Posted by Bharat
As I’ve stated before on this blog, libertarianism (in its Rothbardian form) is a political philosophy with the non-aggression principle (NAP) as its foundation, stating that individuals may not aggress against or threaten aggression against other individuals and their justly attained property. Libertarians strictly deal with political questions such as when violence can be justly used and what sort of rights exist, but moral questions beyond that are set aside.
As such, libertarianism is a system of “negative (legal) obligations,” meaning that while it states you may not do X, and that violence may justly be used against you if you do in fact do X, there are no “positive (legal) obligations,” obligations of the form that you must do Y, and violence may justly be used against you if you do not do Y.
This inevitably creates substantial problems for libertarians, since most of us think there are at least some situations in which there are positive obligations of such degree or kind that violence can justly be used – either to make a person do something or punish him for not doing it. For example, wouldn’t a law obligating parents to feed their children be just? And if a child was starved to death through parental negligence, wouldn’t it be justified to use violence against the parent by throwing them in jail for murder? Common sense may say so, but libertarianism says otherwise. In a society with no positive legal obligations, parents could let their children starve to death. It’s true that parents could not directly attack or harm their children, but it seems parents could indirectly harm them by leaving them on their own.
Rothbard, describing the implications of the NAP, states:
Applying our theory to parents and children, this means that a parent does not have the right to aggress against his children, but also that the parent should not have a legal obligation to feed, clothe, or educate his children, since such obligations would entail positive acts coerced upon the parent and depriving the parent of his rights. The parent therefore may not murder or mutilate his child, and the law properly outlaws a parent from doing so. But the parent should have the legal right not to feed the child, i.e., to allow it to die. (The Ethics of Liberty, p. 100)
The problem with this is that it is so obviously the case that a parent starving his child is murder, and that laws against it and violence used to prohibit or punish it are just. Yet if a parent is thrown into jail for starving his child to death, the main complaint of the Rothbardian will not concern the clear and atrocious murder, but instead be about the (perfectly reasonable) fact that the parent was thrown in jail. And this is manifestly absurd.
Walter Block meanwhile has a slightly different view of what the NAP implies for the rights of children. In a paper discussing child abandonment, he makes the argument that the very process of homesteading (one of the ways people can come to own things justly, according to libertarians) carries with it certain implications because of its purpose in bringing previously unowned things into ownership. For example, “forestalling,” meaning to homestead a certain area of land, say, in the shape of a donut, and in the process make other land, on the inside, unownable (by refusing people through your own property), contravenes the entire point of homesteading, and is therefore illegitimate on libertarian grounds. Analogous would be the situation of a parent who, through the ownership of their house, forestalls the ownership of a child by not letting people through while the parent has given up ownership and decided to no longer feed it. In addition, to be logically consistent in giving up ownership of something, a person must enable others to homestead that object by making known the fact it is now unowned. Otherwise, as in the donut scenario, the process of homesteading is contravened. Therefore, the parent who gives up ownership of their child must both make it known they have given up ownership and allow anyone who wishes to homestead the child to do so. Anything else would be contrary to libertarian principles, according to Block.
While I do have some objections to this argument, what’s more important to note is that even according to Block, the problem is not fully solved. He states:
Would it ever be possible, under libertarian law, for a baby to be abandoned by its parents, for there to be no other adult willing to care and feed it, and the baby be relegated to death? Yes. However, this could occur only under the condition where the entire world in effect was notified of this homesteading opportunity, no roadblocks were placed against new adoptive parents taking over, but not a single solitary adult stepped forward to take on this responsibility. Since there are no positive obligations in the libertarian lexicon, it is logically possible for such a sad state of events to take place.
Giving up on demonstrating the conformity of libertarianism with our moral intuitions, Block is forced instead to argue that the chances of such an event happening is very low. However, while the terrible occurrence might be less likely to happen in a country such as the United States, it is far more plausible in third world nations where many people are in dire poverty. And it’s just not true that this could only occur without contradiction to libertarianism in situations where individuals were unwilling to take ownership of the baby. It could also occur if information could not spread very far or quickly enough.
For example, say a family of two parents and their one year old child somehow end up stranded on an island. The parents, not out of the lack of food or shelter or any other good reason, arbitrarily decide to stop feeding their child. There is no one in sight to yell for, and they make no attempt to inhibit someone from reaching their baby. Weeks later, the parents are discovered, but it’s too late for the child, who is found dead. According to Walter Block, it’s unjust for the saviors of the parents to throw them in a prison cell for their misdeeds.
It’s great that Block does attempt to make the libertarian philosophy more palatable by narrowing down the absurdity. Unfortunately, whether this attempt is successful or not does not matter. Even if it is successful, it simply is not enough: the leftovers are still unreasonable. Therefore, the libertarian principle is not universal.