Libertarianism and the starving child


“What should we do about the kids?”

It’s not just a question parents discuss when they need a babysitter, it’s also a question asked of libertarianism.  Since libertarianism often deals with transactions and associations, i.e. activities requiring consent, it’s usually fairly straightforward when the subjects are adults.  But what happens when children are the subjects?  A child is less likely to be able to make not only decisions for himself but also to take the actions necessary for basic survival the younger he is.

So you’ve explained libertarianism and the Non-Aggression Principle to someone and they understand that it’s wrong to threaten or commit violence against another peaceful individual.  They understand that it is wrong to steal from one person to feed another.  But then they ask, “Is it okay to allow your child to starve?  There doesn’t seem to be any aggression there, so it must be permissible under libertarianism.”

This is one of the issues brought up during a recent Tom Woods Show episode with Julie Borowski.

It does not appear that allowing your child to starve violates the Non-Aggression Principle, but it important to understand that the Non-Aggression Principle is not axiomatic.  We can think of a number of lifeboat scenarios that show that the Non-Aggression Principle is not the best solution to solve a problem.  This of course does not render it incorrect, only that it is incomplete.

Alien NAP DilemmaA more complete—dare I say axiomatic—principle is one borrowed from Michael Huemer, author of The Problem of Political Authority: “people have the prima facie right to live free from harmful coercion.”  In other words, you should not commit violence against someone unless you have a very good reason to.  A “very good reason” is that the violence would prevent a more serious harm and could be, for example, to protect yourself or someone else from dying.  In a literal lifeboat scenario, you would be justified in coercing someone who refused to bail water (this is not an act of aggression on your lifeboat partner’s part) if your life depended on it.  Though justified, the use of aggression would have to be a last resort, so if there were a reasonable expectation that peaceful means could work, those peaceful means must be used.

In practice, it would presumably be quite rare for aggression like this to be justified.  This is why it takes very specific hypothetical scenarios to attempt to “break” the libertarian logic.  But the question of starving a child is a good one.  There is no direct aggression against the child, but intentionally not feeding a child so that he dies is clearly wrong.  What should be done?

If you cannot convince the parents to feed and take care of the child, you would be justified in taking the child from them.  This unquestionably is a violation of the parents, but the child would die if it did not happen.  This is a case where the life of the child supersedes the prima facie rights of the parents.  Given this dichotomy of the child dies or the child does not die, how could the case be made that the child dying is the best outcome?

Since a child cannot feed himself, that agency is transferred onto the caretakers, which is normally the parents, but in this case is the self-appointed surrogate.  The case could be made that since the parents are not fulfilling their obligations to the child then they are forfeiting their roles as parents.  If the parents attempt to recover their child, in order to interfere with the feeding of the child, then they would actually be taking an active role in killing the child.  Michael Huemer discusses this idea in his essay “Is There a Right to Immigrate”:

Marvin is in desperate need of food. Perhaps someone has stolen his food, or perhaps a natural disaster destroyed his crops; whatever the reason, Marvin is in danger of starvation. Fortunately, he has a plan to remedy the problem: he will walk to the local marketplace, where he will buy bread. Assume that in the absence of outside interference, this plan would succeed: the marketplace is open, and there are people there who are willing to trade food to Marvin in exchange for something he has. Another individual, Sam, is aware of all this and is watching Marvin. For some reason, Sam decides to detain Marvin on his way to the marketplace, forcibly preventing him from reaching it. As a result, Marvin returns home empty-handed, where he dies of starvation.

What is the proper assessment of Sam’s action? Did Sam harm Marvin? Did he violate Marvin’s rights? Was Sam’s action wrong?

It seems to me that there are clear answers to these questions. Sam’s behavior in this scenario was both extremely harmful to Marvin and a severe violation of Marvin’s rights. Indeed, if Marvin’s death was reasonably foreseeable, then Sam’s act was an act of murder. Unless there obtained some unusual circumstances not mentioned in the preceding description, Sam’s behavior was extremely wrong.

If it is indeed wrong to prevent Marvin from eating, who is presumably an adult with the full ability to take care of himself, then it must also be wrong to prevent a child from eating who does not have the ability to take care of himself by no fault of his own.

As more support to the idea that aggression is sometimes permissible when dealing with children, also consider that taking the child from his parents could also be considered an act of aggression against the child.  This may appear to be a surprising position for a libertarian to take, but it is a universally accepted one.  Parents do it constantly and it is normal and good.  When it is time for a young child to go to bed, the parent will often pick the child up and put him into his bed.  The child may want to stay up and continue to play, so he will cry and physically put up a struggle.  Physically moving someone when they do not want to be moved is an act of violence and is therefore a violation of the Non-Aggression Principle, but no one would suggest that putting your child to bed is wrong (this should go without saying, but this is not a justification for striking a child).

Does this mean that anyone can or should take children away from their parents any time they might think something is wrong?  Of course it does not.  The ethical health of the community will play an important role in determining when it is justified.  If you take a child from his parents when his wellbeing is legitimately in harm’s way, no rational person would band the community together to break your door down and recover the child.  Likewise if you were not justified in taking the child, the community would take the side of the parents and take the appropriate actions to return the child to his parents.

It is important to remember that the use of aggression in this specific situation only justifies aggression in this specific situation.  It does not justify the use of aggression in order to build a road or arm a military.  The circumstances are different and should be treated on an individual basis.  Furthermore, if someone were to reject the argument here and say this is insufficient for dealing with the issues of children, it would be incorrect to reject libertarianism as a whole.  Libertarianism does not claim to be able to create a perfect society; it claims that peace and prosperity will be maximized without the use of institutionalized violence.

It is not as though these issues with children would suddenly arise if the government were to disappear.  While I am not sure I’ve ever heard of a story of a parent allowing their child to starve to death, there have been numerous cases where parents have refused basic medical treatment for their children which caused them to die.  The state did not prevent the deaths.  Rejecting libertarianism because it does not (at least in your view) solve a problem that is also currently not solved is silly.

Libertarianism should not and does not reject basic ethical norms of humanity.  A robotic approach to the Non-Aggression Principle may lead a libertarian to accept that it is permissible to allow a child to starve, but a further inspection of obligations and prima facie rights shows that this is not the case.  Rest easy, libertarianism won’t kill kids.