The Freedom to Disown
By Bryan Caplan
[Warning: Downton Abbey spoiler near the end.]
Once your children come of age, you are free to disown them. A parent can financially and emotionally cut off his own children with legal impunity. The children have the same right, but since the parents are usually richer and die sooner, children are largely limited to cutting the emotional cord. People are just as free to disown more distant relatives, friends, and romantic partners.
Disownment is a powerful threat to hang over others’ heads. The stereotypical case is a wealthy parent saying, “You’ll do what I say, or I’ll cut you off without a dime.” But the flip side – a grateless child vowing, “I’ll never talk to you again unless you do this for me,” is also common. When you’re on the receiving end of such threats, it certainly feels coercive. This is especially true when others take the disowner’s side against you because you’re out of step with prevailing mores.
Almost everyone thinks that it’s wrong to disown lightly. This norm is strongest for parents and children; the idea of cutting off one’s (adult) children or parents without mighty cause horrifies most of us. Most people would probably go further and say that disowning others – or just threatening to do so – is wrong even if you have a pretty good reason. If you know for a fact that your son shouldn’t marry his girlfriend, you still probably shouldn’t threaten, “I’ll disown you unless you break off the engagement.” Actually carry out such a threat would be even worse.
Despite everything I’ve said, though, almost everyone also has one very libertarian intuition on this subject. Namely: People have a right to disown. Passing a law saying, “You have to stay in touch with your parents” or “You can’t disinherit your kids” just seems tyrannical. And the reason isn’t that such laws would be hard to enforce. What could be easier than regulating bequests, or giving grandparents the right to sue their kids for visitation with their grandkids? The reason, rather, is that disowning is not “coercive” in a morally relevant sense. Why not? Because the disownee can’t justly claim to own the esteem or riches of the disowner, even if the disownee’s life will be very hard without that esteem and riches.
What do we learn from this? Most obviously, this is yet another piece of evidence that common sense morality is extremely libertarian. (See here, here, and here for earlier examples). A deeper lesson, though, is that libertarians are too quick to condemn traditional societies as “coercive.” All were to some degree, of course – just as all actual non-traditional societies are coercive to some degree. But how important was legal pressure relative to the threat to disown? In my judgment, the threat to disown was usually more important – which in turn requires libertarians to at least tone down their condemnation.
Just to jog your intuitions, consider the show Downton Abbey, set in England in the 1910s and 1920s. Aristocratic daughter Sybil shocks her wealthy parents by deciding to marry her chauffeur. Sybil’s father, Lord Grantham, keeps telling her that he won’t allow the marriage.
Sybil could easily have played the victim, dumped the chauffeur, and whined about “coercion.” But she doesn’t. She knows that she’s legally free to marry any man she wants, and that her family is legally free to utterly disown her. So Sybil tells her father that she’s willing to give up the family’s approval and money, and marries her chauffeur.
Is Sybil’s choice an easy one? Of course not. But her “merely” legal right to marry whoever she wants still has great moral significance. It means that neither she nor anyone else in her position can reasonably claim to be a slave. It also means if the law were to tilt the scales further in Sybil’s favor, it wouldn’t be preventing coercion, but inflicting it.