Now, I have no problem with the idea that a parent's duty to contribute should scale with the parent's income. What I felt uncomfortable about was the fact that, under the law, the child of a wealthy parent has a right to more support than the child of a poor parent. It's not that I begrudge wealthy children being well-provided for, but that it strikes me as unjust that poor children aren't seen as being equally deserving. Wealthy parents will naturally provide more for their children than poor parents, and that's a private matter that we can't do anything about. Nor should we want to, even if we could. But it's different when the law gets involved, and the courts officially rule that child A is entitled to only this much a month in support, while child B is entitled to that much.
It's obvious, of course, how this came to be. After all, the money for these support payments is coming FROM the parents and going TO their own children. In the individual case, you can't get more money from a poor parent just because you think that child needs or deserves or even has a right to more support; the poorer parent just won't be able to provide, and that's that. I understand that the courts in child support cases are only dealing with the case at hand, not the income disparity between cases. I suppose it's a question of the rhetoric involved. If we limited ourselves to talking about the parents' obligations, then I'm perfectly comfortable with saying a wealthy parent has an obligation to pay more in child support than a parent of more limited financial means. But we do talk about the rights and interests of the children; indeed, in family law, the best interests of the child are of paramount importance. So when we admit the interests of a child as a matter to consider (as distinct from the obligations of the parent), the conflict arises: Why does this child deserve more support than that child? Is it not inhuman to say that a child living in poverty has less need for support than a privileged child? And we're talking about children here, not the adults who earn the money. Of course wealthy people who earn their money are entitled to lavish as much of it on their children as they like. But the children themselves have not earned this income, and it's a little harder to argue that they are morally entitled to it as against each other. And if a wealthy parent chooses to run a frugal household, spending no more on piano lessons or ski trips than a poorer family, the state will not generally interfere, and no one would argue that the wealthy parent's child is entitled to a more luxurious childhood simply because the means exist. But even if we have a sense that the children of wealthy parents in some sense deserve to benefit from the good fortune of their birth, are we prepared to accept the converse: that the children of poor parents in some sense deserve to live in poverty?
So while deliberating over this, I had a crazy thought. It's not something I could ever see happening in the current political climate, and I'm not quite sure how to square it with my own general philosophy on taxation, but the idea is this: What if a portion of every adult's income were paid into a general child support fund, which was then distributed equally among all children? That is, what if we simply applied the principle of child support universally, without regard for whether or not there was a divorce or separation? Parents who were still together would pay out their child support tax, but they'd receive back child support payments that would in all likelihood be more than they paid out (thanks in part to the contributions of adults without children of their own), thus ensuring that all parents with children in their care would receive some resources to take care of those children.
Such a system would have costs, to be sure, but probably not much on the balance, since the administrative infrastructure for taxation already exists, and here in Canada we've a long history of providing various subsidies for child care, what my parents referred to as the Baby Bonus. It would also have the benefit of removing the issue of child support completely from family court and reducing caseloads accordingly.
One of the objections I can imagine to this approach would come from adults who don't want to have children. I've heard in the past advocates for the "child-free" community argue that the choice to have children is a personal one that shouldn't impose costs on others who choose not to have children. I think we can dismiss this sort of whining by simply recognizing that while having children may be a "lifestyle choice", being a child is not; every single member of the "child-free movement" is a former child. There is nothing in the least bit discriminatory in providing a benefit that applies equally to all children, except in the sense that some of us were unfortunately born too early to benefit from it.
The other likely objection, of course, is that this is just plain wealth redistribution, and of course it is. That's not a point in its favor, but neither is it necessarily a point against it; redistribution of wealth is only a wrong if you assume that the current distribution of that wealth is more just than the proposed redistribution. As a default position, we should generally assume that people have earned their wealth lawfully through informed and voluntary trades, and so we should be reluctant to interfere unnecessarily, but that assumption does not hold here; children do nothing to earn or deserve being born to either wealthy or poor parents.