L. Neil Smith's
Number 204, December 23, 2002


Zapping The ZAP?
by Kevin M. Crady

Exclusive to TLE

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. - L. Neil Smith

The ZAP, as formulated by El Neil, offers the prospect of defining what a "libertarian" is, and encapsulating the entire libertarian political philosophy (according to El Neil) in a single, short paragraph. But is it a workable principle to base libertarianism on? In order to qualify, it must be both logically consistent and possible to apply in reality.

The Child Argument

Can a libertarian parent force a child to go to a doctor, forcibly prevent them from drinking antifreeze, and so forth? To deal with this argument, it is not necessary to define children as rightless beings or start lawyering and making exceptions to the ZAP. All that is necessary is to understand the concept of restitution. The ZAP as stated does not suggest that any and every initiation of force is a capital offense, only that one cannot claim a moral right to initiate force as a positive good.

In the various "child scenarios" and other emergency situations (e.g. forcibly dragging or knocking someone out of the path of an onrushing car) the initiatory force involved is a necessary evil--necessary to save a human life. In the case of the child going to the doctor, most young children would be happy to accept 'restitution' such as a big ice cream sundae or a day at the park--the sort of thing many parents might give the child anyway to cheer them up after getting their shots or whatever. For a libertarian parent, this also offers a teaching opportunity: the child learns that s/he is a Real Person, not a piece of rightless property, and gets an example of individualist ethics in action. When the child is old enough to understand the necessity of going to the doctor, avoiding antifreeze as an aperitif, etc., don't expect them to go to the nearest Moral Debt Assessor and make a case.

Now, if we take the adult version, would someone who shoves a person out of the way of a car be held liable for 'initiation of force?' Most sane adults would be very grateful to have their lives saved, and would hardly seek to prosecute their rescuer. But, let's take the case of a curmudgeon who decides to sue their friendly neigborhood hero/-ine. The Moral Debt Assessor hears the testimony from both sides, and gets basic agreement on what actually happened, and then gives her ruling:

"Ms. Beaknose, it is true that Mr. Valiant owes you the standard Moral Debt for minor assault of fifty gold sovereigns. However--you are not without debt yourself. You owe Mr. Valiant your life. Are you willing to testify under oath that your life is worth less than fifty sovereigns?"


"Can you tell this Court how many sovereigns your life is worth, Ms. Beaknose?"

"What? Of course not! Life is priceless!"

"I see. Then you understand that if you wish to pursue this case, Mr. Valiant's moral debt of fifty sovereigns will be deducted from your profit in the transaction--the unlimited value of your life--which must at least entail all of your wealth and possessions, since these are the tangible wealth-manifestations of your life. It is also quite reasonable to argue that any wealth you produce for the rest of your life should also go to Mr. Valiant. You have, after all, testified here that life is priceless. Do you wish to pursue your case?"

"No! I drop my case! But--what if he sues me to take everything I own? It's unfair!"

"Don't worry, Ms. Beaknose, he cannot do that. Since you did not agree to accept his life-saving services beforehand, they amount to an unsolicited service, which cannot, by Confederacy Common Law, be charged for ex post facto. Moral Debt, by definition, can only be incurred as a result of a chosen act by the debtor. Your moral debt to Mr. Valiant comes into play only if you attempt to asses debt against him for saving your life. You see, the Principle of Restitution states that a moral debtor must act to repay his or her victims for initiatory force crimes, to reverse the effects of those crimes for the victim.

"Since the effect of his 'crime' against you was to save your life, the value of your life comes into play in comparison to the degree of 'harm' Mr. Valiant's initiatory force caused you. I doubt you would like the effects of this particular 'crime' reversed. Case dismissed."

In The Probability Broach, El Neil's heroes accidentally raid a birthday party for a bunch of little kids. Fortunately, no one is hurt, and the kids get a very "renumerative" birthday. The heroes continue on their quest without a great deal of hand-wringing or guilt--and no jail-time or other hindrance. This is an interesting application of the ZAP--and could be considered an argument against it--because it allows for the possibility of a privatized "eminent domain."

Think of those nice, straight hovercraft greenways from coast to coast. Imagine you own the greenway company trying to build them. You start buying property along your planned route. To be effective for high-speed transport, your greenways cannot zig and zag randomly around hundreds or thousands of farms and freeholds on their way across the continent. That means the more property you buy, the more the remaining property owners on your route can charge. They can dig in their heels and make all you've spent so far a big waste, or at least significantly raise your costs if you decide to go around them (and then what about their neighbors, whose property you'd like to buy?).

Now, despite all the obstacles, you've finally managed to purchase the land you need--except for one vast parcel owned by a stiff-necked old lady who ain't leavin', no way, no how, 'cause her granpappy built that homestead with 'is own hands, and 'e's burried there with all the other folks in the family who lived an' died on the land, an' by Goddess, ain't nobody gonna be drivin' no damn hovercraft over their graves and she ain't selin' one square inch o' granpappy's land neither! So, you start negotiating with the owners of the properties you'd have to buy to make a wide sweeping curve around her land, but they start seeing dollar-signs and charge prices that would drive your company into the ground.

So, you consult Moral Debt case law, and decide on another course of action: You send in Special Expediters with full body-armor and nonlethal weaponry (foam-guns, and the like), capture the lady, and remove her from the premises. You have a team of excavators carefully remove the bones from the family cemetary, along with the surrounding dirt (a team you'd likely have on staff to deal with archaeological sites, Indian burial grounds, and the like), and preserve them for re-interrment elsewhere on her property.

Thus, you're able to take your chances with a Moral Debt settlement, perhaps including building bridges over your greenway or tunnelling it underground in a smooth dip so her property is not physically divided. Would this sort of thing be relatively commonplace in a libertarian society, or would libertarians just have to go without greenways, dams, and other Large Projects?

The Problem of Impossible Unanymity

A far greater difficulty with the ZAP lies with the degree of intellectual uniformity necessary to apply it without conflict. People who seriously think of themselves as principled libertarians have strong disagreements about what constitutes initiatory force. For example, is abortion murder, or a woman excersizing her rights of self-ownership? If we imagine a libertarian society consisting of the readership of TLE (which is about as close to a group of consistent, principled libertarians as we're likely to form on this side of the Broach), we can see that there's strong disagreement that can't be settled by debate. There's very little chance that any Covenant of Unanymous Consent defining exactly what is, and is not initiatory force could be formed among this little society, much less a continental nation of 300 million, or a globe of 6 billion.

Even if abortion could somehow be sidestepped--say, by a technology of fetal transplantation--other, more challenging questions would remain. Here at TLE, there are "Christian libertarians" and "non-Christian libertarians." To a fundamentalist Christian, any belief-system apart from (their brand of) Christianity represents a particularly dangerous type of fraud perpetrated by Satan. Since this Satanic spiritual deception (denial of Biblical truth) results in eternal torment for those led into it, those who spread it are guilty of a crime far worse than mere murder. [1] Since the Christian believes that atheism, Paganism, etc. are in fact fraudulent and highly dangerous, could the members of a Christian-libertarian government (or whatever takes its place in an anarcho-Christian society) not consider themselves fully justified by the ZAP to "retaliate" against the "spiritual con artists" in their midst?

But what about the atheist libertarians? They're just as convinced that Christianity is a giant fraud. The Christian cannot prove the existence of his/her God, Heaven and Hell (and who gets sent there), etc. in a court of law or a laboratory. Even those who seek to offer rational arguments for their beliefs will ultimately agree that their arguments do not prove Christianity indisputably, and that faith is necessary for belief. The Christian cannot even offer a "Soul-Back Guarantee" if it should turn out that Islam is true and all Christians go to Hell. To the atheist, Christianity looks like a protection- racket. Pay off the clergy with obediance, guilt, and donations, and the Big Don in the Sky won't spend eternity breaking your thumbs. Could the atheist libertarians not "retaliate" against what is, to them, a clear case of extortion and fraud on a massive scale?

Both sides can agree to coexist on pragmatic grounds, refraining from prosecuting the other to insure that they will not in turn be prosecuted, but this requires both sides to ignore what is in their respective belief-systems a clear violation of the ZAP by the other side. [2] [3] I know of nothing that forces both sides to permit the other's "fraud and soul-murder/fraud and extortion" on a moral basis under the ZAP as long as either or both sides consider their belief-system(s) to be Objectively True and the other Objectively False. The pragmatic approach only holds as long as the advocates of more than one belief system are in a position to seize power in the society. Should one belief-system become sufficiently popular, it would be free to preserve its dominance by prosecuting the "false" belief-systems for fraud and other crimes (extortion, accessory to eternal torture, etc.).

And note that we're only dealing with people who believe themselves to be principled libertarians trying to consistently apply the ZAP. What about the folks who don't agree with the ZAP at all--your garden variety Republicans, Democrats, Greens, etc.? Would a libertarian society really have no non-libertarians in it? If there were freedom of speech and immigration, how would the libertarians prevent non- libertarians from moving in to enjoy the booming economy or sunny lagoons?

There is only one way to enforce the kind of intellectual uniformity [4] the ZAP seems to require: censorship. This is spelled out in the ZAP itself, in the "advocacy of initiatory force clause." Since no one has the right to advocate initiatory force--i.e. promote any non- libertarian belief-system (as defined by whatever sect of libertarianism is running the show)--a consistently-libertarian society can (must?) institute some kind of penalty for advocacy of non-libertarian ideas.

This would seem to be a problem even for non-ZAP "libertarians" (e.g. Objectivists, the Founding Fathers and other minarchists who accept the notion of government and the necessity of taxation but agree with the ZAP'ers on everything else.). If the society has any sort of democratic elections ("Constitutional Republic" or otherwise), its existence as a "libertarian" nation would be imperiled every election- cycle. If it was a sort of "libertarian monarchy" like the Principality of Sealand, it would still be threatened by non-"libertarian" immigrants, since even a Prince/-ess must be concerned with the sentiments of the people s/he governs. Not to mention the threat of a Prince/-ess with Machiavellian intent to increase his/her power...

The more diverse a society is, the more difficult it is to keep it consistently adhering to any Principle(s). "Parties of Principle" (i.e. fully consistent parties, good or evil) have never fared well in diverse societies with democratic elections. Communists, Fascists, Greens, Libertarians, etc. have always remained marginal in America, unable to enact their Principles (good or evil) consistently. What we end up with is a fuzzy "compromise" of all of their various Principles, in three flavors: Liberal Democrat, Conservative Republican, and Moderate RepubloCrat. Communist wealth-redistribution, Fascist militarism, Green environmental regulations, and libertarian freedoms, all practiced inconsistently and in ever-shifting levels.

Without near-universal [5] intellectual uniformity, it is impossible for a society to be based on consistent application of Principle. The members must agree that a given Principle is valid, that a given interpretation of the Principle is the right one, and how it is to be applied. Judging by the history of humanity on planet Earth, this kind of uniformity cannot be achieved by nonviolent means. This leaves at least three options: impose adherence to Principle by force, abandon Principle in favor of Compromise, or broaden the Principle to allow for some level of diversity and competing claims.

Of the three, the last seems to me to be the best choice. Even in a society of very libertarian-oriented individuals (such as the readership of TLE), the members will have to tolerate some level of what they consider to be initiatory force in order to get along. The anti-abortionists will have to tolerate abortion (if it is legal), the pro-abortionists will have to tolerate laws against it (if it is illegal), or both will have to settle for some level of regulation (legal abortion until the third trimester or some such). The Christians will have to tolerate atheism, Wicca, Buddhism, etc., and vice versa even if each thinks the others' belief-systems represent initiatory force. All might have to accept some level of central coordination of military defense and a uniform legal system (i.e. a "government"), though this last is quite debatable.

Perhaps then, the ZAP should be replaced by the MAP, the Minimal Aggression Principle:

"A libertarian is someone who seeks to create the widest possible sphere of freedom for their self and their fellow human beings, reduce initiatory force to the absolute minimum level possible, and continually push the envelope of the 'possible' in both areas. If a given level of freedom in any sphere of human action exists or has existed in any known society, no lesser level of freedom may be accepted, and individuals will always possess the right to form a new community with the purpose of attempting to demonstrate the feasibility of greater levels of freedom. Those who act consistently with this principle are libertarians, whether they realize it or not. Those who seek to decrease the sphere of freedom and/or increase initiatory force either by action or advocacy are not libertarians, regardless of what they may claim."

I do not claim that this MAP is perfect. It offers more room for divergent "libertarian" viewpoints (e.g. Christian, atheist, anarchist, minarchist, etc.) to coexist and cooperate, but on the other hand it may offer more room for pernicious "lawyering" than El Neil's ZAP.


[1] Though, this begs the question of why God is exempt from the ZAP if the Christian libertarian considers it to be a valid moral principle.

[2] Christians might argue for freedom of religion on the grounds that God wants humans to have free will in matters of religion. However, this is contradicted by the doctrine of Hell. If God will torture someone forever for being a Wiccan, he's not exactly an exponent of religious freedom.

[3] Atheists might arge for freedom of religion on the basis of perceptual relativism or some form of agnosticism (i.e., that we can't prove Christianity and other religions are fraudulent, so we give them the benefit of the doubt). This sort of relativism/agnosticism is ultimately incompatible with any Principle that demands to be applied under any and all circumstances.

[4] All of El Neil's likeable characters--whether they're humans, dolphins, echinoderms, giant nautiloid mollusks, living umbrellas, or any of a wide variety of creatively-designed and charmingly-portrayed personalities and species--are, to a being, gun (or equivalent)-toting anarchists who agree on virtually everything of significance, down to such things as the enjoyment of hunting.

[5] If the society is to be based on a Covenant of Unanymous Consent, then total agreement is necessary.


The State vs. The People
by Claire Wolfe and Aaron Zelman

Is America becoming a police state? Friends of liberty need to know.

Some say the U.S. is already a police state. Others watch the news for signs that their country is about to cross an indefinable line. Since September 11, 2001, the question has become more urgent. When do roving wiretaps, random checkpoints, mysterious "detentions," and military tribunals cross over from being emergency measures to being the tools of a government permanently and irrevocably out of control?

The State vs. the People examines these crucial issues. But first, it answers this fundamental question: "What is a police state?"

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