Political Child Abuse

Brian Leiter asks, regarding the children's book, Help! Mom! There Are Liberals Under My Bed: A Small Lesson in Conservatism,

What must the intellectual and emotional condition of parents be like who would buy this for their kids?

The implication being that only ignorant, emotionally unstable parents would teach their children: (modern) liberals bad, conservatives good.

I wonder, though: As an outspoken Marxist, what would Leiter think of this? Would he agree with Nadezhada K. Krupskaya, who said that "The children's book is one of the most powerful weapons of the socialist character-education of the growing generation"?

Would Leiter object to the presence of 12-year-old Ilana Wexler at the Democratic convention? Wexler founded Kids for Kerry, skipped summer camp to work for the Kerry campaign full time, and turned her own birthday party into a Kerry fund raiser. Do these sound like the independently-chosen activities of a normal 12-year-old girl? Or are they signs of a child under the influence of her parents and teachers? Indeed, what must the intellectual and emotional condition of parents be like who would do this to their kids?

On the other hand, one could make this same criticism of nearly all the decisions parents make about their children. All of the choices parents make -- how to educate their children, whether to teach them to believe in God (and which God?), whether to stress individualistic or communal values, what moral values in general should be adopted -- all of these can be described as a form of brainwashing. Young children do not yet have the critical faculties to make these kinds of decisions for themselves. Indeed, the ability to think critically is itself a value that must be conditioned and learned.

Richard Dawkins, in his widely cited article, Is Science a Religion?, argues,

In a 1995 issue of the Independent, one of London's leading newspapers, there was a photograph of a rather sweet and touching scene. It was Christmas time, and the picture showed three children dressed up as the three wise men for a nativity play. The accompanying story described one child as a Muslim, one as a Hindu, and one as a Christian. The supposedly sweet and touching point of the story was that they were all taking part in this Nativity play.

What is not sweet and touching is that these children were all four years old. How can you possibly describe a child of four as a Muslim or a Christian or a Hindu or a Jew? Would you talk about a four-year-old economic monetarist? Would you talk about a four-year-old neo-isolationist or a four-year-old liberal Republican? There are opinions about the cosmos and the world that children, once grown, will presumably be in a position to evaluate for themselves. Religion is the one field in our culture about which it is absolutely accepted, without question -- without even noticing how bizarre it is -- that parents have a total and absolute say in what their children are going to be, how their children are going to be raised, what opinions their children are going to have about the cosmos, about life, about existence. Do you see what I mean about mental child abuse?

Dawkins has a point. When young children are raised in a deeply religious environment, this can have profound effects on their future developement. To give a personal anecdote, the vast majority of my friends who grew up in the same Orthodox Jewish community with me and went to the same schools are all following a similar life-plan: spend five to ten years in yeshiva (theological seminary), do the absolute bare minimum to get a college degree (and many don't even bother with this step), get married between the ages of 22-25, quickly start building a large family, and eventually move to Israel. Whenever they are not at work or at home with their family, their are studying the Talmud and other religious texts.

I'm not trying to disparage this lifestyle; my point is only that a particular kind of upbringing largely determines a particular kind of outcome. Few people who are not raised in a deeply religious environment choose a deeply religious lifestyle as adults, and few people who are brought up this way choose an alternative lifestyle.

So parents must make a choice of which values to instill -- some would say brainwash -- into their children. And often these choices are binary: either parents raise their children with strong religious beliefs or they don't. If they do, many athiests and agnostics will criticize them for intellectual child abuse - perhaps condemning them to a life of pointless devotion to a non-existent deity. If they don't, many theists will criticize them for spiritual child abuse. After all, if the theists are right, not only are these parents depriving their children of true knowledge about the world, but they are also exposing their children to the risk of eternal condemnation. There are no rational means for resolving the conflict between these two views. Every educational choice is based on the parent's/teacher's own values, and every disagreement over what to teach children is fundamentally a disagreement over which values are correct/preferable.

One cannot get out of this problem by adopting complete neutrality. One must teach children something about values at some point in their development, even if this education comes solely in the form of children mimicking their parents' behavior. In order to develop their own critical thinking skills, or function as normal members of civil society, children need to know what is and is not considered socially acceptable, what epistemological standards to use when exposed to new phenomena, and so on. Not teaching children any values can be just as harmful as teaching them the wrong values.

So what are to do? We live in an incredibly diverse society. Multiple social groups have strong conceptions of the good life which are in radical and violent conflict with other groups' views. Athiests and thiests, cultural liberals and cultural conservatives, capitalists and socialists, individualists and communitarians, and so on.

One possibility is democracy. Put the choice of values up for a vote and may the largest group win. That is essentially what we do now. Hence the ongoing conflicts surrounding abortion, religion in public schools, gay marriage, levels of welfare spending, and the legitimacy of pre-emptive war, to name just a few examples. All of these conflicts, and the solutions suggested by democratic means, can be characterized as zero-sum games. In order for one social group to win, another must lose. The only thing that satisfices the losing minority is the hope that their side will enjoy majority power at some time in the future.

The alternative is a system of market federalism in which incompatible groups keep to themselves as much as possible. Such a system would solve most -- if not all -- of the above mentioned conflicts, by giving members of these groups the ability to exit from unwanted societal arrangements and create their own arrangements with like-minded people. Vouchers as an intermediate measure, increasing individual state power in relation to federal power, a movement towards free markets and away from government-controlled monopolies -- all of these policy changes, by weakening the power of electoral voice, in turn strengthen the power of exit.

That is a reason why those who are currently minority losers might support these proposals. But why should the victorious majorities want to change? The important thing to realize here is that almost all of us are members of some minority group. And even those lucky few whose entire set of preferences is already represented by the political majority should still realize that political power is tenuous and the winners today can quickly become the losers tomorrow. By giving the government the power to impose your values on the rest of the population, you are also giving the government the power to impose your enemy's values on you and your children.

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Typo, thanks.

Typo, thanks.

yipes, what a horrid little

yipes, what a horrid little creature.

Micha, great post. you've

Micha, great post. you've certainly ecapsulated the problem, from an in-obvious angle which is always refreshing. keep it up.

Micha, was thinking more

Micha, was thinking more about this 'dilemma' as it were, and it gets very deep, very fast. ENDING UP as a rational adult would seem to be almost a mathematical fluke, haha.

I think the reason kids like

I think the reason kids like that give me the creeps is analagous to tiny hairless trained dogs that do tricks, or those little idiots reciting passages from the koran like automatons, or mini nazis during WWII. Or how about the Olsen twins? Does anyone not feel a weird revulsion at those kind of things? its hard to explain, but maybe its just me. Its like the author of the article said, what kind of creep put those poor children in that picture? The Olsens mother probably. And she really thought she was doing them a favor,and back to the point of your post. Its circular.

no political solution will

no political solution will solve the problem of parents "brain washing" their kids. The only thing that can solve it is if parents start teaching their children to be curious and think for themselves. Then no matter what others values they instill in their children, when they grow up they will be able to make their own decision whether to accept their parents values or not.

Mongoose, But then you are


But then you are essentially "brainwashing" them into rejecting all other attempts at brainwashing. You are still, in a sense, imposing your values on to them. Not everyone values open-mindedness. Even most libertarians don't...

"One possibility is

"One possibility is Democracy. Put the choice of values up for a vote and may the largest group win"

This is a pretty degenerate definition of democracy I think. I know it isn't your invention, it is a common view, but this is merely majoritarianism. Democracy isn't about majority rule so much as minority rights and views. Durable democracy, the kind that doesn't collapse in rebellion, isn't about minority rights so much as inclusion of minority views.

Your alternative, market federalism, is much the same as sensible democracy which doesn't make national rules about local and personal issues. This is a reflection of what some call subsidarity, that power resides ultimately with the individual and is granted to aggregations on a limited basis for social purposes. The structure of US government addressed these insights and though it has been corrupted over the years is still a good attempt.

I think it is useful to dispute the overly simplified definition of democracy as being nothing more than majoritarianism. It is a corruption of a useful concept that has great power in society. Defense of the concept of democracy as full enfranchisement for all seems a more useful activity than offering alternatives that amount to the same thing while losing the power of the word democracy.

But then you are essentially

But then you are essentially "brainwashing" them into rejecting all other attempts at brainwashing. You are still, in a sense, imposing your values on to them.

I have no problem with that. Like you said, there is no choice but to instill at least some values into your children. But at least you are giving them the choice to reject even the value of "open-mindedness"

Not everyone values open-mindedness. Even most libertarians don't

If you don't value open-mindedness then you don't have a problem with "brainwashing". So there's nothing to talk about

Democracy isn't about

Democracy isn't about majority rule so much as minority rights and views.

It sounds like you are talking about republicanism, not democracy. In either case, insofar as the voice of the majority is limited and the freedom to exit is expanded, we are one step closer to market federalism.

And while I agree with you that full enfranchisement for all is better than enfranchisement for only some, my ideal would be enfranchisement for none. I would like to limit voice as much as possible, not to only a few groups of people, but to as few policy issues as possible.

I think people are

I think people are forgetting the innate curiosity of human beings, which varies at least somewhat by genetics. Some people are going to be irrepressibly curious despite 'conditioning' and thus there is an endogenous mechanism of change. Transmitting a cultural desire for learning and curiosity towards the world certainly helps, but I don't think it is required in some absolute sense to bring about social change.

Democracy, broadly concieved, it simply "rule by the people" (demos - people, crat,cracy - ruler,ruling system). Generally it means some largish swath of the population that has a say in how the polis/state will behave. In Athens it was "direct democracy" but only to the wealthy free men... but generally speaking when 'progressives' talk about democracy they mean mere majoritarianism. 50%+1 = Law, and anything that can pass that hurdle is Moral, Correct, Right, etc. Vox populi = Vox dei, etc.

A Republic, originated by the Romans, codified representative democracy and basically made the 'will of the people' a check/guide to what the elites wanted to do. The most powerful position was that of the Consuls, who could veto. The point of the Roman system was to make sure the government worked and was run by the people whose business was politics, with the ability for the ruled (or minorities within the ruling class) to check them. That worked a lot better than the Athenian system, and that was the principle behind the US constitution's form of government (spread the power and immunize it from popular opinion except in broad sweeps). To the extent that we move from Rome to Athens is the extent that our government gets worse and worse....

If you don't value

If you don't value open-mindedness then you don't have a problem with "brainwashing". So there's nothing to talk about

Well, there's also the issue of what the content of the brainwashing will be. A person can consistently support the principle of brainwashing, but reject one particular form of it. And to tie this in to the theme of my post, while that is consistent, it is also risky. Giving the government the power in principle to impose values on unwilling people is no guarantee that they will impose your values.

I'll add though that

I'll add though that Republicanism is itself a form of "rule of the people", but not in the Greek sense of all the people getting together and voting on this or that. Republicanism, ideally, is about restricting the power of an executive and dispersing power amongst deliberative bodies, such that what laws are made are made slowly and with thought, and that it is easier to nullify a law than to pass new ones on the people. The Roman Res Publica system was in direct response to their experience with the Tarquin Kings who ruled despotically and arbitrarily.

Brian, You're right that


You're right that there will always be a number of irrepressibly curious people despite conditioning, but, unfortunately, these are a small minority. The vast majority of people do what they are told, adopt the religious beliefs of their parents, listen to authority, and view that which is socially constructed as objective fact. In many cases, this a good thing. We could not survive in a complex world if we questioned everything. We have to be willing to trust the information given to us in most cases. But, of course, what can be a strength can also be a weakness.

Yes, republicanism is a

Yes, republicanism is a subcategory of democracy, and not the other way around. Although I am skeptical that republicanism's checks on power make it easier to nullify a law than pass a new law. These checks mainly just reinforce the status quo, making it difficult to accomplish any change whatsoever, whether that change be a reversion to a previous status quo or a progression to an entirely new one.

Ok, so I think I now

Ok, so I think I now understand the point of your post. Even if you don't value free thought you should be an advocate of keeping the government out of the minds of individuals. I agree with that point. It's what the seperation between church and state is all about. But you started off with the problem of parents "brainwashing" their children, how does the seperation between mind and state answer that problem? Parents will still continue to "brainwash" their children regardless of what the state does

the proposed solution isn't

the proposed solution isn't to stop 'brainwashing', since you can't. Its to allow as many pre-existing views to continue as possible.

Such a polity would have many options for exit between groups, and also the existence of other beliefs and lifestyles (ideally) will challenge and call into question peoples' inherited way of life, leading either to a greater belief or a modification/abdication of the belief.

Trying to determine ahead of time which "way" is the one way that will be passed on is (a) an impossible task and (b) a recipe for social/cultural war (ala the Balkans, Mid East, Africa, etc).

The bare minimum to maintain the plural society is a polity that rules most questions of coercion out of bounds, and maintains freedom of choice and equality of authority (to the greatest extent possible) among its 'subjects'.

In practice the Roman system

In practice the Roman system was more of a "status quo" maintainer than a system to allow change, but with enough social will, the system was gradually changed to a more populist model, with the final result being civil war, the Triumvirates, and finally the Imperium.

I agree that its a good

I agree that its a good thing that most people are not the 'irrepressibles'. I'm just saying that there is a built in/endogenous method of change in any society. A culture that embraces those individuals is likely to be more vibrant and resilient than one that does not- unless that rigid culture happened to have a very successful evolutionary strategy already, I suppose.

But you started off with the

But you started off with the problem of parents "brainwashing" their children, how does the seperation between mind and state answer that problem? Parents will still continue to "brainwash" their children regardless of what the state does

It doesn't. It is a problem that cannot be solved. Or perhaps I should say, the only way to truly solve the problem in a civil manner is to influence the culture in such a way that parents are convinced to adopt your values--the value of open-mindedness--and reject harmful religious beliefs.

Trying to determine ahead of

Trying to determine ahead of time which "way" is the one way that will be passed on is (a) an impossible task and (b) a recipe for social/cultural war (ala the Balkans, Mid East, Africa, etc).

Exactly. This is the essence of philosophical pragmatism, by the way.

The bare minimum to maintain the plural society is a polity that rules most questions of coercion out of bounds, and maintains freedom of choice and equality of authority (to the greatest extent possible) among its 'subjects'.

Actually, ruling coercion out of bounds is a value that cannot (or should not) be dictated from above. In some extreme cases, intervention by a non-coercive society into a coercive society may be warranted, but the general status quo must be non-intervention, even if a society exercises institutionalized coercion against its own members (but not, of course, against members outside its group).

For more on this conflict, see: Two Constructions of Libertarianism [PDF]. It is well worth reading, and deserves a blog post of its own when I get a chance. It heavily influenced my above post.

Micha, Actually, I think


Actually, I think your system is a "recipe" for socio-cultural war (e.g., the Balkans) and the sort of government that Madison feared the most.


Micha, I'm curious how you

Micha, I'm curious how you came to abandon the beliefs that your parents raised you with. Did your parents teach you to value open-mindedness?

Micha, What a great post! I


What a great post! I grew up 'politically abused.' Republicans, generations of them. I started a reply telling of some of my life, and decided against it. I'm sure it would generate too many responses of 'Geeze woman, get thee to a shrink!' ;) Anyways, will look forward to your comments on 'Two Constructions of Libertarianism.'


I wonder about my

I wonder about my generation, the tail end (and that's not pretty) of the boomers. We tried a lot of half-baked open-mindedness and wound up floundering. A lot of us returned to the kinds of values, including religion and politics, for which we scorned our parents. Why? Maybe the brainwashing eventually took over, or maybe we just don't function very well outside of the paradigm we learned in our formative years.

Kathy- From a Hayekian


From a Hayekian perspective, a great many traditions, routines, values, taboos, etc, have an evolved nature reflecting generations of trial and error- and thus have a functional and organic relationship to society rather than being arbitrary constructs (as many seemed to think back in the day). So you could say that if your felt more comfortable going back to the 'old ways' that they're fulfilling their evolved function in maintaining social cohesion and mediating the individual-other/society transition. :smile:

"Democracy... is simply rule

"Democracy... is simply rule by the people..."

Precisely, self rule. That's why using the term as if it was the same as majoritarianism, as if voting or mob rule were its main attributes, misses the mark.

"A republic... codified representative democracy..."

Precisely, hiring out the tedious bits to professionals or avid amateurs. Republicanism is not specifically concerned with minority views or limitation of central power. Indeed, it can work at cross purposes.

Self rule, democracy, can take many forms but whenever it oppresses any of the population it can fairly be criticized and reformed. The history of democracy has been a progression to ever greater inclusion and enfranchisement; slaves, paupers, women &c who were not enfranchised in the past are so now.

Democratic progress now, to improve self rule, consists of opposing majoritarianism, especially the extreme brand of majoritarianism advocated by global government supporters seeking to use digital networks to disenfranchise as many as possible by enlarging the scale of government. What they call direct democracy is merely large scale majoritarianism. They seek to concentrate power over ever smaller facets of life in the hands of a majority. The advocates imagine that their crew will be in the majority and that they will approve of the oppression. Perhaps it will at first but this will change in time so that even they regret what they caused.

I remember as a child making

I remember as a child making a conscious choice to (a) examine all values, customs, beliefs etc, and (b) discard and stubbornly refuse to learn any that lacked a valid justification in logic.

Children are not defenseless against "brainwashing".

While it's true (and will

While it's true (and will probably always be true) that parents can strongly influence the direction of their children's intellectual development, I don't really think it's as big a problem as it seems.

For one thing, as others have indicated, many children will naturally question what they are told and pursue other ideas on their own. For another, with the explosion of available information, it will get more and more difficult for parents to limit children's access to knowledge of these other ideas.

But, I think it's a good idea to mitigate this problem even more by encouraging parents to instill a healthy, independent, desire to question and improve (or reject) ideas they are presented with. They should be raised in an environment where genuine solutions are sought through a search for common preferences, rather than coercion. They should understand that all people and their theories are fallible and should be open to criticism and improvement. This isn't just another, arbitrary, form of brainwashing. Critical Rationalism is the way to solve problems and grow knowledge.

These ideas have been developed here, for those who are interested

I have enjoyed reading your

I have enjoyed reading your post very much!

It shows very well why liberal neutrality is not really possible, notwithstanding liberal (and some libertarian) claims to the contrary. Kukathas is definitely the best reference on this, and I am happy to see you are using him as a guide. He is one of the best political philosophers we have today. I have learned immensely from his new book, The Liberal Archipelago, where he develops his view at length.

In his book he shows how culture "wars", are not the result of a system where cultural groups have their own space to educate their children and act according to their values, but rather the result of a system with a contrary tendency, that of cultural homogenization. And that, I take it, is your point as well Micah. So the comparison in one of the comments above does not hold very much water.

This post is in keeping with the general tone of your blog, which is always thoughtful and thought provoking. Keep it up!

I don't see how Micha's post

I don't see how Micha's post says that liberal neutrality isn't possible; his post argues the contrary, saying that it is both possible and necessary if plurality of viewpoints is to be maintained.

Unless you have a different definition of liberal neutrality.

What Brian said. Kukathas'

What Brian said. Kukathas' preference for confederation over union is based precisely on the idea that liberal neutrality is possible, but it has important trade-offs; namely, non-interventionism even in the case of institutionalized coercion in foreign communities. I agree that he is an important thinker, and one which I intend to read more of.

If you expect libertarians

If you expect libertarians not to intervene, you're mistaken. In terms of force initiation, all it takes is one "help please!" to legitimize a rescuer. In fact, even if the victim previously gave consent, they could still withdraw it later. Free will trumps contract -- the statists could sue but could not coerce.

Micha says: "I donâ??t

Micha says: "I donâ??t think thatâ??s true at all. While a few libertarians do support the Iraq War, I think itâ??s fair to say that the majority do not"

I reply: the Iraq war was state-against-state. Libertarian intervention into statist enclaves would more likely be individual-helps-individual, and would more likely consist of extracting the specific victim from danger (cheap and effective) rather than defeating the aggressors (expensive and likely to cause backlash).

In other words what I'm thinking here is "underground railroad" or "hostage rescue" rather than "Rambo mission".

Julian, I don't think that's


I don't think that's true at all. While a few libertarians do support the Iraq War, I think it's fair to say that the majority do not (especially the harder-core, "official" party libertarians). And even those who do support the war are hesitant to advocate interventions into North Korea, China, Cuba, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and every other despotic country in the world too numerous to name. Yet all of these are foreign communities with institutionalized coercion against obviously innocent and unwilling victims.

I'm not saying that it would be morally wrong to intervene in such cases, just that it would be practically impossible, incredibly expensive, and increase the amount of social conflict in the world.

Micha, As you acknowledge,


As you acknowledge, many libertarians oppose foreign intervention for pragmatic reasons; not because intervention against aggressors violates libertarian theory in some deep way.

And, most libertarians support intervening against aggressors within the country (when the intervention is wanted by the victims). Weren't you talking about domestic communities in your post? Perhaps you're using "foreign" in a unique way.

Now I'm confused about what you're advocating. Are you suggesting that the federal government should adopt a non-interventionist policy toward every domestic community, even when it coerces (ritual human sacrifice???) some of its unwilling members?

Gil, yes, that is what I am

Gil, yes, that is what I am suggesting. I think my choice of the word "federalism" may have been confusing, as I did not intend to advocate a centralized federal government. And when I said foreign, I meant other communities to which you do not belong, not just other states outside the U.S.

Federalism as it exists (or more precisely, as it existed in the past) is a good start, but not quite there yet.

There may be exceptional circumstances under which it is a good idea to intervene into other jurisdictions to which you do not belong, but making this an institutionalized policy leads to increased social conflict and centralization.

Hmm, Micah I might have read

Hmm, Micah I might have read more into your argument than it's there. But let me clarify first of all that I was referring to liberal as in mainstream, left, public school neutrality, which, I gather, your initial post is aimed at. And this kind of liberal neutrality, which promotes autonomy an reflective thinking at the expense of unreflective (religious attachments), is, it sems to me, pretty much empty.

But I think there's an important sense in which Kukathas retires to a quasi-anarchist position for good reason. If the state is commited to respecting people's deep beliefs about their lives, there will be little that the state will be entitled to do. Hardly anything really.

And you make that concession in your response to gil's comment.

for a more extensive and very informative discussion on this, check out the debate over at tcs between Ed feser and wil willkinson, if you haven't already. I think ed feser makes his point quite well, especially in his reply http://www.techcentralstation.com/080304D.html.

Julian, yes, individual

Julian, yes, individual action unrelated to state action satisfies the requirement of no institutionalized interventionism. However, it can still cause problems if the society being intervened into accuses the society from which the intervening individuals come of supporting or not doing enough to stop these activities. This is essentially what happened with Afghanistan: while there was no institutionalized policy of attacking the U.S. by the political leadership of Afghanistan, by not stopping private citizens like Bin Laden, the Taliban was ultimately held responsible and torn apart by the U.S.

Thus, an additional restriction placed on even individual intervention is that it must be hidden, both from one's own society and from the coercive society. No society is going to knowlingly allow their members to privately intervene into other societies if this risks societal-wide repurcussions and social conflict.

Saint-exupery, I was usuing


I was usuing "liberal neutrality" as Wilkinson used it: a political structure which imposes no single conception of the good life on its members, and attempts to reduce social conflict between members with different conceptions as much as possible. That is a difficult requirement to meet, but it is possible with market federalism.

I have indeed read the Feser/Wilkinson debate, and I wrote this blog post as a partial response to it. I may also turn this into an official article for TCS. Feser was actually the person who turned me on to Kukathas, in a comment thread over at Wilkinson's blog.

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Carnival of the Capitalists
Welcome to this week's Carnival of the Capitalists, which I have the privilege of hosting this week. We have a...

Carnival of the

Carnival of the Capitalists
Welcome to this week's Carnival of the Capitalists, which I have the privilege of hosting this week. We have a...

Carnival of the Capitalists

Carnival of the Capitalists
Welcome to this week's Carnival of the Capitalists, which I have the privilege of hosting this week. We have a few less entries than normal, but I haven't taken it too personally. Doubtless the holiday season has played its...

Carnival of the Capitalists

Carnival of the Capitalists
Welcome to this week's Carnival of the Capitalists, which I have the privilege of hosting this week. We have a few less entries than normal, but I haven't taken it too personally. Doubtless the holiday season has played its...

[...] but we need ideas that

[...] but we need ideas that can be implemented here and now. Hence the benefit of more general market federalism, like being able to choose from among several schools, s [...]

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