There is a bit of a blind spot among certain classical liberals when it comes to children. Rand is the most notorious, but not only, example of this. However, we here at Pileus have frequently tried to think through some key issues in terms of how the state should deal with children and what limitations, if any, there should be on parental rights (Here, here, and here just to give three of many examples).
Unless one thinks that children should be treated like property and thus parental rights would be relatively absolute, it is easy to imagine cases where the state has a proper role in protecting children when parents violate their trustee role vis-a-vis their kids. The difficulty is knowing where to draw the proper line such that you respect the rights of parents to raise their own children as they see fit and respecting the human dignity and future autonomy of adults-to-be by protecting children from abusive parents. I’m not sure I know exactly where that line should be, but I dont’t think it is that hard to see when the state or parents have obviously overstepped their authority or violated their trust.
Case in point if one Harvard researcher had his way:
David Ludwig of Harvard University’s School of Public Health* thinks that the state should be able to take a kid from his/her parents if the child is suffering from severe obesity. As he notes in JAMA: “In severe instances of childhood obesity, removal from the home may be justifiable, from a legal standpoint, because of imminent health risks and the parents’ chronic failure to address medical problems.” According to ABS News, this would represent about 2 million kids in the US who could be subject to state intervention!
There are so many things wrong with this proposal. First, it assumes that the state will do a better job caring for the child in all areas – not just at the dinner table – than his/her parents. Do we really expect the state child care system to provide everything a child needs – love, attention, spiritual/virtue training, education, etc – even if it feeds the kid his veggies? And will it actually feed him/her better? In the ABC News article linked to above, one doctor questions even that assumption made by Ludwig: “Dr. David Katz, founder of the Yale Prevention Center, said that there is no evidence that the state would do a better job of feeding children than their parents.”
Second, it assumes that obesity is a parental problem alone – or even one so dangerous that a child needs to be ripped from every mooring in his/her life when a kid is most fragile.
I have a hard time imagining that obesity alone constitutes a good ground for taking a child away from his/her parents. But we could imagine cases of exceptional parental negligence related to diet that would justify such actions: starvation and severe malnutrition (which could result in obesity, say, in a case where the child was only fed chocolate bars for each and every meal). But I’m guessing such instances would be quite rare.
Lastly, I think that this issue taps into the general food fascism problem we face in certain quarters of society. Namely, there are just a lot of people who can’t stand the fact that we all have different preferences when it comes to what we consume – and some of them (Mayor Bloomberg) want to outlaw our freedom to do so as we wish. God forbid we might eat the wrong things and eventually suffer and even die from our choices (wait a second, we’re all going to die? Hit the existential angst button stat!). Does this mean we shouldn’t counsel our family members and friends to make more healthy choices so that they’ll increase their odds of being around longer for us to enjoy or improve the quality of their lives? No. But forcing them to do so – a bridge too far! A healthy legal respect for our preferences and the trade-offs we wish to make would go a long way to making us a bit more free and probably a lot happier.
* Why do so many would-be tyrants work at some of the best schools? A good subject of debate for the future…