Front Page Titles (by Subject) Should We License Parents? - Literature of Liberty, Spring 1981, vol. 4, No. 1
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Should We License Parents? - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Spring 1981, vol. 4, No. 1 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Should We License Parents?
“Licensing Parents.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 9(Winter 1980):182–197.
The capriciousness of being born to parents who are unchosen and often incompetent is a puzzling fact of human life. Why should some children enjoy the care of a mature loving couple, while others suffer abuse and deprivation at the hands of an unsuitable father, mother, or both? Such questions have prompted writers from Plato to Aldous Huxley to conceive systems designed to alleviate the failures of the “natural” rearing of children. In this article, Prof. Lafollette suggests that parenthood should take its place among those professions customarily licensed in advanced societies.
Two criteria have traditionally served as a basis for licensing practitioners of certain skills. First of all, the skill in question must involve the risk of harm to others. Medicine, law, pharmacy, psychiatry, and even driving are obvious cases in which activities poorly executed may seriously harm persons other than the practitioners. In an effort to minimize potential harm to the public, test procedures establishing “competence” (the second criterion) have been instituted by government.
As it has evolved, licensing constitutes prior permission to perform professional activities. While tests are not foolproof, licensing procedures have been established in critical fields whenever moderately reliable tests have been developed.
Prof. Lafollette argues that parenthood constitutes an almost archtypical example of a profession requiring a license. First of all, parenting may cause real harm. Statistics of physical abuse by parents and psychological disorders among children bear out this assertion. Obviously, a parent must be competent if he is to avoid harming his offspring. He requires even greater skill if he is to do his “job” well. Unfortunately, many parents do not even possess minimum competence. Prior testing would serve to eliminate the unqualified.
To the objection that licensing of parents would involve massive government intrusion into personal lives, Prof. Lafallete replies that those granted licenses would face only minor intervention. Those denied one would experience a major intrusion. Nonetheless, the proposed interference could not equal that already practiced by public and private adoption agencies. As a result of rigorous adoption procedures, it has been demonstrated that adopted children are five times less likely to be abused than children reared by their biological parents.
Some may also object that it would prove impossible to prevent unlicensed couples from producing offspring. Lafollette suggests several solutions to deal with such an eventuality. For example, a system of tax incentives for licensed parents coupled with protective scrutiny of the unlicensed might adequately insure children against abuse.
Most philosophical objections to this proposal are, in the author's view, rooted in the dubious notion of parent's natural sovreignty over their children's lives—an idea advanced by some parents as a justification for mistreatment of children. This abhorrent view, Lafollette feels, must give way to a more child-centered perspective which emphasize children's right to respect as persons from their elders. Licenses to raise children would represent a significant step toward this view. Licensing would increase the likelihood that more children will receive adequate guidance toward maturity.
The Heritage of Freedom
This set of summaries also supplements David Gordon's essay, “Contemporary Currents in Libertarian Political Philosophy,” by adding a historical and philosophical background or “heritage” from which rights theorists can draw.
An undercurrent running through the “heritage of freedom” is the marked tendency towards diversity and individualism. With sentiments that echo John Stuart Mill's On Liberty (1859) and his praise of the spirit of individual freedom, William Barrett writes in his recent book, The Illusion of Technique (1979), of the indispensable civilizing function of freedom.
Any ascertainable advance in the human condition that we can observe has been the product of individual invention and creation—the labor of free individuals working on their own or freely together in groups. The method—which is no method, really—may seem hit-and-miss, but there does not seem to be any other way for the human species in its struggle for survival. Nature has the inexpugnable tendency to produce individuals who are not all cut from the same die like the objects turned out by a mechanical assembly line. This profligate disregard of uniformity sometimes has its social embarrassments, and is always annoying to the behavioral scientist. But it has the overwhelming value to the rest of mankind that among the unusual and different individuals born some have inventive and creative gifts that work for the benefit of the race. We can establish conditions that may assist such gifts when they appear, but we cannot program them into being. The creativity of freedom is precisely what cannot be programmed beforehand. It may seem an irregular, uncertain, and circuitous path toward the improvement of the human lot, but there is no other that we can trust.
A similar evolutionary perspective on the role of diversity, individuality, and nature's “profligate disregard of uniformity” is sounded likewise by Nobelwinning microbiologist René Dubos's study, A God Within, and a growing library of anthropological, biochemical, cultural, and historical volumes on the theme of the functional diversity of individual organisms and beings within nature and the universe. The following summaries tell a similar tale in the variety and uniqueness of approaches offered to the mystery of human freedom.