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Presenting the pro-life case to libertarians, and the libertarian case to pro-lifers

An Open Letter to Murray Rothbard on Andre Marrou, the Libertarian Party, and that “vexing” hole in the libertarian system — Children

Libertarians for Life
13424 Hathaway Drive
Wheaton, MD 20906
Dr. Murray Rothbard, Editor Rothbard-Rockwell Report Center for Libertarian Studies P.O. Box 4091 Burlingame, CA 94011

Dear Murray:

In reading some items in the Rothbard-Rockwell Report, I was reminded of differences you and I have had on what you once called “the difficult and vexing problem of children’s rights”: under libertarian principles, do parents owe their children support and protection from harm? Is this the child’s by right? I’ve said it is; you’ve said it isn’t.

But the Report items concern a point where I think we agree: that child abandonment is immoral, regardless of whether it’s unjust.

One article that brought this up was “Marrougate: LP Blowup, Coverup!”, by Joe Melton, in the June 1992 issue. That article commented on the reaction of some members of the Libertarian Party to an alleged failure by Andre Marrou, the LP’s 1992 candidate for President, to pay years of child support. “[T]he word ‘responsibility’,” Melton wrote, “plays no role whatever in the Libertarian’s vocabulary or in his philosophy of life. … Children are a hole in the libertarian system, because children, by their very creation impose a heavy moral claim upon their parent-creators. If you don’t like your wife any more, and you want to move to Alaska, the kids become an encumbrance, they don’t count. The individual is supposed to follow his star, and if kids aren’t included in that star-course, they have to be jettisoned.”

Much the same theme was also taken up by another writer in the Report, Sarah Barton. In “The Ear,” in May, speaking of the faults of the Libertarian Party, she claimed that “the Libertarian creed says that government crookery is terrible, but that there’s nothing wrong with private fraud, mooching, and deadbeatism!” In July, she said, “I can see it now: a combination campaign and wanted poster! Massachusetts is sending child-support scofflaws to jail, and guess who’s near the top of the wanted list? Andre Marrou, the presidential candidate of the Libertarian Party. LP activists say: what’s the big deal? After all, the LP platform claims that parents have a ‘right’ to abandon their children.”

Those are pretty strong criticisms of the LP, and many LP members will insist that they are factually inaccurate. (The platform, for instance, is silent on whether abandonment is just or unjust. It doesn’t actually endorse it!)

But even if the criticisms were based on accurate data, I think many libertarians would still be puzzled that they are coming from a newsletter carrying the name “Rothbard.” Those libertarians would expect you, of all people, to defend Marrou, not criticize him. And they would quote your own words back to you in support of that expectation. They could not pass up the fact that the term “jettison” used by Melton is too similar to the term “eject” that you have used in defending abortion choice.

In For a New Liberty, you argued that even if “the mother originally wanted the child, the mother, as the property owner in her own body, has the right to change her mind and to eject it” (p. 121, The MacMillan Company edition, 1973). There, you founded your whole argument on conceding (for argument’s sake only) that fetuses have “the same rights as humans.” The fetus, then, is just a younger child. Logically, child abandonment and simple eviction of a fetus should be interchangeable.

As an aside, it should be noted that you have generally framed abortion “not as killing the fetus but as ejecting it from the mother’s body. The fact that the fetus might well die in the course of the ejection,” you have said, “is incidental to the act of abortion” (“Should Abortion Be a Crime?” The Libertarian Forum, July 1977, p. 2). I don’t think you have ever addressed what relevance your arguments have to abortions as they actually take place — where intentional destruction of the fetus is standard procedure, and preferred to any form of removal where the child might possibly survive.

It may, however, seem unfair to look at child abandonment in the light of your comments on abortion. The objection made by Melton and Barton to Marrou is basically a moral objection. Libertarians insist upon the distinction between morality in general (what we ought to do or avoid) and justice in particular (what we owe others to do or refrain from doing). And in your discussions of abortion, you have not generally addressed the question of morality. The closest you usually come is to note the possibility of moral objections.

In any event, I think you (and Melton and Barton) might immediately come back with a point you made in your “Kid Lib” essay in Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature (Libertarian Review Press, June 1974). Initially, it’s very similar to your abortion comments, but you don’t avoid morality.

“Can we say that the law — that outside enforcement agencies — have the right to step in and force the parents to raise their children properly? The answer must be no. For the Libertarian, the law can only be negative, can only prohibit aggressive and criminal acts by one person upon another. It cannot compel positive acts, regardless of how praiseworthy or even necessary such actions may be. And so a parent may be a moral monster for not caring for his child properly, but the law cannot compel him to do otherwise. It cannot be emphasized too strongly that there is a host of moral rights and duties which are properly beyond the province of the law” (p. 93).

Going by “Kid Lib,” therefore, Melton and Barton might conclude that Marrou is a “moral monster.” Even though there should be no legal penalties against him, they could still insist that he was unworthy of anyone’s vote — even for so much as dog-catcher.

However, there is a consequence to framing your defense of abortion in terms of conceding (even if only for discussion’s sake) that the preborn are persons. Within that framework, any moral condemnation due to those who abandon their children after birth is also entailed for those who abandon their children before birth.

Even if kids were evicted intact by abortion, most would still die. Marrou didn’t jettison his kids into a life-threatening situation where the chance of their survival was virtually nil. He left them with their mother, which is more than many defenders of abandonment would require. In fact, some of them recognize only one positive obligation here: if parents wish to abandon their children, they must do so “on the church steps.” (Yes, having to provide this small protection is a positive obligation.) In an interview (The Familist, Nov./Dec. 1985), you at least appeared to concede that parents have such an obligation. However, how can you justify such an obligation without conceding that dropping one’s infant in the forest could be homicide? And if you condede that, then you’ve undermined your argument in defense of abortion and abandonment.

In any event, conceding personhood carries certain implications. In “Kid Lib,” you gave a moral condemnation of child neglect. But discussing abortion, your silence on what personhood implies prenatally can give the impression of being willing to undermine your moral opprobrium postnatally — even if that was not your intention.

A consequence is that libertarians who have accepted your abortion defense might also take abortion as the paradigmatic case of child abandonment. Having noted that your argument conceded that children are persons before as well as after birth, they would have a natural tendency to wish to be consistent: either parents who abort are moral monsters, or parents who abandon their older children are not. For those who have read you as drawing no necessary moral condemnation from the concession of personhood in the case of prenatal abandonment, why should they condemn abandonment if it is done postnatally? If, as Melton said, “most Libertarians will see nothing wrong with Marrou’s action,” perhaps one reason is they have found your abortion defense persuasive.

Worse still, your reasoning in abortion weakens points that readers would otherwise assume to be implicit in your discussions of abandonment. I don’t think that you would use so strong a term as “moral monster” for those who don’t contribute to the needy in general. Even if there is a general moral duty to help others, it does not seem to be as strong as the particular moral duty one has to one’s own children. For libertarians discussing morality, this would seem to be an important distinction — and one taken for granted in “Kid Lib.” But that distinction is apparently discarded when you discuss abortion.

In “Should Abortion Be a Crime?” (p. 3), you considered the case where “technology has advanced to the point where the aborted fetus could be kept alive in a ‘test tube.’ Should the mother or the parents have a legally enforceable obligation to keep the now separated fetus alive?” To answer that question, all you needed to do was raise the distinction between morality and justice — as you did in “Kid Lib.” Instead, you continued, “But once again, this brings us to the general problem of the sick or the helpless.” Equating child support with public welfare is something Marrou’s defenders might well do. And they can quote you on it.

I suspect that the underlying problem is that while you based your abortion defense on conceding personhood, you don’t actually believe it yourself. Since it was just a debating concession, you didn’t follow out the implications too rigorously.

Unfortunately, also, you haven’t really worked out the implications of your moral opposition to abandonment — unless I was wrong above, and you really see it as little more than caring for the needy.

After all, childhood dependency is fundamentally different from the general problem of the sick or helpless; the distinction is in who did what to whom, and in who consented and who did not. Parents voluntarily cause helpless children to be; they voluntarily endanger children if they pull the plug and the consequence is that the children die. None of this is voluntary for children; the whole situation is imposed upon them by their parents.

Given voluntariness on the part of the parents, and the lack of voluntariness on the part of the child, the parent-child relationship doesn’t seem to be only a matter of morality. We’re also talking about what makes an action just or unjust.

Your readers are caught between your arguments on abortion and your comments on child abandonment. One way to maintain consistency is to see abandonment as a subset of abortion (postnatal and not intentionally lethal). In which case, Andre Marrou deserves your support perhaps even more than those seeking or performing abortions. Otherwise, your readers have to think about the consequences of conceding personhood. They at least have to recognize that your arguments give no support at all to intentionally lethal abortions, which almost all are.

You, too, seem caught between alternatives. The way to maintain consistency in aiming moral censure at abandonment, is to recognize that the cause of that moral duty makes it pretty obvious we’re dealing with the right of the child to support.

Not wishing to examine the cause of the duty too closely, it might be better to do without the censure. Wishing to censure Andre Marrou, it might be better to look more closely at how libertarians must fill what Melton called “a hole in the libertarian system.”

Best wishes,

Doris Gordon
National Coordinator

Doris Gordon (1929-2014)
Doris Gordon, founder and longtime coordinator of Libertarians for Life, died on July 7 at Holy Cross Hospital, Silver Spring, Md., after a struggle with meningitis and other health problems. She was 85. Surviving her are daughter Julie Gordon, son Monte Gordon, and five grandchildren. She lost her husband, Nathan Gordon, in 1987. A Bronx native, Mrs. Gordon graduated from Hunter College and taught elementary-school students in New York City before moving to Maryland. She became active in the libertarian movement, and eventually quite active against abortion. She stressed the concept of parental obligation. “By causing children to be,” she wrote, “parents also cause them to need support; it’s a package deal.”