In the course of a good article about why Republicans seem to be pandering to anti-vaccination people over at the Weekly Sift, I was struck by this little quote from Rand Paul:
The state doesn’t own your children.
At the risk of over-interpreting a short quote, I see a lot going on in that little comment.
First there's the expression “the state”. An ordinary Republican would be more likely to say “the government”. Distrust of the government has been standard issue Republican rhetoric since Ronald “government is the problem” Reagan. Referring to “the state” means the same thing, but Republican politicians tend not to speak that way because of the confusion it generates over how here in the United States of America we have provinces called “states”. Senator Paul is sounding a bit like a political science professor in saying “the state” instead of “the government”, which is a bit odd since it clashes with Republican anti-intellectualism.
What's going on there? Who, other than political science academics, talks like that?
Libertarians like to style themselves deep thinkers about the fundamentals of political theory. (I don't mean that as mockery; libertarians have an enthusiasm for thinking about the fundamentals behind their politics which I think is admirable. I'll get to the mockery in a moment.) So they talk a great deal about the state in the same way that thinkers like Locke and Hobbes talked about the state.
Senator Paul is commonly understood as a libertarian. Maybe he was deliberately trying to dog-whistle to his libertarian fans. But I imagine more likely that he's turned to this question at this fundamental level, using this language, because genuine libertarian thinking surfaces in the way he talks about any number of issues.
And we see that continued in what he says about the state here, that it doesn't “own your children”. There are a few things going on in there.
Who is saying that the state owns your children? Obviously it must be liberals, whom he opposes, suggesting that children should be vaccinated. How does he get there?
Libertarians talk a lot about property rights, who owns what. They generally hold that property rights are prior to government, and that government action is generally either unjustified violence or unjustified theft of something which someone else rightfully owns (which itself is another manifestation of violence, since if one refuses to give the government what it demands it will send people with guns to come get it). To most libertarians, as well as to many movement conservative Republicans influenced by libertarian ideas, “taxation is slavery” because it is the state stealing the fruit of your labor. By their lights, taxation makes us all slaves, owned by the state. So some imagined regulation compelling the vaccination of children is nothing other than slavery by the state advocated by liberals.
Anyone who has talked much with libertarians knows that they aren't just speaking metaphorically. They regard government taxation and regulation with the same moral disgust that chattel slavery deserves, because taxation and slavery are fundamentally the same. (That libertarians saying this have an overwhelming tendency to be White men has implications which I will leave as an exercise for the reader.)
But actually, all that that was not the thing that struck me. What got me was the next thing Senator Paul said.
The state doesn't own your children. Parents own their children.
Wait, what? Parents own their children?
Given what I just said about libertarian understanding of property rights and their horror of being “enslaved”, I would have found that turn surprising had I not read Corey Robin saying:
When these libertarians look out at society, they don’t always see isolated or autonomous individuals; they’re just as likely to see private hierarchies like the family or the workplace, where a father governs his family and an owner his employees.
You will find Mr. Robin well-represented on my Understanding American Politics index, where there are links to a few of his articles expanding on this thesis that the conservative objection to exercise of power by the state in the public sphere ultimately reflects a protectiveness of the exercise of power in the private sphere.