Individual versus collective responsibilities for raising children

Much of our “culture war” debates are tangential offshoots of the meta issue of whether caring for a child is the collective responsibility of the state or the individual responsibility of parents.  Yet, oddly, there is almost no direct debate on this issue.

Take for example our Lt. Governor Andre Bauer’s recent, inelegantly-phrased comment comparing giving people government assistance in the form of free and reduced-price school lunches to “feeding stray animals.”  Bauer elaborated that “My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed. You’re facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don’t think too much further than that. And so what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to curtail that type of behavior. They don’t know any better.”

Lost in this highly-offensive comment was Bauer’s unstated thesis: government should have limited responsibility in caring for children.  The division of child care responsibilities between government and family is a philosophical and policy debate we should be having directly, instead of tangentially: are children creatures of the state or creatures of their parents?

Contemporary America is a mix of collectivist and individualist philosophies, with a greater emphasis on the individualistic, as befits a culture that celebrates rugged individualism.  Yet there are clear tensions.  If we start from the premise that the right to control children stems from the duty to financially support children the current system is an untenable, illogical mess. We grant parents tremendous discretion to care for their children yet allow state intervention to protect children from what the state deems parental abuse or neglect.  We expect parents to be the primary means of financial support for their children yet almost all accept it as a collective responsibility of the state to pay for children’s formal education, and there is further substantial state financial support for children’s health care.  Additionally, and controversially, many children receive state financial support for food and other basic needs through food stamps and AFDC.

There has probably never been a pure social system in which family alone had the rights and responsibilities of caring for children or in which the state had these responsibilities.  Frontier America is a relatively-modern example of a culture in which the state had little responsibility for children (the frontier had almost no government).  Collectivist Eastern Europe and China in the 1950-70’s time period is one in which the government asserted the greatest right to control the care of children.  Since 1979 China has even had a one-child policy which attempts to limit the number of children parents are allowed to bear.  Dystopian fiction such as 1984 or Brave New World posited a future in which the state almost completely controlled children: in 1984 through state indoctrination that turned children into spies upon their parents; in Brave New World through cloning and artificial gestation of embryos that removed biological parents from child care completely.

If the state has a financial obligation to support children does it logically follow that the state can tell parents how many children to have and how to raise these children?  If parents are entitled to be free from most state interference in raising their children do they have any right to demand financial support from the state in raising these children?  If taxpayers have an obligation to support other people’s children should they have a say in who can have children and how these children are raised?  By avoiding debate on these issues the result has been an ad hoc–sometimes pragmatic, sometimes random–mix of collective and individual rights and responsibilities.  Given past experiences at the extremes a pragmatic approach, informed by political philosophy, is probably the best that can be achieved.  But if we cannot even recognize and acknowledge the debate we are having the argument will continue to be more screaming and sound bites and the policy will continue to be ad hoc.

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