John Stuart Mill and the Child License Debate

An opinion piece at New Jersey On-Line by a psychologist and the president and founder of the New Jersey Violence Prevention Institute has generated some debate. In his article, Dr. Ronald Coughlin has recommended the following:

"To prevent divorce and strengthen families, all couples seeking marriage licenses would be required to go through two or three months of training to learn about relationships, similar to the way one goes through training to get a driver's license. In order to obtain the license, the couples would have to pass an examination showing mastery of the elements of a successful, long-term relationship.

To reduce and eventually eliminate the tide of teenage birth in our country, all parents would be required to have a license in order to have a child. Prospective parents would have to go through rigorous evaluation as well as certification in order to have children."

The inherently fascistic nature of these prescriptions was highlighted in a rebuttal essay by Matthew Franck --- the Director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute -- at the First Things journal:

"No one sensible wants unwed childbearing, easy divorce and child abandonment, and an increase in the number of single teen moms. But if Mr. Coughlin would think through the inexorable logic of his own proposal, it is this: The state decides if young people who want to marry are 'ready' for it, and says 'no' to those who do not meet its standards. The state then 'certifies' some of the couples it permits to marry to be parents -- but not others. Presumably no single woman would be so certified. And when the inevitable happens, and some young women (married or single) get pregnant without the state's prior certification of their privilege to be mothers?

Mr. Coughlin's bright idea has no hope of working without a system of forced abortion administered by the state. No system requiring 'a license in order to have a child' has any chance of working in practice -- so long as young people do what young people have always done -- without taking young pregnant women by the arm, escorting them into abortion clinics, and compelling them to submit to the killing of their children."

As unusual as such a system requiring a license to have a child sounds to those who value liberty, it is interesting to note that John Stuart Mill also spoke approvingly of this type of system in his classic work On Liberty:

"The laws which, in many countries on the Continent, forbid marriage unless the parties can show that they have the means of supporting a family, do not exceed the legitimate powers of the state: and whether such laws be expedient or not (a question mainly dependent on local circumstances and feelings), they are not objectionable as violations of liberty."

Others have written on the mistaken belief -- which is held within the academy -- that Mill himself was a libertarian and consistently espoused its principles via his written works. Karen De Coster notes at Lew Rockwell's site:

"If one plucks John Stuart Mill quotes and stands them on their own, yes, he can look quite like a libertarian. But Mill was far from it...

A student of Jeremy Bentham's work, and a utilitarian to the core, Mill was somewhat a classical liberal economist, however, he was an authoritarian and a spirited social reformer, something akin to a modern, politically correct liberal or Social Democrat. As an economist, Mill was a believer in public goods, and 'legitimate' functions for the State. As a political philosopher, he saw political expediency as an open door for the use of State power, and angled toward the massive centralization of information within State hands. He was a Big Government statist."

Matt Bruenig at The American Prospect has also pointed out Mill's clearly non-libertarian views on how the distribution of wealth is a social decision.

Along with others in the Western canon, Mill's ideas are not as easily categorized as many students of history and literature are led to believe. The beauty of the modern conservative and libertarian movements is that open publishing on the internet -- within a vibrant alternative media scene -- allows us to re-examine these categories in the public sphere and engage in fruitful debates on some fundamental philosophies.