Ethics Dunce: Libertarian Andrew Cohen

The ethical virtue at issue is integrity.

On the other hand, some times you just have to say, "oh, the hell with it" and stomp on the damn snake...

Those who oppose abortion as the taking of innocent human life may not, consistent with integrity (forget about logic) also say that abortion is a personal choice. Those who oppose capital punishment as a matter of principle (rather than as a problem of fair application) may not, consistent with integrity, announce that of course they would make exceptions in the cases of Hitler, Bin Laden, and Ted Bundy. A pacifist who won’t explain why the U.S. shouldn’t have fought World War II isn’t a pacifist at all, but a poseur.

Now Andrew Cohen, a self-declared libertarian blogger, has written a defense of the state determining whether or not potential parents may have children.  He writes:

“The state should require parents to be licensed. That is, there is no moral right to raise a child, and we would do well to think of it as a privilege that the state grants and can refrain from granting to certain individuals. If you don’t like that way of putting it, I am comfortable with a weaker claim: whatever moral right to raise a child there might be is defeated when the parent-to-be is significantly likely to cause the child substantial and avoidable harm, or, of course, if the parent does cause the child such harm. Those that should be refused a license to parent a child are those who are likely, in parenting, to harm the child. Those that should have a parenting license revoked are those who do harm the child. (In our society, the latter is called “termination of parental rights” because there is an assumption of such rights. Its worth pointing out that I have not seen a good defense of the claim that natural biological parents should be assumed to have the right to raise the child they create.)”

I’m not challenging his argument, though I could, and might at another time. I’m not writing about whether his proposal is practical (it’s not) or unethical (though it is), but about the amazing spectacle of a libertarian advocating such  massive interference by the state in a realm of established human rights and liberty. Libertarianism has a multitude of definitions and shades, but there is no question that it opposes a coercive government that infringes on human liberty and freedom except in the most basic and essential matters. A society in which couples must seek the permission of government to procreate is not by any definition a free society; a government that assumes such power is not a benign or limited government; and the individual that advocates either cannot be, under any honest definition, a libertarian. Libertarians, as absolutists by necessity, do not have the luxury of applying utilitarian reasoning, of which child-licensing is an extreme example. A libertarian like Mr. Cohen, who espouses blatantly non-libertarian policies, has abandoned all integrity. Say what you will about Ron Paul: he’s a true libertarian, and embraces all the impossible, irresponsible, suicidal and fantastic positions that implies. He would have left Hitler alone to kill as many Jews as he could. He would have let the South go its own way, with slavery intact. He would have waited until market and social forces made integration the norm, without sending troops to Selma. He’d let monopolies flourish, and patent medicines hit the shelves. But the man has integrity. Nobody can take that away from him. He believes in libertarian principles, like a Fundamentalist Christian believes in Adam and Eve and that the dinosaurs never existed.

Andrew Cohen, on the other hand, has two choices. He can realize that he is no libertarian after all, since his proclivities point in a completely different ideological direction (like, say, fascism); or he can continue to claim to be a libertarian with a smoking gun position that proves that as a libertarian, he has no credibility or integrity whatsoever.


4 thoughts on “Ethics Dunce: Libertarian Andrew Cohen

  1. The notion that the state (in my case, Virginia) has the pwoer to take away children from parents whose child-rearing methods are displeasing to the bureaucrats horrifies me. Yet, I see many appellate court opinions upholding the juvenile courts decisions to do so. If this country were to adopt the positions advocated by Mr. Cohen, we should just change the name of the country to Western China. Eastern China already owns us anyway.

  2. I don’t disagree with your analysis, Jack, and thus, yield my position as the loyal opposition. However, there is such a place as quasi-libertarian, or libertarian-lite, or such, just as there are those who adhere to “progressive” ideas, but are not utopian or deluded enough to be fully in such a camp. It would seem to me that the matter of “parental licensing” by the State is frightening enough, given its incompetence in almost every other area I can think of, its being subject to political expediency, the creation of exceptions whenever “privileges” can be sold to the highest bidder (i.e. most prolific voter), and its ready devolution into tyranny whenever given the opportunity. Nevertheless, if parents make demands upon the “State,” in some sense, the organized infrastructure of schools, medical system, energy systems, community support, and not least, welfare benefits for those not fit enough or willing enough to support their own progeny, then there is at least a role for bringing up the subject, simply under the precept that, with privileges come responsibilities.

    As for Ron Paul, you bring up interesting “straw men,” and I, for one, would like to know whether your predictions of his stands on those issues are indeed as completely “principled” but impractical as you suggest.

    • “Nevertheless, if parents make demands upon the “State,” in some sense, . . .”

      This got me thinking, as it seems like a good argument in principle, but as I looked at it closer, I found myself disagreeing with it.

      “the organized infrastructure of schools” – Even the non-parents pay for this at the same rates, so it’s really a non-issue.

      “medical system” – This is privatized in the US (at least for the time being) and paid for by individuals, unless the children are in some sort of SCHIP program (which I deal with below).

      “energy system” – I’m pretty sure I pay for my electricity, gas, and gasoline, and that they are TAXED by the state, not subsidized.

      “community support” – …which is, by definition, not the State (unless I’m woefully misunderstanding what you mean).

      “welfare benefits” (including SCHIP programs) – at last we get to one that applies. I guess an argument could be made that society would prefer mandatory adoptions to the payment of welfare (we’ll leave aside the discussion of the merits of the welfare system itself), but there’s a very compelling utilitarian argument that the payments are likely simpler and easier than the administrative overhead of taking children from “unfit” parents en masse. It might even be cheaper. Plus, welfare could easily be a temporary situation, or one that one enters into after the child is a few years old, and thus bonded with the parent.

      Even a cold-hearted fiscal conservative like me agrees that the well-being of the child takes priority over concerns about cost.

      So overall, I have to say that I don’t think the State has any claim to deny parentage on financial support grounds, EXCEPT when welfare is involved, in which case it goes from “no way” to “probably not”.


  3. Andrew Cohen cannot in good faith claim to be Libertarian if he regards the state, any state to have the right or authority to issue a license for anything.
    From what I’ve read here, he has a hard fascist bent.
    Perhaps he has a personal issue with irresponsible parenting?


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