Taking Children Seriously

TCS Political Purity Test

Pssst... the title is a joke! See the end of this post.

Posted by Sarah Fitz-Claridge
on the TCS List on Tue, 13 Aug., 2002, at 00:21:19 +0100

TCS attracts individuals from many different political backgrounds. We have on this List, libertarians who consider themselves “left-wing”, libertarians who call themselves “Libertarians”, anti-war Libertarians, libertarians happy to be branded “anarcho-militarists” or who at least support the war against state-sponsored terrorism. TCS attracts people who avoid politics at all costs, and others who spend half their lives thinking about politics. It attracts liberal-minded folks who think of themselves as “Republicans, ”Democrats“, ”Conservatives“, ”Labour supporters“, classical liberals, social democrats, socialists, Marxists, ”anti-authoritarian communitarians“, anarcho-capitalists, anarcho-communists, anarcho-all-sorts. It attracts feminists, politically-incorrect anti-feminists, queers, conservative Christians, atheists, pagans, ”Greens“, humanists, pro-Israelis, anti-Israelis. You name it, there is a person on this List who associates himself with that idea.

The vast majority of people who are drawn to non-coercive educational theory, and the vast majority of thinkers who have made significant contributions in non-coercive educational theory (such as William Godwin, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, A.S. Neill, and John Holt), have held politically and economically left-wing views. At the heart of left-wing ideology is the idea that “I am my brother's keeper” – I have a duty to help my fellow man. People's wish to be nice to others has often led to both left-wing economic theories and liberal educational theories.

The problem is that the left-wing idea that we have duties to others arising not out of our own actions, but out of the “needs” of other members of society, tends to lead directly to a coercive world view in which those who do not voluntarily meet these putative obligations must be coerced to do so, for instance, by compulsory redistribution of wealth and state allocation of resources. One can hold a left-wing analysis without advocating coercion, but one cannot implement it without coercion. In contrast, at the heart of both libertarian liberalism and TCS theory are the principles of consent and fallibilism. It follows from the idea that consent should not be violated that we cannot acquire duties except through our own free actions. Thus, a libertarian analysis can be held and implemented without coercion.

In order to hold simultaneously the apparently conflicting ideas of non-coercive educational theory and left-wing duties, it is necessary to find a way to keep them disconnected. William Godwin was able to do this successfully. (See the Godwin recommendations on the Books pages if interested.) He had a left-anarchist fantasy in which people would share their wealth on the basis of need, but he never drew coercive conclusions from that. He insisted that the individual must be the final arbiter of his own actions, and he explicitly envisaged that, being fallible, some individuals would choose to do what he considered to be the wrong thing (such as amassing great wealth and not using it to help others) – and in that case his view was: so be it, because no one can know for sure, and no one has better information on which to make a fallible judgement, than the individual himself. So he believed that would not justify coercion.

What allowed William Godwin to retain his left-wing economic analysis and his non-coercive educational theory was his fallibilism. He was above all a rationalist and a fallibilist, and, like Hayek and other right-wing liberal economists, and unlike socialists, he eschewed both state coercion and the social coercion that almost all other left-wing anarchists want to rely on, on those grounds.

Left-wing TCS supporters who are fallibilists sometimes post things like this gem:

Do you think you know what learning is and how people learn? I thought there was still a great deal of mystery about learning.

It is funny you would ask this. Not that it is a bad question. Rather it is almost entirely the reason for the existence of TCS. All this reference to Popper and Bartley and others is directed exactly at a better theory of how people learn. It is the searchlight theory of the mind as opposed to the bucket theory of the mind. It is evolutionary epistemology as opposed to induction. It is why we are not worried about TV, or pornography, or unschooling, or any form of information gathering that puts the learning decisions in the child's hands.

Like Godwin, this poster believes that coercion will surely lead to error, whereas reason may lead to truer theories. I agree. I just think that their economic and political theories are false. This shows that if someone comes to hold Popper's epistemology and to understand its connection with TCS theory, his rationalism and fallibilism may be a more important determinant of his actions than his inherently coercive left-wing ideas.

The TCS view of human beings and how they can lead lives that are, for them, good, does ultimately entail capitalist institutions such as private property and free trade, but absolutely does not entail anything corporatist (special privileges for corporations), as some leftist folks claim.

Neither TCS nor capitalism (thus construed) is compatible with exploitation or coercion of innocent persons. Hierarchical work relationships are (or certainly tend to be) coercive, but it would be wrong to stop someone engaging in work under that system, just as it would be wrong to stop a child going to school if that is what the child wanted to do despite one's advice that school is a coercive institution.

Competition is absolutely vital in the TCS scheme of things, because the growth of knowledge – the solving of any and all problems – requires the full and free and open competition of the best ideas. Moreover, the growth of knowledge requires that individuals, or arbitrarily large groups of people, be free to conduct their lives in ways that other people – even all other people – consider wrong or mistaken. The epistemology underlying TCS applies to all growth of knowledge in all spheres of life, all relationships, all cultures, all types of knowledge.

For TCS parents, it is important not to fudge the issue of whether something is voluntary or involuntary. Some parents who think of themselves as “anti-capitalists” stop their children watching commercial television on the grounds that advertisements are “coercive”. This is not TCS.

TCS is not just incompatible with some strands of leftist political ideas, it is also incompatible with many existing branches of “Libertarianism” too – all those which advocate parental coercion of children, of course!

For example, some who call themselves “Libertarians” stop their children watching TV on the grounds that it is the parents' TV. As I have said many times, it follows from that argument that it is perfectly fine for parents not to feed and clothe their children at all... Having said that property rights misapplied in this way is not TCS, property is the condition for finding common preferences among people who don't know one another, and it is extremely useful even for people who do know one another. To the extent that one's actions are informed by anti-private-property ideas, they are inconsistent with TCS.

Some “Libertarians” (usually the very same ones who are going around using the pseudo-libertarian property rights argument I have just mentioned) cite their right of free speech in justification for giving their children a telling off. TCS is incompatible with such interpretations of “Libertarianism” too.

TCS is no more compatible with the “antiwar” branch of “Libertarianism” than it is with the antiwar branches of leftist political thinking. (See the transcript of my speech about war available in the Articles section of my web site if interested.) TCS implies using coercion in self-defence and the defence of others. Protect the victim. See also my post, Tolerance and TCS.

TCS is fundamentally incompatible with pacifism. Pacifism advocates never using force, so pacifists are advocating that people should not defend themselves against violence. It follows that pacifists are advocating that when attacked, people should give in to an attacker, even letting the attacker kill them. Pacifists thereby effectively side with bad guys against innocent people, and thus support the destruction of creative, rational, knowledge-creating processes. TCS is about minimising the destruction of rational knowledge-creating processes, and nurturing any knowledge-creating processes that there are. That implies being prepared to defend oneself and others using force if force is necessary to prevent the destruction of those processes.

TCS approves of Greens (including broccoli) if the children want to eat them. But TCS is incompatible with eco-fascism, which is to say, coercion in the name of the environment, Back to the Stone Age, and forcing children to gambol in the garden (deemed “nature”) instead of doing what they want to do, such as playing video-games, watching commercial television, and engaging in lucrative entrepreneurial ventures in the neighbourhood.

TCS is incompatible with collectivism, where that involves individual's wishes being sacrificed to the collective. An example of vile collectivism was made to me by a self-proclaimed collectivist: his argument was that he had “a right” to some of the chocolate bar his daughter was eating, “as part of the collective”, he said. (Again, an anti-TCS “Libertarian” might make a similarly appalling argument on the basis of their “property rights”.)

Someone then asked:

What are fallibilists?

I clarified:

Fallibilists hold that one can be mistaken. For a full explanation of this idea, and an introduction to the philosophy of Taking Children Seriously, see this post.

Actually, I'm not entirely sure what libertarians are either.

Non-authoritarians or anti-authoritarians. But the point of my post was partly that all sorts of people, of all sorts of political persuasions, associate themselves with TCS, and that whilst I myself think that everyone should agree with me, most TCSers do not agree with me at all about politics. Being a fallibilist, and therefore taking seriously the idea that I might be mistaken in anything I think, this does not seem a problem to me, and my subject line was intended to be ironic: the whole idea of ANY kind of purity test is completely anathema to the fallibilist philosophy of TCS. (In addition, I wanted to point out that many who think of themselves as sharing my political ideas thoroughly reject TCS!)

[article index] [next article]

Copyright © 2002, 2003 Taking Children Seriously

Top | Home | FAQ | Articles | Journal | Events | List | Discuss | Books | Glossary | Links | Search