Taking Children Seriously: The final phase of the Enlightenment

Transcript of a talk given at the World Libertarian Conference in London, Ontario, Canada, on 24th July, 2000.

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 2000

‘Taking Children Seriously’ is the name of an organisation I founded to promote the libertarian educational philosophy.

How can there be such a thing as the libertarian educational philosophy? Aren’t parents in a libertarian society free to educate their children in any way they wish?

Yes. But that doesn’t make every possible choice morally right, or best for the child, or compatible with the survival of the libertarian society. To satisfy these criteria, we must look more deeply than libertarian political philosophy—which is basically about how a society can run without the initiation of physical force.

In my opinion, what justifies both libertarian political philosophy and the education theory of Taking Children Seriously is reason—something which, I fear, has yet to emerge in the spheres of education and childrearing.

Many parents do a very good job of bringing their children up to believe in authority and obedience to dictators, whether parents or the state. Recently, I had the misfortune to be present when someone I know was subjected to a violent attack by his parent. I was very shaken and didn’t throw myself between my young friend and the angry adult, but I did manage to pluck up the courage (once I poked my head up from behind the sofa where I was hiding) to express the opinion that hitting children may not be the best way to deal with disagreements, and that it may not be entirely morally unobjectionable. Perhaps I was less diplomatic than the parent thought appropriate, because he accused me of trying to coerce him into changing his parenting practices, and then played the “children-are-property” card: “It’s none of your business how I raise my child.”

I couldn’t help wondering whether he would think it none of his business if I were to pull out my trusty Smith and Wesson .44 magnum and start shooting at his wife. Actually, they don’t get on very well so perhaps that’s a bad example.

At any rate, I’m glad that when a thug was trying to kill my sister in broad daylight on the streets of New York, the bystanders didn’t take that view but saved her life by intervening instead.

This parent went on to say that my friend needed to be taught a lesson. Under normal circumstances, since I think that such parents needs to learn better ideas about how children learn, I would have removed my belt and offered to teach him a lesson if that would help him learn, but in this case, he was bigger than me and, not living in a Libertarian paradise, I was unarmed.

When I mentioned my little exchange with the parent to a fellow Libertarian a few days later, he accused me of wanting to make children wards of the state and have Big Brother dictate to us in our own personal affairs. (A bit like parents do to their children then. Of course Big Brother is only in charge when the parents aren’t there to dictate to the children…)

Now I know this may sound very surprising to those of you who are, at this very moment, convinced that the International Society For Individual Liberty [now Liberty International] have made a big mistake in asking me to speak here, and that you are listening to a rabid statist who wants to take away parents’ rights (indeed, whose ideas make old Bill—Clinton—look like a positive paragon of Libertarian virtue) but if you have jumped to the conclusion that I want to take control of children out of the hands of parents and put it into Nanny—er, the nanny state, that is—you are very much mistaken.

If you were beating your wife for failing to have your socks sorted by colour, and I were to express the opinion that that may not be the best way to nurture your relationship and might conceivably be the wrong thing to do, would you jump to the conclusion that I was arguing that wives should be wards of the state? Not unless you are more Neanderthal than your average man in the street! You would understand that I was asserting the idea that wives are people whose control of their own lives should not be infringed.

Similarly, I certainly do not think that children should be controlled by the state instead of parents. I think that they should control their own lives, just as adults do. Indeed, I advocate raising children not just without beating them but without doing anything to them against their will.

I am not advocating violating parents’ legal rights. What I am saying is that parents are right to behave in one way which is within their legal rights, and wrong to behave in another way which is also within their legal rights.

But what does a particular theory of parenting, however right and however libertarian in the everyday sense of the word, have to do with Libertarianism, the political movement? I can tell from the incensed looks some of you are giving me that you remain of the opinion that I’m some sort of PC adult-hating leftist do-gooder with a touch too much arrogance for comfort, and that you are still asking Aren’t parents in a Libertarian society free to bring up their children any way they like?

I can see that some of you are already firmly convinced that Taking Children Seriously must be mistaken because according to Libertarian principles, as one of my Libertarian friends said to me, “If I want to turn off the TV until the kids have done their homework, I can. It’s my TV.”

But that is confusing right and wrong with legal and illegal.

Now you may say, as my friend did, a trifle testily I thought, “But why shouldn’t I confuse right and wrong with legal and illegal? I am free to do that aren’t I?”, and I’ll agree that there should be no legal impediment standing in your way here, but is it a good idea? Will it help you meet your preferences? Will it make you happy? Will it be right?

When parents say things like “I paid for the TV so I can switch it off whenever I like” they are making the mistake of assuming that you can deduce how to treat children—educational theory—from Libertarian principles.

I want to give you some examples to show that that is a grave mistake. I want to show that a functioning Libertarian society needs knowledge which isn’t in the principles of a Libertarian society.

First I’m going to give you an example to show that a Libertarian society won’t survive if they have the wrong educational policy, that is, one that doesn’t actually promote Libertarianism in the next generation.

Given that this example will show you a society which adheres completely to Libertarian principles but isn’t viable, I am hoping that you will be persuaded that Libertarian principles alone are not enough to make a society viable.

For a Libertarian society to survive and flourish, it must have a way of passing its ideas on to the next generation. Obviously, there’s nothing automatic about survival. I once had a particularly pleasant dream in which I and a bunch of frightfully agreeable Libertarians bought a beautiful tropical island, declared independence and were living in freedom for ever. When I was rudely awoken at the unearthly hour of nine o’clock in the morning by my neighbour having an argument with the gardener outside, I realised that not only am I not living in my perfect Libertarian society, it was tipping down with rain and I had to get to the Post Office to send off my tax return…

Anyway, imagine a group of Libertarians who somehow get political independence on an island where they create their own ideal Libertarian society.

According to the principles of Libertarianism, they’re now free to choose from a vast range of possible lifestyles. They can grow as much cannabis as they like without having to worry about being locked up—or waking up one morning to find that it has all been stolen. They’re free to spend all their money on their dependants instead of financing state sinecures. In particular, they’re entitled to bring their children up to be Libertarians. Or not to.

Suppose that these people happen to share a dislike for children, so they don’t have any. Suppose also that they don’t write books or allow outside visitors to view their society. Will their society thrive? Perhaps for a while, but one thing we can predict without knowing any more about it than that, is that because they’re not passing on their Libertarian ideas, their little society is not going to be the nucleus of the future Libertarian world. Unless they perfect the technology of immortality, they’ll eventually die out, and then the society they created, no matter how Libertarian, will no longer exist.

Now if you thought those Libertarians were strange, here’s an even stranger group: These people do have children, but they bring them all up as communists. This may be an unlikely scenario, but just consider the logic of it. There’s nothing in a Libertarian society to stop parents doing that, is there? They’re free to bring up their children in any way they like, aren’t they? It’s not illegal to be inconsistent is it? Not all the ways will be equally good for the children. Not all will be equally good for the society. Some of them will be perverse, some will be nasty, cruel, and morally wrong, despite being legal.

By the time these perverse Libertarians are dead (or cryonically suspended), and only the grown-up children remain, the children will have instituted a communist government. Or maybe they won’t have; maybe it’s not so easy to bring up children to be communists: the Eastern bloc’s educational systems tried very hard to do so, with only patchy success.

Closed cultures such as the Amish survive by suppressing all creativity and innovation but unless you’re part of such a culture it’s incredibly difficult to bring up children to believe any particular idea you intend them to believe (as many a parent will tell you).

You can’t calculate all the unintended effects of your actions, you can’t control every possible outside influence or calculate the effects of those outside influences (though some parents do try—you should see what lengths my neighbour goes to, to… but I digress). So maybe these children won’t end up being communists after all; but even the most optimistic among you will have to agree that it’s all too easy to bring up one’s children not to be Libertarians. Most parents already do that quite successfully.

So a Libertarian society, without violating any of the principles of Libertarianism, could ensure its own destruction, simply by choosing the wrong parenting ideas.

Now, you may be thinking that although what I’ve described is a logical possibility, it’s a little farfetched. Why on earth should parents who believe in liberty choose to raise their children in such a way as to decrease their liberty—and to end up fearing and hating it as non-Libertarians do?

Well, in a way, I think that is just what you are doing (well, most of you anyway), or are planning to do when you become parents. Most parents do this. It isn’t what you intend, but neither do most left-wingers intend to ruin the economy, do they?

In a Libertarian society, it’s legal to raise your children as communists—or Democrats or Republicans—or to have all sorts of debilitating hang-ups, of which the fear of freedom is a common example, or to make them unhappy by inflicting every sort of psychological cruelty. Perfectly legal. Isn’t it?

I advocate raising children without doing anything to them against their will or making them do anything against their will. I hope you are already beginning to see why I have little patience with libertarians who object to this by citing the parents’ legal rights. Yes, switching off the TV until they have done their homework should be legal. But that does not make it harmless, nor does it make it any less vicious, nasty or morally wrong.

There is a more general reason Libertarians need to think about more than just a constitution or set of laws that determine when violence is and isn’t legitimate:

Installing the right laws cannot by itself guarantee that you will get a society that lives by those laws. That requires knowledge. This is the second link I want to point out between education theory and Libertarian political theory.

Let me give an example:

There are two kinds of country which have the US constitution. There are those which, after they have instituted the United States Constitution, get an open society in which all the constitutionally-protected human rights are respected (such as in the US itself), and there are those which just ignore the constitution. Merely introducing a Libertarian constitution would not ensure that liberty was actually respected.

(If you’re thinking that the US isn’t an example of a country in which all the constitutionally-protected human rights are actually respected, and that in fact the US constitution is often violated, that just makes my point more strongly. If the United States of America isn’t a place where the rights laid down in the US Constitution are respected, what makes you think that, after it’s replaced by a new Libertarian Constitution, whether written or unwritten, the resulting society will respect that constitution?)

In 1989, Nigeria instituted a constitution strikingly similar to that of the US. But has it produced a society like the US in terms of rights being respected? Not exactly. Not unless you’re being very uncharitable to the US.

What’s the difference? Would Nigeria become a Libertarian society if it were lucky enough to have a constitution designed for it by the good people at [Liberty International]? No. If anything, adopting a Libertarian constitution would result in even more of a mess.

When the US constitution was adopted in America, most people in the society (or at least the people who counted) were intellectually convinced that this constitution was right; but the overwhelming majority of Nigerians would be convinced that the Libertarian constitution was not for them. Much as it would be in their interests to adopt a libertarian constitution, the idea is a non-starter. And if it were somehow implemented, people simply wouldn’t act that way. The Nigerians couldn’t even behave in accordance with the US constitution, let alone a better one.

So having the right constitution or laws alone will not get you a Libertarian society. You need the right sort of people: you need people with the right ideas.

Now—here is a third way in which education theory and Libertarian political theory are linked:

Some Libertarians believe that children have rights, perhaps the same rights as adults. An intermediate position is that children have no rights other than to leave home and find new parents. At the other end of the spectrum are Libertarians who believe that children are, more or less, property, because the parents buy the food which makes up the molecules of their bodies. These different versions of Libertarian ideas would have different implications for how parents would be allowed to educate their children, even in a Libertarian society—even in a Libertarian-anarchist society.

For instance, at this moment there are thousands of children all over the country who want to leave home (or to leave school, or refuse consent to medical procedures and so on), and in many of those cases the parents are violently overriding their wishes, with the authority and assistance of the state as well as of most bystanders on whose assistance the parents choose to call. Now imagine that an anarcho-capitalist revolution is achieved. What will happen next?

Some of the anarcho-capitalists will regard all that parental violence as justified. Others will regard it as the epitome of injustice.

The two kinds of people will think it legitimate to assist violently whichever side they think is in the right.

If a civil war ensues—this isn’t so farfetched: something very similar happened in regard to slaves, following an earlier revolution for liberty—it will be because although the individuals in that society agreed that violence is legitimate only in self-defence—they disagreed about which entities have a ‘self’ in the appropriate sense.

Now you may wish that everyone agreed with your particular conception of Libertarianism. But although you may well have stumbled upon the ultimate truth about what a Libertarian society should be like, you have to admit you’ve failed to hit upon the ultimate truth about how to propagate that idea to each other—let alone to the next generation.

What we are discussing here is a kind of knowledge. This knowledge is philosophical, it is epistemological, it is psychological. It is knowledge that is necessary for the functioning of a Libertarian society, but it can’t be derived from Libertarian principles.

It’s the knowledge of what sort of citizen would make a society which is nominally Libertarian actually function as such. That includes knowledge in the mind of such a citizen.

Does it include the knowledge of how to make such a citizen? Not exactly. I don’t believe it’s either moral or rational to bring up children to propagate a certain political view. Such a thing should be anathema to any advocate of liberty, and in my opinion, to any decent parent too.

What I am trying to illustrate with these examples—the libertarian society that dies after a generation; the nominally libertarian society imposed on people with non-libertarian ideas; the civil war about children’s rights—is that a functioning Libertarian society will depend on the existence of knowledge that cannot be obtained from Libertarian principles alone.

To discover such knowledge we must look to what underlies those principles themselves.

In my opinion, their underlying justification is epistemology. Applied epistemology is otherwise known as education theory.

It is important to seek an education theory that grows from the same roots as Libertarianism, but it is a colossal mistake to try to derive educational theory from Libertarianism.

The main reason I’m a libertarian is that I believe that human beings are fallible—that the powerful, in particular, are fallible and can’t be trusted to be right. Not kings, not bureaucrats—and not parents or teachers either.

So I agree with Karl Popper that the question isn’t ‘who should rule?’ but ‘how can we limit the harm they do?’

In education theory, the ‘who should rule?’ debate is still alive and virtually unchallenged. Should it be parents? Teachers? School boards? The government? The UN…? (A better answer would of course be me.)

And as always when you start with that question, the answer is tyranny. The real question is: how can institutions be set up within a family in such a way that no one—including the children—is ruled. So that differences of opinion can be resolved, not only without the initiation or threat of force (which is as far as Libertarian theory can possibly take us), but without force at all: by reason, which implies by consent.

Libertarians today differ about many things—I have already mentioned children’s rights—but also whether, say, intellectual property is really property, whether abortion is murder or not, and so on. What we really want, and the whole point of a Libertarian society, and of a free society in general as I see it, is not to entrench particular answers to such questions, but to allow bad answers to be replaced by better ones. A fixed rule, such as ‘the parent is always right’ is inherently irrational and will systematically pick the wrong answer. Family institutions that enforce such a rule are irrational.

As good libertarians and good parents, we should want our children to be able to correct our errors. And by “able”, we should mean not just legally able (that is to say, they won’t be thrown in prison or punished by their parents if they try) but psychologically able to, which means that they won’t feel fear or guilt or the weight of parental disapproval if they try.

What we need—and what Taking Children Seriously provides—is a completely different rhythm of family life—as different as an open society is from a paternalistic dictatorship.

To understand Libertarianism you have to understand that living in liberty isn’t just a pleasant experience, like eating raspberries. Liberty isn’t just a good, it’s a condition for goods to be created.

Similarly, tyranny—the initiation of force—isn’t just an unpleasant experience, like having a large teganaria giganiticus charging at your bare feet from across the room (if you hate spiders, that is).

As soon as you do think of it in that subjective way, you miss the point, and lay yourself open to wicked arguments about tradeoffs—“So, Mr Irresponsible Libertarian, how many children are you willing to see die of heroin poisoning or in gun accidents, just to give you the nice warm feeling of living in liberty?”

It isn’t that ‘some people hate spiders, some people hate taxes’. Those are not the same kind of thing. The Libertarians’ hatred of taxation is structurally different. John Gray, who wrote that deplorably defeatist book Liberalisms, disagrees, but he is mistaken. 

There is something more than personal preferences underlying the liberalisms, in particular Libertarianism, and it does make sense, and it’s reason.

The reason for the Libertarian hatred of taxation is that the institution of taxation is, in an extended sense, irrational. Not necessarily in the narrow sense that the word “rational” has historically been used, but in the most general sense: There are patterns of thinking that can work (that is, create the knowledge needed to solve the problems and meet the preferences of the person doing the thinking), and patterns that can’t work (except by unlikely coincidence). For instance, logical deduction can work when trying to solve a mathematical problem, but, as generations of exam-takers have found, prayer cannot. Scientific reasoning can work when trying to understand the physical world, but logical deduction in the absence of experimentation cannot, and nor can prayer.

Rationalism is the theory that the patterns of thinking that can work are the rational ones—where the exact criterion for a process being ‘rational’ depends on which species of rationalism one adopts. The one appropriate to Taking Children Seriously is the same as the one that I believe is appropriate to the liberalisms in general and to Libertarianism in particular: it is what is known as ‘critical rationalism’, but with the proviso that we include unconscious and inexplicit knowledge and thought uniformly in our scheme of things. (Thus a rational process need not rely on verbal reasoning.) As fallibilists, we don’t expect there to be a closed definition of ‘rational’: the exact criteria are always under critical review.

To be ‘rational’ in the fallibilist, critical-rationalist sense, a process has to be truth-seeking, evolutionary, open to new ideas and to criticism of old ones, avoid entrenchment of particular ideas, judge ideas according to content rather than source … and so on.

In science, these criteria lead to Popper’s conclusion that theories about measurable phenomena must be experimentally testable if progress is to be possible. In political theory, they lead to Libertarianism. In psychology and education theory, they lead to Taking Children Seriously.

The places where reason has gained substantial ground over the last few hundred years, are specifically, in the areas of human rights, and in the economy, and in science. If we call this the Enlightenment in the public sphere, Taking Children Seriously is about extending the Enlightenment into the private sphere, and specifically into the sphere of parenting.

Taking Children Seriously asks, applying the same philosophical principles as underlie the Enlightenment generally, what sort of institutions within the family promote the growth of knowledge in the same sense that the external laws of a Libertarian society promote the growth of knowledge in the society as a whole, and the rules of the scientific community promote the growth of scientific knowledge.

You can define a Libertarian society as one in which political issues are decided by reason rather than force or blind obedience to tradition.

In a non-Libertarian society, if I earn a hundred pounds, the criterion of choosing how that should be spent isn’t unanimous agreement between all the parties, it’s voting, and ultimately the use of police power to take the money from me against my will; whereas in a Libertarian society, every possible use of the money I earn has to have my consent. So in society at large, the alternative to consent is force.

But in human relationships the absence of consent doesn’t necessarily amount to force. It’s a wider class of behaviours, which includes force: there are many patterns of interaction between people in close relationships that don’t resolve issues by reason at all, yet don’t involve force either.

When a parent gives Little Billy a telling off, she may use no physical force and no overt threat of force, but it is still not reason. Despite this being a ‘mere’ exercise of the parent’s freedom of speech, little Billy does not consent to it. Even while he is having the flow of ideas initiated in his mind by the telling-off, he simultaneously wishes he were not.

When a parent gives Sally a choice between, on the one hand, taking out the rubbish and having dinner, and on the other hand, not getting any dinner, she is acting in such a way to put Sally into the psychological state of enacting one theory while one or more conflicting theories remain active in her mind. She is causing Sally to act literally against her will. Sally doesn’t want to take out the rubbish but fear of not getting any dinner effectively forces her to do so.

Even making disappointed faces at your children to shame them into complying works in the same way, psychologically, instead of causing a genuine, free change of mind.

Some Libertarians I know force their children to eat everything on their plate—presumably not on the basis that there are starving children in Africa—no doubt they have some other pseudo-justification for this viciously immoral and harmful practice—but the psychological effect upon the child is the same either way.

It may not be state tyranny, but if you are being controlled by someone else, it feels bad whether it is the state or your parent. And in both cases, life would be better for all if reason were applied instead of force.

Reason also requires seeking truth, because if you are not seeking truth, you are unlikely to find it. It is because rational processes seek a common and objective truth that they tend to reach agreement, and it is this tendency that powers the continual discovery of ‘common preferences’ that replaces the command structure of conventional education and parenting.

Seeking the truth requires remaining open to criticism and change, because otherwise you will fail to drop false theories even when better ones are to hand. Failing to drop refuted theories is incompatible with reason. But that is exactly what a child is required to do, when he is coerced into learning something against his will. He prefers one activity; perforce he engages in another. This is irrational. And because it is irrational, it fails to create knowledge. Rote learning isn’t knowledge in the true sense, merely the semblance of knowledge, just as inflated money is the semblance of wealth.

Judging ideas by their source rather than their content is incompatible with reason—so ‘mother knows best’, and ‘because I say so’ are the archetypes of irrational child-rearing just as much as using the parent’s physical strength to settle a dispute would be.

So what Taking Children Seriously asks is of a piece with what Libertarianism asks in regard to politics and economics, namely: what ‘rules of engagement’ in interpersonal relationships have the property that rival ideas will be judged by reason (and can therefore approach the truth)? This is what leads us to Taking Children Seriously educational theory, whose most striking feature, especially to the newcomer, is the idea that it is desirable and possible to bring up children without doing things to them against their will.

Just as an economic transaction takes place only with the unanimous consent of all parties, so Taking Children Seriously family life seeks the unanimous consent of the family members—including the children.

The Taking Children Seriously project is the construction of institutions within the family which do for the growth of knowledge there what the public institutions of capitalism, common law and so on do for the growth of wealth, science and other knowledge that involves the cooperation of strangers. So Taking Children Seriously is the final, most difficult, but also the most valuable, stage of the Enlightenment.

The future of liberty is Taking Children Seriously. 

See also:

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 2000, ‘Taking Children Seriously: The Final Phase of The Enlightenment’, talk given at the World Libertarian Conference in London, Ontario, 24th July, 2000, https://fitz-claridge.com/taking-children-seriously-the-final-phase-of-the-enlightenment/