"If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all." ~ Virginia Woolf
Take Back Our Kids
Exclusive to STR
March 29, 2007
One month ago, my wife and I had our third child and first son. (Okay, my wife had the child; I mostly stood around and said important things like, 'Keep pushing!') As incredibly joyous and awe-inspiring as childbirth always is, the event was blemished'if only in retrospect'by the intrusion of the State into the delivery room. The parental instinct is to protect your offspring'especially newborns'from all threats, so it was with more than a little dismay that I stood by helplessly and watched Leviathan sink its hooks into another one of my children literally moments after he left the womb.
Don't believe me? Let's walk through a day in the life of a newborn.
In New York, as in most other states, if you give birth at a hospital and there is no medical emergency, the first thing they do after cutting the umbilical cord'even before 'allowing' the mother to breastfeed her child'is take the baby over to an examination table and drop some ointment in their eyes. In the old days, the ointment was silver nitrate, which often burned the eyes of the newborn. Now, they mostly use erythromycin, which is less caustic but still causes frequent irritation and even infections.
The drops are a 'prophylactic' against blindness caused by venereal disease, and the law mandates them. Sure they cause intense discomfort to a helpless baby who, all things considered, would rather give that breastfeeding thing another go. On the other hand, it's a small price to pay to save the child's eyesight. Just one problem'neither my wife nor I have any history of venereal disease. In a free and sane society, parents would be left to consider their own sexual history in consultation with their doctors and decide for themselves where it's medically necessary to inflict this painful treatment on their newborns.
The next thing they do, after wheeling the mother from the delivery room and checking her into the most expensive bed-and-breakfast in town, is hand one of the parents a form to obtain the child's birth certificate and Social Security number. You're supposed to turn in the form before you check out of the hospital. As my wife is usually busy resting or feeding the baby at this point, it has always fallen to me to fill out the paperwork. As an anarchist libertarian, I always cringe at this distasteful task'even more than at changing diapers filled with multi-colored newborn poop. As with the birth of each of my kids, I entertained fleeting fantasies of tossing the form in the garbage. I'm not going to voluntarily enslave my son to the state! He'll be a free, unnumbered man! He'll thank me for not selling him out to Leviathan in his first hours of life.
But then reality sets in, and I picture a pissed-off teenage son unable to get a part-time job or driver's license because his old man was a stubborn ideologue. More shamefully, I picture myself missing out on a dependent deduction on my income taxes, or having to shell out cash for every doctor's visit because my insurance won't cover a dependent without a Social Security number. So I sheepishly fill out the form and insert it in the little wooden box by the nurses' station.
On and on it goes. Over the next few months, we'll start the battery of mandatory vaccinations against long-vanquished diseases, many of which vaccines have been linked to occasional severe side effects. With each of our first two children, my wife and I convinced ourselves that we were choosing the vaccines based on the best medical wisdom, not because we were selling out yet again to Leviathan. There is some truth to that'because we homeschool our children, the threat of denying them admission to the K-12 government indoctrination centers means little to us. On the other hand, the state's tentacles reach even to backup daycare centers and summer camps requiring proof of vaccinations.
And then there is school. As I mentioned, our kids are or will be homeschooled, but even so, we'd have to be blind to think our kids will go unexposed to the statist propaganda machine simply because we're taking charge of their education. Yes, they'll get far less propaganda under our care than at the youth internment centers, but the statist quo insinuates itself into virtually every type of media, from home-education workbooks to 'educational' software to DVDs to popular children's books to television. The Marxist-environmentalist dogma alone permeates most pop culture consumed by youth.
Moreover, I simply think it would be a mistake to shield my children from every harmful idea out there, even if I could. The very notion strikes me as Orwellian. The best defense against bad ideas is better ideas, not censorship. I'm sure there are some parents who homeschool because they want to limit what their kids are exposed to, but I prefer it for precisely the opposite reason'because I believe my wife and I can offer our children exposure to so much more than the government schools ever could.
The secret to raising libertarian children in an unlibertarian world is not to hide them from the influence of the state, when the state already has had their hooks in them from the moment they left the womb. No, the answer is to counteract the collectivism around them by ensuring their exposure to pro-freedom, individualist ideas on a regular basis. Think of it as an equal-time provision for individualism.
Now, it would be wonderful if children would read Human Action, but as accessible as that classic tome is, it's really meant for grown-ups, or at least teenagers and up. Similarly, it is unlikely that any child will cheer when you pop a Nathaniel Branden lecture into the car stereo instead of a Wiggles CD.
No, children'even more so than grownups'are creatures of pop culture. If we want them to absorb the ideas of freedom, we have to deliver those ideas through entertaining books, movies and TV shows. Fortunately, there are plenty of libertarian gems to found among the collectivist garbage, and the best of them are a pleasure to consume for kids and their parents alike. The following are some of the best children's books on freedom I have encountered as a parent (and former child).
For pre-schoolers (the statists start early, so we must start early too), Dr. Seuss authored such anti-government classics as Yertle the Turtle, in which the eponymous king is overthrown by, well, a burp. As far as I can tell, the turtle pond government is ultimately replaced by an anarchistic utopia:
And today the great Yertle, that Marvelous he,
Is King of the Mud. That is all he can see.
And the turtles, of course... all the turtles are free
As turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be.
For a good anti-war Seuss book, I recommend The Butter Battle Book. Written at the height of the Cold War, it tells the tale of an arms race (between the butter-side up Yooks and the butter-side down Zooks), which escalates into the threat of mutually assured destruction.
Unfortunately, the great Seuss sometimes missed the mark. In particular, I'd steer clear of The Lorax, which evokes the 'save the earth' hysteria of the early 1970s. Your kids will be exposed to more than enough environmentalist extremist propaganda on their own.
As your kids get a bit older, they definitely should take a look at the great Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Although pre-teens are probably the target audience, my five-year-old and I have been reading them together each night, and she absolutely loves them. We've finished Little House in the Big Woods and Little House on the Prairie, and now we're working on the third book in the series, On the Banks of Plum Creek. That's the book that will be most familiar to fans of the 1970s Little House television series, as it brings the Ingalls family to Walnut Grove , Minnesota , and introduces everyone's favorite adolescent villainess, Nellie Olsen. Truthfully, these books don't have an overt political message, other than to affirm an ideal of rugged independence and self-sufficiency. Longer-term, however, as kids develop a lifetime fondness for Laura Ingalls and then her daughter Rose, they may eventually want to read the latter's The Discovery of Freedom, one of the most compelling libertarian polemics of all time.
Robin Hood is a children's story I recommend with reservations. The ancient outlaw tale can be read as either a socialist or libertarian allegory, depending on who is doing the reading and who is doing the telling. The clich' is that Robin Hood stole from the rich and gave to the poor; in other words, he was an early practitioner of 'redistribution of wealth' for 'social justice.' But that interpretation does Robin a disservice. When you think about it, he stole from the tax collectors and returned the money to the taxpayers, who were its rightful owners. His Merry Men were literature's first anti-government militia, and they brandished assault weapons to do battle with the Sheriff of Nottingham and Prince John. There are dozens of versions of the Robin Hood tale in print, and many of them lean toward the socialist interpretation. The Scholastics Junior Classics edition by Ann McGovern seems to get the pro-freedom message right: 'High taxes, outrageous rents, and fines made the poor even poorer as they tried to scratch a life out of the fields . . . .' (page 6).
Probably the most famous libertarian children's book (among libertarians) is The Adventures of Jonathan Gullible by Ken Schoolland. One of the marks of a truly successful juvenile book is that it can be enjoyed by adults as well as children, and on that count Dr. Schoolland has clearly succeeded. In fact, I suspect that Jonathan Gullible has probably been read by more grownups than kids. Each chapter addresses a commonly misunderstood economic or political concept and humorously lampoons the conventional wisdom.
Those are my personal favorites among the freedom literature for children, and I know I left out some worthy titles. (The anti-authoritarian themes in the Harry Potter books alone probably merit their own article. My libertarian sci-fi friends tell me Robert Heinlein's juveniles are outstanding, but unfortunately the only Heinlein I've read is The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, which is definitely an adult book.) However, the genre is definitely finite, and much smaller than that of adult books on liberty.
My own humble contribution to the body of libertarian literature for young adults is The Walton Street Tycoons, recently published by East River Press. I wrote it because, as a parent and an activist, I saw a need for it. By the time our kids reach adulthood, it may be too late to expose them to the ideas of liberty. Also, as a capitalist, I saw a niche that I could exploit for fun and profit. What kid wouldn't want to read about other kids striking it rich and thumbing their noses at authority? Surprisingly, I have very little competition. That may be good for my bottom line, but it's not so good for the future of freedom.