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THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 164, March 11, 2002
March Madness

No Limitations On Non-aggression Principle

by Karl G. Long
karl_g_long@hotmail.com

Exclusive to TLE

Some have argued that the non-aggression principle is flawed, short sighted, or fails when exposed to the real world. On the contrary, the non-aggression principle is self-consistent and stands up well to the rigors of real life.

The relevant portion of L. Neil Smith's non-aggression principle is that "no one has the right, under any circumstances, to initiate force against another human being, or to advocate or delegate its initiation." This says nothing about any other use of force, only the initiation of force.

Most libertarians claim the right to use force in defense of life and property. In fact, many non-libertarians claim this right as well. To the extent that such use of force is not an initiation of force, it does not conflict with the non-aggression principle. This can be referred to as defensive force.

Another use of force should be addressed briefly. Reasonable people might disagree as to what extent retaliatory force might be considered defensive, and when it goes too far and becomes an initiation of force. For example, most libertarians would allow-possibly encourage- the use of deadly force to prevent someone from physically harming someone else. However, once the offender has completed the act of violence, or has stopped and is threatening no one, the use of deadly force might not be appropriate. At least for the purpose of preventing the offense. Putting a bullet in the back of the attacker's head two years later would most likely be an initiation of force.

The right to initiate force cannot be delegated, because one cannot delegate a non-existent right. On the other hand, if there is a right to defensive use of force, that right can be delegated. It can be explicitly delegated, such as by hiring a security guard, or calling for help. In some cases the right to use defensive force could be implicitly delegated, or the delegation could be assumed. For example, you witness someone beating an apparently unconscious person. Of course there is the risk that the person does not want to be helped. A false delegation of defensive rights would be fraud, itself an initiation of force. An example would be someone calling for help when they were not threatened.

So what is defensive force? It is any use of force intended to prevent or mitigate the damage caused by the force initiated by another. This might conceivably allow for what appears to be a pre-emptive use of defensive force. The key here is to recognize what constitutes an initiation of force. A credible threat is an initiation of force. In this case, credibility is in the mind of the victim. For example, someone has publicly threatened to burn down your house. As he walks toward your house with a burning torch, you would not have to wait until he actually touches the torch to your curtains before using defensive force.

If no one has the right to initiate force against another, does that mean you can never initiate force? Does it mean you cannot initiate force against someone else and still be a libertarian? In both cases the answer is no. The non-aggression principle does not say you cannot initiate force. Instead it says that you do not have a right to do so. For example, you are sitting in a nice restaurant enjoying dinner when suddenly a stranger at the next table slumps and falls to the floor apparently choking. Knowing how to do the Heimlich maneuver, you proceed to save the poor man's life. Have you initiated force against the man? Yes. Did you have a right to do so? No. Was it proper for you to initiate force against the man? Yes, probably. Was it a violation of the non-aggression principle? No. You did not claim a right to initiate force.

But what if the victim does not want your help? If the victim makes it known that your help is not wanted, then there is no delegation of the right to use defensive force. Delegation can no longer be assumed nor implied. Any use of force by you would be an initiation of force. If a man makes it clear that he wants to jump off a bridge, and there is no one else who could be hurt when he lands at the bottom, it would be an initiation of force to stop him. Incidentally, suicide is an initiation of force not prohibited by the non-aggression principle.

The non-aggression principle does not tell us what to do about people who initiate force against others. Therefore, any approach that does not involve initiation of force would be consistent with the non- aggression principle.

An initiation of force creates a debt. If a person steals a horse, the debt created is the return of the horse. If the victim suffered because he does not have the use of the horse, the debt increases accordingly. If the horse cannot be returned, the cost associated with finding, purchasing and transporting a suitable replacement horse adds to the debt. Other direct and indirect damages could be added to the debt as well.

What good is a debt, if there is no right to collect it? If the debt is not paid voluntarily, the use of force to collect the debt is a response to the original initiation of force. Thus it is defensive force, not an initiation of force.

Restitution is the term commonly used for payment of this debt. It can be in kind (return the horse), in service (plow the field by hand for victim), in gold coin, or any other form or combination acceptable to the victim. The victim has a right to full restitution, but may accept less. In the case of the person choking in the restaurant, instead of demanding restitution, he might thank you, or offer a reward. Like other rights, the right to collect restitution can be delegated. The concept of restitution, and the right to collect it, play a significant role throughout L. Neil Smith's Confederacy novels.

In the case of children or other incompetent persons, the parent or guardian is responsible for protecting them until they become competent to protect themselves. Thus force used to protect these people is defensive force. The difference is that incompetent persons cannot waive the right to be protected. This does not mean that all force used against these people is defensive. Sexual assault, physical abuse, and any other use of force not reasonably necessary for protection of the incompetent person, or to help them become competent, is an initiation of force.

Does the non-aggression principle conflict with the right to free speech? If there is a right to free speech, it does not mean a right to say anything you want. You don't have the right to initiate force by stabbing someone with a knife. Likewise, you do not have the right to initiate force by stabbing someone with words.

But what about government? Isn't all government force? If so, is that a problem? Government has no rights. The only way government can use force is if the right to use force is delegated to it. Since individuals do not have the right to initiate force, it cannot be delegated. Therefore, the government can have no right to initiate force either. On the other hand, the right to use defensive force can be delegated to government. Thus government could help with defense against invaders. It could also be help collect restitution. Such delegation would not take away the right of the individual to use defensive force. If the government cannot do something without initiating force, then the government cannot do it.

The non-aggression principle is fine, thank you.


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