Thursday, February 26, 2009

Toddler Economics

For years the Parent/Child relationship has been used as a metaphor for the role of government both pro and con. There is a an implicit assumption that the family is a microcosm of socialism. Even the very free market F.A. Hayek believed that we act altruistically or socialistically at the family level. This inspired me to think about my children and how I maintain order at home. I am beginning to see the virtue of running my household more like a free market.

I joined Economist Bryan Caplan’s virtual book club a few weeks ago as he analyzes Murray Rothbard’s “For a New Liberty”. I have also been influenced by my friend Brian Phillips who is an Objectivist a la Ayn Rand.

Both Rothbard and Rand believe that the path to a moral society is to establish clear property rights. I’m not certain about it being moral, but if it helps me achieve my ends, then I’ll use it.

Here are my applications to toddler economics, of which I have two:

The living areas of the house are clearly a case of “Tragedy of the Commons”. That is, no one really “owns” the space so we all abuse the space, especially my boys. Therefore, the common areas must become the property of Mom and Dad. We allow the use of these areas by our boys if they follow our rules.

To encourage them not to abuse the “common areas” we have established a rule of use for the living areas and different rules for their rooms (being their property). Possession and proximity are the rules of temporary ownership for property brought into the living areas. That is, if child A leaves a toy on the couch and is now playing in the kitchen, said toy can become the temporary property of child O on possession. Permanent ownership is still conferred on the child of original ownership. In their rooms, all toys (property) are under their complete and permanent ownership. That is, if child A leaves a toy on his own bed, child O cannot take even temporary possession without explicit permission or compensation from child A. Thus, an incentive is used to maintain toys outside of the living areas.

Another minor rule for individual rooms is the right to exclusion. Child O may prevent child A from entering his room. Child O has the right to exclude child A from taking temporary possession of any property owned by child O within child O’s room.

On the subject of noise. We are all owners of our own bodies, and thus also our ears. If Child A shouts/screams this is a violation of property rights. He has caused me pain without compensation or permission. Therefore, shouting is only allowed outside and within their rooms with the door closed. At night, shouting violates the rights of the other child who is trying to go to sleep. This again is a violation of property rights.

And finally, to running and throwing objects in the house. The objects within the living areas of the house are the possessions of Mom and Dad (mostly Mom). To subject our property to risk of destruction without permission or compensation is a violation of our property rights. Because there is an objective probability that our property may be broken, throwing balls and running in the house are forbidden.

Any other thoughts? It’s actually pretty cool how this is working out.


Brian Phillips said...

That is a very interesting idea. A few questions regarding context. How old are your boys? How did you explain this to them?

I can see this teaching some very valuable lessons. The first is responsibility, which leads to a respect for the rights of others. (Responsible individuals want the freedom to act on their own judgment, and recognize the mutual right of others.)

I would imagine that one result has been much less bickering and perhaps even more cooperation between the boys.

Brian Shelley said...

We explain to the older, but not the younger. For the most part, it's more about knowing good rules for we parents to follow instead of a haphazard approach. The rules make sense and they match up with their true human nature, as opposed to some other parenting methods.

For our older one, who's four, we have started using this as our explanation. When he gets frustrated that the younger is playing with his toys we tell him that if he doesn't want [younger child's name] to play with them, then take them to your room. [Younger child] can't take your toys when they're in your room.

Doug said...

Interesting thoughts, Brian.

Rational Jenn said...

Great post! This is exactly how we handle property rights with our children (6.5, almost 4, and 8 months). In fact, I wrote a post about it a few weeks ago, about how we base our family interactions on what Ayn Rand called "The Trader Principle."

I think that approaching toys and sharing and living together in this way helps kids begin to understand that other people have rights, too. Since the ability to even envision that someone else might have different wants and feelings from herself takes such a long time to develop, using the Trader Principle emphasizes the child's own rights as a way to demonstrate that others have them, too.

It's nice to see other parents interacting with their children in this manner!