with unschooling and brush off a theory of full children’s rights as naïve. However, despite the ignorance of the masses, this theory deserves fair treatment.

The primary advantage of this theory is its logical consistency. Obligations are incompatible with liberty; simple as that. In addition, it alleviates troubling questions such as how a person acquires the rights of an adult in the maturation from childhood. By giving the same rights to children as adults there is no need for arbitrary age barriers like 18 or 21 years old.

However, critics of this theory are not wrong to criticize it because in application and reality, it is somewhat impractical. Why does a theory that wants to give rights to children feel so impractical? Because of its premise. This theory is only as good as its premise: self-ownership. Does the concept of self-ownership make sense? A subject can own an object. A fisherman may have a boat or a farmer an ox. But does a man own himself? It seems the self is different. It is not something one has; it is what he is.

The theory of self-ownership not only necessitates anarcho-capitalism (a philosophy that advocates the elimination of government in favor of individual contracts) in the nation but it also implies anarcho-capitalism within the family. This philosophy may be successful on a national scale because of competition, but can it work in the household? If children are not obligated to obey their parents, what will the results of such a situation be? While it might have success in isolated situations with naturally even-tempered children and infinitely wise parents, it is not hard to imagine myriad possible problems developing in a child who is allowed to make all of his own choices from birth on up.

So where does this leave us? One theory is logically inconsistent and the other is hugely impractical. Fortunately, there is a Weltanschauung that allows one to maintain logical consistency while applying practical parenting. It will come as no surprise to Christians reading this that the answer is found in the Bible. Rather than self-ownership, the Bible teaches the sovereignty of God. Ethics in the Bible derive from the will and Word of God, not from political theorizing.

The Biblical View of Rights and Parent-Child Obligations.

I’ve defined rights in a previous article as universal and God-given. (See “The Proper Origin of Rights”) The origin of rights, as revealed in the Bible, is the will of God, who knows what is best for us. Rights exist primarily in the reverse way of how we usually discuss them. Rather than God granting each person some status as a deserver of rights, He commands us not to kill, steal, or coerce other individuals. When these commands are applied to all people, all people are not to be killed, stolen from, or aggressed against by other people.

Rights thus are created by the limitations against murder, theft, and aggression. A libertarian who has a non-biblical theory of rights, such as the theory of self-ownership should conclude that these 3 obligations are our ONLY obligations. Christians however should reject the non-Biblical concept of self-ownership and replace it with the Lordship of God. God owns you; you are his possession:

And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory. – Ephesians 1:13-14 (NIV)

Because God knows what is best for us, any obligation he gives is as important as the obligations not to murder, steal, or coerce. In addition there are other negative commands such as not bearing false witness and positive obligations such as to love our neighbor and remember the Sabbath. Ethics thus are not bounded by rights but by obligations to God; obligations of which rights are only a subset.

When rights are considered primary, as in the theory of self-ownership, no additional obligations can be added to the system. To obligate a parent to feed a child is to coerce a parent or steal from him. From the perspective of self-ownership, the obligation is clearly in conflict with the rights of liberty and property. In the Christian system, however, the obligations come from God, thus your right not to be coerced by others can exist side-by-side with obligations to others. In providing for your children you are not coerced by any human person into doing so. Since it is God, not man, that is “coercing” parents into providing for their children, we can hold to both personal liberty (of coercion from man) and obligation to man (commanded by God) simultaneously.

This perspective renders the first of the original problematic question to be easily answered. Children have rights because God grants all humans rights. In fact, in the Biblical view of rights, there is no status distinction based on age or maturity. Rather than an absolute status based on age or maturity, the terms parent (instead of adult) and child are used in a relational sense and additional obligations are given on the basis of these relationships. The primary additional obligation for children is found in the commandments: Honor thy father and mother. In the opposite direction, parents are obligated to teach their children.

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” – which is the first commandment with a promise – “that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.” Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord. – Ephesians 6:1-4 (NIV)

The obligation for children to honor their parents is without end in time. In the biblical commandment of “Honor thy father and mother” no age is referenced. This honoring should not cease or diminish with age, even if society has established an arbitrary age of “adulthood.” It is a commandment for one’s entire life. Children are always children (of their parents) and must always honor them.

In addition to honor (or perhaps included in the term) is the command to obey. Designating the parents (or perhaps specifically the father) as the leader is a practical solution to potential discord in the household. This leadership is tempered by a command back to fathers not to abuse this power.

Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged. – Colossians 3:20-21 (NIV)

While the child’s obligation is to honor and obey his parents, the parents’ obligation is to teach their children. Though paid schooling and tutors are acceptable supplements, parents must teach their children themselves. The purpose of education is to raise Christian men and women by teaching them the Word of God. It is not reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic nor geometry, geography, and geology that must be taught; but the Bible, the very Word of God. The former subjects are optional; the Bible indispensable.

Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Deuteronomy 11:18-19 (NIV)

The parents’ obligation to teach their children the Bible, like the child’s obligation to honor his parents, is without end. As the child becomes more knowledgeable it will be less necessary for parent-led Bible studies and the child will be able to continue on his own.

Similarly, a child will eventually be able to provide himself with food and shelter. Until that point, such also is a parental obligation. Naturally a parent would not be able to teach a child if he were not also providing physical care such as shelter and sustenance. Thus these things are surely implied parental obligations when a child is not yet able to earn enough for his own support.

The obligation of children to honor their parents and of parents to teach their children has thus eliminated the issues prevalent in the two libertarian theories presented. It has been shown that liberty amongst men and obligations to men from God are consistent. At the same time these obligations provide solutions to the questions of practicality in the child-parent relationship.

Summary of children’s rights theories:

Contract Theory Self-Ownership Biblical Obligations
Are the rights of children the same as those of adults? No Yes Yes
If not, how does a person transition from having the rights of a child to those of an adult? Completion of a maturation process so that one can support themselves. N/A N/A
Are parents morally obligated to provide for children? Yes No Yes
Are children morally obligated to obey their parents? Yes No Yes
How can obligations exist without aggressing on the liberty of another? Unanswered. They can’t. Personal liberty (of coercion from man) and obligation to man (commanded by God) held simultaneously without conflict.