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Re: Liberalism and Childhood


Sounds like a very interesting book, Stanley.

The question of liberal theory and children is an immensely important one that is surprisingly under-examined in the liberal tradition. It reaches right to the core of a problem with the way liberal theory began. The thought experiment of a state of nature in which human beings are asocial and can be fully understood individually serves as the basis for a lot of the principles and premises of classical liberalism. But of course, no one has ever lived in such a world, and in the world we do live in new individuals enter into a very crowded and complicated social situation, and they enter it both totally ignorant and totally helpless — thus requiring support of every sort to be able to become the kind of reasoning, independent, free decision-maker that classical liberalism wants to assume all human beings equally are by nature. Every child enters the world with the same equipment as every other child that has ever been born at any other time and place, so that the intellectual or moral progress any society makes doesn’t really make a difference except to the degree that it can be passed on to new members by a culture suited to educating them. With every generation comes the risk of losing it all. That’s why essentially conservative institutions of education and acculturation are essential in any liberal society, and it’s why conservatives care so much about the culture.

The need for these institutions has been difficult for liberal theorists to contend with from the start, because that need is grounded in assumptions about human society that simply deny the thought experiment at the heart of the liberal project. That’s why some early liberals explicitly called for breaking the bonds between generations (“The earth belongs always to the living generation,” Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison in 1787, and “one generation is to another as one independent nation to another”) and why early radical liberal futurists pined for a world without children (in the glorious future, the eighteenth century English radical William Godwin wrote, “the whole will be a people of men, and not of children; generation will not succeed generation, nor truth have, in a certain degree, to recommence her career every thirty years.”) Science would let us live forever, Godwin thought, so there would be no need to have children, and no barrier to continuous progress.

Godwin probably sounds less crazy today than he did then.


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