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April 1996
Volume 14, Number 4

All "Our" Children?
Michael Levin

In the welfare debates, Congress spared what is perhaps the most objectionable part of the welfare state, cash subsidies for illegitimate children. The opponents had committed a terrible error early in the debate. They granted the first philosophical assumption of the program's supporters: that we all should take responsibility for America's children. But should we?

John Stuart Mill takes a drubbing in logic texts for his "proof" in Utilitarianism that human effort must always aim at the greatest happiness for the great number. Having previously stated that everyone values his own happiness--we today would say satisfaction of desires--Mill goes on: "Each person's happiness is a good to that person, and the general happiness, therefore, a good to the aggregate of all persons."

Come again? That Joe cares about his happiness and John about his does not imply that Joe cares about the total happiness of both. Indeed, it absolutely bars that conclusion. Someone concerned with the mileage of his own car will be indifferent to the average mileage of cars. Aggregates of people are not sentient beings with desires. Literally speaking, a pair of individuals has no interest in anything.

Mill's argument is seductive because talk of "group wants" does have a legitimate everyday use, as a way of saying that each member of a group wants the same thing. When Mom, Dad, Sis, and Junior unanimously agree on pizza for dinner, we say the family wants pizza. It is also convenient to personify groups for legal or economic reasons, especially groups with executive officers--as when Boeing decides to build a new jet.

Mill's mistake is traditionally called the "fallacy of composition"--treating what is true of each part of a whole as true of the whole. Many scientists have argued that, since individual atoms are colorless, so, despite appearances, are fire engines. Mill thought, since each man's individual happiness matters to someone, namely the man himself, everyone's combined happiness must also matter to someone or something, the reified "aggregate of all persons."

Textbook fallacies are usually too pat to help against real-world sophistry. However, as challenges to the welfare state mount, particularly to the alleged right of illegitimate children to taxpayer support, its defenders regularly commit the fallacy of composition in just about the same form Mill did.

Bill Clinton has defended his own meaningless welfare reforms with the statement that "you could not design a program that would give the states any more flexibility than I want to give them, as long as we recognize that we, our American village, have a responsibility to our children." His wife's book on "our children" strings out the village metaphor for hundreds of pages.

The novelist Richard Russo, in a characteristic op-ed piece, asks "why is Congress turning its back on the bodies and souls of American children?" The Children's Defense Fund has run a series of advertisements asking "Does America Love its Children?", answering, predictably in the negative: "the mightiest nation in the world is about to be done in, by its own children. How, you ask? By their continued neglect." The most dependable source of muddle in the known universe, the editorial page of the New York Times, ran an opinion about crime in Harlem headed "Mowing Down Our Children."

What deserve attention in these samples of liberal cant are the pronouns. The Children's Defense Fund bases the charge that America does not love "its" children on the factoid that "2.5 million children were reported abused or neglected in the last year."

Assuming this number is accurate, just who is doing what to whom? I certainly have not neglected my children. Each of those 2.5 million was neglected by his own parents. Even "children's advocates" admit that poor children go unvaccinated, for instance, largely because their--usually unmarried--mothers do not take advantage of available immunization programs. Sickly children would signify my negligence only if I had some prior obligation to care for them.

But don't I? Aren't we one big family, as Bill and Hillary insist? Actually, no. Children on welfare, illegitimate children, children beaten by their fathers, street urchins, are "mine" only in sharing American citizenship with me. They are not "mine" in the literal biological sense; in that sense, they most definitely belong to their own parents.

To be sure, "we" must not as individuals turn "our" backs on "our" children--I should look after my children and you should look after yours. But that does not mean either of us must look after each other's children, let alone all children, including those of strangers. Only an ambiguous pronoun makes things appear otherwise.

Because individuals alone have desires, asking someone to heed the "well-being of our country" invariably means asking him to work for other specific individuals--loved ones (if he is lucky), or, when the government confiscates labor by taxation, for people he has never heard of. Helping "our" children as public policy thus comes to mean redirecting resources, generally from the more to the less able.

The most familiar such redistributive effort in "our" name is Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Suggest that it be ended, and you can be sure of hearing how "America's children" will suffer. There is Head Start, which has spent tens of billions of dollars enriching the preschool environments of poor children in a so-far futile effort to improve their academic performance.

The Clinton administration, agreeing that those unvaccinated children are "our" problem, undertook a multibillion dollar program to buy up vaccine and give it to needy children for free. Since poor communities are already saturated with medical programs, the greatest expense incurred by the Clinton plan has been the hiring of nurses to find children whose parents have not utilized those programs.

The economic objections to such interventions are familiar. Commandeering drugs at below-market rates (demagogues would call market rates "enriching the drug companies") makes it harder for drug manufacturers to stay in business, and harder still for surviving manufacturers to be sure of recouping the costs of developing new drugs. The result is fewer medical innovations.

Morally, government assumption of the duty to protect "our" children raises the question of whether anyone has the right to force A to support the offspring of B. (Remember, the general happiness is always the happiness of particular B's.) For common sense, responsibility for voluntary behavior lies with the individuals who undertake it.

A child is a foreseeable consequence of a voluntary act, leaving its parents responsible for it. Each individual's "right to sex," his right not to be interfered with in his pursuit of conquests, imposes no duty on others to subsidize the aftermath.

Interventionists like to begin from the point at which a child has been born to parents unwilling or unable to care for it. It will suffer, interventionists moan, unless "we" step in. The shameless Daniel Patrick Moynihan has asked how many babies will die if welfare ends.

Now, when "children's advocates" wave the bloody diaper, thus, we must be resolute. We must insist, first, that each man's chief duty is to direct his resources toward his own offspring. We must then make it clear that "children's advocates" are using neglected children as shields in a game of moral blackmail, displaying these children to quicken unwarranted guilt and then promising to lift this guilt on condition that parenthood is socialized. Worse, the clamor of "children's advocates" encourages irresponsible parents to use their own children as hostages, continuing to bear them in the hope that guilt will keep fueling the gravy train.

What part of "our" don't collectivists understand? The part that says there is no such thing as "our" children, taking care of "our" children, or working for any other "general" good except in the rare case when desires are unanimous and concordant.

Since individual goals often conflict, Western society compromises by allowing each of us to pursue his own happiness in accordance with rules that allow everyone else to do likewise. These rules include property rights, non-aggression, freedom to associate voluntarily, and responsibility for one's own acts. The good and prosperous life for individuals and societies consists in conforming to these rules, not in contributing to a meaningless aggregate.


Michael Levin teaches Philosophy at the City College of New York


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