The Nature and Origin of Rights, Part Two

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In part one of this two-part series of essays we explored the difference between treating social phenomena such as rights, obligations, rules, laws and conflicts as products of human interaction on the one hand and as products of explicit human construction on the other. In this second part we will proceed to explore precisely how the constructivist-rationalist approach to social phenomena came about and how devastating it can be to individual liberty when it infiltrates political philosophy. From this we can learn some important lessons when it comes to developing and shaping our own libertarian theory.

Generations after customary legal systems developed through social interaction, philosophers began to reflect upon this phenomenon, a reflection which, for Western purposes, began with the Ancient Greeks. In accordance with our view here, the purpose of this endeavour should not have been for philosophers to treat these matters as a tabula rasa on which to scribe whatever they thought was the most convincing and compelling case for a system of rules. Rather, it was to clarify that which was already occurring and to make explicit a conceptual framework that was already implicit. Indeed, as we stated earlier, this is common among most human endeavours – science, art, mathematics, economics, language and so on all flourished before we stopped to think about what we were actually doing in each of them. The fruit of this reflection was to distil from legal systems common elements such as conflicts, legal personage, property, rights, obligations, malum in se and some kind of understanding of natural justice. Thus, there existed principles that appeared to transcend expediency, self-interest, and the particular time and place, in spite of the fact that individual conceptions or realisations of those concepts differed. In other words, they were principles that were not just fashioned by leaders, intellectuals, or by “society” but spoke from some kind of universal plain. (This point should not be understood as a refutation of legal positivism. Rather, it simply says that the conceptual framework of legal systems – including the nature of a conflict and the rights and obligations that ensued – were not something that were designed and imposed).

However, this process of reflection and elaboration did not occur in a vacuum, and was (and still is) considered alongside a whole host of other philosophical problems such as knowledge, existence, morality, aesthetics, and so on. In the consideration of “the rules of conduct” there was a distinct overlap between what we might call political philosophy (broadly, what a person can be forced to do) and wider morality (that which a person should choose to do), an equivocation which has persisted to the present day. The process of identifying appropriate conduct – anything from morals, etiquette, manners, the attainment of beauty, happiness, and so on – always and necessarily involves elaborations on how rational actors should choose to behave with and towards non-rational beings/objects and towards other rational beings alike. When a proponent of certain moral rights and obligations overlaid these considerations onto the development of the understanding of legal rights (i.e. rights that could be enforced by violence) what resulted were systems of constructed conflicts, constructed rights and constructed obligations which never arose out of any interactions between individual parties.

If libertarians are to ever find the key that unlocks the door to a world of liberty, it is very important for them to understand the extent of the effects of this kind of endeavour and how it has served as the basis of countless numbers of despotic political theories. When someone constructs or proposes a system of rights and obligations and to prescribe legally enforceable rules of conduct, the result was not to engage in the process of “identifying” conflicts that exist between two other beings or objects; rather, it was to identify a conflict between himself and the particular person upon whom he claimed had an obligation. The conflict was a clash between the proponent’s values and the values of another or other individuals. In other words, the proponent sets himself up as the legally aggrieved party and bases the outcome of law and adjudication on some kind of a conflict between himself and somebody else who was behaving in a manner the proponent simply happened not to like.

Let’s say that there are three people Andrew, Bob and Charlie. Andrew and Bob are two people who live and interact in a society. Charlie, on the other hand, is a philosopher who looks upon the condition of A and B and decides for himself that Andrew owes a certain obligation to Bob. Let us say that, in order to create some kind of just and equitable society, Charlie declares that Bob should have the right to £100 of Andrew’s income every month. Andrew is therefore now burdened with an obligation of furnishing money to Bob, who now possesses the right to take this money from Andrew with the full backing of the force of law. However, the real right claimed in this situation is not by Bob. Andrew and Bob may have been perfectly happy before Charlie came along; Bob may have been content with his own income and coveted nothing that Andrew possessed. Rather, the real, substantive right is claimed by Charlie. It is Charlie who does not like the situation that Andrew and Bob are in – it is he who despises the existing property arrangements between the two. What Charlie is therefore claiming through his proposal is his right to go to court every time some action he does not like has occurred and to invoke his right to have this action stopped (or conversely to force an action that has been omitted). This desire of Charlie’s is masked in the language of providing justice and fairness for Bob, whereas Bob, in his own mind, never conflicted with Andrew at all and never had reason to invoke a right. The conflict originates wholly in Charlie’s mind.

This becomes clearer when Bob is not another competent adult but is, rather, an animal or an object. An object – let’s say a tree – as far as we know lacks any appreciation of ends, values and choices, and cannot understand any alternative situation as better, beneficial or valuable. Without being able to perceive value or any preference of ends the crucial element for the source of a conflict with another individual is missing. If there is no conflict then there are no rights and obligations. It is for this reason that we owe rights to rational beings who think, value, choose and act but we do not owe rights to non-rational beings and objects who are utterly devoid of these capacities. If, therefore, Charlie comes along and says “This tree has a right to not be cut down” and that, consequently, Andrew has an obligation to not cut down the tree, it is clear that the real conflict over the state of the tree is not between Andrew and the tree; it is, rather, between Andrew and Charlie. The tree has no capacity to care whether it is remains standing, is cut down, or is burnt to the ground. It has no values, no choices, no ends. Rather, it is clear that the person who values the tree remaining upstanding is Charlie. Charlie is seeking, by declaring a pseudo-right for the tree, a real right for himself to have his values vindicated and for Andrew to yield to these values. In short, Charlie wants to force Andrew to comply with what he, Charlie, simply wants him to do.

Usually, theories such as those of Charlie do not confine themselves to individual cases such as that of Andrew and Bob, or Andrew and some object. Rather, Charlie is normally the proponent of a much wider theory of social behaviour as he perceives a conflict between his values and the values of practically everybody else. In other words, he is claiming his right to force everyone else to conform to his grand vision of society. There can be no greater example of this kind of reconstruction of sociological concepts than that furnished by Karl Marx through his espousal of the so-called exploitation theory. Marx analysed the voluntary capitalist/employer relationship according to the equivalence of its surface phenomena with those of previous non-voluntary relationships such as serfdom, explaining the motivations, mechanics, and outcomes of this relationship with a series of fictions such as the harmony of class interests and distortions of several tenets of classical economics. From this, his labour theory of value leads to the conclusion that employer’s profit is “surplus value” appropriated from the labourers. Marx himself was careful to explain his theory as a scientific, economic theory that must be properly refuted in a scientific manner. However it is clear that he is inviting the specifically ethical conclusion that profit is theft, a conclusion to which his followers so willingly succumbed. The question of whether Marx’s scientific conclusions were the slave of his political preoccupations rather than vice versa is debatable. Either way, however, we can see that the effect of Marx’s de facto reinvention, his deliberate reconstruction, of the concept of theft was to urge the establishment of a property order that he desired – the abolition of the private ownership of the means of production – rather than that desired by everyone else. In short, he invented a conflict between two great swathes of the population that was not in any way perceived by the parties themselves. This theory, this constructivist intrusion into social phenomena, went on to enslave half of the globe for nearly a century and resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of people. This trait or technique of reconstruction was not limited to Marx, however. Indeed, pretty much every significant contribution to socialist theory which denigrated the capitalists and entrepreneurs as thieves and parasites was made by middle class onlookers and observers; the working class themselves did not seek any right to protection from any alleged “theft”. So too did the backlash against the conditions of industrial workers in the nineteenth century receive its main championship from middle class intellectuals such as Charles Dickens, Lord Salisbury and Sidney and Beatrice Webb – busybodies who fought for people’s so-called rights without ever stopping to think whether or not those people wanted them. This is not to say, of course, that workers – the constructed rights holders – would not have willingly championed the apparent invocation of “their” rights. After all if someone comes along saying you can effectively have your cake and eat it you are hardly going to complain. This can be seen clearly today with the advocacy of minimum wages. Employees are lulled into thinking that there can be higher, nominal wages and plenty of jobs to go round whereas economic theory tells us that floors on wage rates are likely to lead to a shortage of available jobs and, hence, unemployment. If, however, you understand the concept of demonstrated preference – an “Austrian” insight that informs us that people’s valuations are revealed by how they act and not what they say – you would realise that their actual valuations were otherwise and they are, in fact, perfectly happy to accept full employment with lower wage rates, or “poor” working conditions. Anything they say otherwise amounts to little more than wishful thinking or whimsical dreaming of an alternative but unrealisable reality.

It is true, of course, that constructivist political theories may be motivated by a genuine concern for and desire to help people. But whether this is true or not any political theorist is rarely honest enough to say that his vision simply imposes his values upon everyone else. Usually this imposition is disguised through a convolution of pseudo-concepts and dogmas, the “exploitation theory” in Marx probably being the most prominent. Other noteworthy examples are the so-called “original position” and “veil of ignorance” in John Rawls. People in the real world do not want the kind of ethics that Rawls espouses so he has to invent a fictional world with fictional situations and fictional motivations in which they do. Indeed Rawls is blatant enough to admit, in A Theory of Justice, that he fashions these pseudo-concepts in such a way as to give him the answer that he wants. Such reconstructions and reinventions are evident, though, in pretty much all collectivist philosophies in which society is deemed to have “failed” to direct its resources in ways demanded by the theory’s proponent. It is evident too in all claims of so-called “market failure” – that the choices of purposefully acting individuals have gravely decided to devote their resources to some feeble end rather than to something “better” and “higher” that exists in the mind of the proponent. Furthermore the imposing party is never starkly identified as being the proponent himself, but, rather, his proxy the state (even if the goal is, like that of Marx, an eventual withering away of the state). It is the state which is tasked with bringing the ends desired by the proponent into being so that what results is that the state itself becomes the true rights holder and everyone else is obliged to succumb to the state’s self-enforcement of its right to bring about the proponent’s vision. Any people who happen to benefit from this, although they may be described as “legal rights holders” (for example those who have a “right” to claim state unemployment and sickness benefits), do not possess any real, fundamental rights at all but are, rather, incidental beneficiaries. In modern democracies, Charlie, the philosopher from our example earlier, is not any one individual but is, rather, the majority, who claim the right to force everyone else to adhere to that which they want (assuming, of course, that democracies really do enact the ends sought by the majority, which is highly doubtful). This majority may have a revolving membership from issue to issue or from election to election but the principle is the same as when that which is desired and imposed upon everyone else originates in the mind of a single person such as Charlie.

Unfortunately, and of more direct relevance to libertarians, none of this changes with libertarian and proto-libertarian theories that are themselves motivated chiefly by the desires of their proponents – that the free market will rapidly increase societal wealth by more than we can imagine; that it makes for an affluent and prosperous society; that humanity will achieve its greatest, hitherto unimaginable endeavours, etc. These theories usually have the benefit, unlike collectivist theories, of actually being able to accomplish their aims. However, their weakness lies in the fact that they accept the same basic premise as all the other theories, which is that the desirable goal is that which is posited by the proponent of the theory. All of these proto-libertarian theories set up the wellbeing of “society” as the ultimate aim; freedom of the individual is only the means of achieving society’s betterment. By defining liberty in this way, no genuine, fundamental rights are conferred upon the individuals and they are flimsily contingent upon their contribution to the goal. In other words, the possibility, however unlikely, is left open that if the goal could be achieved through some way other than the free market then these rights and freedoms could be withdrawn. For example, if we discovered, by magic, a way to make central planning the most conducive method of generating economic progress then any libertarian theory which promoted freedom based on its ability to raise the standard of living would crumble to dust. Yet no doubt most libertarians would say that one possesses a right not to be murdered or stolen from regardless of whether such acts would increase or decrease the number of yachts we can each buy. The more basic problem, however, is why should conflicts be recognised with reference to any goal espoused by the proponent of a theory rather than with reference to all of the millions of goals and purposes that individuals strive to achieve? Man is a social animal, as the well-worn phrase goes, but he only participates in social co-operation to the extent that he feels he derives a benefit from it, whether this is material or simply a desire for companionship and friendly relations. Society, the growth of the division of labour, increasing capital accumulation and a rising standard living are the result of each individual person fulfilling his individual purposes through social co-operation; they are not the initial purpose themselves. Such a point is often countered by the argument that people should promote society if they wish themselves to flourish. Ludwig von Mises, for example, speaks of “rightly understood interests” which, in a footnote, he describes as “interests in the long run”, an ethical goal later adopted by his colleague Henry Hazlitt – interests which can only be fulfilled by preserving social co-operation under the division of labour. Although this is a far cry from imposing upon people their own lofty ends as other philosophies are wont to do, it overlooks the fact that people have a variety of localities and time spans, short and long, in mind for their own individual purposes. A person could be completely and utterly educated about the effects of the free market and totally convinced that these effects would be true. Yet it would not be inconsistent for him to still desire goals that we would regard as evil but would not have a destructive effect upon “society” (killing a single individual, or individuals based upon a common characteristic such as skin colour for instance); nor could anyone stop him from desiring goals that are detrimental to “society” only in the long run, perhaps after the particular individual himself has died; still further, however, he could have goals that confer a benefit in the short term and a detriment in the longer term, even to himself (such as smoking, for example) and he may be perfectly happy with this situation. And finally, he may desire goals even in the short run such as greater equality, and reduced affluence and materialism that are completely contrary to ends created by the free market. At the extreme, ecological fundamentalists pretty much want to decimate the entirety of the human race, including themselves, in order to preserve the sanctity of the natural world. Hence one cannot, in these instances, even invoke the golden rule or dismiss them as cases of special pleading.

None of this should be understood as a denigration of proto-libertarian theories which are often, on their own terms, entirely correct and certainly add moral weight to a case for freedom. They do, however, lack moral decisiveness. They are reduced to confronting collectivist theories with arguments about which purpose is better (or which means for fulfilling an agreed purpose are better), and only, at the very least, give the appearance of recognising that the real problem is, in fact, how to reconcile all of the billions of purposes of individual people.

It is true that if we were to refrain from indulging in any constructivist ideology which create rights and obligations fashioned by their proponent then this would not, in and of itself, be sufficient to generate strictly libertarian rights. One also has to explain why, for example, when a conflict is genuinely perceived by individual people, it must be answered in favour of the original property owner. But ascribing rights only to those who seek the valuable ends that their invocation brings about – a province exclusively of rational actors – considerably narrows the field by revealing competing theories for what they really are – the forced distribution of property according to ends valued by the proponent, together with the subordination of all of the billions of desires and purposes of individual people to the desires and purposes of the proponent.

We can see therefore that the greatest threat to liberty throughout history has been the redefinition and reconstruction of ideas and concepts that had a sociological origin. Concepts such as rights have been twisted and distorted from serving as vindications of the ends sought by individual people to serving as vindications of the ends sought by the authors of grand visions of society, visions which have, when implemented, resulted in poverty, destitution and societal degradation. In some ways this is just a more subtle version of the more explicit redefinition of a host of other concepts. A liberal used to be the equivalent of a libertarian; today, wearing such a badge would declare oneself as a socialist. If one is now a free trader, one is actually in favour of managed trade. Liberty is now social democracy, and so on. Even what is “human” has been redefined, through the exploitation of sub-categories such as races and ethnic or language groups, in order to justify ethnic cleansing or genocide on the grounds that the victims are “sub-human” or “vermin”. All of these are simply starker versions of the same constructivist methodology – the attempt to change the underlying reality of concepts to suit their own purposes. To embrace this kind of constructive rationalism, as Hayek called it, is of the same ilk as empiricism and positivism when applied to the social sciences – gross epistemological errors which vastly expand the scope of plausible social theories and lend credence to all manner of attempts at social engineering.

What can we, then, as libertarians learn from this when attempting to develop our own political theory? The most important lesson is that libertarianism is limited to distilling, from the phenomenon of social rules, basic, formal characteristics of these rules rather than their substantive content when they are concretised into actual legal rules that prevail in society. We might call these conclusions high-level political principles and concepts, an order higher than the actual legal rules that we are required to follow in our everyday lives. Some of the conclusions that we can draw legitimately are as follows:

  • Social rules arise to resolve conflicts born out of scarcity of means for attaining ends;
  • That rights and obligations apply to rational actors who possess the qualities of perceiving value, thinking, preferring, deciding, and acting to bring about a more favourable state of affairs;
  • Non-rational actors do not possess rights and obligations – they possess no ability to display moral choice nor the capacity to consciously prefer an alternative state of affairs; key requirements for rights – a perceived conflict and the ability to choose an alternative state of affairs – are therefore missing.

We are not going to proceed to justify these observations here, something which we have already done in an earlier series of essays on the scope of morality. Our concern here is to emphasise that these observations arise out of a reflective process upon the nature of social rules – we are attempting to describe a reality that is already there and not to construct circumstances that are new. When, having made and reflected upon these observations, we continue to define the uniquely libertarian content to social rules this too must also be stated in purely formal terms:

  • A rational actor has the right to own the matter that constitutes his body;
  • A rational actor has the right to own private property;
  • Consequently, no rational actor may invade, physically, the body or property of another.

Again, we will not attempt to justify these conclusions and will simply assume that, as libertarians, we all hold them to be true. Here, however, comes the crunch. What cannot be done is for pure, libertarian theorising to flesh out these formal rules with substantive content. In other words, we cannot, through theory alone, determine which situations are conflicts that need to be resolved. We cannot, by mere philosophising, identify precisely which beings are rational actors and are subject to rights and obligations, nor do we know precisely which actions are aggressive and which are perfectly peaceful. These questions are and always will be the product of the individual values, desires and the resulting perception of scarcity that arises when the means for fulfilling these values clash with those of someone else, factual situations which cannot be determined a priori. In most cases, the obviousness and typicality of aggressive behaviour answers the question for us. For example, stabbing another person in the heart is almost always an aggressive act whereas sitting motionless in your living room chair is not. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that these conclusions are determined by theorising. It is only because the ends that people seek through scarce, physical means clash when one is stabbed by another, and it is only because they do not clash when you sit quietly by yourself in a chair that we know stabbing someone is aggressive behaviour and that sitting alone is not. Whether there is such a clash of ends can only be determined by real people acting in the real world. If we lived in a bizarre world where stabbing another person was perfectly acceptable and everyone was, in fact, happy to receive a brutal stabbing then this would not be aggressive behaviour.

All of this becomes clearer when we consider borderline cases or cases where a typically aggressive act consists of the same kind of behaviour as an aggressive act. For example, the light from a person’s living room window that shines onto neighbouring properties at night is probably not aggressive behaviour, yet if the person was to illuminate his property like Times Square then it probably is. However, both acts consist of basically the same thing – light beams emanating from one person’s property onto another’s. So why is the first act peaceful whereas the second act is aggressive? How bright do the lights have to get before non-aggressive behaviour becomes aggressive? The answer is because nobody, typically, perceives any interference with their own property when you merely have your living room lights on at night, whereas they probably would perceive such an interference if you were to coat your house in flashing, neon lights. Again, the distinction between one and the other rests on the ability of humans to fulfil their ends with the property in question. If each person can go about his business in the belief that he is not being interfered with by another then there is no aggression, even though we may each be experiencing acts which are of a similar, but diminished nature to aggressive acts. Ethics are the product of human action (or, rather, interaction), and all human values that motivate this action appear in discrete concrete, steps – not infinitely small, indiscrete steps which can only be measured by scientific instruments. For example, if I am thirsty and to resolve this thirst I drink 0.00001% of the water in a small glass it is not very likely that I would feel myself to be 0.00001% less thirsty then I was before. Rather, after having imbibed such a useless and imperceptibly small quantity of water I am still, in my mind, fully thirsty and am in exactly the same position as I was before even though, scientifically speaking, the quantity of water in my body has increased. Given that ethics also depend upon human valuations it is no surprise that ethical distinctions are neither surgically precise nor infinitely small.

Is it the case, then, that libertarians are all at sea when it comes to determining the practical questions of precisely which acts are aggressive and which situations are conflicts that are resolved by libertarian rights? Can a libertarian justice system develop no jurisprudence whatsoever concerning which situations are unlawful and which are not? It is true, as we argued in an earlier series on libertarian legal systems, that courts must look to the actions of the parties in order to determine their values and intentions when judging the particular incident at hand. Actions, however, cannot be judged in a void. Rather, they are always interpreted according to their customary, conventional and social context. Over time, as a legal system develops, we can understand readily that the situations which come before courts or adjudicators again and again will be of the same ilk. In other words, courts will come to realise that certain situations are typically viewed by people as aggressive and other situations are not. It is this that provides for them the key to concretising the political principles we outlined earlier – that is, the right to self-ownership and to private property – into substantive legal rules that prescribe the precise situations that violate these principles. Let us take, for example, the deliberate killing of another individual. Although it is, in a hypothetical world, perfectly possible for everyone to be perfectly happy to be killed, our experience and the experience of the court in the real world informs us that in the vast majority of instances people do not, in fact, wish to be killed. Therefore, killing someone is, at the very least, presumed to be an aggressive act in all instances and (if it has been established beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant killed the victim) the burden falls on the defendant to adduce otherwise. In other words, the victim of a typically aggressive act does not need to prove to the court that the act in this particular situation was aggressive. Let us take, as a further for example, an alleged theft. People, typically, do not want their things to be stolen. If B asserts that C stole from him an item of property the court will hold that this act was prima facie aggressive if B can establish a prior title. However, if C can produce evidence of a superior title, such as a valid receipt for the goods that he took, then he rebuts the presumption.

It is for this reason that acts which consist of minute but generally innocuous physical invasions upon another individual’s person or property are not considered to be aggressive in all instances, even when one party genuinely feels as though his property has been invaded. Earlier we mentioned the case of light from a lounge lamp emanating from a window onto another person’s property. This happens to all of us; if we look out of our windows at night onto the street we can see dim light’s from all the other houses. Most people do not give this a second thought as it does not interfere with their ability to use their own property. If, therefore, someone came before the court and alleged that such an act was aggressive, the court is likely to reject the claim simply because certain types of minor and virtually imperceptible physical invasions are deemed to be socially acceptable. And if the plaintiff has a particular susceptibility to the minor invasion then the burden should fall upon him to protect himself from it, and not upon someone else who is simply going about his daily business.

Other legal rules will be designed to sift out genuine conflicts from mere grievances after the fact. One of the justifications for statutes of limitations is that the elapse of an extended period time before initiation of a lawsuit is evidence of the fact that there was no real conflict. For example, if noise emanates from a neighbour’s property onto my own and I choose not to pursue a case against the neighbour within a certain amount of time stipulated by the court then the court may conclude that this elapse of time is evidence that that the noise was not perceived by me as invasive and I am not entitled to recover damages (such a fact may also be construed as evidence that I have granted an easement right to my neighbour to continue making the noise, so that not only can I not recover damages for the previous noise but that the neighbour can go on being noisy also – but this is a separate issue).

Legal rules begin to lose a degree of steadfastness and certainty where it is difficult for the court to establish objectively the relationship between the parties. One of the most pertinent examples in this regard is the crime of rape. The conflict inherent in rape is the lack of consent to sexual intercourse by the penetrated party. Yet establishing objectively whether such consent was either present or absent is fraught with difficulty because lawful sex and unlawful rape often emerge from similar circumstances and consist of the same physical act. Because of the traumatic and, often, life changing results for both a genuine plaintiff on the one hand and a falsely accused defendant on the other, any evidential rules that are determined are likely to be heavily contentious. Yet it is here where the influence of the shifting sands of the social context are most visible. When society was heavily patriarchal and placed a moral responsibility upon females to uphold their sexual virtue, the burden was upon the victim of an alleged rape to prove to the court that she had not consented to the sexual act. Indeed, at one point the law did not even recognise a forced, sexual act as rape if it took place between husband and wife. Nowadays, however, after women have gained a greater degree of social equality with men, we can see at least a creeping movement that places an increasing amount of the evidential burden on the accused to establish that consent was, in fact, present, rather than on the alleged victim to establish that it was absent. In other words, while the concept of rape as an aggressive act has remained in place, the precise legal rules surrounding it have changed as the social, customary and conventional context has changed.

What we can see from all of this is that courts and legal systems in a libertarian world would at no time design or construct concepts such as conflicts and aggression, nor would they pronounce from on high which acts are aggressive and which situations are conflicts. Rather, their jurisprudence is moulded by (ultimately) centuries of cases that have come before it, cases that are motivated by the real perception of conflicts by real, individual people attempting to fulfil their ends with the scarce means available. Although a latecomer born into a libertarian society after many generations would see only a plethora of rules seemingly dictated to him from a single source, their origin is, in fact, the heterogeneous, and decentralised values held all of the individual people that make up and have made up that society.

In addition to determining the distinctions between aggressive and non-aggressive acts, another area where this line of thinking comes into play is the distinction between beings which have rights and those which do not. As we outlined earlier, a being has rights if it is a rational actor, that is it is able to undertake actions that are motivated by thought, desire and choice as opposed to actions that are motivated wholly by the laws of physics or by instinct. The existence of rights is impossible in a situation where both the desire and ability to bring about alternative outcomes with the scarce means available is absent. With such an absence, the determination of outcomes is solely a product of might and inertia – the stronger force always winning – simply because there is no impetus to bring about any alternative. This is all that strict libertarian theory has to say about the matter. However, the question of precisely which beings are rational beings and thus enjoy rights cannot simply be a product of theory. It may be plainly obvious to see that a fully grown human adult, as a thinking, desiring, choosing and rational being will clearly be a rights holder while a dead plank of wood clearly will not be. But we only know this precisely because, at some point in history, the earliest humans experienced interpersonal scarcity and each consciously recognised certain possessions as belonging to him in order to meet his ends. Indeed, the most likely way in which we each recognised another human being as a rational entity that should possess rights is whether or not that being made an appeal for these rights to be upheld as this, itself, is a rational action to devote means towards ends. At first this was most likely made tacitly or through body language, aided by our empathy from being in exactly the same position as our neighbour. It is from this earliest seed that entire systems of rights and obligations between individual humans grew. No one at any point commanded from on high that “X has rights, Y does not have rights” and so on. Rather, because of our shared quality of acting rationally, our status as rights holders was enforced from the bottom up as we each sought to progress our lives by directing scarce resources to the uses that satisfy us the most. This brings into the foreground the question of marginal cases such as foetuses, children and higher primate animals. Let us take, for example, abortion. Libertarians are often chided for not having an agreed “solution” to the issue of abortion (as if everyone else is blessed by such agreement). Yet, as we have argued here, this disagreement is not one that is inherent in libertarian theory. Libertarian theory tells us only the qualities that a being has in order to enjoy rights. In an earlier essay, which focussed exclusively on the issue of children and abortion the present author suggested that this question must always be answered in the negative in regard to these beings – that it is so obvious that foetuses and very young children are incapable of acting rationally that they would only come to possess rights, probably in a graduated fashion, as they age. Yet whatever support could be mustered for such a position, it is not strictly a conclusion of libertarian theory. In contrast to this initial conclusion we went on to discuss in a second essay an alternative view which could also, in accordance with libertarian theory, grant rights to children. These questions – whether a particular being such as a foetus possesses those qualities – concerns the application of libertarian theory, not the theory itself. This application will also vary according to the social context, just as the precise acts which can be categorised as aggressive are dependent upon this context. A clear example of this is the changing nature of the rights of children. Even if we admonish the statist intervention into the family unit and the ridiculous and irreconcilable one-size-fits-all cut offs for when children can carry out such acts such as having sex, driving or drinking alcohol, it is tempting to say that it is obvious that children must be regarded as independent, human beings who at least have some rights. In other words, the rights of infants are a universal an immutable fact, independent of time and place. However, this could not be further from the truth. In pre-industrial, agrarian societies where the main economic unit was the family, children were regarded as little more than the property of their parents and their chief worth was their economic value, with any rights they had subsumed by the welfare of the family unit. Although research produced by scholars since the 1960s has indicated that child rearing was not brutal and parents did make sacrifices for their children to maximise their welfare such as care during sickness, the general attitude is hardly unsurprising in an epoch of extreme poverty characterised by persistent hunger, malnutrition and an infant mortality rate as high as one third of babies born. Indeed, we can surmise that telling a mother that she may legally kill her child may have been greeted with an acknowledged, if reluctant acceptance if there simply wasn’t enough food to eat and if the consumption of whatever resources were available was prioritised towards the able bodied population. The more familiar view of children as having an independent identity that accorded them certain rights was born during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, along with the romanticised view of childhood as an “age of innocence”. However, thoughts during this time were far from uniform. On the one hand, there was the nurturance or caretaker view which was, at its earliest, espoused by John Locke, and Thomas Spence’s “The Rights of Infants”, one of the first pamphlets to specifically consider the issue, is subtitled “Imprescriptible Right of MOTHERS to such a Share of the Elements as is sufficient to enable them to suckle and bring up their Young” (emphasis in the original). This work is written as a plea from the mothers of children to the aristocracy. In other words the rights advocated were of the mother to demand from the gentry the wherewithal to nurture her infant from the produce of the land and were not directly held by the child. The alternative view, that children have much more independent rights, became augmented and subsumed by the onset of industrial society (in which children often worked in factories and down mines), and the backlash of the middle class intelligentsia against the “squalid” and “destitute” conditions of industrial workers generally, a backlash that was itself subsumed by the descent into socialism and communism. Of course, what truly abolished child labour was not a call for children’s rights, but the fact that adults could produce enough wealth for a child to survive and flourish without the latter having to work. The right of a child not to labour and, instead to be supported by its parents, are, like any positive obligations, wholly dependent on there being enough wealth to accomplish this. Thus the specific rights, and to whom they applied, were very much a product of the socioeconomic context. For the sake of completion, we might as well mention that the development of children’s rights in the twentieth century has, unsurprisingly, been welded to the growth of the state and all of its catastrophes and calamities. The Declarations of the Rights of the Child, the precursor to the modern UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which is, as of this day, enshrined in international law, was drafted by Eglantyne Jebb, the founder of the charity Save the Children that was set up to alleviate the starvation and poverty of German and Austrian children as a result of the First World War, a war which would not have occurred without imperialism, state militaries, the drive to autarky, central banking, and so on. The creation of the welfare state and the subsequent disintegration of the family it has caused, together with government provision of education, have all served to make the rights and conditions of children a public affair.

It is not, therefore, a matter for theorists to determine from on high whether or not specific beings such as very young children or foetuses should have rights and what these rights, precisely, will be. In other words, libertarian theory does not demand that children and foetuses, nor any other specific being, have rights. Rather these rights, if they exist, will be generated from the bottom up and will depends very much on the customary, conventional and socioeconomic context. We explained in detail how a modern libertarian legal system may approach the question of the rights of children in this manner in our second essay dedicated to the topic and we will not repeat this in detail here. But we can mention briefly that a series of legal presumptions is likely to govern these rights. There is likely to be at least a legal presumption that a child is a rational being when it comes to the right to bodily integrity (so that a child may not be legally killed); further legal presumptions will grant further rights to children (i.e. to enter contracts, to drink, marry, enter employment, etc.) either at ages where the court has previously found children to be generally competent for these acts, or at ages or milestones which are important in the social context, such as the Bar Mitzvah in a Jewish community. One unique aspect of a libertarian legal system, however, is that these milestones need not be concrete or set in stone as the state makes most of them today. It may well be open to the child, or to another individual, to rebut the presumption. If, say, there is a legal presumption that a child cannot enter a contract of employment below the age of thirteen, a child below this age may contest any challenge to a prospective contract if he (or the prospective employer) can demonstrate to the court’s satisfaction that he made this decision in the manner of an adult – i.e. it was a rational choice to better his life. There should be no danger of a perpetual, enforced childhood in state run schools if the child is uniquely mature enough to seek a better life for himself. Conversely, if a child is mentally impaired the rebuttal may work the other way with the parents or guardians establishing before the court that, at a presumed age, the child is still not competent to undertake certain acts in his or her own right. Abortion may be more difficult but we can suggest, for example, that if advances in medical science reduce the amount of time for which a pregnancy has to elapse before the foetus is considered viable then the law may regard the foetus as a whole, legal person much sooner that it previously did. If and when we have the technology and are able to establish communication with some of the higher functioning animals, these too may be regarded as rights holders in at least limited circumstances. To repeat again, however, this discovery of certain animals as rights holders would be made as a result of the recognition of these animals as independent, rationally acting beings. The rights will be dependent upon what these animals want because we discover that they are able to want, to desire, to choose different outcomes and to act accordingly. Contrast this to the current statist enforcement of so-called “animal rights” from the top down. These rights are not really animal rights at all – they are the rights of certain people who claim to care about animals enforcing how they believe other people should act vis-à-vis animals. The benefit gained from a vindication of any of these “rights” exists in their minds, not in the minds of the animals.

This, then, is a suitable concluding note to emphasise from what this series of two, rather long, essays. That these phenomena – rights, obligations, conflicts, aggression and so on – serve to regulate the desires of individual, rationally acting beings, a regulation that is necessary to resolve the perception of scarcity that exists in these people’s minds. The existence and content of rights is driven by this impetus. Rights are not designed or constructed from on high by an intellectual in an ivory tower, nor are those who benefit from them assigned by a politician. Any attempt to design rights is akin to treating to individuals as pieces on a grand chess board – pawns in a game of shaping society according to what the intellectual or politician wants. Our conception of rights here is focussed firmly on vindicating the individual and, while it may appear as a limitation upon libertarian theory to answer certain precise and practical questions, ultimately strengthens it.

View the video version of this post.


Children and Abortion – A Follow Up


In response to comments to the original essay on the topic of the rights of children by the YouTube user Justin Sane (which I presume is a pseudonym), I’m presenting an elaboration here on several themes to build on and emphasise what was said in the original essay on the rights of children:

  1. That the quality of a rights holder is a rationally acting being as opposed to a being distinguished by any other standard;
  2. That, when it comes to resolving cases on account of the fact that a child matures and develops into adults in different stages. this does not result in a false dichotomy or binary outcomes;
  3. That the transmutation of political norms into legal norms is likely to afford children legal protection;
  4. There is an elaboration of ostracism as both a legal and extra-legal remedy;
  5. Finally, there is an explanation of why the protection of children through extra-legal measures does not compromise the effectiveness of resolving conflicts between adults through legal measures.

Beginning with the first issue, the source of any rights and obligations is a conflict of actions, a conflict that is generated in the minds of the disputing parties because a portion of physical matter is not capable of sustaining the ends of each. One of Justin Sane’s criticisms of my approach was that, according to him, it results in binary outcomes, disregarding other possibilities. However, the treatment of the political problem most certainly ends with binary results because the nature of the problem is binary. Actions are whole, concrete steps – they are either done or they are not done, never partially done. One may attempt to resolve a conflict between actions by breaking down or reducing an action into a smaller action, but this itself would then be an independent action which must itself either be done or not done. Where a conflict remains, the only solution is an exclusive right for one party to be able to fulfil his end and the other to yield. There is therefore either a conflict, or there is not; and there is therefore either a conflict holder, or there is not.

None of this, however, has any incompatibility with the fact that a child matures and develops gradually from childhood to adulthood, nor with the resulting legal rights of a child. I spent a section of the original essay criticising the very rigorous distinctions drawn between childhood and adulthood executed by the state, even when these where different for different types of act (e.g. the ability to drive, to have sex, to drink alcohol, etc.). I’ll return to this later but I first wish to address the fact that the concept of rational action, and no other criterion, is essential for libertarian rights.

The assignment of rights and obligations has, as I stated, no business outside the realm of conflicts. Libertarianism therefore needs to accomplish two things to be a successful theory. First, it needs to identify conflicts correctly. Second, it needs to demonstrate why the resolution of conflicts such as murder must be resolved in favour of the murdered person and why thefts must be resolved in favour of the original owner of the stolen property. It follows that liberty is destroyed by a further one of two, or both things. First, the invocation of conflicts where there are none, such that people are subjected to force when it is not justified; and second; where real conflicts do exist they are answered in the wrong way. Needless to say the latter is never presented as “murderers can kill” and “thieves can steal” but is rather dressed up with the view that everything can be decided by what is best for “society” as if “society” was an entity independent of its individual constituents with a clear cut conception of its own welfare; or that issues can be solved by us magically being able to “share” everything when the problem exists precisely because we cannot share.

The latter problem does not need to be addressed here. But the problem of defining conflicts most certainly does. The meaning of a genuine conflict has no application outside the realm of rationally acting beings. Physical clashes may take place between non-rationally acting beings and these may be competitive. An antelope may fight off a cheetah out of survival instinct but, unable to choose or comprehend its actions, there is no basis for any perception of the outcome that it strives for to be “good”, “bad”, “better,” or “beneficial”. All of these qualities are founded on the rational desire to choose to devote means towards ends resulting in actions – in other words, rational action, action that is able to be motivated by conscious choice. Furthermore, such an appreciation of outcomes has no application outside of the concept of rational action as it is only rational action, motivated by a conscious choice, in which an informed opinion to change the course of events has any relevance.

The criterion for bearing rights and obligations is not rational thinking, or any other kind of purely mental ability, as opposed to rational action. Although a conflict is always a clash of subjectively held valuations, it is only the physical manifestation of these valuations in real action that permits a conflict to be evidenced objectively in order to produce any meaningful identity of that conflict and its resolution. A rock, for instance, may be able to think rationally and may have mused in its mind more philosophical tomes than Descartes. But if I was to tread on it then its lack of rational action means that there is no way of identifying this objectively as a conflict. Thus the unique concept of rational action shared between rational beings gives rise to a common understanding of ends, means, choices, valuations, conflicts, and so on, and further provides the means to assess them objectively; we are all rational actors and we all know what rational action entails, so our ability to recognise it in others means that this criterion provides the further benefit of being an avoider of conflicts in the first place.

There are therefore no rights and obligations without a conflict, there can be no conflict without a conflict holder; there can be no conflict holder unless he makes a conscious choice to devote means towards ends; devoting means towards ends is a rational action, the province of a rational actor; there are therefore no rights and obligations outside of the realm of rational actors. It is therefore rational action that is the linchpin of all of the elements that give way to the generation of rights and obligations.

To dispute that it is the quality of rational action – or, more precisely, rational action perceiving a conflict – that determines rights produces no firm basis for libertarian theory. For otherwise in all cases it would mean that the causative event of legal enforcement is not an objectively identifiable conflict of physical actions between the alleged perpetrator and the alleged victim as perceived by those parties, but, rather, conflicts that are subjectively observed or hypothesised by third parties and onlookers, permitting these mere observers to use force to remedy the alleged ill.

In a situation involving A and B, where A is a rational actor and B is not (either an object, an animal, a baby, or whatever), A faces the conflict as to how he should behave towards B and may assess his options in terms of that which is good, which is moral, which is the “better” outcome and so on. But the product of this conflict is wholly in A’s mind, his need to choose between options, not in B’s. Only A, possessing the quality of rational action has the capacity to reason whether alternative outcomes can be assessed in terms of these qualities and to put one of these outcomes into effect. A might be motivated by what is good for B in a way that a person may consider what is good for a pet, a flower, an oil painting, or a baby, but there is no conscious, reciprocal involvement from B in this process motivating what the outcomes should be. There is, therefore, in no meaningful sense a “conflict” between A and B, a conflict that would result in any kind of right by B against A to cause one specific outcome to trump another.

If C, a rationally acting third party, comes along he may develop theories as to how A should act towards B, and may even name this theory as a body of “natural rights”, “natural contracts” or whatever. Such espousals, whatever form they take, may be very wise, very learned, even very beautiful and harken to a seeming harmony of the natural order. However, any conflict that C identifies between A and B in this regard is a product of C’s mind, not of B’s. Any attempt by C to enforce any of “B’s rights” that he has supposedly identified is therefore not a resolution of a conflict between A and B, it is the resolution of a conflict between A and C. C is not alleging the right of B to enforce certain behaviour from A that B wants – C is alleging the right of himself to force A to behave towards B in a certain way that C wants. The pivotal party to the conflict is not B, it is C; if C dies then the conflict dies with him, a conflict un-rooted in the objective basis of a physical contest between himself and A. For any meaningful rights and obligations to arise between A and B, B must assert himself as an independent rational actor who perceives a conflict between himself and A. C’s theories may be relevant to B in this regard and may serve to heighten his awareness of his place in the world and of his understanding of his relationship to his fellow beings, should he have the capacity. But they are not in and of themselves a replacement for the quality of the rational action of B that perceives a conflict with A. Other standards such as sentience, maturity, language, numeracy, the perception of pain and so on may be related to and intertwined with rational action, but they are not themselves rational action. Only the ability to make choices devoting means towards ends, whatever the substance of these choices may be, has any bearing upon the perception of a conflict and thus on the question of rights and obligations.

Basing any kind of political norms upon the perception of conflicts such as those of C, however genuine, honest and well-intentioned that this may be is precisely what leads to the destruction of liberty. “The welfare of the people has always been the alibi of the tyrannous”; “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. Furthermore, unlike the quality of rational action, such theories that C may espouse, while they may be cloaked with apparently universal and everlasting principles, are often a slave to the substantive moral issues of their time, moral issues that are themselves based on the specific wealth, customs, and traditions that happen to exist. Thus they fail to transcend their localities of time or place and provide any universal grounding for political norms. Even apparently “obvious” or “clear-cut” cases of hypothesised conflicts are an illustration of this fact – such as children’s rights. In pre-industrial, agrarian societies where the main economic unit was the family, children were indeed regarded as little more than property of the parents that possessed an economic value. Although research produced by scholars since the 1960s has indicated that child rearing was not brutal and parents made sacrifices for their children to maximise their welfare such as care during sickness, the general attitude is hardly unsurprising in an epoch of extreme poverty where infant mortality was as high as one third of babies born. Indeed, we can surmise that telling a mother that she may legally kill her child may have been greeted with an acknowledged, if reluctant acceptance if there simply wasn’t enough food to eat. Renaissance/Enlightenment thinking, coupled with the romanticised view of childhood as an “age of innocence”, began to see children as having an independent identity that accorded them certain rights, but the product of this thinking was far from uniform. The nurturance or caretaker view was, at its earliest, espoused by John Locke, and Thomas Spence’s “The Rights of Infants”, one of the first pamphlets to specifically consider the issue, is subtitled “Imprescriptible Right of MOTHERS to such a Share of the Elements as is sufficient to enable them to suckle and bring up their Young”, and is written as a dialogue between mothers and the aristocracy. In other words the right was of the mother to demand from the gentry the wherewithal to nurture her infant from the produce of the land. The alternative view, that children have much more independent rights, became augmented and subsumed by the onset of industrial society (in which children often worked in factories), and the backlash of the middle class intelligentsia against the “squalid” and “destitute” conditions of industrial workers generally, a backlash that was itself subsumed by the descent into socialism and communism. But what abolished child labour was not a call for children’s rights; it was the fact that adults could produce enough wealth for a child to survive and flourish without the latter having to work. The right of a child not to labour and, instead to be supported by its parents, are, like any positive obligations, wholly dependent on there being enough wealth to accomplish this. In the twentieth century, The Declarations of the Rights of the Child, the precursor to the modern UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which is, as of this day, enshrined in international law, was drafted by Eglantyne Jebb, the founder of the charity Save the Children that was set up to alleviate the starvation and poverty of German and Austrian children as a result of the First World War, a war which would not have occurred without imperialism, state militaries, the drive to autarky, central banking, etc. The creation of the welfare state and the subsequent disintegration of the family it has caused, together with government provision of education, have all served to make the rights and conditions of children a public affair. Far from being in anyway universal or an engrained part of humanity, the modern development of children’s rights has been welded to the growth of the state and all of its catastrophes and calamities.

Even if however, we attempted to curtail C into developing a theory that advocated rights between A and B that were in accordance with liberty, it would be immensely difficult, if not impossible, to produce a theory that categorically insulates this from either abuse or outright usurpation. Let us say, for example, that all rights holders are not objects, or animals and must, instead, be endowed with the quality of being human, so that we can never be forced to behave in certain ways towards objects and animals but we can  be forced to behave in certain ways towards human beings. Hence, we have dismissed the most outlandish anti-libertarian theories that C might have devised, we say to him that A and B must both be human for any theory to apply to them. We have still, however, left the door open to C to conjure up all sorts of other theories of “society” and “the harmony of man” in order to invoke all manner of rights and obligations between the two. I personally marvel at any author who can persuasively attest to the harmony of the market place, the beauty of freedom and the unfathomable extent of man’s accomplishments unleashed by capitalism. But other accounts can be made to argue the complete opposite, all the way from the naive but plausible reinterpretations of social co-operation under the division of labour to connote a false sense of brotherhood, togetherness and family that looks after each other, all the way to more sophisticated treatments such as those of John Rawls. Thus I could be legally forced to help adults in need; to give food to the hungry; to give medicine to the sick. In short, a welfare state.

If, in response to this, we attempt to introduce a further limiting factor that legal rights may only be used by humans to repel aggressions – i.e. a human’s only right is non-aggression – this also is no good. An aggression has a physical manifestation but this fact in and of itself does not qualify a physical act as aggressive; it is only aggressive if the aggrieved party so deems it in his mind. Sex and rape are the same physical act, yet the first is consensual and legal and the latter is aggressive and illegal. Frustrated by the evidential difficulty of establishing whether or not a specific rape occurred, feminists and women’s rights groups have taken to redefining the concept of rape and blurring the line that separates it from consensual sex. So what we have now are acts which are viewed as consensual by the parties but redefined as aggressive by outsiders, thus leading to the infringement of the liberty of the alleged perpetrator based on nothing but a string of fictions – that yes means no; that acceptance is repellence; that love is now hate; and so on. But forgetting that aggression and conflict are mental categories in the minds of the parties can have even more disastrous consequences than for participants of a one night stand. The conflation, by Karl Marx, of economic classes, which co-exist peacefully, with legal castes, which do not, coupled with his half-baked economic theory of surplus value and the “appropriation” of profit from wages created what is undoubtedly the epitome of falsely perceived conflicts in the whole of human history – that between capitalist and labourer. These theories, developed entirely by middle class intellectuals and based on no aggressive relations whatsoever as perceived by the parties concerned, went on to enslave half the globe for the best part of a century. It is true that ideas such as “sex is rape” and “employment is slavery” may have instilled in the alleged victims the mere belief that they were subject to a conflict; but this simply causes the necessity to focus on their actions – what they did as opposed to what they say – to stand out in relief even further. It should also be clear that such theories do not need to be correct in order to have a disastrous impact; they simply need to be plausible and popular.

If it should be thought that it is a spurious, “slippery slope” argument and that it is unlikely that at all of this may result simply from the desire to prevent infanticide and child rape then we might want to think again. Throughout history, the power hungry have not only succeeded in exploiting to their advantage the slightest glimmers of light in the form of minor weaknesses and inconsistencies in opposing theories, but they have succeeded in redefining entire doctrines out of existence. The divine right of kings was flipped from subjecting the king to divine law to meaning that anything the king said or did was divine; to violate the constitution is to adhere to it; to be a socialist is now to be a liberal; to favour hampered trade is to be a free trader; and with libertarians like the “Bleeding Heart” camp and other “thickest” varieties perhaps we will lose “libertarianism” too. Moreover, practically anything that has been ever been written, as opposed to spoken, in defence of liberty has been tortured into producing the very opposite effects from those intended. As Cardinal Richelieu is supposed to have said, “give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him”. Finally, acolytes of liberty such as Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek, however much they may have said some many great things on individual topics, are lauded by the mainstream precisely because their basis for liberty is weak and presents no real threat to the “statist quo”, whereas hardliners such as Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard are just ignored.

Therefore, basing rights and obligations in rational action, grounded firmly in the reality of conflicts and their resolution, is the only rigorous and distinct basis for libertarianism. It is therefore conceptually correct to say that if a being is not a rational actor he has no rights and that if he is then he does. Any alternative is the product of invoking rights where no conflict exists, and even if these hypothetical conflicts are defined narrowly they provide only a tenuous defence against less restrictive views.

Returning now to the question of the legal rights of children, nothing whatsoever about this provides any difficulty regarding the gradual, complex and developmental transition of a child into an adult. The law’s only purview is the resolution of conflicts, not to make sweeping decisions concerning every facet of life. As I stated in the original essay:

In a free society, different children will reach different milestones at different ages, when they themselves see fit to accomplish them. Hence, one child may decide to get a job at thirteen, another at fifteen and a third at eighteen. One may decide he is mature enough to give sexual consent at fourteen, another at sixteen and another not until he is twenty. The choice to leave home may be made at a similar array of ages. In the event of a dispute between an adult and a child a libertarian court will have to decide on a case by case basis whether the action of the child that is the subject of the litigation represented a rational action to devote means towards ends or was simply an instinctive action.

Courts do not, therefore, go into the world and make grand pronunciations such as “Tom is a child”; “Dick is an adult”; “Harriet will be an adult in three years”. Indeed, most children will coast from childhood to adulthood without ever realising the precise points at which their competence to effect certain outcomes took place, and libertarian courts are never going to make any judgment whatsoever on whether most children are, or are not, self-owners and at which point. Their role is akin to that of a watchman, not a nanny; their only competence is the case before it and legal regulation has no place in permeating any other aspect of life that is devoid of conflicts. Hypothetical judgments in hypothetical cases are not needed. If a child had been sold a mortgage and the child took the house and made all the payments and paid the debt then any hypothetical conclusion of a court of non-self-ownership had the case produced a conflict would have no relevance – both parties would be happy and no one ever need ask the question. If two sets of parents make a contract for adoption, the money is paid and the child goes then the fact that a court may conclude in a hypothetical judgment that the child is a self-owner and cannot be sold is irrelevant. All that matters, therefore, is establishing the quality of self-ownership – that the child acted rationally to devote means towards ends – for the purposes of resolving the real conflict before it, not for resolving any other. Thus a finding of self-ownership in one case, or the lack thereof, does not prejudice a contrary conclusion in a different case, real or hypothetical. In a case where the child approaches a sweet shop with cash in its hand, asks about the prices, dislikes them and then decides to steal some sweets a court may conclude that this was a clear rational action sufficient to categorise him as a self-owner and thus legally responsible for the crime. On the other hand, in the case involving the attempted sale of a mortgage to the same child, the court may find that no action of the child could be sufficiently interpreted as a rational action to borrow money to purchase a property, and any “signature” of the child on the title deeds has no greater legal significance than a dog’s paw print. If a young girl purchased condoms and walked to the house of an adult and engaged in sexual relations with that adult and the parents brought a lawsuit for invasion of their property in the child then the court may conclude that the actions of the child were a clear, rational choice of a self-owner to have consensual sex and the parents would lose the case. On the other hand, if the same teenager knocked the handbrake of her parents’ car the court may conclude that the parents are liable for any resulting damage caused by the run away vehicle. Such flexibility in the case law will serve to protect adults from harm by children also. Where a child kicks his football into the neighbours’ window, for example, the latter is likely to be more interested in suing the “deeper pockets” of the parents for replacement of the broken glass rather than the child’s piggy bank. Alternatively, in the case where a child has attacked his parents, the court may find that the child is liable in spite of being under the ward of the victims. Nothing about any of these possible judgments need have any effect upon any other part of a child’s growth and development or its interaction with other people, provided that these are devoid of conflict.

Nothing about what I have said here is contrary to the traditional short hands that a self-owner cannot be property; and that “property in libertarian tradition means absolute control of the thing owned”; for these are derived principles. We say that a self-owner cannot be property because we are typically referring to adults whom we regard as always acting rationally and thus are always independent and ownerless; and we can do whatever we like with our dead objects and regard them as our property because it’s virtually certain that such an object like a table or a cup will never act rationally. Indeed, the very criteria presented here is actually perfectly applicable in cases involving adults, even in our own contemporary legal systems. Absent some additional factor, an adult is not deemed to be legally responsibly for those actions where he can establish that he was acting as an automaton or with an instinctive response. Furthermore, an extension of the principle applies to property that is subject to multiple titles such as the freeholding and lease holding of land and other rental arrangements; each party bears the exclusive right to certain actions in relation to the same property.

Judging the quality of an action as rational is not, to be sure, ever going to be easy and there are clear overlaps with qualities such as maturity, understanding, knowledge, “sapience”, and so on, all of which may come into consideration and all of which libertarian courts will have to develop a framework for. Yet it is crucial that rational action itself – the conscious choice to devote means towards ends – remains the focus. We must remember that the result of a court case is not to make a loss disappear – it is simply to decide who should bear the burden of it. In cases involving adults in our current legal systems, undue stress is placed on motive, intentions or appreciation of the circumstances and consequences which serve to acquit defendants and leave a perfectly innocent party – the victim – saddled with the loss. Thus the decisions of court cases, lacking any primary rationale as to what constitutes legal liability, often serve as little more than policy vehicles for determining who bears the risk of loss from certain conflicts. By focusing on the fact, rather than the quality of rational action, libertarian courts avoid these difficult enquiries, but this clearly has to be relaxed in gradations when it comes to children. My argument would be for as restrictive a relaxation as possible to avoid reassigning loss to innocent parties (which could, it should be remembered, include the parents if they were left responsible for the tortious or criminal actions of a rationally acting child). It is also at least arguable that a finding of legal responsibility will improve a child’s understanding of consequences and contribute to its maturation and suitability for joining the adult world.

However, this is not the only thing that can be said on the matter as the transmutation of political norms into specifically legal norms is also heavily reliant upon their social, customary, conventional and even economic context. Indeed, so dependent is the development of legal norms upon these aspects that they cannot be reasoned theoretically, a fact that is usually lost upon libertarians who approach the discipline from economics or philosophy and are so accustomed to arguing everything from the a priori. Hence they push the problems faced by the development of strictly legal norms back onto their political theory. (This includes Rothbard in The Ethics of Liberty who, in order to classify children as the property of their parents yet deny the latter the right to kill or harm the child refers to them as “guardians or trustees”. But then, to avoid any possibility of positive obligations, he states that these “guardians or trustees” don’t actually have to act as such as they cannot be forced to care for the child. Randy Barnett once mentioned in a lecture that a group of law students managed to stump “Mr Libertarian” in his own living room purely by asking him questions that concerned strictly legal norms).

One of the factors that has a bearing on the development of legal norms is the fact that the legal adjudicative process itself is a product of its time upon which the quality, dissemination and coherence of legal rules will be heavily dependent. In a legal system covering a small jurisdiction or in tribal settings where conflicts are infrequent and adjudicated by the elders, every single case may present a novel and unexamined situation and justice may be dispensed and disseminated in varying degrees of coherence with regards to principle. In a legal system such as ours which takes place in a highly industrialised society of social co-operation under the division of labour, where the seeking of justice is contracted out like any other service to full time specialist jurists, scholars and practitioners with access to an array of precedent and case law, legal norms may have crystallised around clear principles to a much higher degree. We can also surmise that through education, communication, and thriving media and news outlets, legal principles will be well disseminated through the populace. The advantage of this type of legal system is that it makes possible to a higher degree the classification of cases into various categories of “typical case”, each of which may met with specific legal presumptions and variable burdens of proof based on the experience of a wide number cases. The question of self-ownership may be subsumed by such presumptions and burdens of proof.  For example, where the defendant is an adult there is a legal presumption that the adult is a self-owner and the burden is on him to prove otherwise in order to defray liability. On the other hand, where the defendant is an animal or object there is a legal presumption that this being is not a self-owner. We can further speculate as to what these presumptions and burdens may be in cases involving children.

First, in a case where the child brings the action before the court (or has appealed to a third party such as a school or neighbour to do so) there is a legal presumption that the child is a self-owner. Indeed, we might say that the appeal to justice and with it a sense of rights and obligations, itself a rational action, is the criterion par excellence in determining such an outcome. Second, where the alleged victim is a child, there is a presumption of locus standi (so a third party could bring to court a case where a parent is alleged to have killed his/her child). Third, where a child has not brought the action but the case involves a physical invasion of the child in rerum natura, there will be a legal presumption that the child is a self-owner. Fourth, in cases involving the homicide of a child (or any person, for that matter) in rerum natura, there is a presumption that the death was non-consensual. Fifth, in cases involving a physical invasion there is a presumption that this is aggressive and non-consensual. Sixth, in cases involving the physical invasion of an adult by a child, there is a presumption that the child is not a self-owner and the parents are liable for the invasion of the adult. Seventh, in cases involving an alleged contract between an adult and a child there is a presumption that the child is not a self-owner. Eighth, in cases involving sexual relations between an adult and a child, there is, similarly, a presumption that the child is not a self-owner. Ninth, where an act of defence by the child is evidenced, there is a presumption that this was a rational and not instinctive action and the child is a self-owner. And so on in ever more detail to sift out different types of case, for example between contracts to purchase sweets and contracts to purchase houses and cars, for example.

Thresholds for these possible presumptions could be determined by a court with reference to any criteria that are appropriate for the customary, conventional and social context. This could be specific ages, physical changes such as the onset of puberty, or a rite of passage such as Bar Mitzvah in a Jewish community. To be sure, they cannot be constructed so that the fact presumed completely obliterates the underlying reality, but their effect is not to alter the fundamental political norms of self-ownership and private property; it is simply to shift the burden of establishing or defraying liability between the parties. The burdened party always has the option of rebutting the presumption. The upshot of this is, therefore, where a party has any dealings with a child – such as intended sexual relations or an intended contract – they will have to take evidential steps above and beyond they would have to take with an adult to prove the child’s self-ownership and valid consent. Conversely, where he wishes to attack a child, he will have to prove that the child was not a self-owner. Needless to say, however, some of the presumptions as I have worded them above would be almost impossible to rebut, to the extent that legal liability would always follow resulting from a parent assaulting or murdering their child, for example. Yet in a hypothetical community plagued by feral children, where the overwhelmingly typical case is of children attacking adults, there may be a legal presumption that any harm to a child by an adult was defensive and not aggressive, thus the burden rests on the child to prove otherwise. In any case, however, it is clear that courts can develop legal norms that serve to protect children in spite of the fact the underlying political philosophy may not grant them any formal rights.

Turning now to an elaboration of ostracism, the just use of force in a libertarian society is, in my opinion, likely to be restricted to extracting restitution from the aggressor, i.e. to compensatory remedies, for which there is much theological, philosophical and historical support, and is unlikely to extend explicitly to punitive remedies. The replacement of the victim as the primary aggrieved party by the prosecutorial system itself and the role of enforced punitive remedies such as prison are intimately intertwined with the state and this is at least a prima facie reason for rejecting its use in a libertarian society. It is also far from immediately obvious that citizens in a free society, absent violently enforced taxes, would be prepared to pay their criminals board and lodging in order to extract some kind of punishment. Ostracism is therefore likely to be the primary punitive remedy. Let us explore briefly how this would work.

In pre-state, customary law systems the role of adjudication at the remedy stage was geared more towards reaching a consensus between the parties as to how the wrongful act should be righted, regardless of whether this wrongful act was intended or accidental. Thus there was little regard for the distinction between “torts” and “crimes” and everything revolved the parties determining their own solution between themselves. Hence, the absence of any specific punitive remedy was not an impediment to the potential desire of a victim to seek retribution and recompense.

Problems came about either when the offender refused to co-operate with a settlement, i.e. he would refuse to pay compensation out of his own wealth, or where he absconded entirely and fled from justice so that he was “on the run”. In the first case, the compensation due may be extracted by force from the offender. The way this would work in a libertarian society is that there would be independent, private adjudicatory services (“private courts”) to which aggrieved parties would take their cases. These bodies would gain a reputation for determining the outcome of these cases in accordance with libertarian principles. Such dispensation would lend prestige and authority for the enforcement of a remedy to an act of aggression. Therefore, when dispensing a judgment or solidifying an agreement between the aggrieved parties, the private court is stating that it would refuse to acknowledge any violent enforcement of the remedy as a new, independent act of aggression, and hence it can proceed unmolested. Therefore, if the offender refused to co-operate in paying compensation, it would mean that a private recovery agency would be able to extract that compensation from him by force without fearing that it too would then be subject to a lawsuit. In other words, as far as the enforcement of the remedy went, the offender would not be protected by the law.

In the second case, that of a flight from justice, ostracism was usually the result. This was not simply “social stigma” but was rather the branding of the offender as an outlaw – an extended version of the response to the non-payment of compensation. Under outlawry, an outlaw was not just a gun wielding bandit in the Old West. Rather, he was someone whom the justice system would refuse to protect in any circumstance when he was subject to an act of aggression of a third party – i.e. he was not someone who simply refused to obey the law but was some who was without protection from the law. In a libertarian society, this means that if the absconding offender is subsequently a victim of an act of aggression, the court would refuse to hear any case regarding the matter which the offender brought before it. The result of this is that a private recovery agency could use any means necessary against the offender – including the imposition of death – in order to either stop or capture him, knowing full well that it would subsequently not be prosecuted for this deed. Indeed, in its most extreme form, outlawry meant that any party could do whatever they wanted to the assailant in order to impede and/or apprehend him. This is precisely the origin of the familiar “Wanted” posters that bore the mugshot of fugitive criminals and popularised the fact that any force could be used against this individual. Furthermore, outlawry was deemed to extend to those who were harbouring or sheltering the fugitive – the origin of the crime “aiding and abetting” – and they too would also be fair game in any attempt to apprehend or stop the fugitive. The court would therefore not hear any case brought by aiders and abetters for injury or death sustained by them in any attempt to catch the fugitive. Of course, if totally innocent parties were caught in the crossfire then whoever caused these injuries would be liable.

Ostracism, in the form of outlawry, was, therefore, not merely banishment into exile or a branding of the offender as a nasty person with whom people shouldn’t deal. It was, rather, an incredibly harsh punishment. The absconding offender found himself without protection of the law, and no one else would help him as they too would lose their protection of the law. In cases where the offender refused to give himself up it was the equivalent of a death sentence for which any person could be the executioner. Needless to say, in a libertarian society today we can surmise that there would be a more sophisticated version of this process, with private recovery agencies contracted to seek the recapture of fugitives, and with the use of the internet to disseminate information concerning known criminals and absconders.

How, then, would ostracism be used to combat abuse against children under the assumption that a child has no legal rights and, therefore, the offender has not technically committed any crime? The answer to this is that in a free society, courts and adjudicators are private companies and citizens too and they have the right to withdraw their services and refuse their business with any party they choose. Thus, their withdrawal of services for the benefit of any person could theoretically be made at any time and not just when someone flees from justice. Normally, of course, they would not do this as they would be turning away good business from genuine clients and they need to maintain a reputation of hearing all cases impartially. But when it comes to fleeing offenders against whom judgment has already been pronounced, the refusal to support these fugitives with legal help would most likely enhance, not impair, their reputational prestige and so they would not risk losing business to other courts and adjudicatory services. But there is no reason to say that a strict framework for withdrawing legal services from and thus ostracising a child killer or abuser could not be developed, in spite of the fact that a child may not have any formally recognised, legal rights. Indeed, when child abuse is viewed as a heinously immoral act by a majority of the population, such a framework may also serve to enhance and not impair the reputation of the court.

Thus, as I said in the original essay, there is nothing to stop a profitable or charitable entity from bringing a case of child abuse before a court, the court accepting this business and agreeing to hear the case as if the child had legal rights. In this role it could act as either an adjudicator or as an arbitrator or conciliator. Therefore, if the facts are sufficient to establish beyond reasonable doubt that the offender abused or killed a child, the initial focus would be, just as in a legal case, achieving an outcome agreed by both parties with the precise remedies determined by them. If, on the other hand, the offending party absconds then the court would simply pronounce its refusal to protect the offender in a future case until he sufficiently accounts for the act he committed. Thus it is quite open for courts and their customers to achieve the same outcome as a legal trial – and to ensure children protection from murderers and abusers – without ascribing to children the formality of legal rights.

Wrapping all of this up, therefore, hopefully what I have demonstrated is that a coherent and impregnable libertarian political philosophy is dependent upon identifying rights holders as rational actors and not by some other criterion. At the same time however, I have demonstrated at least two ways – the transmutation of these political norms into legal norms and the imposition of ostracism by the court – in which the protection of children from abuse can be achieved in a libertarian society without compromising or distorting the underlying political philosophy.

Finally, looking more widely at just the “utility” of a system of justice in producing a civil society, any denial of formal, legal rights to children does not undermine this. First, justice is demanded by individuals from other individuals who actions produce conflicts. It is not demanded by “society” or any other collective entity perceiving a conflict somewhere “over there” between an individual or a group and some other object or being. A civil society results because it is conflicts between individuals that are resolved peacefully. It is a mistake to think that “society” seeks justice to protect individuals. Rather, individuals seek justice between themselves and the result is a civil society. Second, the commentator to my original essay extensively criticised my approach as lacking an understanding of subtlety or nuance and unable to comprehend varying shades of grey. Yet it is precisely the recognition that children are different from adults upon which this approach is based. It is clear that adults, although they are wont to co-operate socially under the division of labour and although explicit cases of private murder and theft are consigned to a handful of nutcases and sociopaths, have an extensive capacity and desire to plunder and kill each other through faux legitimised outlets such as democratic government. Indeed, the state exists for no other purpose. On the other hand, adults also have the capacity to appeal for their rights and to demand justice. The aim of the libertarian project is to disseminate an understanding of these rights so that these adults will demand them and cast off the yoke of the state. Thus a system of legal rights and obligations between adults has an eminent utility in producing a civil society that is peaceful and harmonious. When it comes to children, however, whatever happens to them they do not, until they are older, have the capacity to advocate their legal rights. A civil society will not be achieved by reading Rothbard to babies. On the other hand, it is precisely because of the unique connection that adults have to their own children and to the children of others that the capacity for adults for harming children is greatly diminished compared to their capacity to harm each other. As I said in the original essay, even the most oppressive of governments, however much it may revel in plundering and killing its adult citizenry, is not likely to legalise the abuse of children by either its own elite or by the populace at large. Indeed, any political regime that does murder children is usually slaughtering men, women and children indiscriminately. Thus, affronts against children are truly confined to a bare handful of aberrations to the norm such as perverts and paedophiles. Faced with such overwhelming odds – indeed, a deluge – it is eminently possible and, indeed, likely that extra-legal methods of deterrence, detection, and punishment of abuse against children will be sufficient to handle this tiny minority – particularly if those methods included the voluntary withdrawal of support to the perpetrator of adjudicatory and private defence services as I described earlier.

Indeed, I would like to close by saying that as libertarians we should remember that the legitimised use of force is the way of our ultimate foe the state, and in defining our own solutions to problems we should have a presumption of restriction against its imposition. This is true even in apparently obvious cases which may not, upon greater examination, be quite so obvious – as I hope I have demonstrated here when considering the rights of children.

Children and Abortion – Hard Cases for Libertarians


The rights to self-ownership and private property that libertarians espouse quite clearly and undeniably apply to typical adult human beings. Conceivably they are, however, much more difficult to apply to children, who may not have developed full-fledged adult characteristics, and to foetuses which possibly do not even possess any consciousness, let alone a rational one. How, therefore, do libertarians approach the rights of these beings? Do they have more or fewer rights than adult human beings? Indeed, is it possible say that they have any rights whatsoever

At the outset, readers should not expect some grand, new libertarian theory to emerge from the words that follow. The difficulty that libertarians face when attempting to apply any libertarian rights to children and to foetuses is that, on the one hand, the non-aggression principle applies only to rational beings that consciously, rather than instinctively, choose means to devote towards ends. If it did not, then all sorts of creatures and, indeed, dead objects would acquire the status of rights holder and this would clearly be absurd. Thus applying the concept of self-ownership to foetuses and, at least, very young children, becomes immensely difficult without ascribing such ownership to non-human animals and objects. On the other hand, however, there is the need to demonstrate that a libertarian world would not be one in which wanton abortion and child slaughter were commonplace as if nobody cared about these issues. The resulting torturous reasoning produces a mishmash of different and often novel approaches to the question, which would probably be more than sufficient to fuel a cottage industry of scholars churning out PhDs on the matter. Space precludes us from examining these approaches here in any detail. Rather, what we shall attempt is a simple, straightforward and uncomplicated application of libertarian principles to children and to foetuses. While the results of these deliberations may at times appear to be unfavourable and, indeed, shocking, let us embrace the implications of this approach and further attempt to find possible solutions to the problem not within the application of legal rights to children and foetuses but, rather, within extra-legal measures.

The Nature of the Problem of Children’s Rights

To begin, we must espouse a definitive characterisation of the problem before us in order to understand its real nature. Hypothethical problems, although they may be very interesting to the pure theorist, do not concern the real application of rights and obligations, which arise only when there is an acknowledged conflict resulting from scarcity. There is, therefore, strictly speaking no legal problem at all unless such a conflict arises in real life. Nobody invokes legal rights over particles of air because particles of air are not scarce goods and because there is a sufficient quantity of them for everyone to meet their needs. We could also conjure up all kinds of hypothetical situations such as whether a person who possesses a miracle cure for cancer can be forcibly dispossessed of that property, or whether a person with knowledge of an imminent and otherwise unstoppable terrorist atrocity can be tortured. The specific facts of such situations can be twisted and distorted by their proponents in order to provoke a particular answer. Real rights, however, are only defined where people actually need them to be so, and where the protection of a legitimate, physical defence is required. With children and foetuses, the specific, potential problem is that of physical incursions into their bodily space. This could be to inflict either injury or death, or for purposes of sexual gratification, for example. The initial requirement for a breach of the non-aggression principle is therefore satisfied – there is a physical invasion into the person or property of another being. Such acts are, to most people, a moral abomination, characterised as evil and/or perverted behaviour that should not be tolerated in any society. Yet it is precisely because of this fact that we must acknowledge that there is no widespread problem of physical affronts against children and foetuses, at least to the extent that it is not the most pertinent question that libertarians have to face. Taxation, regulation, the welfare-warfare state and all of the looting, plunder and murder that take place under the aegis of government are all contrary to libertarian ethics; yet these issues, which represent the greatest and most widespread incursions to liberty do not receive the widespread condemnation that they deserve – hence it is why libertarian scholars concentrate on these egregious issues. Libertarianism does not, therefore, necessarily stand or fall on its ability to define, neatly, the rights of children and foetuses. For even the most oppressive governments, which would seldom think twice about imposing a burdensome and oppressive tax, are highly unlikely, for example, to legislate to permit bureaucrats to molest children. Indeed, those from within their ranks who do so are quickly condemned and ejected from their positions of privilege, and will most likely end up in a prison cell. Even the number of abortions is dwarfed by the number of successful births, and has been declining in the United States since a peak in the early nineties.  Nothing about libertarianism’s ability to handle the relatively small number of cases involving incursions into the physical space of children and foetuses has any bearing upon its ability to handle the very real and very widespread incursions into the liberty of adults that take place every second of every minute of every day. By adopting this stance, we can therefore take a more open-minded attitude towards the issue of children and foetuses without feeling the need to cram ourselves into an awkward corner by compromising our libertarian principles in order to provide a solution.

Rights and Obligations

Rights and obligations, then, arise between rational beings – that is, those beings who make conscious and rational choices to devote means towards ends. This is because the advocacy of one’s rights is itself a rational choice to devote means towards ends. For all we know rocks, through some as yet undiscovered ability, may possess thoughts in the manner of a person to whom we might ascribe rights. Yet the absence of any rational action on the part of rocks prevents any advocacy of these rights on their behalf. Humans cannot exist without acting in relation to the matter around them, and a cardinal rule of moral philosophy is that a moral action requires a moral choice – in other words a person must be able to do that which is moral. Requiring the refusal of action in relation to all of the matter around oneself simply because it might possess as yet undiscovered qualities which would accord it rights would simply be a moral travesty. Similarly, in the natural world, antelopes do not invoke any rights against cheetahs when the latter attempt to slaughter them for food because antelopes are not rational beings that consciously choose means to devote towards ends. The “High Court of the Democratic Republic of Antelopes” does not convene to pass resolutions against the “Empire of the Cheetahs” for its atrocities against antelope civilisation because these animals do not possess the capacity for forming any of these concepts.

The problem faced with the rights of children is that children too lack this rational capacity to make choices to devote ends towards means. Consequently, they have no one to advocate any rights they might have. As they grow up, of course, they will, in all but a handful of cases, develop that capacity but at the particular moment in time under consideration they are not in possession of it. It is difficult, therefore, to ascribe any kind of rights whatsoever to children and, a fortiori, to foetuses. One could suggest that a child’s parents possess these rights on the child’s behalf. However, the majority of abuse cases against children occur within the family or by people or institutions that have legal care or custody of the child such as orphanages or, notoriously, the church. And, of course, an abortion, the deliberate killing of the foetus, nearly always results as the direct choice of the woman carrying.

Are we, therefore, stuck in a complete quandary? Will children in a libertarian world have no rights whatsoever and be fair game for murderers, paedophiles and other sadists? The response to this possibility is that simply because it is impossible to ascribe to children the formal, legal rights enjoyed by adults, we have to remember that legal solutions – that is, the legitimate imposition of force to invoke an end – are not necessarily the only or the most appropriate method of accomplishing an objective. Indeed, as libertarians, we should retain a great reluctance to ascribe legal rights too readily as the use of force is, of course, the mantra of the state.

The case of animals – which, in spite of some legislation against animal cruelty, do not possess any rights in our world today – actually provides us with a basis on which to construct a theory of how children will be treated in a libertarian society. Humans wantonly exterminate only those animals that are either harmful or pestering to them such as rats, mosquitoes, wasps and snakes – although some people even prefer to keep and breed the latter. A far greater number of animals are simply do not cared about by humans; they furnish neither a benefit nor a burden to human existence and so it does not really matter whether these creatures continue to exist or not. To the extent they do not interfere with humans’ accomplishments they will simply be left alone to live as they please. Above this level there are animals whose existence provides a great benefit to humans such as cows, chickens, pigs, and sheep. Some of these animals will be slaughtered to provide food, and sometimes “inhumanely” because humans believe that the resulting meat product is better than it otherwise would be. Many of them also will be cultivated to provide non-food products such as wool. At the top of the tree are those animals to whom humans form an emotional bond and whose happiness may be a cause of our own happiness, such as cats and dogs, in addition to animals used for sporting interests such as thoroughbred race horses. These animals will not, in the main, be killed, harmed or otherwise mistreated as they are more valuable when they are happy and well cared for. Indeed, there are a great many people who value the happiness of not only their own animals but also those who belong to, or are in the ward of, other people. Such outfits as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals are a testament to the fact that the health and wellbeing of certain animals has a widespread concern. There is a keen interest to prevent those few people who do inflict a life of misery and distress on animals from continuing to do so. Indeed, this might extend beyond pets and to all those animals that are used for any human purpose whatsoever. Hence one could, in a libertarian society, prefer to eat a vegetarian diet; or to refuse to purchase cosmetics or medicinal products that have been tested on animals.

If humans take such a strong attitude towards relatively innocuous yet friendly animals, then how much more so will they take this attitude towards children? Indeed, the overwhelming instinct in the typical human is to love and adore his/her offspring, and many of us can testify from anecdotal experience that even the most child-unfriendly of people have their maternal or paternal instincts kicked into gear as soon as they happen to procreate. No doubt there is some important evolutionary reason for this – a species that destroyed or consumed its own offspring would quickly be relegated to extinction. But regardless of the reason, we can be sure that a great many people will have these feelings not only for their own children but also for the children of others – and will be keenly desirous to prevent any cruelty or mistreatment to the children of others, viewing the perpetrators as monsters. How this will serve to prevent and punish the mistreatment of children, or to reduce and control abortion, we will now explore below.


At the outset of the discussion of abortion, whatever the legal rights and obligations that ensue, we must admit one, incontestable fact – that abortion, even if it is an abominable, moral outrage will never be eradicated entirely. We can imagine a world where the murder and rape of adults will, one day, be utterly banished from a libertarian society, even if such an aim is a little utopian. This is because these aims would be accomplished by existing adults attempting to enforce their rights. Attempting to quash abortion, on the other hand, could only be achieved by breaching the rights of an existing adult, much akin to the attempt to prohibit drugs, alcohol and prostitution. You would quite literally need to spy on a woman in order to ensure that she was not carrying out an abortion. Indeed, at its most crude, desperate abortions can be carried out in a bath tub with pain killers, alcohol and a wire coat hanger. Nothing short of setting up cameras in a woman’s bedroom to see if she is having sexual intercourse and then following her around everywhere to see if she aborts any resulting pregnancy would serve to totally banish abortion from society – and even that is assuming such methods could not be evaded. One need only imagine the entire bureaucracy and government machinery that devastates our liberty through its devotion to the war on terror being redirected to carry out a war on abortion. This impossibility of eradicating abortion, however noble we may believe the cause to be, must be borne in mind when we are discussing any possible response to the issue.

Having established this, we can now state that at the moment of conception, the matter which then constitutes a growing foetus has no legal rights whatsoever. In the first instance, the woman is entitled to regard the foetus as either a part of her body or an invasion of it. In either case she retains every legal right to expel the foetus from her body, regardless of consequences to the foetus. In other words, she may abort the pregnancy. Even such apparently brutal procedures as partial-birth abortion would be legally permitted in a libertarian society. Further, given our approach to children that we will explore below, the question of the viability of the foetus outside the womb would also be irrelevant as even a viable child would not possess any legal rights. How then, might abortion be reduced or controlled by those who deem it a moral affront in a libertarian society?

First, in a straightforward case of abortion in a marriage, the woman could have consented to the variance of her right to an abortion through the marriage contract, to the extent that it has any force in law. Such contracts may require the woman to agree that no foetus resulting from intercourse in the marriage will be aborted. Or, at the very least, they may specify that alternatives to abortion are exhausted first. Second, anyone who objects to abortion has no obligation to support or work for any person, institution or entity that either has had an abortion or participates in the act of abortions. Doctors and medical services are quite free to practice whichever particular medical ethics appeal to their customers. If surgeries and hospitals believe that a refusal to participate in abortions and the exclusion of such services from offer will attract a greater number of anti-abortion customers then they are free to do so. Indeed, if abortion is such a strongly felt issue then even property covenants in certain regions could require house buyers to promise that they never would seek, nor never have sought, an abortion. This would allow anti-abortionists to live in whole communities where abortion is non-existent. Third, anyone who objects to abortion is quite able to set up a charitable or even a profitable entity that will seek to support women in exhausting every other option before an abortion is sought. Indeed, in a free society, entities that provide a marketplace for adopted children would seek to find an alternative home for the child instead of aborting its life during pregnancy. As we stated above, as humans are conditioned to care for not only their children but also the children of other people it is likely that there will be a great many people who wish to adopt children. We will explore the implications of adoption and exchanging children between parents below. Fourth, excluding cases of rape, a plethora of unwanted pregnancies are the result of a wanton sexual liberalisation and a destruction of the family that has been wrought by the welfare state. As we have argued elsewhere, the removal of the government and the welfare state would likely to lead to a fairly conservative (with a small “c”) society where children were desired as a product of the marriage bed rather than as an accident of a brief fling, or in response to false financial incentives furnished by the government. All of these are, in sum, aspects that would serve to contract the number of abortions in a free society.

One possible objection to this line of thinking, particularly by those who ascribe rights to foetuses, is that it leaves the fate of the latter to the whim of the population at large – in other words, to whether or not people deem foetuses worthy of protection or whether they simply don’t care. However, this is also the case of the control of abortion under the government. Governments are elected by their adult voters and they will only seek to control abortion, probably through a one size fits all measure, if they happen to believe that a significant number of the population wish abortion to be so controlled. Indeed, abortion is only a political issue in the United States precisely because it is seen as a vote winner. Ultimately, the fate of foetuses is no better off under government than it would in a free society, and indeed it may be far worse off if the government permits unrestricted abortions even in the face of much popular resistance.


Having discussed abortion we are now in a position to turn to the question of the rights of children. These too, we must conclude, possess no rights whatsoever as they currently lack the quality of rational action which is the essential requirement for any being that benefits from rights. Being dispossessed of the right of self-ownership, it follows from this that the baby is, quite literally, the property of its parents as the homesteaders of the child, specifically the mother. The parents may, to all intents and purposes, presently treat the child as their property and enjoy full legal rights of ownership over it that any property holder would over some other good. It is also follows that the parents are responsible for all actions of the child that may physically invade the person or property of other adults, just as they would be if an inanimate piece of their property did the same. Without discussing this further for the moment, the important question raised is precisely when the child should be regarded as a self-owning being and therefore a beneficiary of all the rights of being a self-owner and the right to own private property, together with, of equal importance, the burden of the obligation to adhere to the non-aggression principle and become responsible for its own actions. Governments currently answer this issue in an arbitrary manner, usually having a series of one-size-fits-all milestones in which a child is legally permitted to be regarded as an adult. Hence, one may be able to drive a vehicle at sixteen; to consent to sexual intercourse sex at eighteen; to vote also at eighteen; to drink alcohol at twenty-one. The fact that these precise ages differ between jurisdictions demonstrates that they are nothing short of arbitrary. The age of sexual consent varies between twelve and eighteen, an enormous difference when expressed as a percentage of the latter. No doubt some of these ages will be influenced by culture or religion but it seems absurd to suggest that a Brazilian child can decide sexual matters for itself at fourteen whereas a Californian child must wait until the age of eighteen. Indeed, the entire approach of specific cut offs is entirely question begging. A person cannot carry out adult actions because he is a child – but what is a child? Simply, a person who cannot carry out adult actions. A person is classified as a child because he does not possess the capacity to make decisions rationally, as opposed to instinctively, to devote means towards end. It follows, therefore, that when a child does attempt to carry out such an action, it represents at least an aspiration towards adulthood and indicates that he is crossing over from the realm of childhood. To simply ban these actions because a person is a “child” is therefore nonsensical and indeed, simply produces in and of itself the very effect of a perpetuated childhood. In a free society, different children will reach different milestones at different ages, when they themselves see fit to accomplish them. Hence, one child may decide to get a job at thirteen, another at fifteen and a third at eighteen. One may decide he is mature enough to give sexual consent at fourteen, another at sixteen and another not until he is twenty. The choice to leave home may be made at a similar array of ages. In the event of a dispute between an adult and a child a libertarian court will have to decide on a case by case basis whether the action of the child that is the subject of the litigation represented a rational action to devote means towards ends or was simply an instinctive action. If it was the former then the child may be considered as an adult and all of the rights and obligations pertaining to adulthood will be on the shoulders of that child.

In response to the objection that such an approach may expose children to all manner of wanton temptations and attractions that may lead him/her down false or dangerous paths we should remember that it is government’s attempts to “protect” children that has served to artificially extend childhood for too long. Children are, these days, incarcerated in schools for what may amount to a quarter of their lives, and must endure the mind numbing boredom of tedious lessons in subjects in which they have little interest, dictated by the state’s approved benefactors of “learning”. Indeed, by making it excruciatingly difficult for children to find jobs or to move away from their parents in order to manage their own lives – in other words, to behave like an adult – merely encourages rebelliousness and the profound urge to express some kind of individual identity. One may suggest that the advent of the teenager as an distinct social, cultural and economic force appeared as a consequence of this repression, but it is also of little surprise that many such teenagers, as a result of this enforced prolongation of childhood, turn to delinquency and drug taking in order to provide at least some kind of interest in the lives they have to live. Would it not be far better to at least allow them the choice to take responsibility for their own lives at a time when they feel it is right? To have to earn their own income? To have to manage their own expenses? To have to find their own place to live? To have to wash their own clothes and cook their own food? Surely this would encourage more of the qualities of responsibility and hard work that we wish to see in our children rather than forcing them to sit through endless school. It should also be remembered, of course, that children once had to labour from even a very young age simply because if it were otherwise they would have starved. Today, we have the wealth available to ensure that this is not so. But there is no reason to prevent a child from working, earning a wage and looking after its own life should it wish to do so.

Returning now to the assertion that parents own their children, does this mean that parents could legally kill, beat, or sexually abuse their children? Most such cases are, as we mentioned above, perpetrated by a family member or a person who is close to the child. If the act is carried out by a non-owner of the child, then this is simply regarded as an affront against the property of the parent and the parent will retain all rights to sue the perpetrator in court – and, indeed, is likely to do so on the understanding that parents generally love their children more than any other people in their lives. When the act is carried out by a parent-owner, however, matters are a little different. After all, a cardinal rule of private property is that the owner has power of disposal over his property – in short, he can do what he likes with it. Let us explore the implications of this possibility and suggest ways in which the ownership of children by their parents would prevent the latter from abusing their children. In doing so, we must recall the fact that child abuse is a rare occurrence and that the vast majority of people love their children and wish to raise them well – even more so in a free society where there are no government induced financial incentives to breed. Further, as we suggested earlier, people also care about the welfare of children other than their own and would regard child abusers and killers as heinously immoral. In short, the key to controlling any abuse possible takes place not within the sanction of the law but within the general morality as to what people should and should not do with their property. Children, being a specific type of property, will be held in this general morality to require different treatment from mere objects that people may decide to do whatever they like with. It is this powerful force that will serve to diminish child abuse to all but the rarest of cases.

In elaborating this, we have to consider the likelihood that the lack of formal, legal rights of a child may not make much of a difference of outcome for the perpetrator. A libertarian society will not be one that is populated with government prisons funded by the taxpayer to permit inmates to enjoy a relatively comfortable, if restricted, lifestyle. Traditionally, punishments for breach of legal rights consisted of restitution – the forced removal of stolen property from the perpetrator – but also ostracism of the perpetrator from society. Ostracism was once a very powerful disincentive to commit crime, and would be even more so in a society marked by the division of labour where we all depend upon everyone else for the goods and services we desire. Having all or even most of the services provided to us by everyone else cut off would utterly devastating to anybody’s life. Imagine no bank wanting to take your money; no employer wanting to hire you; no landlord prepared to rent you a flat; no shop prepared to let you in to buy what you need. The effectiveness of ostracism can be underestimated in a society such as ours today in which moral relativism and degradation has pervaded to the extent that not only are such heinous abuses perpetrated more widely in the first place but the perpetrators would find sympathisers and active encouragers who would provide a nullification of ostracism. This is not likely to be so in the context of the stronger moral backbone that permeates a libertarian society and even for the family and friends of a perpetrator it may be a great shame to be seen to be supporting and aiding the latter. Normal crimes against adults will be countered by the sanction of courts that have determined the formal legal rights of the parties and would justify the use of force in extracting restitution. But there is no force whatsoever required in the imposition of ostracism and there need to be no legal blessing in order to ostracise someone. Therefore, simply because a strictly legal sanction is unavailable does not mean, in a case where abuse is sufficiently evidenced, that any person or institution that it is set up to prevent child abuse cannot actively publish this information, informing both the perpetrator’s friends, relatives, employers and suppliers of its occurrence and nature. Indeed, the most likely outcome is that such institutions will pay courts to adjudicate cases of child abuse as if the child possessed legal rights. The judgment would have no strictly legal standing but it would lend the prestige of impartial judgment by a reputable party to the facts and evidence of a particular case of abuse.

It is not necessary, for the purposes of this essay, to examine the details of precisely how ostracism would work, such a matter being more appropriate for an espousal of libertarian punishment theory. All we need to bear in mind here is that the de facto outcome to a perpetrator of physical abuse against a child is likely to be pretty much the same as a formal, legal judgment against a person who invaded the person or property of an adult. However, it is also likely that such a range of conditions may be demanded of the abusive parent before he/she is excluded entirely from mainstream society, such as either a regular monitoring of his/her behaviour with the child, or offering the child for adoption. In addition, where the case consists of one of abuse as opposed to murder the perpetrator bears the risk of the child himself revealing the abuse publically when he/she is older and a self-owner. Again, no strictly legal redress would be possible but ostracism may still result if the case was sufficiently evidenced. In any case, the abusive parent must always confront the possibility that the child will begin to assert his rights as a self-owner, and will leave the realm of being owned by his parents and will begin to own himself. In this instance, the adult would be liable for any invasive acts beyond the point where the child begins to assert his identity as a self-owner. Demonstration of self-ownership is likely to be encouraged by charitable and profitable institutions that are set up to actively detect cases of abuse, perhaps in partnership with schools and clubs where children frequent in order to create an awareness of the possibility of abuse and the fact that the child should not have to put up with it. Courts may rule that even evidence of acts of self-defence by the child are sufficient to qualify as self-ownership and thus render the perpetrating adult guilty of a physical invasion. Nevertheless this is likely to be a minor route compared to the power of ostracism encouraged by those charitable and profitable institutions that are set up to promote the strongly felt morality of preventing the abuse of children.

It should be clear from all of this that disciplinary acts such as spanking and other mild physical chastisements will be perfectly legal in a libertarian society. Opinion differs on whether such methods are appropriate for child rearing and some hard liners may choose to ostracise those who discipline their children in such ways, and that is their legitimate choice. Ultimately, each individual must decide for himself which levels of physical discipline constitute acceptable punishment for a child and which constitute abuse that is worthy of ostracism. What we can certainly see, however, is that a libertarian society will not be one in which children are ascribed full legal rights – which would result in an adult not being able to give a child a slap on the wrist for naughty behaviour – but neither is it one where, lacking such rights, there will be wantonly permitted child abuse. Rather it is the uniquely cherished morality of caring for and loving children that will ensure such perpetrators risk detection at every corner.

Finally, given that children are not the legal owners of themselves then there is no reason why they should not be exchanged for money between the birth parents and adoptive parents, with an adoption agency taking a small commission for its services. Two possible concerns surrounding the “trade” of children for money is that children may be bred specifically for exchange by cash-strapped parents, and may be “bought” by those who simply wish to abuse them. In response to the first concern, we must remember that outlawing monetary exchange of a given good, whether it be children, donor organs, sexual services, or whatever, does not make the underlying demands of each party vanish. It simply makes it more difficult for them to be fulfilled. If exchanging children for money is outlawed there will still be hordes of eager, childless couples who wish to adopt a child, sometimes desperately so. But the lack of monetary payment simply means that there is no willing supply. People will be less happy and less fulfilled because the government has banned them from pursuing a perfectly peaceful course of action. In any case, would it be so bad if parents conceived a child simply to offer it for sale to adoptive parents? A new life would be born into the world and would immediately find a warm and loving upbringing with people who wish to nurture and care for it. Surely that is an exceedingly good thing? Indeed, this is precisely what is achieved already with surrogacy arrangements on behalf of couples who cannot otherwise conceive a child on their own. In answer to the second concern, adoption agencies themselves would be keen to place children in the care of loving, not abusive, adoptive parents. It would suffer losses and drive away customers if it was to gain a reputation for carelessly placing children in the care of bad parents. Furthermore, it is in fact prevention of the monetary exchange the children that concentrates them in abusive homes, or homes where they cannot be cared for sufficiently. If the birth parents are abusive or negligent, or even just struggling to make ends meet with the number of children they have, prospective adoptive parents can bid to purchase those children and take them away to a better upbringing. No such solution exists if trade in children is outlawed and the children would be stuck in their situations. Moreover, as we mentioned earlier, the ability to offer a child for sale may result in the a decline in the number of abortions.


We must end this survey by reiterating that the problem of the rights of children and foetuses is not likely to be a pressing issue in a free society, nor, it is submitted, is the question the most important for libertarian theory. The very real problem for libertarians is the widespread and accepted incursion into the rights of adults and children alike the across the world by their governments and it is this that represents the gravest threat to liberty and prosperity. Libertarian theory is not, therefore, dependent upon its ability to ascribe legal rights to children and foetuses. Hopefully we have demonstrated here that powerful moral forces exist to protect children from harm and to promote their safe, warm and loving upbringing. There is, therefore, a strong case to be made for the assertion that libertarians should not spend intellectual labour on developing legal rights for children and risk compromising sound theory in order to do so. Rather, we should perhaps concentrate on bringing about a world in which these powerful moral forces have the freedom to protect children and foetuses without interference.

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