The BBC reports that smacking children will likely soon cease to be defensible in Wales, following a series of votes by Welsh Assembly members. The Abolition of the Defence of Reasonable Punishment Bill does not ban smacking, but rather removes ‘reasonable punishment’ as a defence against charges of common assault, meaning that parents can be charged with assaulting their children if they are seen to strike them.
To a significant degree, laws function symbolically as moral statements. That is, by agreeing to make something illegal, a society is sending a clear signal that it is, well, forbidden. In this light, this Act is surely to be celebrated: it is a signal that, across society, that (like the Scots, since last October) the Welsh do not consider it defensible for parents to punish their children by hitting them.
It gets only two cheers from me, though, for what it signals about one of the most contested arguments in contemporary culture: the question of where parental authority is obliged to give way to that of the state. Welsh authorities appear to have little trust in Welsh parents: the BBC also reported yesterday that from 2022 parents will no longer have the right to withdraw their children from lessons on religion or relationships.
These two stories function perhaps as signals of a deteriorating trust in any sort of common social value set. In a relatively homogeneous society, parents would be trusted to ‘do the right thing’ and legislation on subjects such as smacking or sex education would seem like a sledgehammer to crack a walnut. But in the age of radical individualism, where the assumed right to disregard social conventions increasingly extends to how we raise our children, it is perhaps unsurprising that much that in a more communitarian age would have been taken for granted as ‘common sense’ is, instead, governed by legislation.
This in turn points to a paradox of radical liberal individualism, namely the way in which its logical end point is not some pleasant state of self-organising libertarian harmony. Rather, it tends toward a dystopian world in which any potentially antisocial side-effects of the individual right to autonomy and self-expression are ever more closely micromanaged by an ever more authoritarian total state.
If the price of ever greater freedom from social stigma is ever more restrictive laws governing our behaviour, we should be careful what we wish for.