Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Thoughts on Banita Jacks, Homeschooling, and Liberty

Update: I fixed a couple of glaring grammatical mistakes and unwieldy sentences. This is what happens when you finish writing an essay way after midnight; when you read it in the morning, you find surprises.

The latest Carnival of Homeschooling is up at Alasandra's Blog. My post, entitled The Whys of "Why" is featured along with a whole bunch of other good items. I was tickled by the one entitled Are Homeschoolers Wack-O? An Informal Survey--it appears that most of the people responding to the survey are homeschoolers, and the consensus appears to be that yes, we are all wack-o.

But there are a number of posts on a very serious topic that was raised last in last week's carnival. This was the Jacks tragedy, in which a mentally ill mother pulled her children out of school and used the "I'm homeschooling" trick to try to keep the child protective services off her case. Of course, when the abuse of her children finally culminated in their murders, this set off a huge debate regarding society's relationship with its homeschooling minority. This week's Carnival posts touching on this topic are here and here; and there were some posts in last week's Carnival as well.


But I'd like to touch on a rhetorical football that has been tumbling back and forth for a while now in this debate. The argument is being made that if these children had been in school, then perhaps the teachers and administration would have noticed that something had been going on, and this family could have gotten help sooner. The fact that society allows some people the freedom to homeschool, in this view, created a social space in which the Jacks tragedy could take place. Now some--including the two links listed above--have argued that this argument doesn't stand up against the facts of this particular case. After all, it has been pointed out that the troubled Jacks family wasn't flying under the radar, so to speak; it was on the radar screens of at least five different government agencies, and that they all dropped the ball.

But I think these kinds of answers, which do have their time and place, are ultimately self-defeating for the homeschooling movement. The fact is, many homeschoolers were motivated to homeschool precisely because of the increased freedom from government influence homeschooling makes in their lives. I'm willing to entertain the possibility that the homeschooling lifestyle does give people a bit more space between themselves and the government. And if a homeschooling parent did begin to abuse his or her children, the freedom that comes from the homeschooling lifestyle could be leveraged to keep government agencies from finding out about the abuse, at least longer than would occur if the children were enrolled in a government school.


Something needs to be understood here, about the nature of liberty and the nature of governance.

Any time a large population possesses a liberty--and this includes any liberty, including not only the right to educate one's child, but the right to own one's own property, the right to associate freely with anyone one chooses, the right to speak one's mind about any topic that comes to mind, any liberty--it is pretty well guaranteed that someone in this population will use this liberty to make stupendously bad decisions. Let me just run down a few examples that come to mind:
  • If people have easy access to motor vehicles, someone is going to drink & drive, or will race on the public streets, or will run red lights; and people will die as a result.
  • If people have the right to keep and bear arms, someone is going to handle his or her weapons irresponsibly or maliciously, and people will die as a result.
  • If people have the right to vote whomever they wish into power, occasionally the people will put smooth-talking demagogues in power who will use the apparatus of the state to destroy, enslave, and impoverish the population.
  • If people have the right to adhere to any religion they wish, someone will pick doomsday cults or sects that promise paradise on earth, after everyone who opposes the sect is subjugated.
The list goes on, and on, and on. For every right you can think of, I suspect you can think of someone, somewhere who has abused the right and made a hash of his life and the lives of those around him.

Importantly, this is an inherent part of the nature of freedom. If you aren't permitted to make the really lousy decisions, it's because you're not really being permitted to think and act for yourself.

And it should be noted, in part because of this fact, those who hold political power in societies--and those who wish to hold political power--find the fact of liberty to be very inconvenient. Whatever views you have about any given political topic, rest assured there is a sizable chunk of the populace who you think holds the wrong opinions, and does the wrong things. This makes it very hard for any social reformer, any politician with grand social views, any petty bureaucrat to get things done.

After all, suppose you are a social reformer, hoping to bring about some positive change in society. If people have liberty, you cannot make them change their ways; you have to convince them, one person at a time. This is a lot more work than just passing a law and forcing everyone to do what they obviously should. Suppose, for example, that you are trying to eliminate smoking; if the only thing you can do is talk to people, to reason with them, it's going to take a whole lot longer to complete your goal, than if you have the power to write a raft of no-smoking ordinances and require everyone to obey them.

To many would-be social reformers, homeschooling is therefore a threat. After all, if you wish to make a large, permanent change in society, what more efficient way could there be of passing one's values on to the next generation en masse? If you want to save the environment, or teach about safe sex, or promote acceptance of other races or alternate lifestyles, it seems that the schools--where the next generation spends so much time in the care and keeping of government employees--are the perfect place to start. But homeschooling--which at its root, is an exercise of a particular liberty on the part of the parents--circumvents this mechanism.


So what, then, is the value of freedom? What is the value of letting people make their own choices, given in advance that some non-trivial percentage of them are going to make lousy choices?

Well, one possible answer to this is to point out the empirical fact that, although some people do make lousy decisions with the freedom they possess, there are plenty of others who use their freedoms responsibly and achieve great things with them. The evidence that exists shows that the liberties available to homeschoolers are, for the most part, being used responsibly. Yes, there may exist homeschooling parents who use their liberty as a cover for abuse and parental unfitness. But there also exist homeschooling parents who use their liberty to raise kids who can win the National Spelling Bee and National Geography Bee. Liberty tends to provide for both extremes, the catastrophic and the phenomenal. Social reforms that reduce liberty tend likewise to mitigate both extremes, the catastrophic and the phenomenal.

I said that this was one possible answer. But it's not an answer I particularly like, because it rests on utilitarian grounds. It is essentially saying that "we should be allowed to do this, because doing so produces these good results." Unfortunately, this kind of argument can be undermined by someone who defines good results differently, or by someone with an agenda who is willing to write and publish flawed studies about homeschooling. If the homeschooling movement (as it grows in popular appeal) attracts a bunch of bad parents, the argument will be made that even though some students do well in it, others do not, and that in aggregate, homeschooling results in a net loss for society, therefore the liberty to homeschool should be sharply curtailed.

The answer that I prefer is one based much more on a fundamental value judgment: liberty is a good in and of itself, regardless of whether or not people use their liberty responsibly. We have freedom of speech not because it is valuable to the government (it generally isn't), and not even really because it is good for society (it generally is, but there are exceptions); we have this right because it is a fundamental human right, and because no government can deny fundamental human rights without delegitimizing itself. (Incidentally, this is a variant of the argument Jefferson set forth in the Declaration of Independence.) While there may be cases in which harmful speech may be legitimately curtailed (falsely yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater is the classic example), the government can only do this after making an overwhelming case, and even then the curtailment must be narrowly tailored, or we as a society recognize the governmental action as underhanded and lacking legitimacy.

And the right to raise one's own children according to the dictates of one's conscience, in accordance with one's own wisdom and experience (the right upon which homeschoolers base their claims), is likewise a fundamental human right--the violation of which similarly deligitimizes the government that does the violating. Now, this isn't to say that a government can't step in when an unfit parent has become a danger to the lives and health of his or her children; but like the example about speech in the previous paragraph, the government can only stage such an intervention after making an overwhelming case, and even then the intervention must be narrowly tailored--or the government itself becomes an agent of injustice. One thing the government cannot do is to issue the blanket declaration: "Well, because so many people out there are misusing this liberty, we will issue guidelines by which all parenting will henceforth be done, and parents found not to be in compliance will face legal consequences." Were a government to do this, we as a society would (hopefully) recognize this as a severe breach of fundamental human rights, that would render the governing authority unworthy to govern.

Does this create a space in which the Banita Jackses of the world can hoodwink the authorities while destroying their own children? Probably; that's what happens when people have liberty. This is a genuine tragedy, and would be unconscionable--were the alternatives not so bad.


Anonymous said...

I agree- one could not create enough legislation to prevent every possible immoral or unethical behavior. The problem is exacerbated when laws already on the books are not observed and enforced, and punishment is not a deterrent.

This issue reminds me of those signs on the fronts of stores that say "This is a gun-free zone". Why not hang a sign that says "Burglars welcome"? The only people who observe and obey laws are the responsible, law-abiding citizens! Hellloooo?

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Excellent post.

I think you have gotten to the heart of the issue with your argument based on rights and liberty rather than on utility alone.

I have commented on several of the posts in the previous carnival that as tragic as this incident is, there is no way to guarantee perfect safety from harm for all without removing liberties to the point where we would all do nothing. It reminds me of the science-fiction story With Folded Hands. To be conscious of being living means that we must wrestle with the prospect of dying. There is no perfect safety from our own mortality, even if we spent our lives in a bubble in order to protect us. And that would be an enormous loss of liberty.

Renae said...

Very good post. Thank you for sharing it.

Liberty is misunderstood sometimes to mean that an individual can do whatever they want or feel. Jacks did not have liberty to murder her children. Her children had the right to life! What a terrible tragedy, and unfortunately, as you stated tragedies cannot always be stopped.