When does a child become an adult in a free society?

by Quinton on May 14th, 2016

Is it based on age? It is based on brain development? What is it based on and how does this work in a free society?

 Filed under: Society, People & Culture, Children, Adults

1 Comment

Quinton: Let's first define child and
Sat, 05/14/2016 - 23:01

Let's first define child and adult to give a framework of what we're dealing with.


- a young human being below the age of puberty or below the legal age of majority.
- a son or daughter of any age.
- an immature or irresponsible person.
- a person who has little or no experience in a particular area.
- the descendants of a family or people.
- a person or thing influenced by a specified environment.


- a person who is fully grown or developed.
- a fully developed animal.
- a person who has reached the age of majority.

So these both say kind of what you would expect and are both kind of vague. The definition of children is a bit more helpful but still very vague. The adult definition is completely general. When is the age of majority for an adult? When is fully grown or developed? Is this speaking strictly physical? Neither of these definitions hit on a definitive answer.

And there are obviously lots of ways to approach this. Different societies go with different criteria. Some criteria may be:

  • Age
  • Ability to reproduce
  • Brain development
  • Responsibility level
  • Culture and societal norms

These all differ from society to society. Some societies may consider a child an adult at age 18. Some younger, some older. The ability to reproduce happens much younger than age 18 and I think a lot of people would view that as much too young for a child. I think many people would agree there is more to being an adult than just the physical part. So then you have brain development. It is generally agreed that full maturity in brain development doesn't happen until around 25 - 30 years of age. So you can have a large discrepancy for when a child becomes an adult. It can range from as young as 10 - 12 years and as old as 30 - 35 years.

And it goes much deeper than this of course. There are some 15 year olds that are closer to an adult than some 50 year olds. Obviously in general most 15 year olds are not, but it's not clean cut like we would hope. There is overlap and exceptions in all areas. You don't magically hit one marker and suddenly become an adult. It is a gradual process. And some mature quicker than others. Some mature slower. And some never fully mature. It all comes into how we are defining things and the particular questions at hand.


Okay, so we are talking about a free society. In a free society we champion property which ties in the non-aggression principle. This means that people own themselves. When an adult does something in a free society they are doing that outside of coercion and they are taking responsibility for that action. When 2 adults decide to make a trade they are consenting to that trade. When people in a free society do something they are making that choice themselves and showing self-ownership by doing so.

This obviously gets a bit hairy with children. Somebody who is 2 doesn't fully own themselves. They are unable to support themselves and they require the constant attention of their parents in order to keep them alive and help raise them. So a child does not practice self-ownership in the way an adult does. When an 8 year old makes a stupid decision we don't hold them as accountable as an adult because they didn't know better. Children have a learning stage where they are working on learning, growing and becoming in self-ownership the way an adult is.

So what do we use to determine when a child exercises full self ownership? Well, when do we decide that an adult is exercising full self ownership? What if the child purchasing alcohol has greater self-ownership than a 50 year old purchasing alcohol? There are obvious grey areas. This is why I think it is important not to focus on metrics, but more on how we would handle contracts and associations between parties regardless of age.

A free society is less about age or brain development or any of these metrics and more about your level of responsibility and consent. When there is an exchange between 2 parties they are both taking ownership of that exchange and consenting to the ramifications of said exchange.

If a 50 year old is selling alcohol to a 30 year old in a free society, that 50 year old is taking ownership of that trade. He is basically agreeing that he is not doing anything harmful or outside of the 30 year old's consent. But what if a 50 year old is selling alcohol to a 15 year old? Well this is different. A 15 year old generally isn't as self-aware as a 30 year old. When a 50 year old sells alcohol to a 15 year old they are basically agreeing that the 15 year old is of sound mind and possessing full self-ownership. And a 15 year old may not be a full self-owner. So this is a huge grey area.

So when does somebody fully own themselves? When does somebody have full self-ownership? Well, a good answer is when they decide they do. And how do they decide. Murray Rothbard would say when they voluntarily live on their own.

Regardless of his age, we must grant to every child the absolute right to runaway and to find new foster parents who will voluntarily adopt him, or to try to exist on his own. Parents may try to persuade the runaway child to return, but it is totally impermissible enslavement and an aggression upon his right of self-ownership for them to use force to compel him to return. The absolute right to run away is the child’s ultimate expression of his right of self-ownership, regardless of age.

I think this is also a good starting point. While the child is living with their parents and under their support they are still not fully practicing self-ownership. When they move out on their own they are much more so practicing self-ownership. Obviously there is still some grey area. But it is getting a bit closer to a metric that is less based around something rigid like age or reproductivity, but rather something closer to property and consent, which is a much better measurement.

So from this we could basically say that as soon as children are no longer dependent on adults then they are treated as adults. But it is much more nuanced than this. Let's explore it in a bit more detail.

A lot of this will come down to how courts and society in general processes this. Most people in general will not want 10 year olds buying and drinking alcohol. 15 year olds won't be as big of a deal. Very few people in society will care if 20 year olds buy and consume alcohol. And it's like this for everything. All types of things have different ranges of what people in society deem as acceptable and unacceptable for certain maturities of people, and of course this is ever evolving.

Most people are okay with a 40 year old and 30 year old having sex. Some people are okay with a 40 year old having sex with a 20 year old. Pretty much nobody is okay with a 40 year old having sex with a 15 year old. A 30 year old and a 15 year old, still not okay. 20 years old and 15 years old. It's getting more grey. A 18 year old and a 15 year old. Not as big of a deal to most people. Every example has a range that society is okay with. And these tricky grey areas is what courts are all about. Courts take into account all these things. And since courts and law in a free society would be built around common law it would be much more fluid and based around free markets. So law would make much sense than it does now. It would rule based on property rather than on opinions in a coercive environment.


So when an adult does business with a child they are taking much more risk than doing business with an adult. If they take advantage or exploit the ignorance and immaturity of a child the courts and society are going to come down on them much harder. We see this already in society. This is why if a 30 year old is having sex with somebody who is younger than him he better be damn sure that this person is of self-ownership and if he had to prove it in court he could. Otherwise this person would face much greater penalties for contracting with a child. The risk is not on the child. The risk is on the adult. And adults would have to be very careful when doing business or consenting activities with children.

A similar situation to this without children would be like somebody in the emergency room. When an adult goes into the ER and is unconscious the doctor has a certain level of duty not to harm of kill you. There is a certain level of risk on them to perform well on you and not to leave you with extra limbs, or physically altering things. This same type of risk is applied to the adult / child relationship.

But there are also some interesting solutions that can be gleaned from all this. Because of the way society and courts work in a free society, you will be taking a risk when you work with minors in a free society. It's already like this in most societies in the world. If you sell drugs to a minor you are taking a risk. If you have sex with a minor, you are taking a much, much larger risk than having sex with an adult. All these things are risks. And we have an industry that is built around risks. It's called insurance.

So a lot of these contracts between children and adults could be handled in a way similar to insurance. We could introduce 2 very helpful tools:

  1. Co-Signing
  2. Underwriting

Let's say we had a 15 year old child that was mature, had taken many tests to show a great degree of self-ownership, and made decisions similar to an adult. Well in a case like this his parents could co-sign on certain things for him. So rather than the ownership on certain things falling down on the child, it would fall down on the co-signer.

Let's take an example again. If a 14 year old needed a driving license for the type of work they did, then it would be possible for a parent to co-sign onto this license for them. If a 14 year purchased and sold weapons then a co-signer like their parents could co-sign and assume the risk. If somebody were to sell a firearm to a 14 year old it would be less risky to sell it to a 14 year old with their parents co-signing as opposed to straight up selling it to the 14 year old. In the case of no co-signer the seller would be on the hook for selling a firearm to a child. If the parents co-signed the seller would basically be selling to an adult by proxy of the co-signing agreement.

Underwriting would work the same way. If you could prove to an insurance company your legitimacy in whatever it is, and you paid a fee for the risk, then they may underwrite whatever activity it is if they deemed it profitable. In this case the insurance company would assume the risk for whatever activity it is that you are doing as a child. As a child the insurance agency would be acting as the adult of full self-ownership taking responsibility for whatever has been underwritten by them for you. Obviously this takes in market forces which makes them have to choose underwriting wisely otherwise they would come up unprofitable if they were spending much more in court fees and penalties for underwriting people who are not of sound mind.

Nobody would co-sign or underwrite a 13 year having sex with adults. Society wouldn't like it. Courts would come down hard on it. And if parents co-signed on it courts would come down hard on them. If an insurance company underwrote it courts would come down hard on them.

So hopefully this gives a bit of insight into when a child becomes an adult in a free society. There isn't a definitive answer. And it is a grey area. But it would be handled much better in a free society because it would allow for more mature people to become adults sooner and less mature people to become adults later. There isn't a one-size-fits-all model like societies currently have. And moreover, the metric would be based on self-ownership which is property. And property is the basis for a free society. So in line with every other legal piece of a free society it would come down to property. And along with this it would have all the benefits and innovations of a free market working behind the legal system to make sure that correct assessments of the situations are handled. It would also have insurance and underwriting in risky areas which would also allow for flexibility that younger people don't have currently in society.

Another point that I think is important to make is that with all these things we are trying to remove grey area. On hard questions like this we are trying to remove grey area and replace it with a law or a rule. But perhaps we are better off leaving the grey area and giving that to courts. Courts are made to handle grey areas. And courts in a free society would be much better than courts in a monopoly government society. So I think society as a whole already kind of knows where the line would be drawn on most cases. And this knowing would be enforced through the legal system when it came into grey areas. I think leaving it a bit grey and ruling based on property and self-ownership is the correct formula as opposed to setting a strict standard and trying to remove courts and grey area completely.

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