The NAP and children

How should libertarian parents and others behave toward children? Does the NAP apply to children? Should it?

The NAP (Non Aggression Principle) is foremost in some formulations of libertarianism. It is supposed to govern most or all interactions among civilized people. It might be an expected characteristic of civilized behavior: don’t initiate force against others; don’t take their stuff.

Folks usually think of themselves as mild, peaceful people, but there are usually two profound exceptions which apply to their version of the NAP: it does not apply to government agents, who violate the NAP almost at will; and it does not benefit children, who bear the brunt of many aggressive acts, from mandatory education, to having their property taken, to corporal punishments. Libertarians would (or should) say that these are unreasonable and immoral exemptions to the NAP.

Let’s begin with compulsory education: you must attend school for certain hours during certain years, or else. Mandatory anything is a violation of the NAP; it restricts one’s freedom to engage in peaceful and honest conduct, which should be limited only where one’s conduct affects the equal liberty of others; one’s right to swing one’s fist ends at the nose of another.

If such restrictions of liberty are justifiable at all in a libertarian society, it would be as a consequence of having engaged in criminal activity, or of a plausible threat of “harm to oneself” – such as are used to justify involuntary admittance to a psychiatric ward. It’s possible to imagine a libertarian society which does neither of these things; it is not possible to imagine a libertarian society which compels non-criminals to be in certain places at certain times, therein to be indoctrinated with materials chosen by others.

If none of us are “born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately,” how is it that this freedom begins not at birth, but only at age 18?

Consequentialists may cry “But how will children be educated?” Is this not a form of the “Who will pick the cotton” argument against the abolition of slavery? Are children to be so readily sacrificed on the altar of expediency? If we can snatch the better part of twelve years from their lives, what other indignities must they suffer?

But to speak in the language of consequentialism: is learning so unattractive that it must be forced upon children? Is it not exceedingly rare for children to refuse to learn to walk, to talk, to feed themselves, until they are coerced to do so? How is it that children thrive on learning for their first five years or so, but dread school, and often refuse to learn after entry to school?

The difference between learning and schooling is that the latter is not consensual. The lack of consent leads to a troubling consequence: when the child is not a voluntary participant, learning happens not at all, or very slowly and imperfectly. Even the most staunch of consequentialists should be troubled; the very act of compulsion, for many children, leads to horrible consequences which argue strongly against the efficacy of compulsory education.

It is wiser and more practical to follow the child’s passions. The pursuit of passion has led to many men and women of genius; to the Edisons and Newtons and Curies of this world. Furthermore, if you must rely upon consequential evidence rather than moral guides, consider the evidence compiled by unschoolers and by Democratic Free Schools, which Peter Gray refers to here.

A second way in which the NAP seldom applies to children is that their liberty and property are often confiscated. A child who fails to do homework, or to mind his language, or any of numerous other made-up “laws,” often loses access to phones, games, books, and so forth; is often “grounded,” which is a form of imprisonment or arrest; may even be violently attacked.

Libertarian theories of punishment ordinarily allow such violations of liberty only as a consequence of an act of aggression; in a child’s life, actions as trivial as the utterance of a “bad word,” or the bad mood of parents, may lead to punishments which would seem utterly unreasonable were they applied to any adult.

Again the consequentialist speaks: “Wouldn’t an undisciplined child be a holy terror, a narcissistic threat to good order?”

Why, exactly? Not abusing one’s children need not lead to their becoming abusive. They, too, are expected to adhere to the NAP, to respect the property and person of others around them. I close with a quote by Andre Stern, a lifelong unschooler:

“Learning takes place because of the interest we have for things; self-discipline arises from the pleasure one has from doing these things. We believe, wrongly, that discipline is a framework imposed from the outside, that it requires a system that forces the child to do something to practice. However, the natural discipline comes from the child, from within. It grows out of pleasure and curiosity.”

Watch any child who is passionate about something, and you will observe self-discipline: focused attention, action, and learning.

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