In Extremis

That nutty old Dr. Walter Block is at it again, being a principled libertarian and rationally evaluating even difficult situations. This time around, his interlocutor has cut right to the chase, and set up an extremely blunt limit situation to challenge him with:

Should the following situations be considered evil?:
– A man who steals food because he has no money to feed his family, assuming that in the place where he lives there is no charitable entity that can provide free food.
– A man who is forced to kill an innocent person because the survival of the entire human species depends on it.
On the other hand, certainly, these are violations of the Non-Aggression Principle, which any libertarian would condemn, but could not previous cases constitute exceptions?

The question of evil is always a vexing one. Dr. Block, rather sensibly, begs off from professing to be some universal moral authority, and evaluates the situations in his capacity as a libertarian theorist, as we’ll see.

For libertarians, there is really only one question of interest, of relevance, and that is this: "Under what conditions is the use of force justified." And, libertarians give only one answer to this sort of question: "Only in defense against, or in retaliation against, the prior use of unjustified, initiatory force." So, I then ask, does stealing food from innocent people, or killing them, constitute the use of justified force? And I answer, "No." Therefore, if someone engages in either of these two acts, it would be justified to punish him (or for the innocent person, or food owner, to defend his property, or his life, against the attacker). So, no exceptions to the NAP.

We’ve dealt with this sort of thing before here on Bumbling Bees — one year ago today, as a matter of fact, so happy birthday to that. It bears further examination, however, because the conclusion is badly counterintuitive. On the face of it it seems wrong — monstrous — that libertarians would counsel against stealing bread to feed your starving family if there are no other options. But read a bit deeper; does libertarianism in fact lead to that conclusion?

What libertarian theory tells us is that stealing bread is a violation of the non-aggression principle always and everywhere. By stealing the bread, you have violated the rights of the bread’s owner; this does not change in response to your level of need or desire for the bread. If this seems rigid and mechanistic, that’s exactly the point — law must be rigid, or it is no law at all, but the tyranny of law-interpreters.

The thing people leave out of the analysis is the role for compassion and mercy. As I’ve said in the past, the non-aggression principle is not offended on its own behalf; violations require a complainant and a complaint. If you steal my bread, it is my prerogative to forgive you. I can decide not to press charges, in other words. This is something it’s easy to lose track of in the modern world of government law, with its weird pronouncements of crimes against "the state" or against "society" — in the libertarian world, there is no such crime. Crimes are against specific individuals only.

So, what, then? Am I saying that you, as bread thief, are thrown upon my mercy as bread owner? Yes, that is exactly what I’m saying. This is the risk you assume when you choose to violate my rights: you run the risk that I will indeed elect to prosecute to the full extent of the law. Perhaps that would make me a monster. Perhaps not; there’s an infinity of potential complicating circumstances. Nobody else is properly positioned to make that decision, though; your choice to violate my rights places the ball in my court. This is the price you have to pay when you choose to break the NAP.

Libertarians often position the non-aggression principle as the be-all end-all, which it is — of pure libertarianism. There is more to life than political theory, though; if you’re sincerely prepared to tell me that, in a situation in which you have to choose between strict adherence to the NAP and the lives of your family, you’d choose the former, well, you’re a weirdo, and probably not altogether honest. I have a wife and son, and, in an absurd limit situation in which there is literally no way they will survive unless I steal somebody’s bread, well, sorry NAP, I choose life. I will steal the bread and take my lumps according to libertarian law, in the hopes that the person whose bread I stole will show mercy on me. That is how civilized men behave: not by fancifully assuming that bad situations can never arise, nor by vaingloriously asserting that their needs and wants trump other people’s rights, but by making the best decisions they can in the circumstances they encounter, and then facing the consequences.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comments Protected by WP-SpamShield for WordPress