(Something definitely a little different, today. This is a full length — though not too long — article. I’m posting it here in the hope that an ongoing discussion may be generated. Please spread the word to anyone whom you believe will find it of interest. As always, comments of all sorts, preferably rational and courteous, are welcomed and appreciated.)
In recent years, libertarian podcast personality Stefan Molyneux, based in Toronto, has developed a significant following. His FreedomainRadio show, which he — probably not without some justification – dubs the largest philosophy discussion on the Internet, has been informing and inspiring people for many years, now. He has some 10,000 regular listeners and boasts 25 million downloads of his videos and podcasts. He has also been an increasingly popular guest and MC at various libertarian events, thanks to his charming extemporaneous style and quick wit, in addition to the widely spreading word about his philosophical contributions to libertarian thought.
As the title suggests, though, I want to criticize an important – I suspect he would say, essential – aspect of his libertarian vision. This is what he calls peaceful parenting. The substance of peaceful parenting involves applying the non-aggression principle to the raising of children. He urges that libertarians should put their ideals into practice by treating their children as legitimate self-owners, thus not hitting, verbally abusing, threatening abandonment, or other forms of psychologically coercive behaviour. Molyneux’s position on this matter, though, is not merely an ethical one; peaceful parenting is not merely promoted out of either logical consistency or emotional kindness. Rather, he claims that this is a method for achieving libertarian goals.
In fact, Molyneux is sometimes dismissive of the standard libertarian bugaboos. Yes, yes, we all know taxation is violence, fiat currency destroys prosperity and government debt sells our children into slavery to bankers, but in our small numbers we can’t do anything about the tax office, the Fed, congressional budgets and so on. What we can do, though, is consistently apply libertarian values in our own lives. And doing so in the process of childrearing is especially important, because this allows our children to grow up as rational people, free of the damage caused by poor parenting, thus making them less susceptible to the personality qualities that lead people to embrace or deny the systemic violence and immorality of the state. All those other forms of activism – such as political, legal and educational advocacy – he insists, have been tried for decades or even centuries, without the desired result. Instead, he urges libertarians to bring their values to fruition through peaceful parenting. Though he rarely says so in so many words, the gist of his position seems to be that libertarians might procreate and parent their way into a libertarian world.
What I will argue here though is that peaceful parenting (PP) cannot and will not have the effects that Molyneux imagines. More precisely, it cannot have the dispositional benefits he alleges and it will not have them demographically. The dispositional claim is based upon the proposition that the alleged merits of PP are in fact inconsistent with the science of personality inheritance (or, at least, inadequately parses the implications of that science). The imagined demographic effects are impossible due to simple calculative implications. Admittedly, some additional considerations will be required to address this latter point, but they primarily serve to buttress the demographic problem.
Before fully launching into these criticisms, I want to make a couple of points. For the overwhelming substance of his stated libertarian views and analyses, I am in complete agreement with Molyneux’s positions. These criticisms do not come from a generally unsympathetic outlook. Furthermore, I even share his vision of PP as an ideal for raising children. Indeed, though long ago now, before I ever heard of Stefan Molyneux, or even libertarianism, that was precisely how I aspired to raise my own children. No doubt, mere mortal that I am, I slipped occasionally from Molyneux’s “zero tolerance” position. But I certainly agree it is the ideal to which parents should aspire.
In that light, my criticisms might seem nitpicky or a case of the narcissism of small differences. However, these points are vitally important, because Molyneux uses his impressive platform to promote PP as the proper focus of libertarian activism, urging libertarians to refocus their efforts in this direction. Thus, if his position gained influence, it would have a dramatic impact on the allocation of the very scarce resources of individual libertarian time and energy. Yet, if the criticisms made here are valid, such a focus of time and energy would be misguided. Certainly libertarians should have children if they feel so moved to do so and I for one believe that in their parenting they should heed Molyneux’s advice. Thinking that that constitutes a libertarian strategy for defeating the systemic and endemic violence of the state, however, is mistaken and shouldn’t be allowed to confuse or dissipate already limited resources for change.
Criticism One: Science and Personality
Molyneux puts great emphasis in all his work upon the importance of empirical evidence and scientific method. In light of this emphasis, it is peculiar the extent of the evident blind spot he seems to have when it comes to the science of genetic inheritance. As should be clear from above, in broad terms, his theory of PP is an environment-based one. If we treat children in certain ways, create the correct family environment, we can rely upon specific personality outcomes: more rational, more inquisitive, more peaceful, etc.
Off the top, this approach might strike some as wandering a bit close to the death jaws of the age-old nature vs nurture debate. Is our personality part of our nature or is it nurtured within specific childrearing contexts? However, the fact is that this nature vs nurture debate has been resolved decades ago. And it was resolved against the determinative claims of environment – especially insofar as environment refers to nurture. We have about half a century’s worth of data now from twin and adoption studies that show conclusively the determining role of genetics in giving us our personalities and psychological dispositions. 
Using clinically assigned measurements, it has been revealed that identical twins, separated at birth, and raised in radically different parenting styles and culturally oriented households, grow up to exhibit hereditary traits the same as twins raised in the same households. Adopted-as-baby siblings though, by adulthood, have no more psychological or personality similarities than do any two random strangers selected off the street. Furthermore, the extent of such similarities rigorously maps to the extent of shared genetic material: identical twins the most, fraternal twins and genetic non-twin siblings (the same) next, and last being adopted siblings. Again, this science is not at all ambiguous or recent.
The general rule of thumb that has emerged out of this literature is that both genetics and environment have about a fifty percent influence on the personality outcome for the child. This finding alone would throw considerable doubt upon the extravagant claims made for PP by Molyneux, but the situation is worse than that. In this literature, in fact, environment is distinguished between shared and unique environment. As the terms imply, shared environment is that shared by all the children in a family or household. The premise of shared environment is that all are equally subject to the same conditions. Unique environment refers to the upbringing context for the individual child. It is possible, of course, that one child is abused or neglected by parents in contrast to the other children. This would be part of that child’s unique environment. Injuries and illnesses contribute to a children’s unique environment.
These impacts, too, have been closely studied. It turns out that that 50 percent of personality and psychological makeup attributable to environment is entirely attributable to the unique environment. Molyneux will often make his case by interviewing experts who discuss the impact of traumatic events upon child development. There’s no disputing the impact of such trauma. Where it is purely accidental it is tragic and when it arises from parental abuse it is awful and can be legitimately considered a violation of self-ownership. These consequences, though, are almost universally part of the unique environment of the child. Rather, it is in what is called, and studied as, the shared environment that conventional, routine parenting practices, including disciplining, restraint and punishment, take place. As mentioned, though, these have virtually zero impact on personality and psychological outcomes.
So, if Molyneux’s case is that one shouldn’t torture and intentionally submit children to any variety of traumatic actions, yes, certainly, and doing so will undoubtedly have distorting impacts upon the child’s personality. However, this is quite a different claim from that made by him for PP: routine parenting methods can influence personality disposition in a more libertarian-sympathetic direction. The science provides no evidence for this claim.
Two particular forms of argument he uses should be specifically addressed before concluding remarks on this first criticism of Molyneux’s PP position. First, it seems that much of his confusion is based upon a logical misunderstanding that has tainted much research over the years aimed to discredit the genetic-based personality literature. Molyneux exhibits this misunderstanding on those frequent occasions that he’ll say it is “obvious” that a child raised in a peaceful, respectful home will grow up to be a peaceful and respectful adult, just as one raised in a brutal, harsh home will grow up to be a brutal and harsh adult.
These claims may be correct, but they are not a reliable indicator for the environmental influence that he imputes to them. Logically, parents genetically disposed to conduct themselves in a peaceful and respectful manner are most likely to sexually produce offspring with the very same genetic dispositions. And likewise is the situation with the contrary set of parental dispositions. There’s no logical reason to assume that a child being like their parents is environmentally rather than genetically determined. And, in fact, again, the adoption studies bear this out, revealing that children separated from their parents at birth, across a huge spectrum of qualities (including, incidentally, political dispositions), wind up resembling their birth parents, not their adoptive ones.
Second, on a number of occasions, including replying to some challenges by Peter Schiff’s brother, while hosting the former’s radio show in April, 2012, Molyneux supports his position with reference to the thorny issue of epigenetics. He correctly observes that it is possible for these genes to be turned on or off due to environmental influences. For one who takes great pride in basing his arguments on the firmest scientific foundations, this is a dubious turn. First of all, there is some confusion about what the term actually means – it has had at least two distinguishable meanings – many of the associated claims remain speculative, and the amount of empirical evidence supporting those claims is scant. Further, even where it has been observed, there is almost always reversion after a few generations.
However, even if we disregard all that, the human recorded instances are of the quality that would be covered in the inheritance literature as matters of the unique environmental influences. For instance, a frequently cited case is the effects of German blockade induced starvation on the Dutch during world war two and symptoms of poor nutrition in subsequent generations. As stated, though, traumatic experiences certainly will distort personality, and epigenetic triggering might well be involved; however there is no evidence for this in the case of routine parenting failures, from the perspective of PP, such as resorting to authority or threatening punishments. Indeed, if epigenetics were so easily and influentially triggered then the findings of genetic variation determination from the great literatures of twin and adoption studies wouldn’t be expected to provide the overwhelming evidence that they do. There seems to be no evidence that epigenetic triggering has any relevance for the shared environment of routine parenting – however much it falls short of the PP ideal.
Criticism Two: It Doesn’t Add Up
The second criticism offered here is that, even if the scientific claims for PP were correct – which they are not – and even if we were in no way troubled by the vaguely eugenic implications of the PP project, it couldn’t work even on its own terms. There is some dispute about the size of the population that can be considered libertarian. For example, in a recent book, Gillespie and Welch give us numbers that suggest it isn’t unfair to regard as much as half the U.S. population as being libertarian. However, this is not the population to whom Molyneux directs his urging to adopt PP. No doubt he would welcome a more widespread adoption of such parenting practices, as would the current author, however the point in this critique is his explicit targeting of self-consciously libertarian actors, with the specific purpose of rechanneling their deliberately libertarian-oriented action. This group is surely though a much smaller segment of the population.
It is admittedly hard to put a number on this demographic: one can’t realistically, say, base oneself upon votes for libertarian parties as some libertarians refuse to vote at all and some who do vote for those parties might well not meet Molyneux’s, or many others’, standards for what qualifies as libertarian. It does seem self-evident, though, that it is a very small portion of the population. After all, if the libertarian demographic were not so small, it would presumably have a much greater profile in mainstream political culture, where it is treated as fringe at best, but more often is simply invisible.
So, for the sake of argument, let’s just choose a figure of 7 percent as the number of self-conscious libertarians in the overall population. The point to be made would still be valid if the number were twice that, though, in all likelihood, one could credibly claim it was but 1/10 of it. Taking that number, though, as a working estimate, if we submit the somewhat preposterous assumptions that all those libertarians had children, all of them raised their children in full conformance with PP and consequently all produced reliable libertarians, in the absence of any evidence – which I’m unfamiliar with – that libertarians are prone to propagate at vastly greater rates than the norm for the populations of the advanced, relatively prosperous counties of North America and Europe, all these libertarians would have done would be to replace themselves.
Meanwhile, the 93 percent of the population who are non-libertarians, and would be expected to raise their children in non-PP conforming ways, would then replicate their non-libertarian majority of the population. It doesn’t take much calculation to realize that PP as a preferred libertarian strategy is a recipe for eternal ghettoization of libertarianism – even if PP were a determining factor in the generation of libertarians.
In fairness, it should be acknowledged that, though it gets not near the same air time, Molyneux does suggest that another important dimension of applying libertarian values in personal life is the requirement of libertarians to challenge actions of other parents that are inconsistent with PP standards. Strictly speaking of course this is no longer parenting, but advocacy. We won’t excessively quibble on this point, however, and accept it as part of the larger PP project. There is, though, at the heart of this addendum to PP a significantly more substantive quibble to be had.
Recall that the core position here is that – considering the long history of failed efforts to achieve libertarian goals through political, legal, educational and other forms of advocacy – libertarians should privilege, over these activist approaches, the consistent application of the non-aggression principle in their personal lives, most urgently in the practice of PP. Assuming, though, that his proposed advocacy of PP is directed at non-libertarian parents – otherwise we’re still stuck in the 7% ghetto – how can any libertarian expect to persuade any non-libertarian to assume PP practices if they have never heard of and possibly reject the non-aggression principle? If PP is being privileged as the method for the expansion of libertarianism, its only means to break out of the ghetto (aside of advocating significantly above replacement rate procreation) depends upon an existence of the very conditions that is it intended to create.
As the old adage goes, it’s rather getting the cart ahead of the horse. The only hope of effectively promoting PP is to have a wider range of new parents already exposed to the non-aggression principle and the complex of related and supporting arguments. The political, legal, educational, and so on advocacy, which was supposed to be displaced in emphasis by PP, in fact, is the very conditions of possibility for the laying of the seeds for PP, in the first place. Even if the claims for PP were not contradicted by the genetic science, the demographics of the position seem to lead PP promotion into incoherence.
To conclude, much as in the beginning: I would strongly lend my voice in accord with Molyneux’s assertions about how we should parent our children. However, it is simply erroneous to imagine that doing so constitutes any kind of project on behalf of libertarianism. Those raised under peaceful parenting will not have any greater probability to grow into libertarians than would any other kind of routine parenting that avoids traumatic exceptional events. To be misguided by this, and succumb to Molyneux’s arguments on behalf of PP, at best, will lead to parental disappointment (not to mention, a vaguely creepy instrumentalist approach to our own children). At worst, though, it will severely harm the long term libertarian cause by weakening and devaluing the essential work of libertarian advocacy and activism at the altar of a parenting project which the science assures us is doomed to failure.
Caplan, B. (2012). Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids. New York: Basic Books.
Gillespie, N., & Welch, M. (2011). The Declaration of Independents. Philadelphia: PublicAffairs.
Kozol, J. (1972). Free schools. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Neill, A. (1960). Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing. Oxford: Hart Publishing.
Pinker, S. (2002). The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Penguin.
Suissa, J. (2010). Anarchism and Education: A Philosophical Perspective. Oakland: PM Press.
 It in curious, though, that he seems rather indifferent to the fact that the project of achieving liberty through more freedom- and dignity-respecting childrearing and schooling practices is hardly itself a new idea. For some classic works dating from the mid-20th century see Neill (1960) and Kozol (1972). Also see the historical chapter 6, documenting efforts dating back to the very start of the 20th century, in Suissa (2010). The point isn’t to claim that these efforts would meet the rigor of Molyneux’s ideal for PP, but to remember that freedom promoting child care is subject to the same vagaries and travails as any other path toward libertarian goals.
 For my own convenience, I draw all my claims about the genetic hereditary research from Steven Pinker’s brilliant review of the field in his book, The Blank Slate (2002). See especially the chapter on children, though the entire book warrants your full attention. Those interested in a more detailed history of the research project and its milestone accomplishments can find the sources there. Pinker’s book is now about a decade old. For a more recent approach, by a libertarian, which arrives at the very same conclusions, see Caplan (2012).
 He has claimed that as much as 90% of personality is determined by environment and that this claim is backed by science.
 I am reluctant to include these remarks in the text, but can’t in good conscience omit them entirely. This entire PP parenting project evokes an odious odor of Stalinist or Hitlerist aspirations to mold the New Communist or Aryan Man. To claim that Molyenux’s project presumes a bottom-up approach in contrast to the other two’s top-down one, besides maybe not being quite so straightforward a distinction as is suggested, doesn’t strike me as particularly avoiding the more distressing implications. Don’t libertarians oppose social engineering of humanity? However populist his methodology, isn’t it precisely such engineering that Molyneux’s PP project promotes? However well intended, there is something discomforting about adults devising methods to mold children into the formers’ ideal.
 See their book, The Declaration of Independents (2011).