Child protection in a free society

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    I’m a libertarian (anarcho-capitalist) and believe in the non-aggression principle and property rights. However there’s one aspect of a stateless society i feel uncomfortable with, the protection of children.
    Murray Rothbard argues that in a libertarian society, only victims of a crime could take the respective criminal to court. (hence, there would cease to be victimless crimes).
    But children are not capable of taking their parents to court (e.g. in the case of physical abuse)… As a neighbor I could not accuse the respective parents of a violation of the non-aggression principle (since I’m not the victim). I know that the parents might face social ostracism but is there no legal way to do justice to them?

    Rothbard also says that parents have no legal obligation to keep their children alive. While I understand his position and tend to agree with him, I still feel uncomfortable with it.

    How would a free society (apart from the baby market) deal with child welfare, abuse and protection?


    1. Parents have the most pressing interest in the wellbeing of a child.
    2. Grandparents have the 2nd most pressing interest in the wellbeing of a child.
    3. Extended family after that, then family friends.

    A free society which persisted would depend on intergenerational obligations, culture, and shaming. Exactly what constitutes abuse would doubtless vary accordingly.


    While #1 is generally true, it’s not true in all cases, or at least depends upon how the parents in question define “pressing interest.” Parental child abuse is hardly unknown, and the sort of parents who are prone to abuse their children will not pay a protection agency to enforce the child’s claims against themselves (and children will lack the resources and, being minors, the ability to contract with a protection agency themselves).

    Your #2 ignores the original premise – even if the grandparents learn of child abuse, they are not themselves the victims. As OP wrote, under Rothbardian anarchism “ only victims of a crime could take the respective criminal to court” – grandparents aren’t the victims of the abuse of minor children, neither are third parties who might witness it, school teachers who notice bruises or other signs of abuse, doctors who see signs of child rape, and the like.

    Look, I’m certainly not going to hold up today’s child protection as a model of excellence (it misses much real abuse, and often persecutes people who have committed no real abuse). But here is something where IMO OP has a point – it’s not even an instance where “well, given how bad things are under the current system, we should at least give AnarchoCapitalism a try before saying it would be worse” – it is not even theoretically better in this instance.*

    *I focused on parental abuse because I do think an AnarchoCapitalist society could devise a means of allowing the parents to be a child’s proxy – while rejecting those who sometimes write as if the parents hold their children as a sort of property or homestead them somehow. I’m in agreement with Stephan Kinsella that this is an odious doctrine. But it would seem there is no way, consistent with the Rothbardian doctrine mentioned above, that the AnarchoCapitalist society could protect children from abuse by their parents. I’ve seen it written – for example Mr. Kinsella expressed this to me – that while the general rule would be parents would be entrusted to be the proxies of their children, if they were found to be abusing or neglecting them sufficiently, that prerogative could be reassigned to another. However, the gap in this remains that such a third party would not have standing to bring a suit to have the custody over the children reassigned from the parents to themselves, because that third party would not be the victim. Thus they could not, consistent with the Rothbardian principle that only a victim (or, extended, only the victim’s existing legal proxy) can bring the victimizer to court – they would be bringing a case to court to gain the standing they do not have, and the case would have to be dismissed. Or the Rothbardian principle violated, but to violate it is to effectively reject it.

    This is one of a couple reasons why I’m not an AnarchoCapitalist (though I do want to give a hat tip to Stephan Kinsella for giving me some very thoughtful and considered replies when I contacted him on this issue, which made my more sympathetic to at least his version of how children would be treated & protected in a Rothbarian society. But I still found it problematic).


    I once asked this question of Dr. Woods in an online chat and he referred me to some material written by Walter Block which I haven’t had the chance to read yet, so you may want to search that out for yourself.

    In any case, it is important to remember that in an AnCap society, your reputation would be incredibly valuable, and “community standards” would still exist, despite not being legally enforceable in a way that we recognize today. In other words, most people find child abuse abhorrent and intolerable behavior, and it is entirely possible (and I would say quite likely) that most individuals in a community would refuse to do business with someone who is known to brutally beat their children. Such a person would likely pay a hefty penalty for their behavior, not in the current sense of “people will grab you and lock you in a cage” but in a more subtle sense of “it will be harder for you to get a job” or “you might not be able to purchase goods and services you desire.”

    Also, let’s not pretend that “it protects children” is somehow an inherent quality of government. Throughout human history there have been many far more restrictive/oppressive/comprehensive governments that have done no such thing. In some places in the world, this is still the case.


    #1 isn’t meant to _rule out_ child abuse. Perfection not being an option we have to look at incentives over the long term. Bureaucrats have no incentive to care about any particular child. In fact, state child protective services are notoriously bad at it. The state destroys the social structures of support and discipline and encourage uncivilized behavior.
    #2 grand parents may not be able to “press charges” but that is hardly the only way to solve a problem. Because it is outside of a legal system doesn’t mean it violates the assumptions.


    “Perfection not being an option” is one thing but as I demonstrated Rothbard’s principle offers no protection whatsoever for children against child abuse, which is hardly “a minor detail we can safely ignore.”

    In my reply I also granted that current child protective laws and services are wretched. It’s not a refutation to repeat that. Until AnarchoLibertarians treat this with the significant attention it deserves (and as I said I give credit to Stephan Kinsella for at least thinking fairly deeply and candidly on it, though ultimately I thought his solution was unsatisfactory), their position is and should be unconvincing.

    Which is the same with your #2: one might use that same #2 to argue that there should be no protective services or courts in an AnarchoCapitalist society whatsoever because “that is hardly the only way to solve a problem.” We do not do that with respect to other people (besides children), because we recognize that in a sufficient number of cases these “other way[s] to solve a problem” will prove insufficient, so protective agencies and courts are and ought to remain the ultimate recourse for redress.

    This applies likewise to the “reputation is a sufficient guard against abuse” argument – most (though not all) parental child abuse takes place in private. But even when it doesn’t – child abuse is considered especially heinous in today’s society. Even today’s criminals look at child abusers with scorn. Child abusers are one of the few classes of criminals who are registered and their identities publicly recorded in a systematic way (something that would not happen in the version of an AnCap society you describe, since they would not be tried. I suppose people could create vigilante lists of suspected child abusers, with all the pitfalls that would have). Abuse continues.

    I’m sorry, the handwave won’t do here; at least not with me. Especially since – and I wanted to be charitable, but some of the things Rothbard himself wrote on this, while frank, and followed as logical conclusions from his premises, was odious. I respect his candor (especially since he seems to have been a very decent man; I never met him, obviously, but he seems to have been), and so far those who have continued to develop his work have not found a good way to fix this consistent with the logic of his theory. We all know that in practice no theory will be implemented perfectly but when the theory contains a huge gaping hole (if anything, adults, who have greater resources and recourses than children, could better do without courts than children could), it’s proper to point out that the theory is fundamentally flawed and unimplementable as-is.

    So, sorry; this is a case where it simply won’t do to contrast the existing situation with what one imagines it might be in an AnarchoCapitalist society, until AnCap theory itself can provide protection to children consistent with its own internal principles as strong as it provides to every other individual whose liberty it recognizes ought to be respected, with ultimate recourse to legal sanction if necessary.

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