Background: New Zealand law currently accommodates smacking by allowing the use of "reasonable force" in disciplining a child to count as a legal defence against charges of assault. Occasionally, juries have acquitted serious child abusers on this basis. Green MP Sue Bradford has responded by proposing a bill that will remove this legal defence, thus effectively outlawing smacking. It's popular among politicians, but less so among the general public.
My analysis: Frankly, I'm amazed there's any controversy here at all. Given that no-one really wants to prosecute all parents for smacking, outlawing it just seems like an obviously bad idea, for two reasons. (1) It's patently unjust to remove a legitimate defence merely because the occasional "false positive" lets guilty people go free. Surely, if a defendent's use of force really is reasonable, then it's not abuse or assault. Justice demands that our legal system recognize this. (2) As a general principle, it's always a bad idea to have unenforced (or inconsistently enforced) laws. (It's asking for trouble to grant such discretionary powers to the police. Much better to leave them with jurors.)
National MPs have proposed instead to clarify what is meant by "reasonable force", rather than disallowing it altogether. This would solve the stated problem of child abuse acquittals, without creating any new problems. Yet Bradford et al oppose any such amendment, which suggests that they're being dishonest -- the "stated problem" isn't really what they're concerned about after all. Rather, they want to send a message that any form of physical discipline is unacceptable.
No Right Turn exemplifies this position with his blind insistence that "hitting people is assault." As if there were no relevant difference between a light smack and beating someone bloody. Such a failure of discrimination is, as PC puts it, "just insane." There are important distinctions to be made here. That's not to say that smacking is necessarily okay, but it is to say that no moral insight is to be found from those who think that the issue may be settled by simple-mindedly asserting that "hitting people is assault."
[Aside: I normally have a lot of respect for NRT, but that last post was a real disappointment. He blithely slanders opponents of the smacking ban as being in cahoots with "fundamentalist Christians", and characterizes them as "want[ing] bad parents to be able to continue to assault their children." That sort of bullshit is precisely what's wrong with political debate in our society.]
Now, I think we need to distinguish two issues:
(1) Is smacking (generally) bad parenting?
(2) Should smacking be illegal?
Personally, I think that smacking is rarely the best option. But that's just my tentative opinion. It's not obvious how to be a good parent -- and I doubt there's any one template that's universally applicable -- so I think we should give plenty of leeway for different parenting styles, including ones that involve some light physical discipline.
(Aside: I find it strange how some proponents get so fixated on the awfulness of physical pain, when psychological pain can be far worse - and more enduring - than a light smack that's forgotten a moment later. Emotional abuse thus strikes me as a far more serious concern!)
Is there any evidence that light smacking has harmful consequences (e.g. raising the likelihood that children will act violently later in life)? If so, perhaps it would be appropriate to attach some social stigma to it, publicly criticize the practice, and suggest better alternatives, etc. (Much as we might for other instances of tolerably bad parenting, e.g. swearing in front of kids.) But that still wouldn't justify criminalizing it.
Given the social controversy over what constitutes good parenting, it seems entirely inappropriate for the state to be mandating any particular answer. Of course there are limits, as all reasonable people agree: we shouldn't tolerate serious abuse, or other gross harms. But smacking is plainly not in the same league. It's a trivial harm, if it's any harm at all. Bradford's proposal is like passing a law mandating what parents must tell their kids about Santa Claus ("Santa is a lie, and lying is wrong, end of story", blah). It's totally inappropriate, even if they happen to be right about what "the perfect parent" would do. It just isn't their place to say.
In a liberal democracy, the government shouldn't try to micromanage people's lives. It certainly has no business foreclosing public debate over such a contentious cultural issue, mandating one particular parenting style over another. For issues where reasonable people may disagree, the appropriate response for a liberal state is to uphold autonomy and pluralism. Let parents decide for themselves how best to raise their own children. I expect they'll do a better job than the government would.