Kids Have No Place in a Liberal Democracy

In liberalism, as in life, children throw things into chaos and uproar.

Kids on a playground
H. Armstrong Roberts / ClassicStock / Getty

About the author: Elizabeth Bruenig is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

We are building toward a series of portentous midterm elections that might as well be called the Kinderreferenda, with exactly none of the whimsy or charm that word entails. Whether the specific issues relating to children that parents, politicians, pundits, pediatricians, and peanut gallerists have spent the past several months debating—school closures, vaccine mandates, masking, appropriate reading material, classroom instruction and the role of families therein—appear on every or any ballot is irrelevant; the fate of the nation’s children is the engine of moral concern driving electoral activity local and national, left and right. If Glenn Youngkin’s surprise gubernatorial win in Virginia last year was secretly foretold in every fractious school-board meeting and town hall preceding it, then it was also a portent of things to come: It’s a childish world, and we’re all just living in it.

This is in every way typical. America revisits certain arguments about children over and over again, litigating the same matters ever more viciously, sometimes in different forms, always with ulterior motives. After all, it was children at stake in the Scopes “monkey trial,” in Brown v. Board of Education, in Wisconsin v. Yoder, even in Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center. Which is to say: That which is putatively about children, in our liberal-democratic society at least, is never strictly about them. It’s rather about all the subterranean moral values and beliefs we theoretically agree to disagree about so that we can all just get along—and the fact that, when it comes to children, that method of keeping the peace is especially fragile.

Our world is structured around the core notion that people are free and equal, and that ideally they ought to be left alone by state and neighbor to manage their own affairs, so long as their activities don’t impose upon others. From these simple premises and a handful of others that follow in close rhyme, we derive our democratic republic; our freedoms of thought, assembly, religion, association, and speech; and our indignation at being told what to do.

In that sense, children are a paradox for liberalism. On the one hand, it’s crucial that they obey adults in their daily life, because they rely on adult competence and judgment to stand in while they develop their own. On the other, the helplessness of children, coupled with the fact that they too are wholly human persons, obligates others to them—meaning, in short, that children both take orders and give them by nature of their very existence. Children are bundles of obligations, theirs and ours to them, and their vulnerability and needs leave little room for the sort of political freedom the imaginary liberal subject is presumed to have.

What to do with such unusual people? For liberalism’s founding thinkers, the University of Virginia politics professor Rita Koganzon argues convincingly in her recent book, Liberal States, Authoritarian Families, the solution to the problem of children was to build an apparent contradiction into liberalism itself. “When we consider Locke’s and Rousseau’s understanding of authority over children,” she writes, “we might see more clearly both how indispensable personal authority is to liberty, and what that authority’s limits are.” Koganzon revisits the lesser works and papers of the two philosophers mentioned to investigate a little-considered assumption shared by the two giants of liberal philosophy: It was imperative, they thought, that parents assume absolute authority over their children, because only under such authority could children receive a strong and serious moral education protected from peer pressure and rudderless wandering. Children reared by authoritative parents with intense expectations would then, they thought, grow into adults capable of exercising these virtues in the civic realm, and would form the backbone of a healthy liberal-democratic society.

In other words, liberalism would rely on its limitations to sustain itself: By inviting authoritarian relations in the home, one builds people capable of preserving a politics without authoritarian relations once outside the home. As Koganzon admits, “Contemporary liberal theory has almost completely forgotten these insights.”

Indeed, contemporary liberal theory contains a few ideas that attempt to deal with the puzzle of children in a radically opposite way. Hannah Arendt observed in her 1961 essay “The Crisis in Education” that in the modern context, “all responsibility for the world is being rejected, the responsibility for giving orders no less than for obeying them.” The abdication of responsibility—and thus authority—included, for Arendt, the abandonment of adult authority over children. “Authority has been discarded by the adults,” she wrote, meaning principally that “the adults refuse to assume responsibility for the world into which they have brought the children.” One way to avoid the complicated and demanding network of obligations and responsibilities imposed by children is to simply ignore it altogether, or to deny that it exists.

In the latter category, liberalism has its strange entrants too. The much-venerated libertarian economist Murray Rothbard, perhaps something of a liberal extremist, refused to accept that free and equal individuals in an open and fair society could place such absolute demands upon one another simply by being. “No man can … have a ‘right’ to compel someone to do a positive act,” Rothbard writes in The Ethics of Liberty; thus it follows, he concludes, that a father “may not murder or mutilate his child, and the law properly outlaws a parent from doing so. But the parent should have the legal right not to feed the child, i.e., to allow it to die … The law, therefore, may not properly compel the parent to feed a child or to keep it alive.” No obligations, no responsibilities, no authority, and not a lick of sense.

And so in liberalism, as in life, children throw things into chaos and uproar. (Believe me when I say I find this to be one of their many charms.) They make a mess of things. They break the rules. They test limits. They create situations, to put it lightly, wherein adults behave in ways they wouldn’t normally.

Nowhere is this clearer than in schools, which is where all of these philosophical problems manifest as screaming matches at town halls.

It would be one thing if children presented a theoretical challenge for liberalism but were more or less able to keep the matter academic, as it were, by having little to no contact with the state until adulthood. Yet public education has become, as Arendt wrote, “one of the inalienable civic rights.” It is thanks to these government-run and government-funded institutions, we reason, that every child has an equal opportunity to earn a decent education and thus a decent living, and that our citizens are informed enough to carefully make the social and political decisions that citizens in liberal democracies must make.

And so it is that children actually spend a great deal of time with the state, and in a particularly contentious context. Because the purpose of public school is, in some sense, to make Americans out of children, public-school curricula and resources—whether overall learning objectives, specific lesson plans, or the books stocked on school-library shelves—cannot be agnostic as to what it means to be an American, and not just an American but a good American: a worthy, reliable member of our liberal-democratic society.

Naturally, this means that arguments about schools quickly reveal themselves to be arguments about all of the things that adults in liberal democracies prefer to leave up to the individual conscience—because the answers to those questions touch upon some of our most closely held beliefs about right and wrong, good and evil, truth and lies. And when we debate whether history instructors ought to teach, say, “The 1619 Project,” or if high-school libraries should offer books that speak frankly about sexuality and race, these are precisely the matters we’re debating—in a public forum, as matters of state, no less.

It’s not something we’re especially equipped to do, and not something that liberal democracy is especially well suited to. Liberalism has its necessary limitations—children can’t be given free rein over their own affairs, though that would solve the riddle of their simultaneous helplessness and agency, and neither can they be relegated to the private sphere until adulthood so as to elide the question of what to do with them in the public domain. Instead they force us to debate the merits of our own moral doctrines explicitly, despite the fact that we have little skill for it and less practice. Children foreclose the possibility of living and letting live; they are one of the chief reasons we can’t all just get along. They are people both public and private, dependent and necessary, creatures whose very nature places demands—beautiful ones—upon others, drawing them up and out of themselves and into the world.