Libertarian lawbreaking

Dave Killion — February 18, 2012

Hang on, my buddy has some rope back in camp!

The one thing that separates libertarianism from all other political philosophies is a rigid adherence to the notion that no one has the right to initiate aggression. It’s not right to do so in order to provide for the less well off, it’s not right to do so because doing so is intended to have a positive outcome, and it’s not right to do so even if it will benefit those who are deserving. Individuals own themselves, which means they own their honestly acquired possessions, and there is nothing about the needs, wants, or desserts of others that changes that.

This leads some critics to come to false conclusions about the willingness of libertarians to ignore the sufferings of others, and in an effort to illustrate those conclusion, those critics deploy life-boat scenarios the likes of which I discussed in this previous post. These scenarios are extremely implausible (and certainly no justification for coercive redistribution) but critics know libertarians have plenty of evidence to support our rationally-derived confidence in the ability of civil society to tend the less-well-off, so they must try and concoct situations where civil society doesn’t come into play. That’s not easy, but since I’m a good sport I don’t mind helping them out by supplying a more likely scenario, and then responding to the criticism –

A libertarian is out camping with some buddies, one of whom has recently purchased some rope. It has been strung up between two trees to hold up a tarp, and about thirty feet of it dangles down into a coil on the ground. The rest of the group goes on a hike, while the libertarian tends the campfire. Suddenly, a call for help is heard, and the libertarian dashes over to a nearby precipice where he sees a man hanging on for dear life to a branch about ten feet down. Our hero runs back to camp, but the only rope available is his friend’s new one. Not only is his friend unavailable to give him permission to use the rope, it is tied so tightly ┬áthat the coil would have to be cut away. At this time the critic would point out that taking the rope would amount to theft (which is a form of aggression), and the libertarian must either let the cliffhanger plunge to his death, or acknowledge that it is okay to steal (aggress) for a good cause.

Stupid imaginary critic, even when I hand it to you, you get it wrong! The non-aggression principal doesn’t mean you have to let people die rather than commit an act of aggression to save them. It just means you have to make restitution for your aggression afterwards. So the libertarian cuts the rope, saves the day, and buys his buddy a new rope. And in real life, if his buddy was such a dirtbag he insisted on restitution, the cliffhanger would probably cough up for it. So even life-boat scenarios fail to discredit libertarianism. Tough luck, critics.


Ashley Johnston says

I like to consider your situation as a given that the fire keeper took the rope to help the cliff hanger, then consider how a libertarian society handles it, compared to a socialist society.

A libertarian society would likely command, by force, the fire keeper to pay his friend for the rope, but then come to the financial aide of the fire keeper and expect the same of the cliff hanger, under threat of civil (peaceful) sanctions.

Now compare that to a socialist society that would command the friend to feel proud of his sacrifice. And if he put up a fuss, they would stick a gun in his face and tell him to shut up. Not unlike paying taxes. After all, if somebody needs your rope more than you do, it is no longer your rope.

— February 20, 2012

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