Freedom's Orphans: Contemporary Liberalism and the Fate of American Children

Freedom's Orphans: Contemporary Liberalism and the Fate of American Children

Freedom's Orphans: Contemporary Liberalism and the Fate of American Children

Freedom's Orphans: Contemporary Liberalism and the Fate of American Children


Has contemporary liberalism's devotion to individual liberty come at the expense of our society's obligations to children? Divorce is now easy to obtain, and access to everything from violent movies to sexually explicit material is zealously protected as freedom of speech. But what of the effects on the young, with their special needs and vulnerabilities? Freedom's Orphans seeks a way out of this predicament. Poised to ignite fierce debate within and beyond academia, it documents the increasing indifference of liberal theorists and jurists to what were long deemed core elements of children's welfare.

Evaluating large changes in liberal political theory and jurisprudence, particularly American liberalism after the Second World War, David Tubbs argues that the expansion of rights for adults has come at a high and generally unnoticed cost. In championing new "lifestyle" freedoms, liberal theorists and jurists have ignored, forgotten, or discounted the competing interests of children.

To substantiate his arguments, Tubbs reviews important currents of liberal thought, including the ideas of Isaiah Berlin, Ronald Dworkin, and Susan Moller Okin. He also analyzes three key developments in American civil liberties: the emergence of the "right to privacy" in sexual and reproductive matters; the abandonment of the traditional standard for obscenity prosecutions; and the gradual acceptance of the doctrine of "strict separation" between religion and public life.


Children depend on adults for many things, and this dependence encompasses more than material needs. Certain intangible goods—education, for example—are just as crucial to their well-being. These observations are hardly provocative, and any sustained commentary on human society that wants to be taken seriously is unlikely to deny this dependence.

In this connection, consider the second of Ralph Waldo Emerson's two epigraphs to his essay “Self-Reliance” (1841):

Cast the bantling on the rocks,

Suckle him with the she-wolf's teat;

Wintered with the hawk and fox,

Power and speed be hands and feet.

The irony of these lines serves several purposes. It points to the limits of self-reliance, perhaps as a way of tempering the enthusiasm of those readers well disposed to the essay. At the same time, the epigraph forestalls possible criticisms. Without it, some readers might complain that Emerson has forgotten about children and family life, an otherwise startling omission in a disquisition about the individual's relationship to society.

Besides being dependent on adults, children are impressionable. By definition, a child is underdeveloped in several ways: physically, mentally, morally, and emotionally. To say that an adult is mentally, morally, or emotionally underdeveloped often implies that he or she is also impressionable. in adults, such impressionability is considered regrettable (and sometimes a grave misfortune), but with respect to children, it is deemed unexceptional or natural.

These two themes are not unrelated. For good and for bad, a child's impressionability is in some ways linked to his or her dependence on adults.

Nearly two hundred years before Emerson's “Self-Reliance,” the Dutch artist Jan Steen (1626–1679) completed a semihumorous painting, The Way You Hear It Is the Way You Sing It. Like many Dutch works of the seventeenth century, it is rich in symbolism, though what the painting says about moral education, human appetites, and the impressionability of the young is clear.

The painting depicts a family of three generations gathered for the festival of Twelfth Night. the grandfather of the family, a rotund man who has been crowned king of the festival, sits at the head of a small table set with holiday fare. Above the grandfather, an uncaged parrot, symbolizing mimicry, rests on its perch. the grandfather's wife sits across from . . .

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