Monday, February 10, 2014

Libertarianism, Children and Smoking

I follow, with increasingly less interest, a libertarian website called Libertarians believe that people should be free to do as they choose as long as they don't hurt anyone. A laudable principle, I think.

So Brendan O'Neill, a libertarian writer who posts at, posts this article recently about the Totalitarian Crusade Against Second Hand Smoke. It's all about the attempts to ban smoking in cars where children are present. Brendan argues these attempts "show what shockingly low esteem the ideal of autonomy is held in these days, so that anyone who stands up and says "I think adults should be free to choose what vices to indulge in and pleasures to pursue" is either laughed at for being naive or branded a wicked stooge for Big Tobacco."

Brendan also derides the 'Nanny State' and questions the sincerity of anyone who would speak on behalf of the children. Those commenting on the article take up this line of, let's be generous, argument and we find those disagreeing with Brendan mocked with  cries of "IT'S FOW DA CHILLDRUUUUNZ!"

What I found noteworthy in this exchange is how it squares with Libertarian ethics. Libertarians base their ethics on the sanctity of people to do as they choose, and the honouring of contracts freely entered into by parties who enjoy equal standing before the law. On the surface, it's fairly compelling, but for the fact that children are overwhelming the largest class of society that is systematically, legally prohibited from entering into contracts and fully taking part in society. IT'S FOW DA CHILLDRUUUUNZ only makes sense when one accepts the second class nature of children's participation in society.

Not only do most self-styled libertarians seem to accept this state of affairs, they revel in it. Why are children and the causes that benefit children treated with such contempt? To me, this illustrates the underside of Libertarianism. On the surface, it's all about reason and freedom. Only on the underside does it show its ugly nature: bullying, smugness, cheap-jack cynicism and spite. Children are society's weakest members, legally only a few steps away from a woman's or a slave's position a couple hundred years back. Rather than try to draw children into the circle of freely choosing people that constitutes a Libertarian society, libertarians seem content to kick a man (even better a child) while he's down.