What About Children and Animals in a Free Society?

A response to Julie Borowski’s interview with Tom Woods episode 711.

Over and over again the same issues come up: What about children? What about animals? In the current state, governments aim to protect both groups from abuse and neglect. And so the question is raised that if the state were abolished, or if it conformed more strictly to Liberal or libertarian principles, what would happen to these protections?

Let’s tackle animals first. It’s said that libertarianism allows awful and terrible things to take place in regards to animals (e.g., cock or dog fighting). As an Austrian economist, I’ve got to point out that subjective values are inserted into each judgment regarding humane treatment of, or cruelty, towards an animal. Personally, I have no problem with cock fighting. My logic is that chickens have a bean-sized brain, are largely kept by humans as a food source already, and their keepers’ “entertainment” may be just as valuable as a chicken’s well-being when all is said and done.  Dog fighting is with mammalian animals who, by and large, are domesticated and supposedly man’s best friend. They are different animals who have always served different purposes.

Rodeo can be a hot topic of animal “rights”. There are leftists on the West Coast who would outlaw rodeos if they had the chance. Now, I think that’s nuts, but it’s true that in a classically presented rodeo sometimes animals are unintentionally injured. Yet the goal is not to injure an animal for entertainment. If you ever observe some of the events in a Mexican rodeo, such as horse tripping, you will see there is a clear difference in how the animals are treated. I find these events to be absolutely barbaric and disgusting. It bothers me so much that I honestly look down on those rodeo people and I consider myself to be better than them in almost every way. Perhaps those on the West Coast look at me the same way for the mere fact that I castrate my calves and use spurs on my horse. Good for them. I think that a sense of class identity, not based on economic classifications but on a way of life, is beneficial in some cases. It can act as a release of sorts – an exhaust valve for frustrations with others. It makes it easier to tolerate (not accept) the actions of others if the people who live that lifestyle are thought to be of a lower class.

Socially, pressure can be applied to enact change. It may be that you’re not a member of polite society if you fight dogs, or fight chickens, or Manganas a Caballo, or American Rodeo, or whatever. Beyond this it is impossible, though it may be desirable, to put hard and fast restrictions upon the mistreatment of animals precisely because such restrictions are bound to be subjective in nature. Why should it be illegal to do horse tripping and not illegal to ride horses? Why should it be illegal to rope calves and not illegal to butcher them for food? Working the other way: If you have the right to butcher a calf, why do you not have the right to skin it alive? (If you are now wondering, I’m personally not in favor of that last one.) There cannot be a satisfactory legal answer to such questions and it is entirely inappropriate for the state to get involved in such matters. I believe societal pressures can and do curb the majority of animal cruelty to the extent that most people see cruelty. There are many cattle butchered daily, fewer cattle used in rodeos, no rampant chicken fights, and cases of reprehensible animal neglect and outright cruelty are the exception not the rule.

Turning to children we find quite a different scenario. Whereas a dog is alway just an animal and will never be anything more than a dog, a child is not just a child. He’s human, obviously, and his role of child will change into that of an adult with full rights and liberties and a role all his own to play in society.

Here it is again true that subjective value judgements could come into play and it is desirable that this be avoided as much as possible. For instance, some may cry abuse for choosing to discipline a child by spanking or for a child working outside the home. Yet this was the common lot for children in the 18th and 19th century. What matters is whether or not the chances of the child making it to adulthood are seriously impaired and how he has fared along the way.

Imagine a sea captain that takes on a passenger. The passenger has every reason in the world to believe that he will survive until he has an opportunity to step foot on dry land again or board another ship while at sea. He should also be reasonably treated without abuse or molestation. Yes these notions are subjective, but they are also obvious. There will be differences of opinions as to whether the a child should be spanked at all, if spanking in and of itself is abuse, or if one severe beating is abuse or if a series of lesser spankings constitute abuse. The basics with children and guardians is very similar to the sea captain and his passengers and these basics are obvious. The first point is that life must be preserved and maintained. The captain would be facing criminal charges were he to lock a passenger up in his quarters and not allow him out or refuse access to the ship’s doctor when needed and he died of either starvation or illness as a result.

If the analogy isn’t obvious at first, the captain is like the parents of the child. Were it not for the captain’s ship the passenger wouldn’t get on the ship and would never be in a vulnerable position in the first place. The same is true of parents and children. The parents did something to bring that child into a state of vulnerability and therefore it is their responsibility to see that that child leaves the custody whole. Yet that doesn’t even mean that they must raise the child to adulthood, just as you might change ships at sea and the captain of the first ship would no longer be liable for you. Parents might choose to send a child to live with different caretakers.

Death and bodily harm are also out. Neither a captain of a ship nor a guardian of a child may kill, or severely injure, either passenger or child. At some point there is always subjectivity in determining what constitutes bodily harm, but on another hand there is frank black and white. Certainly if the child has broken bones, that’s bodily harm. But, very basically, I would say if it would be necessary for the child to receive medical attention, a criminal act has most likely occurred. (We’re not talking about when kids get accidentally hurt here, obviously.) Of course even to say this much is still a value judgement. I am cheating just a little bit, but not much. It is like making the assertion that health is better and preferable to illness, there may be 1 out of 100,000 who enjoys a sore throat stuffy nose, and coughing, but for the rest of us it is so obvious that nothing more need be said, and so I won’t say anymore about either illness or child abuse.

Instead, to close this out, let’s consider the fact that relatively early in man’s history we started out as quite unfree. We have progressed, developed a recognized system of rights, and won those rights over the course of a thousand years. If there were ever any anarchists or minarchists in the 8th century, perhaps monks and Lindisfarne in England, they might have worried about a stateless society and what would ever become of women. Would concubines be murdered or beaten without justice if there weren’t some sort of government to deter or punish such actions? Would widows be totally at the mercy of whoever came along or would someone protect their rights and look to their well-being?  Of course these questions aren’t raised now and they seem rather silly to even bring up. I bring them up just as a reminder that liberty isn’t so much a switch that is just flipped on, but a pot of water that is slowly brought to a boil.

The questions raised concerning animals and children are worth discussing now, but if we don’t have a 100% satisfactory answer for 2 of the 20,000 issues that confront man in his interactions with the world and with other men, it is no justification to dispense with the whole system. I Also, I like to think that one way or another these things will work themselves out over the course of time as has been the case with issues concerning women and religion in the Western World.