Needy Children

Needy Children

William Thomas

2 Mins
September 28, 2010

Question: As stated in another Q&A on this website, children that must be removed from their families should be cared for by "some private charity or adoption, because in these cases a stranger voluntarily accepts the responsibility for the child." What if no private charity steps up to care for the neglected child? Is the child to be left to perish? Will personal benevolence take care of all of the needy in society?

Answer: "The needy" come in two classes: those who are unable to care for themselves, and those who are able. Objectivism holds that it is not?your fault if some irresponsible person messes up his life. Nor is it?your fault if some irresponsible parents have children they cannot care for. A just legal system holds individuals responsible for their choices. And a morality that respects human life doesn't hold you chained to the choices of others.

(Actually, most people in effect accept this view: What about children in Bangladesh, after all? What about the poor in Zimbabwe? Few people here are really bothered by this question. So the fact that someone in Peoria usually feels they must force someone in Dallas to subsidize the poor in Los Angeles reflects an inconsistency in most people's views. Not that this proves anything in itself.)

Now, children are a special case. They are not at fault for the circumstances they find themselves in, and they are not able to support themselves (though in the future, they will become independent adults). I happen to think that if all private means are exhausted, it may be appropriate for the government to step in as an ultimate resource for supporting poor orphans and the like. This would follow from the government's role as the protector of the children's rights to life and (eventually) liberty. You can read an argument of mine for how this relates to the Objectivist view of rights in a paper I wrote some time ago. You can find it here. The proper treatment of poor, orphaned, or abused children in a free society is a topic Objectivists discuss, but there is no set Objectivist position on how this issue should be handled.

I don't know if personal benevolence will take care of all the "needy" in society. I doubt it, since some people will make themselves "needy" no matter what anyone else does. People have free will, after all, and can make terrible and stupid choices. But there are good reasons to think that in a society where individual responsibility is taken very seriously, far fewer people will be "needy" than today. Take a look at free market Hong Kong's experience, for example, or the research that has been coming out on social mobility and mutual aid in the American "ghettos" of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (such as David Beito's Mutual Aid and the Welfare State).

And be consistent: Ask yourself whether even massive government intervention, intensive regulation, and huge taxes will take care of all the "needy" in society. It never has in any society I have ever observed. And as the U.S. experience shows, subsidizing the poor usually creates a permanent, immiserated, skill-less underclass that has neither clear incentives nor the cultural values required for healthy, productive living. And look at how our "benevolent" foster care system treats kids. Private orphanages start to look pretty good.

I think most Objectivists would say: If the only thing holding people back from a free society is a fear orphans and abused children may not get taken care of, well, let's use one-tenth of one year's taxes to create a permanent trust fund for such kids, while we wind down the welfare state. And then let's move to a system where adults are expected to live on their own two feet.


William Thomas

William R Thomas writes about and teaches Objectivist ideas. He is the editor of The Literary Art of Ayn Rand and of Ethics at Work, both published by The Atlas Society. He is also an economist, teaching occasionally at a variety of universities.