Libertarian Law: Competence and the Common Defense
by DataPacRat


Attribute to L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise

“If tempted by something that feels “altruistic,” examine your motives and root out that self-deception. Then, if you still want to do it, wallow in it!”

A literalist interpretation of the Zero-Aggression Principle can imply that pushing someone out of the way of a falling piano involves the initiation of force against them, and is thus immoral—a result which goes so far out of common sense and empathy that it can be used by anti-libertarians to disparage the ZAP. The trouble with trying to refute this idea is that it’s actually true—pushing someone against their will is an initiation of force against them.

Thus, technically, it’s within someone’s right of self-defense to retaliate against such a rescuer for trying to save their life; which means that there’s a certain risk involved in trying to save a libertarian’s life. However, as a person containing some amount of compassion, I’d like to have the option of trying to save people from such unknowing doom. And, were a piano falling towards me without my knowledge, I’d want somebody to try to save me, which is much less likely to happen if they have to worry about my using defensive force against them.

Fortunately for everyone, there’s at least one way in the spirit of the ZAP can be preserved, if not necessarily a particular literalist reading thereof, which allows for people to use reasonable amounts of force in the saving of other people, thus allowing more such rescues to take place, which benefits us all. (If for no other reason than that every living person is a potential partner with whom to engage in voluntary positive-sum trades.) And all it requires is taking a somewhat nuanced view of the issue of competency.

In the usual view, competence is treated as pure binary: a person is either competent to handle all their own affairs; or they’re incompetent, due to youth or mental disorder. However, if we were to treat it as more of a per-issue thing, that a person may have the mental capacity and understanding to handle some parts of their life but not necessarily all of them, then that gives us just enough wiggle-room to deal with the issue at hand.

If a piano were falling towards me, and I was unaware of it, then I would lack the information required to make a true decision about whether or not I wanted to let it hit me; and so, if someone nearby had the facts I lacked, they would be able to make a choice about whether to act on my behalf, in what they guessed to be my best interests, until such time as I had sufficient information to decide for myself. Looked at from the other way, if I saw someone unwittingly face their doom, then I would have the option—not necessarily the obligation—to act on their behalf, using the minimal amount of force needed to save their life until they let me know whether or not they wanted to suicide.

Unfortunately, taking this nuanced view isn’t without its risks. A would-be tyrant could try to seize hold of the “in their own best interests” idea as justification for doing all sorts of unpleasant things to them; it’s happened all-too-often in the past. The only counter to this that I’ve come up with so far is that such interventions can only be moral if, and only if, the intervenor is trying to help the other person to become competent, as quickly as possible. An intervention which shows no sign of allowing the target to take control of their own lives, of helping them to understand the world around them, seems unlikely to be moral. (While this seems consistent with the principles of raising children, this does seem to leave those people with permanent incurable mental disabilities somewhat in the lurch; the only rationale I can suggest is that medical technology continues to advance, and what is incurable today may be curable tomorrow.)

Another potential problem is the “Chinese obligation” resulting from such an intervention—if I take it upon myself to use force against someone’s will to save their life, then that force can only be moral if and only if I proceed to save their life, and to help them reach the point where they can decide whether or not to save their own life. Which may require rather more effort than was initially believed to be the case.

Those risks seem reasonably manageable; and taking those risks seems to solve a minor philosophical paradox, and allows for the saving of lives that would otherwise be lost. I’m sure someone will tell me I’m wrong; but until someone manages to demonstrate the logical flaws, I’m going to try to act in line with these ideas. So, if someone seems to be initiating force against me, I’m going to try to use the minimal amount of force I can until I can determine whether or not they’re acting in my best interests; by making this announcement, I’m hoping to make it more likely that more people will be willing to try to save my life, thus increasing my odds of survival. Also, if I see that someone is unaware of an approaching doom, and if I decide to intervene, I will try to do so in a way that will allow them to take control of their own lives as soon as possible; by announcing this as my intention, I hope to reduce the force used against me during the course of such interventions, again increasing my odds of survival.

And by describing the logic involved, I am encouraging others to take similar stances—which, again, increases the odds of my living a longer, happier life.

And isn’t that what libertarianism is supposed to do for us all?

“Do not confuse “duty” with what other people expect of you; they are utterly different. Duty is a debt you owe to yourself to fulfill obligations you have assumed voluntarily. Paying that debt can entail anything from years of patient work to instant willingness to die. Difficult it may be, but the reward is self-respect.”

Thank you for your time,

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