Power, Liberty, and the Age of Consent

Proposals for the creation of new laws should be approached with skepticism. Laws set the boundaries for the legitimate use of violence. Within the realm of all lawful actions, society depends on the forces of social pressure, refusal of association, and economic and social competition, to prod,persuade, and cajole individuals into desirable forms of behavior. While these methods of social control do not elicit the sort of visceral power and authority of physical force, they constitute a more humane, dynamic, and adaptive solution to human problems and promote an environment of harmony and social amelioration.

This is not to say that all interactions within the realm of civil society take place between equals and are beneficial to everyone involved. Even without resorting to coercive force, people exploit and mistreat each other all the time. Whole institutions, norms, and other social structures within the civil sphere are devoted to the perpetuation and efficient administration of power over certain groups by others. It is certainly possible to imagine and observe instances of things like racism, sexism, workplace intimidation, sexual harassment, and charismatic cults, where people exert destructive power over each other without invoking or threatening violence.

The question of consensual sex between young people and adults is a sterling example of a form of social interaction where coercion is absent but concerns about other forms of “force” and social power are prominent. Even many individuals who generally follow a philosophy of “live and let live” and advocate tolerance for “anything peaceful” feel uneasy about something that combines the many important issues wrapped up in sex, like emotional and physical vulnerability, love, attachment, serious life-changing consequences like pregnancy and disease, with the problems of dependency, respect, and inequality of money, knowledge, authority, physical strength, found in adult-child relations. It is in cases such as this that defenders individual liberty and consensual relationships can assess the practical limits of their arguments and the power of their solutions to solve difficult social problems.

Should sex between adults and minors be legal? It is important to remember that the imposition of external rules and the enforcement of laws involve hierarchical authority and relationships of power. It is strange to suggest that the solution for legitimate concerns about power between individuals should be remedied through threats of prosecution and imprisonment. To solve problems of unilateral ability of certain individuals to effect the lives of others by granting unilateral power to the government to regulate these relationships and punish individuals involved only shifts the problem of power and changes it from an issue of “soft coercion” between individuals into a problem of physical force between the state and society as a whole. Just as a builder can not cannibalize bricks from the lower floors of a building to add higher floors, the limitation or elimination of aggressive physical force from social relations seems prerequisite for addressing other forms of illegitimate power in society.

The world is an incredibly varied place. The diversity of human personalities, relationships, lifestyles, values, and physical circumstances means that all legal restrictions are procrustean beds that demands one solution for all instances of a certain problem while ignoring extenuating circumstances, unusual conditions, and subsidiary considerations. Context matters and the tools of social shame or approval, reputation, and persuasion administered by individuals familiar with the conditions and people involved tend to be a much more flexible and just remedies for conflicts and problems than the clumsy and heavy handed law.

The flexibility of the libertarian solution also lends itself to harnessing the dispersed pieces of knowledge scattered through society and dealing with the limitations of human reason. Allowing people with different beliefs to experiment with different ways of living allows us to compare results and determine what works and what does not in the real world. Certainly many people will make mistakes but most of the damage caused by their mistakes will be limited to the small group of people decided to try the experiment. While the effects of failures are limited, everyone benefits from successful experiments by imitating them. Imposing one law for everyone stops experimentation and seriously retards the evolutionary mechanism that generates progress.

Some will say that sex between adults and children is obviously wrong and a bad idea and that social experimentation in this situation is unnecessary. Such arguments evince an ignorance of history and the diversity of human social institutions. Many cultures throughout history and in the world today tolerate or even encourage sex between people of disparate age with better and worse results. Even within our own tradition, our current laws and norms concerning the appropriate age for sex are relatively recent historical creations. The common law, from which America derives much of its legal principals, set the age of consent at 10. The state of California, in no way unusual in this respect, did not change its age of consent from 10 to 14 until 1897. Even if the present day status quo in this respect represents an immense improvement over the past, dismissing alternatives out of hand is very presumptuous.

Even if one decides that the nature of adult-child relationships in the present day necessitates legal sanctions against sex between minors and adults, this still does not mean that such laws will always be necessary or desirable. In a truly liberated society the considerations of power involved would be much less significant. The asymmetrical access to economic, social, informational, and physical means that creates much of the disparate power between adults and children grow largely out of legal restrictions on the freedom ofchildren. Limitations on the ability of young people to create contracts, work jobs, drive cars, stay out after dark, buy certain goods like spray paint and cough medicine, etc. all serve to turn children into second class citizens dependent on older people to get by. In our current society, children are kept in a state of bondage vis-à-vis their parents, schools, and social services. Children that run away from abusive and intolerable conditions at home are returned to their parents by the authorities or are forced into group homes, foster families, and other non-consensual living circumstances. Eliminating these sorts of restrictions would go a long way to fixing the problem of asymmetric bargaining power and agency between children and adults.

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I think you have to define "child"

Certainly, I think the age of consent is too high. 

But do you really think the govt should stay away if the child is say, 8?  Younger?

In my opinion you're a minor

In my opinion you're a minor until you go and ask to be emancipated at which point (unless your claim is obviously frivolous) you become major.

I don't have any hard and

I don't have any hard and fast rule for everywhere but I think the common law 10 years old + people beating up guys who sleep with their 15 year old sister is a decent standard.