The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Sins of the Fathers

A statement of libertarian principles, started with the harshest purity of intention, stumbles at one point: children. Here is an example. Surely the principles of personal responsibility cannot be applied here; we look for a morally acceptable escape route that does not utterly compromise the foundation of the libertarian philosophy.

English psychologist Theodore Dalrymple, in a moving and frightening essay in City Journal, shows why we are aiming too high.
I have had hundreds of conversations with men who have abandoned their children in this fashion, and they all know perfectly well what the consequences are for the mother and, more important, for the children. They all know that they are condemning their children to lives of brutality, poverty, abuse, and hopelessness. They tell me so themselves. And yet they do it over and over again, to such an extent that I should guess that nearly a quarter of British children are now brought up this way.
And, later:
There has been an unholy alliance between those on the Left, who believe that man is endowed with rights but no duties, and libertarians on the Right, who believe that consumer choice is the answer to all social questions, an idea eagerly adopted by the Left in precisely those areas where it does not apply. Thus people have a right to bring forth children any way they like, and the children, of course, have the right not to be deprived of anything, at least anything material.

Dalrymple's words, and the reality we can all see looming behind them, show that the dream of insulating innocent children from the faults of their parents is beyond our reach. For every child saved from hunger and cold, ten or a hundred will grow up in violent but comfortable barbarism -- as will their children, and those children's children...

Like many in my generation, I learned through Ursula LeGuin of Dostoyevsky's dilemma, of a joyful society built on the suffering of one innocent. Only one! But the agency of government cannot reach in to save any of this new preterite, without in the process magnifying it in both size and malevolence. Their salvation is beyond our power.

[Hat tip: Wretchard.]