Libertarians and educating children

Back in 1966 Murray Rothbard reprinted a chapter from a book on education by Herbert Spencer who was a famous and respected 19th century classical liberal social philosopher. The book by Spencer was entitled “Education: Intellectual, Moral, and Physical” and the chapter Rothbard re-printed was titled: “Moral Education”.

I will quote a small part of Spencer’s work, but first I would like to point out that educating the young, both morally and intellectually, is perhaps the most important task assigned to any society. For nearly two million years the homo species has been on planet earth. Modern man is said to have arisen about 200,000 years ago and ever since has had to teach the young since we don’t come into the world with a complete set of instincts as the other animals do. We must teach our children if they are to survive and prosper. We must teach our children morality if society is to survive.

While it is seen that for the purpose of gaining a livelihood, an elaborate preparation is needed, it appears to be thought that for the bringing up of children, no preparation whatever is needed. In the absence of this preparation, the management of children, and more especially the moral management, is lamentably bad. Parents either never think about the matter at all, or else their conclusions are crude, and inconsistent. In most cases, and especially on the part of mothers, the treatment adopted on every occasion is that which the impulse of the moment prompts: it springs not from any reasoned-out conviction as to what will most conduce to the child’s welfare, but merely expresses the passing parental feelings, whether good or ill; and varies from hour to hour as these feelings vary. Or if these blind dictates of passion are supplemented by any definite doctrines and methods, they are those that have been handed down from the past, or those suggested by the remembrances of childhood, or those adopted from nurses and servants — methods devised not by the enlightenment, but by the ignorance of the time. ~ Herbert Spencer

By this day and age in America we see that bad parenting has nearly destroyed the American family; especially the families of the inner city poor. But this bad parenting is a direct result of the government’s welfare state along with the atrociously bad government school system. Thomas Sowell once wrote that centuries of slavery could never break the back of the black family but that the welfare state destroyed it in just a couple of generations. This destruction of the family is certainly not limited to blacks but is destroying the family of all races. The incentives to single parenthood, sloth, and all the rest are inherent in the welfare state.

As libertarians we know that when the state started taking over the “education” of the young we were faced with indoctrination and not education. This evil is on top of the evil incentives of the welfare state. Moral education in such a cesspool of pathologies becomes next to impossible.

Let us go on to consider the true aims and methods of moral education. When a child falls or runs its head against the table, it suffers a pain, the remembrance of which tends to make it more careful for the future; and by an occasional repetition of like experiences, it is eventually disciplined into a proper guidance of its movements. If it lays hold of the fire-bars, thrusts its finger into the candle-flame, or spills boiling water on any part of its skin, the resulting burn or scald is a lesson not easily forgotten.

Now in these and like cases, Nature illustrates to us in the simplest way, the true theory and practice of moral discipline. Observe, in the first place, that in bodily injuries and their penalties we have misconduct and its consequences reduced to their simplest forms. Though according to their popular acceptations, right and wrong are words scarcely applicable to actions that have none but direct bodily effects; yet whoever considers the matter will see that such actions must be as much classifiable under these heads as any other actions. Note, in the second place, the character of the punishments by which these physical transgressions are prevented. Punishments, we call them, in the absence of a better word; for they are not punishments in the literal sense. They are not artificial and unnecessary inflictions of pain; but are simply the beneficent checks to actions that are essentially at variance with bodily welfare — checks in the absence of which life would quickly be destroyed by bodily injuries. It is the peculiarity of these penalties, if we must so call them, that they are nothing more than the unavoidable consequences of the deeds which they follow; they are nothing more than the inevitable reactions entailed by the child’s actions.

Let it be further borne in mind that these painful reactions are proportionate to the degree in which the organic laws have been transgressed. A slight accident brings a slight pain, a more serious one, a greater pain. When a child tumbles over the doorstep, it is not ordained that it shall suffer in excess of the amount necessary, with the view of making it still more cautious than the necessary suffering will make it. But from its daily experience it is left to learn the greater or less penalties of greater or less errors, and to behave accordingly. And then mark, lastly, that these natural reactions which follow the child’s wrong actions, are constant, direct, unhesitating, and not to be escaped. No threats: but a silent, rigorous performance. ~ Herbert Spencer

There was one educator that I knew who ran a private school that liked to say to children that they would reap the “logical consequences” of their actions. If a child refused to do his homework then he would most likely do poorly on the test that would come later. If the child made fun of another child then that child and others who witnessed the action would most likely not think much of the offending child. The man was teaching Karma even if he did not realize it.


How is a child to learn the logical consequences of its actions if we deny the child (and adults) the freedom to fail? Libertarians, radical ones at least, know that the voluntary exchanges of a laissez-faire market and voluntary society can enforce a common decency as people learn from interacting with others. By the same token, we can allow our young to understand the logical outcomes of their actions by giving them the room in which to experience the world. Or as I like to put it, “little failures, big learning“. But if the welfare state and the re-education camps called “schools” try to make sure that no child suffers any consequences of its actions (or lack of action), then how is the child to learn how to act as a civilized human being? Where are the proportional and logical consequences of the child’s actions?

The latest fad in government school education is the concept that a child can not lose points on his grade if he does not do his homework, can not be graded on behavior good or bad, can not be graded on effort or lack of same, since only the “summative” assessments should count in the grade. And further, the “summative assessment” (you are not ‘cool’ if you call it a test) can be taken over and over until the child has the grade that he is satisfied with. Hence the child can be as disruptive and uncaring as he pleases and still find a way to make whatever grade he would like to have. It is the welfare state brought to the classroom.

The “summative assessments” are also being used in many places to make sure that it is the teacher herself who is blamed for all lack of learning on the part of the students. All responsibility for failure to learn has been removed from the parent and child. After all, why should be expect the child or parent to take any responsibility say these educrats.

What would Herbert Spencer say about our modern indoctrination system? One shudders to think about that. One also shudders to think of the words H.L. Mencken would be typing about now if he still lived.

As Americans see their scores on tests fall generation after generation, many still do not understand that the whole system is rotted and that sending your child off to a government indoctrination camp is perhaps the worst thing you will ever do to your loved one. But even more importantly, the morals of the child are to be put in grave danger if you believe that parents should not teach morality but the public schools should do that job. The schools do not allow for the sort of moral learning via “logical consequences” that Spencer was teaching us about.

A great advantage of letting children experience the logical consequences of their actions is that this is a natural system of discipline. It is a system of Karma or pure justice and will be recognized by every child as such. A child who suffers from his own misbehavior is apt to appreciate that he is the cause of the misfortune, but if artificial punishment is used then he is more apt to blame others for the consequences. Spencer used the example of a boy coming in the house after playing and getting mud all over the place. It is far better to make the boy clean up after himself — restitution — rather than some punishment like being sent to bed or a spanking.

Let the child suffer the logical consequences of his actions. As libertarians we understand that restitution is far and away the best way to deal with crimes great and small. The history of the anarchy in Ireland and its Brehon legal code was dependent on restitution rather than a prison system like modern America. Most radical libertarian theorists (like Rothbard for example) have always envisioned a real justice system where the individual was made to provide restitution to his victim if he was found guilty of aggression against another or another’s property. Raise your children by this doctrine and keep your kids out of the government indoctrination camps if at all possible.