libertarian ethic rests, as Murray Rothbard put it, "on the
primordial fact of self-ownership by every man, and on the fact
that each man may only live and prosper as he exercises his natural
freedom of choice…" When violations of this ethic occur,
how do the violators justify them? In what ways do their rationalizations
conflict with "self-ownership by every man"? If we are
to counter these claims, answers to these questions become important.
and discuss four recurring themes in anti-libertarian or anti-self-ownership
ethics. They are (1) denial that those aggressed upon are men or
human beings, (2) denial that men have 100% self-ownership, (3)
an argument that those aggressed upon have consented to the aggression,
and (4) an argument that self-defense justifies the aggression.
The Nazis claimed
that many groups of men were subhuman (Untermenschen),
and that this gave them the right to exterminate or enslave them.
by law treated the slaves as "not to be ranked among sentient
beings, but among things, as an article of property," placing
slaves at the level of brute animals. Recently in
the Congo, killers identified as "Ugandan and Rwandan-backed
rebels" have been intent on exterminating the Bambuti pygmies
as "subhuman" or as "beggars and thieves."
In all of these
cases and others like them, A asserts that B is not a human being.
It follows that the right to self-ownership does not apply to B,
and A may do what he will with B. I am interested here in those
cases where "B" is a group of people, not an individual
on his or her deathbed, or being kept alive by a third party, or
a person with a living will, etc. These cases and their complications
lie beyond the scope of this article
masses of mankind, the claim that a group of people contains no
human beings is prima facie false and utterly preposterous. Any
group of people from size two on up shows ample evidence of the
human natures of its members self-evidently by the independent and
diverse nature of the lives of the people in the group. If they
have superiorities or infirmities or differences from the norm,
if they have beliefs or views that differ from the norm, if they
have practices that delight or offend, if they look or act in delightful
or crude ways, all the more do those differences indicate that they
are human, for such variety of life and condition is precisely what
results from people having their own lives.
No one can
justify claims that whole groups of people are subhuman on any reasonable
grounds. There are no exceptions. Name any group you wish. None
are subhuman: Intellectuals, illiterates, the strong, the weak,
Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Indians, the aged and infirm,
the psychotic and delusional, gypsies, tramps and bums, alcoholics,
those with disabilities of any kind, the sick, the poor and helpless,
the tall, the short, the fat, the skinny, the light-skinned, the
dark-skinned, those who take drugs, terrorists, prostitutes, homosexuals,
Communists, Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Armenians, Sudanese,
Palestinians and Israelis, the rich, the poor, etc. One can list
an enormous number of sets of people by various characteristics,
groups that at one time or another have been or will be targeted,
thought of, or acted upon as being subhuman. People may be many
things, honest or criminals, saints or louts, lovable or jerks,
but they are not subhumans.
moral implication of the libertarian ethic is that no group of people
of any description can rightfully be thought of as subhuman. Libertarians
should first and foremost always stand in defense of such an attack
on targeted groups. A common sense understanding of human nature
and human society also suggests that aggressions against groups
are illegitimate aggressions, that is, not based squarely on self-defense
or the rectification of a violation of the non-aggression axiom.
This is because it is extremely difficult to see how whole groups
can be held culpable for aggressions when there are usually particular
instigating parties directly responsible.
The de facto
treatment of a group of people as subhuman is equally outrageous.
This is why mass bombing and killing of civilians under any circumstances
is unjust by the libertarian ethic. In opposition to the "subhuman"
argument, it is accurate to say that the aggressors are acting in
an inhuman way, one that is totally inconsistent with the fulfillment
of man's nature.
subhuman argument is so indefensible as a justification for killing
and/or ruling others, even though it has proven persuasive enough
to engage masses of people in killing and maiming one another or
persuasive enough to function as a smokescreen, those who want to
exercise power over others and justify it have come up with alternative
inferior human beings
To have 100%
self-ownership is to run one's own life without outside interference.
That means to have complete control over all of one's choices and
decisions. When A interferes with B coercively, another anti-libertarian
rationale is that A is making B better off because B has an inferior
grasp of what is good for him. This means that A regards B as an
inferior human being. Since 100% self-ownership applies to men (human
beings), A rationalizes aggression by the idea that B is less than
fully a human being or has less than full self-ownership rights.
This is analogous
to a parent raising a child, or to the idea that "I know what's
good for you." The phrase "nanny state" is perfectly
apt in this case. This boils down to A saying that he is not wronging
B when he rules B or that he is not infringing on B's life even
when it's patently clear that A is.
numbers of people do not support countless laws that they are forced
to live with. They are aware that most laws do nothing but make
them worse off in hundreds of often invisible ways. Is a childless
taxpayer made a better person by being forced to contribute to the
education of other people's children at a public school? Am I bettered
by contributing to the building of an atomic arsenal or a moon rocket?
Is anyone except accountants benefitted by the incredibly byzantine
regulations of 401(k) and other such plans? Is any part of an automobile
manufactured in the U.S. subject to free market forces, or is the
tiniest detail determined by agencies like the Federal Motor Carrier
Safety Administration which determines in the minutest detail standards
defrosters and how they are tested? Is it even possible to assess
whether NASA's programs make us better off when the GAO
tells us of NASA's "inability to collect, maintain, and report
the full cost of its programs and projects." The number of
such questions is indefinitely large.
large numbers of citizens have gotten used to, accept, and support
the idea that the State can order the most intimate details of their
lives for them, which is to say that they accept the assumption
that they are incompetent at running their own lives. Others have
confused ideas. They view themselves as not inferior and yet accept
regulation of their lives because they see so many other people
as inferior that the State's actions are justified "for their
own good." Still others accept some restrictions as a price
to pay to get some law passed that they favor.
have not checked, I'd hypothesize that every State on earth justifies
its coercive actions by some language or idea that the State is
acting to make B better off. For example, the South Dakota Constitution
says that "We, the people of South Dakota, …, in order to
form a more perfect and independent government, establish justice,
insure tranquillity, …" The central statement is that a "more
perfect" government will be created by adopting the Constitution,
which is to say that betterment will occur as a consequence and
that the existing condition of self-government or territorial government
is to be improved by the State government. Since the State of South
Dakota is the ruler, the implicit assumption is that the inhabitants
of this territorial area will be better off if the State interferes
with them and rules them. A look at the proposed EU
Constitution reveals a wealth of such sentiments.
In all events,
this justification for State aggression on individuals is totally
absurd and just as groundless as saying that B is subhuman. One
reason is similar to that given earlier. It cannot possibly be supposed
that the large numbers of individuals being affected by these laws
possess a mass inferiority that makes them both incapable of pursuing
what they deem to be in their best interests and incapable of fending
for themselves through means and organizations of their own. For
that is the improbable assumption upon which is based the idea that
the State must impose its own decisions upon the inhabitants under
its jurisdiction. Any random sample of people beyond a quite small
size, 20 or so, will quickly come to represent the entire population
in terms of any characteristic that one might think of as possibly
making someone inferior. When the size rises to the millions that
are routinely covered by laws, it is ridiculous even to suggest
that they can be inferior en masse since they are what mankind is!
Only a small clique of power-laden officials who can, for reasons
that need not detain us now, get elected and re-elected no matter
what idiocy they spout or perpetrate, can believe themselves as
possessed of a superior wisdom to legislate for hundreds of millions.
is the inferiority supposed to reside in a large population? Apparently,
the population, despite its enormous inventiveness and productivity
that place it far above any prior group in history, is unable to
handle such basic tasks as feeding itself, educating itself, providing
for old age, and providing for medical care. It cannot look out
for its own safety and requires detailed regulation of every item
in sight. It cannot take care of its children unless the State certifies
its babysitters. It cannot buy, carry or handle a firearm without
being subject to minute meddling. It cannot handle hundreds of hazardous
substances without being told precisely how to do it. It cannot
hire or fire an employee without a room full of instruction. We
are apparently dealing with a mass inferiority without parallel
in history that requires the largest interference in American history.
For some reason, the necessity for this has grown greatly just over
the past 50 years. We have to thank Providence for providing us
with a group of extraordinarily wise public servants who know precisely
what is good for us in every exigency of life and are coming to
I have also
elsewhere argued that the State can't know what is good for its
subjects as well as they themselves know. This occurs for several
reasons. The subjects possess far more of the dispersed and specialized
knowledge that is critical to their own decisions about their own
lives. This knowledge changes constantly and State officials are
in no position to keep up with it. The incentives of State officials
to act on behalf of their subjects are vastly inferior to those
that the subjects have.
are in the best position to realize what they do not know and to
devise ways to remedy their deficiencies.
of the idea that their subjects are inferior judges of their own
lives, the truth is the opposite: The State is a meddlesome inferior
judge of its subjects' lives.
of the ruled
the ruled is a third anti-libertarian means of justifying that B
is not being wronged by some apparent infringement on B's life.
In today's world of constitutional democracies, many rulers assert
that they have B's permission or consent to rule B. This is a bald-faced
lie in every government from the most dictatorial down to the most
democratic. How do we know? Ordinarily, it will be found that no
right to secession is allowed or countenanced by States. But how
can there exist consent without such a right? If a person does not
consent to rule by a State, the way to say "No, I do not consent"
is to withdraw from the State. If this is forbidden, then one cannot
say "no," in this manner at least. More generally, the
right to secede is clearly part and parcel of a right to live one's
own life. For a State to deny a right to secede is to argue that
the human being has permanently alienated a portion of his right
There are those
anti-libertarians who argue that by not moving out of the country,
a person has consented to its laws, even if secession is disallowed.
"Leave, if you don't like it." Do Americans willingly
trade self-ownership for comfort or other values? Do they consent
to repression by not moving elsewhere? Do they consent by not throwing
the tea into Boston harbor?
Anti-libertarians say, yes, this is what the majority of the people
want. There is an implicit contract in which liberty is given up
in exchange for other things.
This view is wrong for a basic reason. It ignores the costs of leaving
one's country. If allowed, secession is the lowest cost method to
withdraw from the State and not leave one's country. If that method
is forbidden by the State or made so costly via war that it is not
feasible, then another alternative is to pull up roots. However,
this is a very costly method. People love their country – their
area, their people, their culture, their place. To move is a wrenching
experience, requiring a new language, new customs, a new job, etc.
Why should one have to move anyway? This heavy cost deters most
people from leaving. If these heavy costs exceed the losses suffered
under the State, they remain.
There are a number of other arguments that I do not go into against
the notion that the ruled consent to their being ruled. Lysander
Spooner provides many.
A fourth justification
for A scrapping B's right to self-ownership is an assertion by A
that B is a threat to A's life. In other words, B's life and actions
are said to be so counter to A's that they are harming A, or may
imminently harm A. This boils down to A saying that he is acting
in self-defense against B. For example, the U.S. government accused
the Iraqi government of threatening the U.S. and looks upon North
Korea and Iran as threatening countries.
In all too
many instances in which States justify attacks as self-defense,
the justifications turn out to be phony or trumped up cases. Particularly
troublesome are the cases in which a State intentionally invites
an attack, or creates a provocative action, or backs the opponent
into a corner by some ultimatum or massing of forces or other ruse.
These pretenses at self-defense provide a cover for offensive actions.
Just as troublesome are those cases in which a big powerful State
engineers a revolution or virtual takeover of a smaller weak State.
These justifications are usually flimsy pretenses for using power
for the sake of territorial rule (empire), or for imperialistic
gains of an economic nature.
There are existing
legal rules, not necessarily libertarian in nature, dealing with
self-defense both at the individual and international levels. The
rules that govern States are much looser than those that govern
individuals. Given the fact that States do far more damage than
individuals and routinely massively destroy the people and property
of other States, it seems clear that much stricter rules should
govern States as long as they are the predominant political form
we have to live under. I do not mean rules imposed by yet another
authority like a world government since that goes in the wrong direction.
I mean rules that private groups invoke and devise that have a moral
impact on world opinion and act to constrain States indirectly.
Watchdog groups, investigative reporters, the blogging network,
courts and trials held in absentia, and many other similar actions
are libertarian methods of pointing the finger at improper State
I mention one
more case because of its importance in American history and the
history of other countries. Suppose that State A rules its citizens
B, and State C claims that it has a right to attack State A in order
to free the subjects B. This is what the U.S. has claimed in Iraq,
and what Hitler repeatedly claimed as his armies marched into the
Rhineland, the Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. Russia in
the 18th century regarded itself as the protector of
Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire. We could call this the
Bloody Good Samaritan case, although the Bush Administration calls
it freeing the Iraqis from tyrannical rule. This rationale is an
offshoot of the self-defense idea, in that State C takes it on itself
to defend B's rights against State A. Hence, it also can be called
the policeman-of-the-world or liberator-of-the-world idea.
this rationale is subject to great mischief. State C can't easily
pinpoint the rulers of State A and ends up killing many of the citizens
B that it supposedly is liberating. This is similar to how the FBI
liberated David Koresh's followers. More importantly, the right
of self-defense derived from the non-aggression axiom lies in the
hands of those being aggressed upon, that is, citizens B. Choosing
the time, place, manner and extent of their own liberation is part
of their right to their lives. One proper means (among others) to
achieve liberation of oppressed groups is individual and group help
to the suppressed on a voluntary basis that is acceptable to the
I pointed out four anti-libertarian justifications that violators
of self-ownership use to cover their actions. They are that the
violated party is subhuman, inferior, consenting, or a threat so
that self-defense is justified. All of these arguments can be understood
and interpreted in terms of the basic libertarian axiom, which suggests
its far reach. I also presented a number of counter-arguments to
these faulty rationales.
In a sense,
the fact that we encounter rationales for anti-libertarian acts
is a good thing. It might suggest that human beings implicitly accept
a base-line view that each person has a right to his own life, even
though it is apparent that we do not live up to that view. When
people do not live up to that ideal, perhaps they feel a need to
explain why intrusions on rights are justified or perhaps they feel
that others wish to hear such a view. This too suggests that the
libertarian self-ownership axiom is something widely understood
and/or felt by many people, including many non-libertarians.
S. Rozeff [send him mail]
is the Louis M. Jacobs Professor of Finance at University at Buffalo.