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Privatizing Marriage Is Unjust to Children

April 17th, 2012

by Jennifer Roback Morse

April 4, 2012 http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2012/04/5073

The primary business of the state is justice. Because children cannot be autonomous, adult society has an obligation in justice to provide institutional structures that protect their most basic interests.

I was once a libertarian activist. I was on the platform committee of the national libertarian party twice in the late seventies. I used to give introductory talks about libertarianism in people’s homes when I was a graduate student.

I would begin these talks by describing the problems that contracts between consenting adults could solve. Often someone would ask, “What about children?” I would always admit that children posed a tough problem for libertarianism, but that we would deal with it in a more advanced lesson. Somehow the time for that more advanced lesson never came.

It was only when I had children of my own that I came to see that something was deeply wrong with the way I had been avoiding the “tough questions” about children. In my personal experience of parenthood, I have had responsibility for profoundly neglected children. These children were permanently damaged by lack of relationship. I came to see that we libertarians have been starting our theorizing from the perspective of adults who are equipped to take care of themselves, make contracts, keep promises, defend their own property, and respect other people’s property.

But no one enters the world that way: we enter the world as helpless infants. In fact, if you think about it, infancy is the only truly universal human experience. We all have to pass through infancy to get anywhere else. Yet, we libertarians essentially explain the transition from infancy to adulthood by saying, “Then a miracle happens.”

Personally, I think we need to be more explicit about this step.

I decided to rethink the whole business of a free society, starting from the child’s point of view, with my 2001 book, Love and Economics: It Takes a Family to Raise a Village. The fact of childhood dependence raises a whole series of questions. How do we get from a position of helpless dependence and complete self-centeredness, to a position of independence and respect for others? Are our views of the child somehow related to the foundations of a free society? And, to ask a question that may sound like heresy to libertarian ears: Do the needs of children place legitimate demands and limitations on the behavior of adults?

I came to the conclusion that a free society needs adults who can control themselves, and who have consciences. A free society needs people who can use their freedom, without bothering other people too much. We need to respect the rights of others, keep our promises, and restrain ourselves from taking advantage of others.

We learn to do these things inside the family, by being in a relationship with our parents. We can see this by looking at attachment- disordered children and failure-to-thrive children from orphanages and foster care. These children have their material needs met, for food, clothing, and medical care. But they are not held, or loved, or looked at. They simply do not develop properly, without mothers and fathers taking personal care of them. Some of them never develop consciences. But a child without a conscience becomes a real problem: this is exactly the type of child who does whatever he can get away with. A free society can’t handle very many people like that, and still function.

In other words I asked, “Do the needs of society place constraints on how we treat children?” But even this analysis still views the child from society’s perspective. It is about time we look at it from the child’s point of view, and ask a different kind of question. What is owed to the child?

Children are entitled to a relationship with both of their parents. They are entitled to know who they are and where they came from. Therefore children have a legitimate interest in the stability of their parents’ union, since that is ordinarily how kids have relationships with both parents. If Mom and Dad are quarreling, or if they live on opposite sides of the country, the child’s connection with one or both of them is seriously impaired.

But children cannot defend their rights themselves. Nor is it adequate to intervene after the fact, after harm already has been done. Children’s relational and identity rights must be protected proactively.

Marriage is society’s institutional structure for protecting these legitimate rights and interests of children.

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