The Missing Child in Liberal Theory


136 pages
Contains Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-8020-7586-X
DDC 305.23




Reviewed by Elaine G. Porter

Elaine Porter is an associate professor of sociology and chair of the
Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Laurentian University.


The author raises fundamental questions about the well-being of children
in Canada, and forces us to face the paradox that we are willing to
grant rights to children but, at the same time, we impoverish many of
them. In fact, he goes so far as to link that impoverishment to the
rights that children, and adults, have acquired. His discussion of the
origins, processes, and consequences of a social and political rights
discourse forms the basis for his condemnation of liberal contractarian
societies and his call for a covenant society.

At first glance, a covenant society would seem to appeal to all critics
of the status quo. O’Neill’s solutions would seem to offer us the
means to strengthen the state against the forces of market capitalism,
and allow us to gain the strong centre that Canada is currently
dismantling. However, a closer look suggests that the gains in stability
and greater child welfare that might ensue would come at a high cost.

O’Neill acknowledges the costs associated with higher taxes but
minimizes the price that would be paid—especially by women, who would
be asked to pay less attention to their rights and more to the
intergenerational covenant. It takes O’Neill several chapters to
articulate the range of considerations needed to make this point, and he
raises many issues that are genuinely troubling. Yet also troubling to
the reader is the moral authority his concern over children seems to
give him. Thus, he coins the phrase “politics of mutism” to refer to
the fact that adults represent children’s interests; but that point
leads into his argument that daycare is “biased toward the ideological
interests of individualizing adults, especially bourgeois feminists.”

Although O’Neill claims that his solution is forward-looking, he is
actually taking a giant step backward. His solution is to build a
society that resembles a highly ordered medieval society, in which
individual rights become muted and family and community take precedence.
He is forgetting that children grow up to be adults and have to spend
the larger part of their lives in his covenant society.


O'Neill, John., “The Missing Child in Liberal Theory,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 20, 2024,