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State versus parental authority: morality or efficiency?

In a previous post, I touched briefly upon the role of the state in child-rearing. The state takes on a very specific set of roles, while parents fulfil others. The rhetoric surrounding parental rights or government power seem to imply that we’ve reached this division after careful consideration of the rights of all parties, based on fundamental moral principles.

However, it seems suspicious to me that this principled division corresponds nearly perfectly to practical considerations. In other words, the government has all the rights in the areas they’re good at, while parents have all the rights in the remaining areas.

Consider, for instance, that the government is quite good a detecting blatant physical abuse. You just have to send someone to have a look, and in most places, the government can and does just that. Teachers are on the lookout for this, and social workers generally have the right to investigate and intervene.

Governments are bad at detecting mild physical abuse, and terrible at reliably detecting emotional abuse. And these are areas where the rights of parents dominate: the abuse has to be really blatant before the government takes action. There is no reason to consider emotional abuse a lesser evil than physical, no reason to grant parents extra rights in this area – except for the fact that authorities can’t reliably detect it, so can’t effectively act on it.

What about education? Each child is different, and so to really know how to ideally educate them, you need to be intimately involved in their lives. This is not feasible for a bureaucracy to do, so governments do not provide ideal educations. On the other hand, it is easy for a bureaucracy to set minimal standards of educational achievement, and either provide the educational infrastructure to make that happen (state schools) or mandate that these be achieved (for private schools or home schooling). And, by seeming coincidence, this is exactly what they do.

Governments provide/mandate vaccinations, but not emotional support. They provide (some) money to parents, sometimes provide specific objects for very young children, but don’t give physical presents to older kids – but do set safety standards for such presents. They regulate adoption for a minimal quality, but don’t go around breaking up families and rearranging them by matching up children with parents.

All in all, I can’t think of many important areas in childrearing where governments would be really effective if they intervened, but they are not currently intervening. Efficiency does seem to be the real factor at work here.

This may hint at the future division or roles between parent and state, as technology advances and governments/parents become more or less relatively effective. I’m sure there will be strong moral arguments for why governments should enforce a minimal standard of familial affection, or why parents should be the ones determining at what age their kids should learn reading or arithmetic; but behind all these future arguments, the efficiency factor will probably be decisive.

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2 Comment on this post

  1. One interesting test of this hypothesis is parental bonding medication. This has some neural substrate, likely linked to the oxytocin system. Research is slowly untangling it, and it seems likely that one could using brainscans get some information about whether parents have really bonded with their child or not (besides running simpler psychological tests or automated interviews). And further on, a bit of oxytocin-agonists might be used to help this along if they are found to not really love their kid warmly enough.

    If the above technologies develop, it seems that your hypothesis will predict that (1) weak parental bonding is first going to be seen as a (medical) problem, (2) intervention is going to be promoted. Note that this will only happen if (3) easy detection can be developed, or the intervention can be preventative like fluoridation or vaccination. The test might be to see if (3) acts as a gate: even if easy interventions exist, if governments are not promoting them because detection is hard, then we have some evidence for the hypothesis. Conversely, if there is no push towards intervention even though detection exist, then the hypothesis is falsified.

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