The New York Times ran an op-ed yesterday by Canadian legal scholar Joel Bakan, the author of a new book titled Childhood Under Siege: How Big Business Targets Children. Bakan argues that the 20th century has seen an increase in legal protections for two classes of persons, children and corporations, and that one of these is good and one is terribly, terribly bad—mean, even. That furthermore, there has been a kind of inexorable, Hegelian clash between the Corporation and the Child, but that the Corporation is steamrolling the Child, and we’ve got to step in with governmental protections.
The first problem with Bakan’s analysis is his history of personhood. In his words, children were not legal persons until the U.N. Declaration of the Rights of the Child in 1959. And as he understands it, corporations are granted certain rights of personhood simply because they have lots of money to pay lobbyists with—not because they are risk allocating mechanisms that must function semi-autonomously from the men and women who run them.
It is ridiculous to assert that “the 20th century also witnessed another momentous shift, one that would ultimately threaten the welfare of children: the rise of the for-profit corporation.” A Canadian lawyer should have some history of the common law and should know of the numerous 18th and 19th century for-profit corporations. And you can’t talk of fin de siècle child welfare reforms without corporate dark satanic mills already abusing the children.
Worse than these blunders, though, is Bakan’s view of the condition of children vis-à-vis corporations today.
Childhood obesity mounts as junk food purveyors bombard children with advertising.
We medicate increasing numbers of children with potentially harmful psychotropic drugs, a trend fueled in part by questionable and under-regulated pharmaceutical industry practices.
We also know that corporations often use [toxic] chemicals as key ingredients in children’s products, saturating their environments.
It is not even considered that children’s parents might be responsible for the food they eat, the medicines they take, or the toys they play with. Indeed, the piece begins with a reflection on Bakan’s own children’s absorption in the digital world and a sense that something is wrong with their lives, but nowhere does it occur to him to do anything about it, except to raise awareness in the pages of the New York Times. If the progressive state is to solve his own problems of parenting just as it is to solve his children’s problems, how is our brave muser any different than a child?
Bakan ends with a quotation of Nelson Mandela: “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” Mandela was right, and Bakan is a ward of the nanny state—it treats him as it treats his offspring, and makes children of them both. It is frightening to remember what Chesterton said—that “education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another”—if there is no difference between generations.