FINALLY, on this point of individual liberty: Every man must necessarily judge and determine for himself as to what is conducive and necessary to, and what is destructive of, his own well-being; because, if he omits to perform this task for himself, nobody else can perform it for him. And nobody else will even attempt to perform it for him, except in very few cases. Popes, and priests, and kings will assume to perform it for him, in certain cases, if permitted to do so. But they will, in general, perform it only in so far as they can minister to their own vices and crimes, by doing it. They will, in general, perform it only in so far as they can make him their fool and their slave. Parents, with better motives, no doubt, than the others, too often attempt the same work. But in so far as they practise coercion, or restrain a child from anything not really and seriously dangerous to himself, they do him a harm, rather than a good. It is a law of Nature that to get knowledge, and to incorporate that knowledge into his own being, each individual must get it for himself. Nobody, not even his parents, can tell him the nature of fire, so that he will really know it. He must himself experiment with it, and be burnt by it, before he can know it.
Nature knows, a thousand times better than any parent, what she designs each individual for, what knowledge he requires, and how he must get it. She knows that her own processes for communicating that knowledge are not only the best, but the only ones that can be effectual.
The attempts of parents to make their children virtuous are generally little else than attempts to keep them in ignorance of vice. They are little else than attempts to teach their children to know and prefer truth, by keeping them in ignorance of falsehood. They are little else than attempts to make them seek and appreciate health, by keeping them in ignorance of disease, and of everything that will cause disease. They are little else than attempts to make their children love the light, by keeping them in ignorance of darkness. In short, they are little else than attempts to make their children happy, by keeping them in ignorance of everything that causes them unhappiness.
In so far as parents can really aid their children in the latter’s search after happiness, by simply giving them the results of their (the parents’) own reason and experience, it is all very well, and is a natural and appropriate duty. But to practise coercion in matters of which the children are reasonably competent to judge for themselves, is only an attempt to keep them in ignorance. And this is as much a tyranny, and as much a violation of the children’s right to acquire knowledge for themselves, and such knowledge as they desire, as is the same coercion when practised upon older persons. Such coercion, practised upon children, is a denial of their right to develop the faculties that Nature has given them, and to be what Nature designs them to be. It is a denial of their right to themselves, and to the use of their own powers. It is a denial of their right to acquire the most valuable of all knowledge, to wit, the knowledge that Nature, the great teacher, stands ready to impart to them.
The results of such coercion are not to make the children wise or virtuous, but to make them ignorant, and consequently weak and vicious; and to perpetuate through them, from age to age, the ignorance, the superstitions, the vices, and the crimes of the parents.--Lysander Spooner (1875) "Vices are not Crimes" XV, pp. 14-16. [HT Matt Zwolinski]
Reading Spoooner helps one understand that Libertarianism is a political doctrine that, at a very high level of world historical abstraction, mixes a mostly Lockean theory of natural right/law with a peculiar form of secularized Protestantism. I call it 'peculiar' because -- as the quoted passage reveals -- it's a species of Protestantism without original sin. (At the very end of the paragraph he calls the doctrine of original sin a "false and vicious" theology.) Spooner, in particular, shares with Emerson and Thoreau [recall] as well as other American thinkers (such as Dewey and Elizabeth Anderson [recall]), the idea that our lives are an open ended series of experiments--a word Spooner uses throughout the pamphlet.
While Spooner is committed to a rather fundamental form of moral equality (he was a fierce abolitionist), he also thought that each of us is idiosyncratic in all kinds of ways. This is crucial because it means for him each of us will be happy in ways particular to each of us and to be discovered by us individually. (I call it Protestant because Spooner is distrustful of [social/ancient] authority and he privileges individual, direct experience.) Virtues are conducive to our individual happiness, and vices harm them. Because these are idiosyncratic they should not be legislated for or against. By definition crimes do harm others, and these can be legislated against, although Spooner is very distrustful of the motives and aims behind much legislation in practice.
Life then becomes a Popperian-Darwinian series of trial and errors, in which children our trusted to find their own way and the role of our parents is limited to preventing catastrophic errors. (Come to think of it, this is a nice metaphor for his conception of the state which he tends to articulate in terms of contractualist language and mutual association or insurance.) He is critical of parents/family authority over children. In fact, one of the main ways in which parents harm children, for Spooner, is the ways in which our attempts at protecting children is a form of indoctrination into false beliefs that make impossible the (idiosyncratic) happiness of the child.
In so doing Spooner articulates a rather robust notion of children's rights and competences.* I am not an expert on the history of children's rights. But it is often said that these originate in concern over exploitation of children in factories (think Dickens) or the fate of orphans in mass society. That may well be true. But Spooner reminds us that there is also a more optimistic, perhaps over-optimistic, anti-conformist strain that grounds a social interest in children's rights; that's our joint concern in discovering the multiplicity of possible lives that can contribute to the stock of happiness, and knowledge of lives worth living. This must include a freedom to make one's own mistakes.
Most days of the week I do not share the optimistic assumptions about human nature that ground Spooner's thought. But I have to admit that I finally got a glimpse of Libertarianism's capacity to enchant the noblest minds.
*Including that of girls. Although he is also rather satirical about the way then state law in Massachusetts makes "ten years the age at which a female child is supposed to have discretion enough to part with her virtue!"