Jonah Goldberg and the Libertarian Axiom on Non-Aggression

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