A normative extension of standard economic theory is that an individual is the best judge of what is good for himself. At least, there is no way to determine who else would be a better judge, and especially who should be entitled to impose his own preferences by force. The choice of a consumer, producer (including worker), or participant in any voluntary social interaction is thus worthy of legal protection if not of respect. Not too long ago, virtually any mainstream or Austrian economist would have agreed with this normative presumption.

Children were the only hard exception. The presumption applied only to adults. It is true that blacks or women (as well as proletarians with false consciousness in Marxist theory) were often viewed as exceptions too, but economists typically rejected this sort of philosophical discrimination between human adults. The “dismal science” label was apparently stuck onto economics for this sort of reason. (See my post “Is it OK to Use the R Word?”) In the classical-liberal tradition, moreover, it went without saying that nobody should be given the power to decide at what age a specific individual becomes an adult. Thus, the rule of law established a standard age, usually 21, and more recently 18.

In our (Western or Westernized) countries, there are lots of things that a child may not freely do with his body, including accepting certain kinds of employment at certain conditions, evading any sort of schooling, escaping from home, possessing guns and explosives, and so forth. In many countries, a child (and even a young legal adult!) is prohibited from buying cigarettes and alcohol. His parents do have to sign off, at least implicitly, on most of what he does. Sometimes, even the parents’ permission is not enough.

The scandal of children being allowed, with the state’s complicity if not incitement, to submit to sexual mutilations is a relatively new phenomenon (see my post “Mrs. Grundy Against Ryan Anderson’s Book”). Girls’ clitorectomy or infibulation were rightly viewed as liberticidal and barbarian practices. If we follow the standard normative economic interpretation of individual choices, of course, an adult should not be forbidden to alter his own body. Wrote John Stuart Mill, “over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” Children are another matter—until they are old enough to make their own choices.

Viewed from this perspective, the so-called “Let Them Grow Act” just adopted by the Nebraska legislature appears rather moderate, if not too moderate (see Sections 14-20 of Bill LB574). It prohibits sexual mutilations on non-adults by way of surgery (altering or removing sexual attributes or features), while allowing some leeway for chemical puberty blockers and hormone therapy (which may have irreversible consequences).

An opponent of the bill, state senator George Dungan, a Democrat, declared:

We should not be in the business of telling people what they can and can’t do with their bodies.

Indeed, people who oppose such a mild ban on mutilating children appear to be part of the same crowd that wholeheartedly approves most of the restrictions imposed on adults regarding the use of their own bodies, from the right to carry instruments of self-defense to the freedom to work for less than minimum wages that exclude them from employment, to use their hands or voices to express unfashionable ideas, to put or not put some substances in their own bodies, and to generally engage in “capitalist acts between consenting adults” (to quote Robert Nozick).

As Miranda said in Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “O brave new world, that has such people in it!”