Who Should Be Our “Adults”?

Adult: “a mature, fully developed person. An adult has reached the age when they are legally responsible for their actions.”
“to attend to the ordinary tasks required of a responsible adult” “children should be accompanied by an adult” “responsibility, independent decision-making, and financial independence”

Mature: “fully grown physically” “developed mentally and emotionally and behave in a responsible way” “a lot of careful thought”

Responsible: “liable to be called to account” “able to answer for one’s conduct and obligations; trustworthy” “involving important duties, independent decision-making, or control over others.”

The usual concept of “adult” combines both a style in a role, “mature, responsible, independent”, and a description of who we let fill that role, “fully grown human”. In this post I want to reconsider who should fill that role.

The main role of an “adult” is to think carefully about what to do, and then do it reliably, with action choices that account well for their effects on others. That is, an adult has autonomy, self-control, and intelligence to make choices well and reliably, but also faces social incentives adequate to make them play well with others. Or at least play similarly well to the other available adults. Adults can be relied on to do the important things than need doing, and yet can be given great autonomy to decide what to do how and why.

A key subsidiary adult role is to manage “dependents” who are not up to filling this role. Such as children, animals, machines, the mentally ill, and the infirm. Not all adults need take this role, but those who do take this role must be adults. We match each such dependent to an adult “guardian”, allow that guardian to limit dependent behavior, and hold that guardian responsible for such behavior. In order to limit guardian mistreatment of dependents, sufficiently able dependents may be allowed to choose their guardians,

The prototype for this relation is that between human parents and their children. Parents limit their children, and are responsible for them to outsiders. Compared to their children, parents are more free to choose their actions and relations, are more held responsible for their actions, and are more trusted to do important things.

A common “libertarian” vision is to treat all fully grown humans as “adults” in this sense. But in fact such humans have usually not been full trusted, free, or responsible. Among foragers, the band as a whole, discussing together, was more of an “adult”, trusted to limit the behavior of band members. Later on, during the farmer/herder era, family clans were more the “adults”, held responsible for member behavior and able to limit those individuals. Larger nations and empires have also been treated by the world as “adults”, free to choose and to be destroyed. And at times such units have decided to limit the freedoms of particular family clans, treating them as less than fully adult.

Such higher level “adult” social units have at times treated particular fully grown humans as also “adult”, judging them to be sufficiently reliable and responsible to be treated in that way. But many other fully grown humans have been treated more as dependents. And the usual rule has been that such dependents must be associated with particular controlling adults who were more reliable and could be more held more responsible.

The industrial revolution was primarily driven by the rise of new larger orgs, such as for-profits, non-profits, and government agencies. (Science & tech were side effects of those new orgs.) And once such orgs became available, we soon came to treat them as the main “adults” of our world. Such orgs are arguably just smarter and more thoughtful and reliable than individual humans. They are now trusted to manage our most important activities, and are allowed to make deals and relations with each other quite freely, with almost no regulations.

Today we do not treat most fully grown humans as fully “adult”; we instead require each such human to pair up with a nation-state. Nation-states then limit the choices of their fully grown human members, and are held responsible by other nations-states for the actions of such members. We also usually support a norm that humans should be free to switch nations, if the new nation will take them. Nations don’t always play well with each other, but no other orgs at that level can force them to behave better.

However, I propose that we seriously consider instead treating smaller organizations (for-profits and non-profits) as the main responsible “adults” with which we pair each fully grown human. These smaller orgs are arguably on average even smarter, more thoughtful, and more reliable than are nations, they arguably play better with each other, and we are more willing and able to hold them strictly responsible.

Furthermore, these are the orgs that we actually trust to do most of our important activities. Competition between such orgs is what mainly ensures adaptation and innovation in our world, far more than does competition between nation-states. And allowing humans to choose between these as their adults gives them far more effective choice than when choosing between nations.

Today employers are in part treated as “adults” relative to their employees. And requiring each fully grown human to pair up with a sufficiently responsible firm is the essence of my “vouching” proposal for criminal law reform. The main formal requirement to be a voucher is having enough money to pay client fines, which makes such an org much easier to hold responsible for they and client actions. In addition, I expect most to be for-profit firms, and thus smarter and more reliable than are most fully-grown humans. With vouchers responsible for individual behavior, and able to regulate that behavior, we’d have less need for government regulation to limit individual behavior.

Compared to themselves, children see their parents taking on more important roles in the world, being held more responsible for their actions, being more careful in their choices, and being more free to choose as they like. While most children eventually grow into such roles, many are disappointed to learn that few fully grown humans are treated fully as ideal “adults”. In our world, that role is reserved for nation-states.

Some are so disappointed to learn this that they propose “libertarian” reforms to make fully grown humans be the “adults” of our world, mostly unregulated and strongly responsible for their actions. If you ask them why children should not also be treated this way, a few will bite that bullet, but most will point to children being less reliable, thoughtful, and knowledgable, and to our being less willing to hold them fully responsible for their actions.

But even though my intuitions pull libertarian, I have to admit that many fully grown humans also look this way, at least compared to our larger orgs. (These two recent movies brought this point home to me.) Such humans can also be pretty random, unreliable, and unthoughtful, and knowing this fact most people aren’t willing to hold them fully responsible for their actions, and are willing to authorize regulation instead to greatly limit their behavior.

However, even though we aren’t willing to treat most children as ideal “adults”, this doesn’t mean that nation-states must directly manage them. Instead we all understand that it probably works better to tie each young human to a fully grown human, who is more thoughtful than, and can be held more responsible than, that child.

So similarly, even if we also aren’t willing to treat most fully grown humans as ideal “adults”, this also doesn’t mean that they should be directly subject to limitations by nation-states. As we can instead tie each fully grown human to a larger voucher org, who we are in fact willing to treat as an ideal “adult”. Because such orgs are in fact more thoughtful, reliable, and able to be held responsible, and we are more willing to actually hold them strictly responsible.

To review, the concept “adult” has two parts, a social role that can be filled, and a description of who fills that role. The role is that of the thoughtful reliable responsible party, who can be trusted to do important things, who can be given great discretion re how to do them, and who can manage non-adults. In the context of small families, then compared to their children to a first approximation that adult role can be filled by fully grown parents.

However, in our larger society we do not in fact trust most fully grown humans to fully fill that role, as we have available to us more thoughtful, reliable, and responsible orgs. We have so far been putting nation-states into the ideal adult role.

But I argue that we’d do better to put smaller orgs in that role. That is, I propose to require each fully grown human to pair up with a “responsible adult” org, ready to pay for all they do wrong, and able to limit their behavior. To avoid mistreatment and allow adaptation to varying context, allow those fully grown humans the freedom to choose a mutually-agreeable adult, but require them to pick one.

If someone can find a voucher willing to back their being treated fully as an adult, well then I’m okay with that person being treated that way. But if no voucher is willing to back that stance, I don’t see why I should back it either. This may be as libertarian as I’m willing to go.

Added 11a: As Stefan Schubert notes, we can also see adult-dependent status in they ways that parties talk to each other. Complaining “kids” talk differently.

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