essay alienated critics from the traditional Left (Deborah Stone)
and Right (Richard Epstein) but elicited exceptionally thoughtful
responses from others.
Stone's critique badly misreads my
argument. I do not slight parental love; nor do I propose to
dismantle social protections for parents. I can only assume that
Stone missed the opening paragraphs, which state in part that "most
parents will be responsible because they genuinely want to do right
by their children, but because of the social importance of parenting,
it makes sense to provide them with public support." She also
overlooked my affirmation that "good parents care for children out of
love and a sense of moral obligation."
I do emphasize society's interest in
parental persistence. But nothing in my argument supposes that
parents act only in response to the law's carrots and sticks. My
claim is that parents who take their No Exit obligation seriously are
helping society fulfill its obligation to children-and sacrificing
their own autonomy to do so. Because the capacity to exit is
crucial to personal freedom, the renunciation of exit is no small
sacrifice. Whatever parents' motives may be, personal or political,
their actions deserve social commendation and protection.
The puzzle is that Stone's essay so
mistakes the nature of the No Exit claim. I underscore society's
stake in continuity of care in order to challenge the libertarian
idea that parenthood is an entirely private matter. Highlighting
society's expectations of parents brings into relief society's
responsibilities toward them.
Stone and I certainly disagree on
some policy details. She endorses a traditional Left agenda, heavy
on labor-market regulation. While I am sympathetic to her
aims-improving the incomes of low-wage workers and expanding parents'
work options -I have doubts about whether these policies would
achieve them. As I suggest in the essay, economic theory and data
raise questions about the side effects of family-friendly mandates.
For prudential reasons, I worry that linking social benefits to the
workplace may backfire.
But Stone and I agree on other
progressive policies that could benefit parents and non-parents
alike: universal health insurance and health and safety laws. We
also share a belief in the importance of improving public education.
And elsewhere I have endorsed reforming Social Security to improve
caretakers' retirement security. (See Bruce Ackerman and Anne
Alstott, The Stakeholder Society, 1999.)
Bafflingly, Stone deems my strategy
"conservative," even though $5,000 per year for 13 years is more
generous than any existing subsidy for parents. Her mistake lies in
assuming that I offer caretaker resource accounts as the exclusive
remedy for social ills. Caretaker resource accounts address a
carefully defined social problem: the limited autonomy of parents,
and especially mothers. I do not suppose that caretaker resource
accounts could also cure child poverty, raise low wages, or reform
the health care or Social Security systems. The broader reforms Stone
suggests may be justified, but they do not address the distinctive
situation of parents. After all, parents and the childless alike may
suffer from poverty, low earning power, lack of health care, or
old-age insecurity. My effort is to show what society owes parents
qua parents-and not to delineate all the policies that might
characterize a fair society.
Robin West's essay beautifully
captures and extends my effort to construct a liberal theory in
support of care work. She suggests-rightly, I think-that it may be
politically and legally important to constitutionalize the No Exit
understanding of parenthood-to insist on a rights-based understanding
of parental entitlement.
West's response makes me wonder why I
didn't frame my proposals in terms of rights. The answer, I think,
is that I was working within the peculiar American legal landscape
relating to economic entitlements. In the legal fields in which I
work-taxation and social-welfare policy-there are few constitutional
protections, and the legislative field is wide open. West brings
constitutional expertise to an important and complementary project.
While my focus is on the normative case for caretaker assistance, and
on the design of institutions, she is asking a different question:
what legal structures could best protect caretakers' entitlements? I
applaud the project and take seriously her central point: that we
should not confuse our present understanding of rights with "their
Amy Wax's essay offers principled
objections to caretaker resource accounts, which aim to be neutral
across life plans. Wax's key point is that public policy shouldn't
be neutral: she considers Kate (the married woman who has a child in
her 30s) morally superior to Jan (the single mother who has a child
as a teenager).
I might quibble with details of Wax's
hypotheticals. But quibbles aside, Wax is pointing out a difference
of principle. I am not prepared to judge Jan as morally inferior to
Kate, assuming that both provide continuity of care to their
children (as both do in the hypotheticals). It strikes me as
dangerous and wrong to endorse Kate's choices over Jan's-dangerous
because moral judgments of this type invite public scrutiny of both
women's lives. Does Kate spend too much? Drink too much? Perhaps
Jan is a happy, tolerant mother, and Kate a bitter and vindictive
shrew-or vice versa. Society can't make these judgments and
shouldn't. Both women are capable of planning their own lives, even
if they make mistakes. If both mothers are doing right by their
children, then both deserve society's assistance.
I am more troubled by Wax's point
that children of single parents, on average, do worse than children
of married parents. That fact calls into question my claim that both
the single mother and the married mother are providing adequate care
to their children. Should we deny benefits to single mothers? I
think not, largely because I read the social science evidence more
cautiously than Wax does. While children of married parents fare
better as adults than children of single parents, the causal
mechanism isn't clear. Single parents are, as a group, desperately
poor and disproportionately likely to have less education, to live in
bad neighborhoods with bad schools, and so on. Studies that isolate
these sources of disadvantage find that the absence of a parent has
relatively little impact.
Still, single parenthood poses a
challenge for my project: why is it that society demands that only
one parent to be bound by a No Exit obligation? Our society has
decided, deliberately or by default, that it cannot compel both
parents to provide continuous care to their children when they cannot
or will not stay with each another. Although I take these trends as
given, I am open to measures to encourage parental persistence. For
instance, the law professor Elizabeth Scott suggests making divorce
more difficult for parents than for the childless. Still, I think
this will be an uphill battle.
Dorothy Roberts' essay draws out the
critical point that the No Exit obligation weighs heavily on poor
mothers. In interesting contrast to Wax, Roberts favors neutral
public policies that enable mothers to make a wider range of choices
about child-rearing and work. Roberts concludes, accurately, that
caretaker resource accounts "would not raise the incomes of many
single mothers sufficiently to give them a meaningful capacity to
choose their way of life." She advocates adding an entitlement to
public assistance in order to guarantee a "family-sustaining income."
I largely agree with Roberts here.
Caretaker resource accounts would be useful to all mothers, including
poor ones. But as I suggest in the concluding paragraphs of my
essay, more needs to be done to address the No Exit burdens of
low-income mothers and of parents of disabled children.
For this reason, Eva Kittay's concern
that I overlook the plight of poor parents is overstated. But
Kittay's response also includes more salient criticisms. She worries
that caretaker resource accounts would not address gender inequality
in child-rearing. Although I think Kittay underestimates the good
that might come of improving mothers' economic prospects, she surely
has a point. Caretaker resource accounts do not directly challenge
the gendered division of household labor. But even if we wanted to
do so, how would we accomplish this?
It has proven devilishly difficult to
get fathers to take a larger role in child-rearing. The Scandinavian
countries that Kittay praises have improved mothers' job
entitlements, but without notable progress in increasing fathers'
participation. At the same time, Scandinavian workplace mandates may
have contributed to rigid labor-force patterns, including a higher
degree of sex segregation in the workforce than in the United States.
Perhaps the Swedish compromise is the best route, but we should
understand its limits.
Kittay also argues that my approach
would "[isolate] the care labor of parents from other familial
caregiving." Once again, Kittay has a point. Care for adults may
also burden caretakers' autonomy: they may persist in their care work
for the long term, and they may take on a burden that is comparable
to, or even heavier than, the work of rearing a child. Think of a
husband caring for a wife with Alzheimer's, or a mother caring for an
adult child rendered paraplegic in a car accident.
While I am sympathetic to the idea
that these caretakers merit social support, I am reluctant to extend
the No Exit obligation to them. Kittay endorses a unitary idea of
"dependency," but I am wary of equating children's and adults' need
for care. Adults' needs are more variable and less transparent than
children's. Some adults are childlike in the relevant ways-unable to
make meaningful choices about their own care. But others are not. Most people with physical disabilities, and many with mental disabilities, can participate in choosing how to live and who should care for them. Others will have been able to make such choices in the past (think of the Alzheimer's patient).
For these reasons, I hesitate to extend the No Exit model to adults who are not "childlike" in their need for continuous care. For this group, there is at least a question about whether they should share responsibility for their care. Should society expect competent adults to insure against accidents or illness? Furthermore, caring relationships between adults are generally conceived as relationships of equality, with each party able to exit. Should we really extend the No Exit obligation to peer relationships? I worry that we overlook important considerations when we equate care for adults with care for children. I applaud the impulse to guarantee care to vulnerable people, but it is not obvious that the state should respond in the same way to all needs for care.
Finally, Richard Epstein's essay utterly fails to confront the internal contradiction of libertarianism, which prizes autonomy in adults without admitting any social interest in how adults become autonomous.
Libertarians seem to imagine that free individuals magically spring into being, without any societal intervention at all. But that is a curious assumption. If government regulation is impermissible, and the "taking" of individuals' labor especially so, then parents could treat their children as they chose. Libertarians may presume that parents would naturally do right by their children, but history calls into question that happy prediction. Child labor and child abandonment remain prevalent in the developing world, and they persisted until relatively recently in the West. Absent government programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, food stamps, public education, public housing, and the like, we might well see a return to those practices, at least among less fortunate citizens.
Epstein's intellectual audacity is stunning: he writes that "Alstott claims, falsely, that the principle of autonomy guarantees all individuals a sufficient resource base to lead a meaningful life when all it requires is that individuals be allowed to make choices for themselves using the resources that they have available." This statement simply brushes aside one of the major debates in modern political philosophy.
Epstein's crabbed view of autonomy also highlights the bankruptcy of the libertarian view of child-rearing. Are children, too, entitled only to make choices "based on the resources they have available"? If so, then children of poor parents will lead very cruel lives indeed. It begs the question to suppose that children could grow to be autonomous in such circumstances.
Epstein's policy solution is amusing. He concludes that what parents really need are tax cuts. This standard libertarian prescription reflects an unsubstantiated empirical claim: that if only the welfare state were dismantled, the "real income of all families, with and without children, will rise to achieve the objective that Alstott wants." But I suspect that Epstein has in mind only the upper class when he laments the situation of families that now pay high taxes "even if they send their children to private school."
Public education, social security, and caretaker
resource accounts are redistributive by design: they deliver benefits
to many people that are worth more than their contributions. Epstein
dislikes redistribution; fair enough. But it is nonsense to suppose
that tax cuts would enable ordinary workers to pay for child care
while paying out-of-pocket for private schools, private pensions,
and all the other government services that Epstein would privatize.<
Anne Alstott is a professor
of law at Yale Law School. Her article is adapted from No
Exit: What Parents Owe Their Children and What Society Owes Parents
(2004), with the permission of Oxford University Press.
Click here to return to the New Democracy
We Owe to Parents.
Originally published in the April/May
2004 issue of Boston Review.