The Magazine

Caution, Children

Freedom for adults can mean misery for children.

Apr 28, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 31 • By RYAN T. ANDERSON
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Freedom's Orphans

Contemporary Liberalism and the Fate of American Children

by David L. Tubbs

Princeton, 248 pp., $60

"Won't somebody please think of the children?!" That the writers on The Simpsons chose this exclamation as the representative "family values" battle cry reminds us that, when child welfare advocates open their mouths, many hear the hysterical plea of Reverend Lovejoy's wife. But what happens when a whole society operates on the assumption that Helen Lovejoy is a crank--that kids will be fine no matter what adults do?

Of course, most Americans do not, in fact, believe this. But it appears that much of elite America does. And according to David Tubbs, our courts and universities fail to adequately take the needs of children into account. In championing vast personal liberty for adults, he contends, postwar political theorists and jurists have left children to fend for themselves. And this new volume delivers a scorching criticism of modern political and legal theory and practice.

Tubbs differs from the Lovejoys in two crucial respects. First, as he notes, his "book contains no religious 'agenda'" and makes no theological arguments. In fact, Tubbs was inspired to write it by his entirely secular government job as a child-support investigator. It was there that he realized that "contemporary liberal thinkers were minimizing or denying the importance of what were previously considered essential elements of children's welfare." In graduate school at Prince-ton--a doctorate in political theory being the second difference from either Lovejoy--Tubbs then developed a penetrating response to modern liberalism. Now he is a fellow of the Witherspoon Institute and professor at King's College, Cambridge, and Freedom's Orphans is the first fruits of his labors.

We all know that children differ from adults in many crucial ways. Besides their evident physical immaturity, Tubbs reminds us, children are "mentally, morally, and emotionally" underdeveloped. Unlike the autonomous, self-sufficient adults at the focus of modern political and legal theory, children are highly impressionable and depend on others for everything--and not just material goods. Their central need is a proper upbringing so that they can become self-reliant adults.

Liberals used to recognize this, urging special care for those whom Hubert Humphrey described as being at the dawn of life. But over time--especially in the wake of the upheavals of the 1960s and the rise of "Me Generation" ideology--liberal thinkers made adults' personal freedom central. Well-intentioned and initially subtle, this shift ultimately produced contemporary liberalism's marriage to lifestyle liberation, "a preoccupation with rights for adults" and disregard of "competing social interests, including some fundamental to children's welfare."

Tubbs traces this development to Isaiah Berlin's famous 1958 essay, "Two Concepts of Liberty," which advanced the idea that "negative" freedom was (in Tubbs's words) "more humane and more likely to further human dignity." Tubbs describes "negative" freedom as "unhindered choice," the result of "moral reticence," the reluctance to "distinguish between the good and the bad use of legally protected freedoms."

In the face of Soviet impositions of "the good life," Berlin's fears were understandable. Less explicable, however, is why current theorists such as Amy Gutmann think it impossible to "specify objectively the good life" or why George Kateb argues that "there is no good life." All of this is in stark contrast to the traditional conception of liberty, so-called "positive" freedom, which Tubbs describes as "self-governance or self-direction," the freedom to resist temptations, irrational desires, and external pressures in order to guide one's own actions toward authentic fulfillment. Surely, Tubbs insists, we can distinguish "better lives from worse lives."

"Negative" freedom seems to have won the day, however, and what Berlin started in political theory Ronald Dworkin has championed in legal -theory. Arguing for a "moral" reading of the Constitution that seeks to treat all people and their choices with "equal concern and respect," Dworkin claims that paternalistic laws (against prostitution, for example) and content censoring (of pornography, for example) are unjust. Since freedom should be understood in a "negative" sense without any reference to good or bad, the state can make no law that shows preference or disdain for citizens' choices.