Bad parents in a libertarian society

As a libertarian, hobby economist, and foster parent, I’ve been thinking about how to protect children – or put another way, how to prevent bad parenting – without the physical coercion employed now by most governments. For purposes of this post, I’m assuming a society that wishes to minimize coercion, preserve parental authority, and protect children’s rights. Also, when I use the term “bad parents”, I mean people for whom the suffering of their children is not a strong incentive to improve themselves. The term “poor parents” is too easily confused with economic status, but “sub-par parents” is awkward and too broad.

My proposal is to pay bad parents – in cash – to improve their parenting, and if that fails, to pay them to contractually give up some or all of their parental authority to other adults.

The first objection to this is that bad parenting should be punished, and this sounds like a reward system. But imagine that sociologists discovered a previously-unknown people group deep in the jungle somewhere, and that these people had horrifying parenting norms, even up to the point of child sacrifice. What would be most helpful for these people: have a government arrest every adult and place every child in the custody of an enlightened but totally foreign family, or work to improve the parenting skills and morality of those people? From the perspective of the children, do we make them orphans in an alien world or try to improve the parents they know and love?

My guess is most people would prefer the latter (though I may be projecting my biases onto people). So why don’t we think of bad parents within our own culture in a similar way? The parents who have their children taken by the state usually have been themselves raised very differently from the typical middle-class voter or state employee. Even in the current system, most agencies attempt to mitigate the harm to children, and only resort to the foster system in the most extreme cases. We’re already trying to give bad parents incentives, but we’re using the proverbial stick of threatening to take away their children. We should be using the carrot of cash. If you were a manager you wouldn’t get your employees to work harder by threatening to kidnap their children if they don’t; you would offer to pay them more for doing well. That’s all I’m proposing we do for bad parents.

A more nuanced critique is that such a scheme creates a moral hazard – that on the margin, there are people who will be more likely to mistreat their children, knowing that they will be paid to improve. I imagine that any payments to bad parents would be contingent on monitoring, counseling, training, or other goals, which would add to the “cost” for marginal parents. And if you suspect that someone is really more interested in the money than their child’s welfare, offer them a lump sum to turn over their parental authority to decide what’s best for the child to someone else. I think that the incentive effects of this solution are ambiguous enough to warrant empirical research.

I think paying people to be better parents is a win for everyone. Compared to the current system of threatening to remove their children, the parents have less reason to be resentful or feel like they’re being treated as less than adults. The state may save money when you consider the amount spent on social workers, police, courts, and foster parents involved in all these cases; religious and charity organizations and individuals may even take it on themselves to arrange some of these contracts if the state makes them explicitly legal. And most importantly the children are better off because they are more likely to stay with their parents while at the same time receiving better care or a better home environment.

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