This was an interesting event. I had feared before hand that it would be a long lecture about smacking that would bore the audience, who would all agree that smacking is wrong. In fact it was a short but interesting lecture about smacking, but the audience were really very divided.
Jan argued that while the state is put in charge of much of our lives, the family is often much more controlling and can even be more violent. I doubt for example, that 80% of us have been subjected to state violence (as opposed to mere threats, such as those implicit in the tax code) but Jan claimed that a stunning 80% or more of children have been subjected to corporal punishment by family; 53% using an implement such as a belt. He also powerfully explained that much more behaviour is prescribed or proscribed by parents than any western state has ever sought to control.
Jan went on to highlight the fact that the family is the most important conduit for cultural ideas, it’s the source of a large part of our own beliefs and is the institution most responsible for transmitting our values forward for the next generation. He made a well researched claim that this aggression has sad consequences for the lives of the children involved. They have lower IQs due to changes in brain composition, they experience depression and unhappiness and lower self-esteem. All things that are useful or even essential for a full flourishing life.
The next part of Jan’s talk was a little weaker, and there were a few interventions from the floor that may have even falsified his account. I think this is largely the result of a little speculation and some last minute embellishments that used Sweden as an example. The speculation was roughly that which he provided in his pre-talk notes:
People who grow up to be unintelligent, depressed and aggressive will not bring about [libertarian] change. […]
This seems compelling for at least two reasons:
- Libertarian arguments are not intuitive for many and are relatively uncommon – they require an inquisitive mind to absorb. A bludgeoned and damaged mind is simply less able to handle that inquisitive process.
- Children that are coerced from a young age may be pre-conditioned to accept authority blindly, and therefore relatively poorly motivated to question dominant paradigms.
Andy Bolton made a key intervention from the floor which used the examples Jan provided to work against his narrative. The US, Jan claimed, was more violent with respect to children and is the origin of the 80+% number. The value for Sweden was given as 22% yet Sweden is less individualistic that the US, not more so. Jan felt that since the experiment with socialism there was quite short that the treatment of children did not have time to be a factor. Some follow-up research is clearly going to be useful here as well as a bit more reading around the history of the Swedish socialist experiment.
A little Googling find us David Dieteman’s treatment of the Swedish example, which covers the 1930s eugenics program and other darker episodes, as well as some key economic facts and some dates which would have been useful during Jan’s talk:
With respect to claim that Swedish socialism shows the “success” of socialism, as O’Rourke notes, free trade reigned in Sweden from roughly 1846 until the Social Democrats were elected in 1932. After 1932, Sweden was helped by its neutrality in World War Two. Unlike Germany, Sweden’s major cities were not bombed flat. The Social Democrats, then, had a great deal of wealth produced by capitalism and undamaged by war to share as political spoils.
Incidentally, Yaron’ Brook also dealt with the end of the Swedish socialist experiment in his recent Q&A at the LSE [>47 mins in].
I will leave the resolution of this controversy to the comments section.
The Strategic Claim
Jan’s strategic idea was also described in those notes:
If you want the society to accept NAP, the most important thing you can do is to apply NAP to your own children and help others apply it to theirs. And one day there will be enough people on the planet capable of de-normalising state violence that voluntaryism will become the dominant social paradigm.
In other words, if you accept the idea that corporal punishment reduces the acceptance of libertarian arguments then for god’s sake stop using it on your own children. Help to educate them by practicing what you preach and maybe we’ll be able to tip the demographics in our favour.
The question and answer section was full of surprises. I have briefly considered publishing it here, but actually the content was also very personal. First, I was surprised to find the room starkly divided on the appropriateness of corporal punishment. Some defended the utility of it in emergency situations, others thought this was a way to gain the respect of children, or sought to cast it a non-political decision to be made by parents. Several participants spoke of being struck by parents (and even by girlfriends) and defended their “attacker” as justified in doing so. Those quote marks probably give you a clue about my own position, which is that this is most certainly not a political matter and usually not a criminal one. Having found a way to carve out an exception for criminal abuse, we ought not to have a vote on it, and tolerate no law banning it or endorsing it. I would even go so far as to say that libertarianism as a political grouping ought to avoid forming a policy on the matter.
I don’t like the idea of anyone getting struck physically for any purpose, and I have my own childhood recollections of very limited corporal punishment to reflect on as evidence that it is not a tool for day-to-day use. I agree with my wife (fortunately!) that there are better ways to approach problem behaviour; that a reliance on corporal punishment and coercion is a sign of failure; but this is a personal matter for us to decide on when we have children. Granted society has the vigilance to spot abuse (far more likely in a warmer more connected minarchic society), it is expressly a matter for the parents involved. Just as abortion, drug taking, and the correct allocation of economic resources are matters for the people involved.
Many questioners seemed to read into Jan’s aversion to corporal punishment the basis of a political policy. I do not think this was Jan’s intent, and if it were I would not support it. We should, however, consider carefully the idea that to bring up our children properly and to instill our own values successfully in them, we should avoid coercive force in our own households.