Reputation, the NAP and Justice

A man’s reputation is not less important to him than his body. Men work hard to build up a good reputation. A lot is riding on one’s reputation. For example, people who seek promotions often have to rely on the recommendations of others or the input of others about their abilities and character. A man’s reputation depends upon what others think of him and will say about him; and the reputations of these others depend on the accuracy of their recommendations.

What people will say about others when it matters is not simply a matter of whim. Lies said about someone, with or without an intent to hurt someone, are not on an equal footing with telling pertinent truths. People are connected in many ways and reputation is one of them.

Reputations can be destroyed. A man’s good name can be smeared or dragged through the mud. This is no laughing matter if it’s undeserved or if it happens because of someone’s evil intent to damage someone else. A man’s reputation, built up through his actions, is held in the minds of others. He does not own their minds or thoughts, but he has contributed to what they think of him by his deeds. He does not own his reputation, but it is attributed to him nonetheless, as expressed by what others think of him.

Now if this man is libeled or slandered, in destruction of his reputation, by acts that cause other people to think less of him or alter their behavior toward him, this is a serious matter. He may be hurt no less than if someone did him bodily injury. In many cases, the harm inflicted could be much worse than bodily injury.

Murray Rothbard is the first to raise and treat the question of reputation, libel and slander in the context of property rights. His highly original and influential treatment appears in Chapter 16 of “The Ethics of Liberty”. His analysis leads him to conclude as follows: “We can, of course, readily concede the gross immorality of spreading false libels about another person. But we must, nevertheless, maintain the legal right of anyone to do so.” Rothbard asks “Should ‘libel’ and ‘slander’ be illegal in the free society?” His answer is that they can’t be because a reputation is not someone’s property right.

The non-aggression principle (NAP) rests on physical invasions or threats thereof. But must all crimes in a free society be restricted to physical invasions of property? Can’t law encompass more than such property invasions? Frank van Dun raises this question, and he asks what’s relevant from the point of view of justice, construed in a broad sense. Is it relevant to ask whether or not there has been a physical invasion, triggering a NAP violation; or whether or not a false accusation (in the form of a libel or slander) is lawful, in a broader sense than the NAP?

Given the “gross immorality” of spreading lies and, I’d add, the damage this can do, might not free societies base their laws on grounds more than and different from only the NAP? Might not justice be served by there being the possibility of a timely court proceeding in which official remedies for being defamed and harmed are possible?

Without some superior justice authority based upon and actively implementing some notions of justice that go beyond the NAP, a “free society” that allowed all sorts of lies and false accusations would degrade into a free-for-all. Frank van Dun’s paper spells out some of the consequences when libel and slander are not treated as torts or crimes.

A free-for-all in terms of libel and slander in the so-called “free society” is but an instance of a much more general and serious problem of conflict. The fact that reasonable people differ on a matter like libel, people who take a studied interest in libertarian theory, signals a deep problem with the ideal world of anarcho-capitalism. It is one of several problems that make limited government an attractive option, despite its flaws. I refer to protection companies who have different laws and attract different clienteles. Real world differences among people are unlikely to remain polite debates. They are likely to be over far more serious differences than whether libel is a crime. There are going to be those who reject individual rights altogether and believe in might makes right. There are those whose religious beliefs entail killing unbelievers. There are those who want race warfare. Without a government over them to keep the peace, there almost surely will be war. Hobbes has a point.

America faces a challenge right now because its highest levels of government have perverted justice in an attempt to bring down the Trump presidency. Behind the scenes machinations of top officials in the Department of Justice and elsewhere, including the White House, have been reflected in news accounts. False accusations have echoed in major media interminably, and they’re still being heard there and in Congress. The entire process of attempting to undermine Trump has not involved force, but it has involved all sorts of other lies, misuses of power and betrayals of trust. They have involved the destruction of reputations through repeated libels and slanders. This process shows that great damage can be done not only to individuals but also to whole societies and systems of government even without physical invasions of property rights.


3:00 pm on April 14, 2019