Jonah Goldberg and the Libertarian Axiom on Non-Aggression

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The
foundation of libertarianism is the non-aggression axiom. This states
that it is illicit to initiate or threaten invasive violence against
a man or his legitimately owned property. Murray Rothbard characterized
this as "plumb line" libertarianism: follow this one principle,
and you will be able to infer the libertarian position on all issues,
without exception.

Before
considering the latest Jonah Goldberg criticism of this philosophy
(saving a friend from suicide by force), consider, perhaps, an even
more difficult case.

You
are standing in the path on an onrushing boulder, completely unaware
of your fate. In a second, this massive rock will hit you, and you
will die. (Let us stipulate the truth of this supposition). Instead,
however, I push you out of its path, and into safety. The only trouble
is, as a result of it, although I have saved your life, I also broke
your arm.

Now,
if you are a reasonable sort of person, you will be grateful to
me. Instead, you insist upon sticking to the literal letter of libertarian
law, and sue me for damages for the injury you have sustained. After
all, I did initiate a violent act upon your person, which resulted
in an injury. If this is not assault and battery, you argue, then
nothing is. How shall the libertarian judge rule?

One
possibility is to hold me innocent of this charge. This could be
done by adding up the two acts, the life saving and the arm breaking,
and deciding that the former is far more important than the latter.
So much so that the one ought to be in effect "subtracted"
from the other, and since the result would be a "positive"
(I contributed more to your life by saving it than I cost you through
the injury you sustained), I would be let off scott free. The point
here is that I committed not two acts, but only one: saving-your-life-and-injuring-you,
and that this complex but single act is not one of initiatory aggression.

A
difficulty with this line of reasoning is that you might have been
standing in the way of the boulder as part of a suicide attempt.
You regarded the situation where you are dead far more highly than
the one where you are alive, but debilitated. We may assume you
wanted to end your life because of bodily malfunctions like a broken
arm, and now I have worsened your welfare, not improved it.

Another
problem is that these really are two separate acts. It is certainly
possible that I could have pushed you out of death's way without
breaking your arm. To call it two separate acts is really to fudge:
this would only be done in order to achieve the common sense result
we all presumably want: to find me innocent of bodily harm.

No,
the only proper libertarian judgment is that I am indeed guilty
of a battery upon your person. My motives may have been exemplary,
but my act, strictly speaking, was in violation of your property
rights in yourself. I might well be let off with a light sentence,
given the extenuating circumstances, but guilty I am.

With
this introduction, I am now ready to consider Jonah Goldberg's attack
on libertarianism. Before I do so, let me say one word in his favor:
at least he does not muddy the waters by claiming he is a libertarian.
No, he flies the banner of conservatism (or Republicanism; despite
his claims to the contrary, I don't see much difference), a matter
of accuracy and decency on his part. This is in sharp contrast to
Milton Friedman, a person who does claim allegiance to this philosophy,
and yet uses precisely the same argument as Goldberg in an attempt
to undermine the non-aggression axiom.

Consider
a drunken A, who is standing at the edge of a bridge, ready to jump.
B, a friend of hers, forcibly grabs A, and saves her from suicide.
According to our analysis, B is guilty of a battery, and even of
a (short bout of) kidnapping, given that B follows up his act of
life saving by restraining A from further attempts to harm herself
until she sobers up. But now what? Suppose that when she wakes up
the next morning, cold stone sober, A still wants to kill herself.
According to the logic of the argument of the Goldbergs (and Friedmans)
of the world, B may restrain her from so doing for the rest of her
life. This is the role accorded Goldberg to the state. After all,
if it is justified to use violence against a person to save her
life, and this works in the short term, why not for the long run?
When life is placed at the core of a political philosophy, not the
non-aggression axiom, this all follows from the laws of logic.

Something
else is inferable as well. Goldberg is really a paternalist. For
drinking alcohol, using addictive drugs and smoking cigarettes are
all slow ways of committing suicide. Riding a motorcycle without
a helmet or an automobile without a seat belt, hang gliding, rodeo
riding, football playing, boxing, are all ways of risking it. There
is a paternalist continuum between Goldberg on the "right"
who is willing to utilize initiatory aggression against innocent
people for very limited good purposes, and your typical leftist
who is willing to do precisely the same thing on a wider scale.
It is only the libertarian who stands four square in favor of the
non-aggression axiom.

If
you really think saving your friend's life is important because
the desire for suicide is only temporary, then you ought to be willing
to pay a relatively small penalty if this friend then turns around
and sues you for battery, or kidnapping. The problem with the Goldberg
variation (sorry, I couldn't resist) is that he wants a freebie:
to initiate violence against an innocent person with no risk of
punishment whatsoever.

Nice
try, Mr. Goldberg. But if this is the best you can do, you had better
consider renouncing your views, and becoming a libertarian.

June
28, 2001

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