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Conservatism, Libertarianism, and Children’s Positive Rights

Posted by Tony Listi on August 13, 2010

Libertarians sometimes complain that Big Government treats its citizens like children (e.g. using the adjective “paternalistic” to describe govt.). They also denounce the notion of natural positive rights, which are rights that compel others to do something, and uphold negative rights only, which compel others to refrain from doing certain things.

The irony of all this is that many libertarians don’t see that these two concepts, children and positive rights, are related. The government should not treat its adult citizens like children because adult citizens have only negative rights and no positive rights. But the inherent logic of this sort of argument seems to dictate that children have positive rights, unless one wants to erroneously assert that no one has positive rights.

Adulthood, legally defined according to age as a matter of prudence, carries with it a moral responsibility to take care of oneself rather than demand others take care of you (which is what children and statists do). Thus one major reason why the welfare state is immoral: it forces some citizens to care for other citizens as if the former were parents and the latter were children when in fact everyone is an adult. Adults are expected to be mature, self-sufficient, cooperative with others, rational, independent. Thus they have no positive rights.

Children are irrational, dependent, and helplessly weak by nature. Yet they are still innocent human beings, persons with human dignity. It is children’s irrational, dependent, and helplessly weak nature that confers upon them natural, individual, positive rights. They have a right to attention and care for their physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual well being. It is an evil and an injustice for a child to be neglected or abused.

But upon whom do children have these rights to attention and care? Not upon everyone. Not upon the State. And not upon just any random person. It is parents who are obligated to provide attention and care insofar as they are able to; it is upon them that children have positive rights. Why upon parents? Because the parents gave their children life and existence and are thus responsible for their children and their children’s rights. One would think this would be self-evident but apparently not in this decadent era and culture.

It is the concept of children’s positive rights that separates conservatives and libertarians philosophically. From this concept springs the conservative’s commitment to pro-life and pro-marriage public policy. The inherent moral differences between adulthood and childhood cannot be ignored or glossed over when it comes to political philosophy.

The purpose of government is to protect people’s rights, both natural and civil, both positive and negative, as far as it is possible for government to prudently do so. Of course, this purpose assumes an accurate determination of what rights human beings actually have and what differences among human beings really matter.

Not only does the child in the womb have negative rights against being killed, but he or she also has positive rights upon the mother, a right to her body and the sustenance it provides. (However, if the baby actually does pose a threat to the life of the mother, which is extremely rare and usually means the baby would not survive either, one may save the life of the mother by infringing on the positive rights of the child but not the negative rights. One may remove the child from the mother but not actively kill the child through violence.)

The government has a duty to protect both the positive and negative rights of the unborn son or daughter as prudently as possible. Outlawing abortion and prosecuting abortionists seems very prudent. Because the preamble to the Constitution reveals that our founding document was meant for “posterity,” i.e. the unborn, and their rights too, I believe one can make a sound originalist, constitutional argument for federal involvement in protecting the rights of the unborn. But if not, I will take the states’ rights alternative as the next best thing. Even pro-life legislation has to be constitutional to be enacted, for the rule of law according to founding principles (e.g. federalism) is more important than any individual right or single issue.

Once born, how well these positive rights of children are secured is intimately tied to the character of the relationship between mother and father. The purpose of marriage as both a civil and religious institution is to ensure that the relationship between mother and father is best suited for the procreation and raising children. As a civil institution, it has no other purpose. Children are best raised by their biological mother and father (see here also). If the relationship between mother and father is unstable and unloving, the child’s positive rights will suffer in a variety of ways.  Because homosexual relationships are absolutely sterile by nature (not by dysfunction), they do not deserve any legal recognition whatsoever. (And the legalized separation of children from their biological fathers and mothers through sperm and egg “banks” is immoral and should be outlawed. No one has a “right” to a child and such “artificial” children suffer psychologically.)

The government has a duty to protect the positive and negative rights of children as prudently as possible. American society recognizes that children have negative rights, thus the laws against physical and sexual abuse. There are very few things that government can prudently do to secure the positive rights of children without causing greater evil. However, through prudent regulation of the institution of marriage, it can promote more stable, enduring marriages, which in turn will help secure children’s positive rights. Legally defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman, repealing no-fault divorce, and treating marriage like a corporation are a few basic, prudent measures government should take to help strengthen marriages and thus better protect the positive rights of children. Because of the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the Constitution, I’m not sure how one can avoid a national marriage policy. But again, if the states’ rights alternative could work, I’ll take it as the next best thing. Even pro-marriage legislation has to be constitutional to be enacted, for the rule of law according to founding principles (e.g. federalism) is more important than any individual right or single issue.

Many libertarians like to say that “liberty is indivisible” and that conservatives are inconsistent for dividing economic and individual/social liberty. But in reality, conservatives absolutely agree that liberty is indivisible. We are not inconsistent; we just have a different view of human nature and rights. It is merely the case that many libertarians are unwilling to acknowledge the obvious and relevant differences between adults and children with regard to rights. This self-evident and empirical distinction among human beings is what libertarianism seems unable to handle morally and humanely.

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Posted in Abortion, Conservatism, Government and Politics, Libertarianism, Marriage, Political Philosophy, Written by Me | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments »

Frank Meyer, Libertarianism, and the Family

Posted by Tony Listi on July 24, 2010

 

Frank S. Meyer

Frank S. Meyer’s book In Defense of Freedom and essay “Freedom, Tradition, Conservativism,” are must-reads IMO. His critique of Russell Kirk in his essay “Collectivism Rebaptized” is also insightful and persuasive. Kirk and Meyer have been the most influential thinkers on my own political views but Meyer most of all.

In his essay “Freedom, Tradition, Conservativism,” Meyer argues his belief that conservatism and libertarianism derive from the same Western political tradition and merely represent two different but complementary emphases that have always been in tension:

I am well aware that what I have been saying can be criticized as eclecticism and attacked as an effort to smother principle. But it is not the laying aside of clear belief, either by the libertarian conservative or the traditionalist conservative, in order to present a front against contemporary collectivist Liberalism, that is here conceived. Rather it is the deepening of the beliefs which each holds through the development of their implications in a dialectic free of distorting narrowness…a dialectic in which both sides recognize not only that they have a common enemy but also that, despite all differences, they hold a common heritage….

[E]ach side emphasizes so strongly the aspect of the great tradition of the West which it sees as decisive that distortion sets in…. [T]he complementary interdependence of freedom and virtue, of the individual person and political order, is forgetten.

Moral order, tradition, liberty, and individualism need not be in conflict in a free society though a healthy tension exists among them.

Notably for contemporary disputes among conservatives and libertarians, in his book In Defense of Freedom, Meyer affirms the exceptional and necessary character of the institution of the family (emphases mine):

To this completely voluntary character of associations proper to the free nature of men, there are only two exceptions–the state and the family. Neither can be voluntary because of the human condition itself…. The family is the institution into which children are born and under which they develop as human beings. As far as they are concerned, it is not voluntary…. As far as their parents are concerned, the family is, however, entered into voluntarily; marriage is, in a free society, originally a mutual voluntary act of two individuals–voluntary, even though any marriage worthy of that exalted name is an unbreakable compact and though the family, proceeding from marriage, creates morally indissoluble bonds of parental obligation.

The family is the most important form through which virtue is inculcated in children. But it is not the institution of the family as such that inculcates virtue; it is the persons who constitute the family–father and mother and other close relatives–who in actuality decide the issue of the moral and intellectual direction that children take…. The family as an institution cannot guarantee the raising of the young in the paths of virtue, although the family is a necessary form; only individual persons, acting through the form of the family, can do so.

Frank Meyer embodies my political philosophy: an Austrian libertarian who recognizes the necessary and exceptional nature of marriage and children. Libertarians would do well to temper their ideology of liberty with the same recognition of the unique nature of the family. One cannot expect limited government and liberty in a society where the institution of the family is weak, if not completely destroyed.

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Libertarians Wish to Legislate Morality…Just Like Everyone Else

Posted by Tony Listi on July 17, 2010

I’m getting very tired of hearing libertarians (and others) say, “You shouldn’t legislate morality!” As if their philosophy and policy proposals were morally neutral!

Ironically, most Big Government statists have a sounder grasp of the general relationship between morality and politics than libertarians. The “Don’t Legislate Morality” objection against conservatives and statists alike is mere smoke and mirrors, a rhetorical flourish with no substance whatsoever. Rights are always a matter of morality, regardless of where one’s moral assumptions come from.

Libertarians wish to codify their morality of liberty into law. The most thoughtful and principled libertarians would support liberty even if it did lead to impoverishment, inefficiency, and misery. They see liberty as a moral issue; liberty in itself is not morally neutral. Violence against the life, liberty, or property of another person without just cause (self-defense or reparation for previous injury) is not merely bad for material prosperity but bad for people; it is immoral, a violation of human rights. Moral relativism or neutrality simply doesn’t exist in conscientious libertarianism (or any other political philosophy).

And yet there are many people in this country (socialists, leftists, regressives, liberals, etc.) who disagree with this libertarian morality of non-violence. They believe that it is very moral to enact laws that plunder some people in order to give to others or that make people act in certain ways. In fact, they believe libertarianism in itself to be immoral. So libertarians need to ask themselves: “are we trying to impose our morality of non-coercion on others?” That answer has to be YES. Libertarians oppose the (im)moral assumptions behind statism and statist laws. A law has no less moral or immoral content merely because it allows people to freely act in certain ways, for the allowance of that freedom is based on moral presuppositions.

The question is not whether we should legislate morality (for that is a given) but “what is moral?” and “what can the law prudently do to enforce that morality, if anything?” And conservatives and libertarians agree more on these questions in comparison with the statists, especially when it comes to economic issues. In the realm of economics, I’m about as libertarian and Austrian as they get. Of course, when it comes to issues of abortion and marriage/family, I part ways with libertarianism– for reasons that I can explain in even libertarian/scientific terms, phraseology, and paradigms, showing how libertarianism breaks down in these cases.

So if you’re a libertarian reading this now and happen to disagree with me on these social issues, please refrain from incoherent slogans about “legislating morality.” They’re irrational and self-contradictory. Realize that you and I are both making moral claims. Then we’ll understand each other better, find more common ground, and be better able to cooperate politically.

Posted in Abortion, Government and Politics, Libertarianism, Marriage, Moral Philosophy, Political Philosophy, Written by Me | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »