"The genuine libertarian, then, is, in all senses of the word, an “abolitionist”; he would, if he could, abolish instantaneously all invasions of liberty, whether it be, in the original coining of the term, slavery, or whether it be the manifold other instances of State oppression. He would, in the words of another libertarian in a similar connection, u2018blister my thumb pushing that button!'"
~ Murray N. Rothbard, "Why Be Libertarian?"
One of the questions with which I've personally struggled is an answer to the infamous "button-pushing" scenarios. Generally, it goes something like this: Suppose you really wanted [place negative action here] to stop. If you could stop this situation, or cure this ill by pushing a button, would you do it?
These scenarios can be played out over any number of examples: slavery, poverty, famine, and, of course, the coercive state. While the answer can seem obvious, it can also be not so obvious. For instance, I've argued that pushing the button and ending the State would result in a lose-lose situation. Certainly, if one stopped the current state from functioning with some instantaneous bolt of lightening, that would be positive in the short run.
However, in the long run, if the people, the citizenry, the proletariat, were not educated sufficiently by the time of the button-pushing, i.e., their pre-existing beliefs were not replaced sufficiently, then another state, possibly more coercive than the first, would soon arise. In the interim, we'd be faced with all manner of chaos as people nurtured on the sweet teat of the State struggled to fend for themselves! (We're talking Mad Max way beyond Thunderdome!) Or so I've argued. I've even assumed, maybe unfairly, that my logic answers the question of support for political candidates. If I accurately ascertain Rothbard's point-of-view from the piece I quote above, he might not agree with me.
To Save the Earth!
It's not that I've never heard a somewhat convincing argument for button-pushing. One such argument came during a discussion on one of the several (hundred, apparently) Internet forums of which I've been a part over the years. The scenario is: A huge asteroid is heading for Earth, and is certain to result in a cataclysmic collision, an extinction-level event, something on the order of what probably removed the dinosaurs and made way for mammals to take over. (Yes, this is the same scenario that spawned two relatively recent movies — Armageddon with Bruce Willis and Deep Impact with Morgan Freeman — so I guess it's a pretty popular scenario.)
Independent of this pending catastrophe, some scientist (mad or otherwise), or farmer, or philanthropist, or whatever, has somehow created a very powerful laser or force ray, or phaser. There is no doubt in anyone's mind, including that of the inventor, that this machine can eradicate this asteroid as a threat to mankind! We're saved!
Well, not quite.
At some point along the way between the gnashing of teeth, the rending of clothes, the sold out mineral water at local mini-marts worldwide, and, the deep sighs of relief when the MSM reports the invention, the inventor drops some bad news. He's not going to deploy his weapon. His reasons, while unimportant for my scenario, may have to do with his religion, or his beliefs about the sanctity of asteroids, or something else, but the bottom line is pretty basic: Humanity is on its own. Emissaries from all over the globe visit the man, but to no avail. He won't change his mind and even Bill Gates is unable to buy him off. (Yes, that would shock me too, but hey, that's another essay.) What is to become of our civilization?
Just before the asteroid crashes into Earth, or even gets close enough to affect Earth's orbit gravitationally, some random person breaks into the building where the laser is housed, runs over to the control panel, and pushes the button. The asteroid is destroyed. The catastrophe is averted! Earth is saved.
The Ends Justifying the Means?
How should a radical libertarian view the actions of the Earth-saver in this case? Clearly, he violated the ownership rights of the inventor of the anti-asteroid ray, did he not? Actually, a number of arguments could be made on both sides of this debate. For one thing, Earth was in clear and present danger, and that included the button-presser. So maybe he was acting in self-defense? Every libertarian knows that the right to self-defense is absolute, right? Well, not exactly. As Roderick Long points out;
The spectrum of libertarian opinion on the subject [of war] ranges all the way from Leonard Peikoff, who defends the use of nuclear weapons against civilian targets, to Robert LeFevre, who denied the legitimacy of all violence, even in self-defense.
I can imagine, therefore, that not all libertarian opinions on our ostensible hero's actions would be positive. Many, if not most, would still argue that aggression, by definition, is involuntarily interpersonal, as was this action. Clearly, the action taken by the button-pusher-who-saved-the-planet fails the NAP. That infraction alone seems sufficient to render the action "wrong" under libertarian law. Rothbard wonderfully addresses this quandary by communicating that the probability of the success of an action bears not on its correctness with respect to libertarian law. Although Rothbard is talking about how one might bring about a more libertarian society and how to evaluate those actions, his prose fits this situation as well. To wit:
Antilibertarians, and antiradicals generally, characteristically make the point that such “abolitionism” is “unrealistic”; by making such a charge they are hopelessly confusing the desired goal with a strategic estimate of the probable outcome.
For a fact, we know that pressing the button will result in the "abolition" of the threat to Earth. The desired goal and the process for its accomplishment are both obvious in this case. I might argue that no debate over strategy is even relevant, although a clear infringement of rights took place.
What about consequentialist evaluations? The button-pusher could, one might argue, reasonably expect that the punishment for any such rights violation would be less than death. As such, he has traded off on the far lesser of two evils, and become a hero in the bargain. Not bad. Hell, even if death was the ultimate penalty our button-pusher faced, he has still successfully employed the logic taught in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one." Likely few libertarians would agree, but no one ever said Star Trek was a good example of libertarian law!
The danger of using this logic should be obvious. If the ease with which a certain penalty can be dealt with by a certain infringer is used to offset punishment for a crime, a rich man can murder whomever he likes, and simply pay the ostensive beneficiaries a large sum of money in restitution afterwards. Clearly, we want a more absolute view of right and wrong. (The complexity of restitution in practice is a complex subject all its own!)
The problem then, is that we need to separate moral actions from prudent actions, and not fall prey to judging the morality of an action in a positive way simply because that action is prudent. Similarly, the prudence of an action is not mitigated simply because it is immoral. The two are separate. Life, art, and history are rife with similar quandaries. Jean Valjean steals to eat: right or wrong? Certainly most would agree that 19 years for such a crime is a little excessive! Still, a rights infringement — theft of property — took place.
Relatively recent pop culture provides examples as well. In one of many great lines from Batman Begins Christian Bale's character — Bruce Wayne — muses about his time living on the streets, "The first time I stole so that I wouldn’t starve, yes. I lost many assumptions about the simple nature of right and wrong." While I understand what he's getting at, he overstates. Right and wrong remain relatively simple in nature. I'd argue that an immoral act, performed under duress, remains immoral. Similarly, and as found via even a cursory examination of the argument from morality, an immoral act, performed by the majority, even after a vote, remains immoral.
So after all this, where are we? Would I, as Murray mentions, "blister my thumb" pushing that button to end the State? And, how does the answer to that question affect the asteroid scenario, if at all?
To save the earth: yes, I admit that even under the caveats described above, I probably would still find a way to push the button, up to and including infringing on the property rights of the mad scientist asteroid lover. (Please don't take away my market anarchist card!) I would have committed a crime, and at very least would owe restitution to the owner of the phaser. (However, keep in mind that lifeboat situations rarely, in my view, convey lessons for universally preferable behavior outside the lifeboat.) As for pushing the button to end the State, my answer is still no. However, the reason is not tied to the NAP in any way.
Instead it comes down to this: The State is something of a delusion. Once a person realizes, as Marc Stevens opines, that "there is no state" just people, he can move ahead without that delusion clouding his outlook. For example, voting, or worrying about who voted are no longer huge worries. Election time is about as important as the monthly Full Moon. Life gets simpler and allows for other pursuits.
Do I still have to deal with theft as a result of the people who claim to have dominion over me? Sure, but frankly, my life is not defined by a few assholes on a power trip. I'll continue to lampoon them — here and elsewhere — whenever I get the chance, but freedom starts at home, in the mind, and that's really the territory one needs to reclaim first anyway. As Jameson Frank said, "Our greatest battles are that with our own minds." It is the individual beliefs of the governed, taken in aggregate, that power the State. Carter G. Woodson offered similar advice (to which I have referred before) in his timeless tome, The Mis-Education of the Negro, with:
When you control a man's thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his u2018proper place' and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary.
Dr. Woodson continues with:
History shows that it does not matter who is in power … those who have not learned to do for themselves and have to depend solely on others never obtain any more rights or privileges in the end than they had in the beginning.
Button or no button, I'd say that about sums it up.
Wilt Alston [send him mail] lives in Rochester, NY, with his wife and three children. When he's not training for a marathon or furthering his part-time study of libertarian philosophy, he works as a principal research scientist in transportation safety, focusing primarily on the safety of subway and freight train control systems.