Prohibiting Drunk Driving Is Not Self-Defense

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One of the main reasons why so many Americans continue to support ruthless drunk-driving prohibitions in the United States is that they are deeply confused about the notion of legitimate self-defense. They assume, quite naïvely, that any law banning drunk driving is obviously nothing more than "society’s" assertion of its collective right of self-defense against maniacal and murderous drunk drivers. Conversely, they assume that anyone who challenges the laws prohibiting drunk driving (because, for example, the laws cannot possibly work as advertised, or because they can actually cause drunks to be more dangerous drivers), is ipso facto assumed to be denying that man possesses a right to act in self-defense against deadly threats.

Both of these assumptions are false. The idea of prohibiting men from driving while drunk, even when they have not caused or threatened to cause injury to another human being, is completely at odds with the notion of man’s natural right to self-defense. Equally mistaken is the idea that any criticism of drunk-driving laws is equivalent to a denial of man’s right to self-defense. In what follows, I will explain why these two ideas are so false and so insidious.

The first problem with these ideas is that drunk-driving prohibitions are not specifically aimed at imminent threats. The notion of legitimate self-defense as a natural human right [PDF] means that a man has a right to use coercion or violence against another man only in cases where the other man poses a "clear and present danger" to his life. For example, John cannot claim to be legitimately using violence in self-defense against another man who is holding, say, a roofing hatchet, simply because a roofing hatchet could be used to hurt John. Since the roofer poses no "clear and present danger" to John, he has absolutely no right to use violence against the roofer. Should the roofer suddenly turn on John with the hatchet in hand, however, John would have a right to use defensive violence against the roofer in order to protect his life and physical integrity.

Laws prohibiting drunk driving have absolutely nothing to do with the legitimate right to self-defense, and are actually on par with John attacking the roofer before the roofer has even threatened him. In order to see why this is the case, it is important to recognize that the supposed "crime" drunk drivers commit is only being intoxicated behind the wheel of a car. If the intoxicated driver should get into a deadly accident (that is his fault, due to negligence), he will be charged with a different and more serious crime, like manslaughter or even homicide. If the intoxicated driver should drive in a manner that threatens the lives of other motorists, he will be charged with something like reckless endangerment. The charge of "drunk driving," therefore, is always a separate charge that only addresses the fact that a man has an arbitrary amount of alcohol in his veins at the time he was driving. This is precisely analogous to prohibiting roofers from ever holding hatchets, simply because they could use those hatchets in order to maim or kill other people.

Once we have left the realm of "clear and present danger," we no longer have a case of legitimate self-defense. In fact, we have a case of aggressive violence, if a man chooses to use violence preemptively to combat a threat that may or may not materialize. The man who would strike down or shoot a roofer for doing nothing more than holding a hatchet is himself the aggressor in the situation, and he cannot claim that he is acting in legitimate self-defense. Similarly, the man who would strike down drunk drivers for doing nothing more than driving with an arbitrary amount of alcohol in their veins is the aggressor himself, and he may not use the claim that he is acting in self-defense.

The drunk-driving propagandists would have us believe that every time a man gets behind the wheel of an automobile with a certain arbitrary amount of alcohol in his veins he presents a clear and present danger to the rest of the motorists on the road. But this idea is patently absurd. The vast, vast majority of drunk-driving arrests in this country do not involve an accompanying charge of "reckless endangerment." Nor, obviously, do they involve charges of negligent homicide or manslaughter. If all drunk drivers did indeed present clear and present dangers to other motorists’ lives, you can bet your last dollar that police and prosecutors would charge them with these more serious offenses — not simply "driving under the influence of alcohol." That the police do not do this in the vast majority of cases is proof positive that the vast majority of drunk drivers did not pose a clear and present danger to any other motorists at the time of their arrests. They were arrested, fined, or imprisoned for nothing more than having an arbitrary amount of alcohol in their veins. They were struck down for holding the roofing hatchet, simply because a hatchet could be used to harm other people. Needless to say, this not legitimate self-defense.

This is not to say, however, that defensive violence cannot be used against drunk drivers who do indeed pose a real clear and present danger to other drivers. On the contrary, such defensive violence may indeed be legitimately employed to protect one’s life whenever it is credibly and imminently threatened. But, what does alcohol have to do with anything? A man has a natural right to defend himself against all men who are threatening to do him imminent harm, not just drunk people. He has a right, for example, to defend himself against the hordes of elderly drivers careening in and out of their lanes, threatening his life. He has a right to defend himself against the women drivers applying mascara instead of looking at the stop signs in front of them. He has a right to use defensive violence to protect himself against the police officer tinkering with his radio, and who is not watching the road. That the person who threatens him is drunk, or black, or old is completely irrelevant. All that matters for the notion of legitimate self-defense is that a person poses a "clear and present danger" to another person. Conversely, if a man is not clearly and imminently threatening one’s life, it is morally impermissible to use violence or coercion against him, be he drunk, black, old, or whatever.

In addition, it should be clear that the right of self-defense is an individual right. I have a right to use violence to protect my life from aggressors, and so do you, but "society" cannot possess rights that you and I do not have. "Society" and "the government" are made up of individual people, after all, and all of the individuals who compose "society" and "the government" have exactly the same rights and responsibilities as every other individual human being. If individuals like you and me may only legitimately use violence in self-defense against clear and present dangers, then this is also true of any people who claim to be acting on behalf of "society" or "the government." If you and I as individuals may not go out in the street and shoot down roofers for simply holding hatchets that could hurt us, or kill our neighbors simply because they own knives that could hurt us, or shoot down other drivers because they could hurt us, then the individual human beings working for the state must abide by those moral rules as well. This means that it is just plain wrong for the people working for the state to use violence or the threat of violence against people who do not pose a clear and present danger to other people.

The root of the problem here is that most Americans have become unable to conceptually disentangle their individual human rights from their ideas about government. They do not view their rights as something they individually and irrevocably possess from God or nature, but rather as something given to them by the state. By viewing the government as either the source or legitimate final arbiter of human rights, they find it difficult to even conceive of situations in which the government would violate rights. Hence, they do not cry out when men claiming to represent "the government" throw 2 million of their neighbors or children in dungeons every year, for the supposed crime of having an arbitrary amount of alcohol in their veins. Nor do they cry out when the people claiming to represent "the government" propose to look at their testicles for doing nothing more than trying to board an airplane. Nor still do they cry out when people claiming to represent "the government" seize their income by force in order to drop bombs from robots onto wedding parties. When a man does not value and jealously guard his own rights from usurpers, it is exceptionally easy to ignore usurpations of those of other men.

The type of man who would ignore or violate the right of other men to be free from harm unless they pose a clear and present danger to other people — call him either a fool, a knave, or a coward — deserves the type of government that would ogle his testicles for merely trying to board an airplane. Fortunately for him, that’s precisely the type of government he has got in America.

Mark R. Crovelli [send him mail] writes from Denver, Colorado.

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