Why the Classical Liberal Order Needs Children

The classical liberal order has a paradox at its heart. It provides everyone the liberty to pursue their own happiness. Yet it needs enough public spiritedness and virtue to maintain the order that permits the pursuit of liberty. Many internal institutions in the liberal state try to address this paradox, including the Constitution, but external factors play a role as well and one of the most important is the presence of children.

One problem for the liberal order is that individuals and groups so often consult their own interest rather than the public interest in the public sphere. At the federal level, the mild supermajority rule created by tricameralism (the two houses and the President) and stronger supermajority rule for constitutional amendments try to address this by making enactments hard to repeal. This legislative stickiness creates something of a veil of ignorance. People are not as sure where they will be in the future and thus are more likely to consider the public interest rather than their private interest in deciding whether to approve them. Children help thicken the veil of ignorance. The position of one’s children is even more uncertain than one’s own.

Classical liberal democracies also have an innate tendency to overspend and over borrow. Special interests get the benefits today and the costs are sloughed off the future. Politicians are often not held accountable, because voters are rationally ignorant and because by the time the worst effects are realized politicians have left office. Children can help here as well. Those worried about deficits have a powerful card to play by appealing to the need not to overburden the next generation. People are genuinely concerned about their own children and those of their relatives and friends and this provides a counterweight to democratic and special interest excess.

More generally, children extend the time horizon of politics, curbing its innate short-termism. Moreover, they temper one of liberalism’s greatest problems. The great discovery of the Enlightenment was that the pursuit of self-interest could lead to public welfare though the market economy. But to sustain the market economy one needs rules whose creation and enforcement depends on more than self-interest. Children naturally extend and refine the scope of the sentiments that make such creation and enforcement possible.

These thoughts about children and their place in the liberal order are abstract and tentative. But they are sparked by a concrete event that requires greater confidence. My daughter and first born, Miranda Macey McGinnis, arrived yesterday. For her to enjoy a brave new world in the sense that the first Miranda meant those words, the classical liberal order must endure.

Reader Discussion

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on October 22, 2015 at 10:30:33 am

Congratulations, and bless your heart! I am sure you are finding parenthood to be awesome--but it is even more fantastic than we can ever imagine beforehand. And it does broaden and deepen our view of events and policies, as you so timely describe it here.

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on October 22, 2015 at 10:42:29 am


And it is a truly wondrous world - not just for your Miranda - but as you will learn, for you as well, as you watch her grow and explore and "learn" about her wondrous world.

Have fun!!!!!

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on October 22, 2015 at 13:50:06 pm

Congratulations and ma·zel tov! Children are the beginning of wisdom and the end of sanity. I look forward to hearing about Miranda’s progress in the posts you can draft in all your spare time. I’ll check back in about 18 yrs.

For what it’s worth, I live in a fairly liberal household with children. Be assured, we maintain the classical liberal order which might be summarized as, “A place for everything – and everything all over the place.” We also demonstrate our piety by living out the creed, “Cleanliness is next to impossible.”

Yes, an interest in future generations – exemplified by an interest in your own kids – alters public policy. Yes, estimates of the future create a kind of veil of ignorance. But unless we have social mobility, we really don’t have that much ignorance, do we? Yes, 16% of the children of the rich end up in the bottom quintile – if they drop out of high school. But those drop-outs are almost equally likely to end up in the top quintile. Meanwhile, 16% of the children of the poor also end up in the bottom quintile – even when they graduate from college. http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonkblog/wp/2014/10/18/poor-kids-who-do-everything-right-dont-do-better-than-rich-kids-who-do-everything-wrong/

Moreover, egalitarian impulses may prompt us to redistribute wealth from the relatively rich to the relatively poor. But each generation has tended to be richer than the last. This causes me to question the extent to which it makes sense for this generation to sacrifice for the next. Why should I cut back on my carbon emissions for the welfare of a bunch of spoiled whippersnappers?

Hey – tell Miranda to stop being part of the 47% and go fend for herself. Oh, and Happy Birthday.

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on October 22, 2015 at 22:43:48 pm

Congratulations and best wishes for dreams to come true.

Kahlil Gibran's poem "On Children," seems great: www.katsandogz.com/onchildren.html .

Over the years, I ponder its essence:

Your children are with you yet belong not to you.
You give them your love but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

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Phil Beaver
on October 23, 2015 at 09:35:48 am

Congratulations! John Locke's First Treatise must be read with the Second. Getting the relationship between man and his bodily offspring right, and sharply distinguishing it from the relationship between man and his bodily interaction with the earth--is absolutely necessary to keep classical liberalism from sliding back into slavery. The offspring cannot be chattel.

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David Upham
on October 23, 2015 at 10:45:51 am

Congratulations..................As a father and grandfather I have one small bit of advice: Keep your kids out of the public schools. Select a private school where they are taught to think and reason on their own or better yet home school them if possible. The public schools and or the public school curriculum in many private schools are designed to dumb down your children to conform to the collectivist "group think" of today. Teach them to think and reason on their own,to be self reliant and to be responsible for their own lives. When they become adults they will be years ahead of their contemporaries. And,one more thing,turn off the TV.

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libertarian jerry
on October 23, 2015 at 20:24:23 pm

Congratulations, John! Wonderful news!

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John Stinneford

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.