L. Neil Smith's
Number 164, March 11, 2002
March Madness

Initiate or Retaliate?

by William Westmiller

Special to TLE

A libertarian is an advocate of liberty, the natural right to live free of oppression.

Succinct, simple, and therefore vague. Which is the problem with any effort to define the proper limits for any human conduct. Even gods have difficulty writing rules and all are open to a wide range of interpretation and application. Nevertheless, I think the definition is preferable to the non-initiation statement that heads the TLE banner.

The first distinction between the two is that the "Non-Initiation Principle" [NIP] is a judgment in the guise of a definition. What a person believes may not equate with how they act, much less how their acts are judged. The NIP first defines a libertarian by belief, which is merely something held to be true, with or without merit. Then the definition changes, to require that person to act in compliance with the principle, which isn't a definition but rather a rule. It concludes by imposing an external judgment of consistency about whether the act is consistent with the expressed rule, which is an independent evaluation of the first person's act.

For reference:

"A libertarian is a person who believes that no one has the right, under any circumstances, to initiate force against another human being, or to advocate or delegate its initiation. Those who act consistently with this principle are libertarians, whether they realize it or not. Those who fail to act consistently with it are not libertarians, regardless of what they may claim."

The "Free Of Oppression" [FOO] statement doesn't attempt to be anything more than a definition. I have no way of determining what L. Neil Smith actually believes, only what he expressly advocates. When his actions appear to contradict his advocacy, I can call him a charlatan, a hypocrite or a criminal, but he doesn't cease to be a libertarian as long as he can justify his claim to conform with the definition. When he slaps John Taylor on the back with delight at his fine work, he may have "initiated the use of force" in an attempt to impose his opinion on John, but he deserves the presumption of innocence. Which brings us to the nub of the three NIP rules.

The first rule is that no one should initiate force against another human being. As Patrick Martin has observed, the rule is simply inadequate as a guide to conduct. Moreso with the caveat that it applies "under any circumstances." Of course, any fool understands that we're not talking about the mere application of physical force, which might be a very welcome benefit to the person being forced. Maybe John likes to get slapped around by Neil, but the rule doesn't countenance such qualifiers.

The second rule is that no libertarian may "advocate" the initiation of force. The meaning of the NIP remains dubious, but the advocacy of a central principle is a proper qualifier. The FOO statement defines a libertarian as an "advocate of liberty," then appends a definition of liberty which can be tested against the advocacy. My condition specifies advocacy of "the natural right to live free of oppression," which is both more comprehensive and more general. It subsumes the intent of the NIP principle, but doesn't preclude qualifiers, as NIP does with "under any circumstances." The FOO definition actually requires qualifiers, which limit the condition of "living free."

The third rule is that no libertarian may "delegate" the initiation of force. This is either a hedge against contracted injury or a term designed to preclude voting -- probably not just for "bad politicians" (a redundancy in Neil's eyes, I'm sure). What the word leaves unsaid is whether "delegate" requires affirmative action or whether it also intends to damn those who simply refrain from opposing coercion. I don't think the intent is to condone someone who can prevent injury to another, but chooses to turns his head and walk away. But, I'm not sure, because the word is far to vague.

Following the rules is the assertion that hypocrites and charlatans aren't allowed to call themselves libertarians. Which would be fine if it were possible to clearly qualify an act as inconsistent with the NIP, which isn't an easy task. Rather like attempting to prove that Osama bin Laden has acted in a way that's inconsistent with Islam, which has so many qualifiers and interpretations that only Mohammed could properly judge the act.

The NIP concludes with a final blow in defense of logical consistency. The covers all the bases, just in case the other provisions don't fly. The determination of whether the act was rhetorically valid is left to any interpretation of "non-initiation" one cares to make. By Patrick Martin's sense, forcefully removing a harmful liquid from a child is the initiation of force. Is his logically consistency invalid because Neil says it is? Does Patrick conclude that Neil is not a libertarian, or is it Neil's rule, so he gets to decide that Patrick isn't? Shall we have a shouting match, or get out the boxing gloves, or is it dueling pistols?

I find both "advocacies" to be well intentioned and assume that they are both attempting to clarify their understanding of liberty. By my FOO, they both remain libertarians. What they chose to call themselves is their own business, but they qualify by my definition. Moreover, I can call anyone a libertarian by my lights, even if they deny it on the hilltops. In fact, there may be many solid libertarians (by the FOO) who would shirk away from the label because of their understanding -- or misunderstanding -- of libertarian principles.

Which brings us to the nub of the issue: is "non-initiation of force" sufficient and adequate to differentiate libertarians from advocates of other positions? I don't believe it is.

The word "force" is far to general, meaning anything from assault to walking in a baseball runner from third base. The common meaning of the word doesn't encompass fraud, misrepresentation or uninformed consent. Nor does it grant the initiation of force when it is desired and invited by the recipient. "Please! Scratch my back!" gets "Nope, not until you scratch mine: I can't initiate force against another human being." Yes, a trivial and malicious distortion of the NIP, but quite within the confines of the term "force".

Of course, the NIP intent is to preclude unwanted injury. The word "force" doesn't serve that intent. Substituting some other word or phrase may clarify the principle, but it wouldn't cure the other ailments that NIP suffers. The heart of the statement is "non- initiation".

I'll grant what I think is the intent of this negated word: if you injure me, I've got the right to injure you back. Your rights end where my nose starts. Or, in the common parlance of TLE, "F... with me and you're dead meat!" Which is a worthy sentiment and even a decent rule of thumb. But it's only half a principle.

One problem is that NIP doesn't use the word "threat" of injury -- which isn't compensated by the inclusion of "advocacy". Arguing that the "initiation of force" is wise constitutes a logical and ethical error, but asserting that you have an immediate intention of causing unwanted injury -- and you have the means to act on that threat -- is entirely different. Without a word, I can point a gun to your head and put out my open palm. That's a threat, not an argument. Nor have I technically "initiated force", only left you to conclude that I'm prepared to "ventilate your head" if you don't "grease my palm."

Another problem is that NIP says nothing about fraud, or even more to the point, breach of contract. It's a very long stretch to claim that my failure to act as promised is an "initiation of force". The fault may be beyond my control, so I'm not necessarily causing you injury willfully. You may not even be aware of the injury. When I print up copies of TLE and sell them on the street corner (OK, you might actually applaud me, but...), I'm violating the explicit provisions of the copyright agreement that I've consented to by subscribing to your service. Ask all the Napster users whether they thought they were "initiating force" against the musicians whose work they copied without compensation. Of course they have, but they never signed a contract agreeing not to make copies. Most of them didn't even know about copyright. They would have a very hard time discovering their fault in the NIP phrasing.

Finally, and most important, NIP says nothing about retaliatory force.

I'm constantly amazed by contributors to TLE who suggest that any initiation of unwanted injury justifies any degree of retaliation. Not just suggest, but explicitly say that they're ready to "lay some lead" on anyone who steps on their grass! I can see a little old grandma tripping on a pebble, falling on the grass and being blown to smitherines by a landmine that some good TLE "libertarian" has planted under his turf. "By gol darn, she shoulda been a little more careful. Tough luck, gramma!"

But this is not a trivial fault and the consequences are not humorous.

Even granting that "non-initiation of force" is a valid restriction, there is nothing in NIP that invokes any sense of proportion or justice in responding to a bad act. When confronted with the issue of justice, a NIP advocate must look elsewhere for guidance. Maybe an "eye for an eye" is good, maybe not good enough. How about "love thine enemy," or perhaps "do unto others" would work. The NIP is silent.

Nor do we find guidance in L. Neil's other writings. Usually, the perpetrators are so distraught by their misconduct that they plead for the opportunity to humble themselves before their victims. OK, that's fiction. Nearly every malicious "initiator" will evade the consequences. Bad enough. The NIP, as it stands, grants any consequence as proper and ethical, by omission. It's up to the victim to decide when he's satisfied. Not just compensation and restitution, but retribution and raw emotive revenge are apparently acceptable. "Just blow granny off the lawn!" Initiatory force: bad. Retaliatory force: good.

What "non-initiation" lacks is any sense of justice. Until we arrive at L. Neil's fictional paradise, we will have all kinds of injuries of every degree with various intentions and motives. We may or may not be able to determine the perpetrator with certainty and the guilty will lie through their teeth or evade capture. Some of them will be sorry, while others will be looking for their next victim. Some victims will be forgiving, others will want to see blood and brains spilling out of their assailant's heads, skewered on a pike in the front yard. Then we can have a trial.

Here's the bottom line: both initiatory and retaliatory injury must be governed (Ouch! Damn! I didn't realize people could slap me across the internet!) by impartial arbiters who can evaluate evidence against an accused to determine whether they have violated explicit and just laws (Ouch! Stop that!) that define a breach of rights and specify an appropriate penalty. (All right! Enough with the howling and screaming!)

"Justice n. The rendering what is due and merited in conformity with law."

The moral imperative that NIP evades is the requirement that a breach of rights must be expressed before it can be properly enforced. Not necessarily written down, since many cultures have verbal traditions, but known prior to the commission of an act. At base, a right is simply a just claim. The claim to ownership of your life is broadly known and accepted as valid, at least in our western culture. Many primitive cultures didn't and haven't yet recognized that such a right is derived from the nature of humanity. Even our modern culture has been persuaded that your claim to property ownership is limited and barely ethical. The recognition of your just and proper claim to individual liberty is fading fast. We face a choice: press our claim for just laws or assent to their demise in silence. The key ethical obligation is to assert your rights, to advocate liberty, to demand justice.

My proposed alternative to NIP is the advocacy of "the natural right to live free of oppression" as a definitive expression of libertarianism. "Natural," because the rights to life, liberty and property are derived from the fundamental nature of human beings and essential to their success -- even to their survival -- as human beings. They are "proper claims" supported by all the evidence of history and even the most humble logic and rationality. But they must be claimed. They must be expressly advocated, pronounced and communicated persuasively to every other person with whom we hope to live in peace. Libertarians are advocates; claimants to liberty.

Rather than a negation of initiatory force, I've chosen freedom from oppression. Not simply to include the venerated word "freedom", but to include all variants of oppression from any source. The word "oppress" simply means to "burden or keep down by harsh or unjust use of force or authority." It covers everything from individual murder to institutional taxation; from petty cons to expropriation of land rights; the full range of criminal conduct and government tyranny. It subsumes both initiated force and retaliatory force in the pursuit of justice. I'm only disappointed that I couldn't include the redundant word "justice" in the syntax of my definition of libertarian, because there can be no liberty without justice and no justice without liberty.

I won't recite here all the critical components of justice, from presumption of innocence to proportional retaliation, except to note that they impose limits on the discretion of victims in applying retaliatory force. You can't blow up grammy for walking on your lawn and you can't be the sole judge of the proper penalty when she does. Liberty requires that you are free to act according to your own best judgment, until it involves injury to another, even in retaliation. Aim carefully and think twice before you pull that trigger, because your act will be judged by others. Better yet, think carefully and speak clearly about the principles you advocate, so that you will be judged by your commitment to liberty and natural, individual, human rights.

Say "FOO" to "NIP".

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