Is “Initial Use of Force” an Easy-to-Vary Explanation?

Libertarians claim that the foundational moral principle of libertarianism is that it is immoral to “initiate force.” This concept of “initial use of force” – sometimes called the Non-Aggression Principle or the Non-Coercion Principle – is often explained as the principle that the only legitimate use of force is as a defense against illegitimate force. The implication here is that illegitimate force is offensive rather than defensive. Thus the person that initiates force is identifiably the one in the wrong and response to that initial use of force is legitimate.

In this post, I’m going to discuss my introduction to the libertarian concept of “initial use of force” and explore some of the difficulties libertarians have had agreeing with each other as to what constitutes an initial use of force. In addition, I’ll explore why I believe it is that libertarians can’t agree on what constitutes ‘initial use of force.’

Speed Limits and “Reckless Driving”

I remember the very first libertarian I ever argued politics with. He was the first person to explain to me about “initial use of force.” The first question that came to my mind was how libertarians, like him, looked at reckless driving and, in particular, speeding laws. I still remember his interesting response.

He insisted to me that speeding laws violated the principle of “initial use of force” so they were immoral laws. He claimed that in a libertarian society there would be no speeding laws. However, he imagined, there would be nothing wrong with the engineers who built the road could post ‘suggested speed limits’ based on their knowledge of the roads. If a driver decided to violate those suggestions, and they later caused a collision, then the fact that they were traveling faster than the engineer recommended speeds would come up in a civil case.

When I asked what would happen if the driver had no insurance to cover damages for an accident, he said that such a person would never be allowed to ever drive again, so people would always choose to have insurance in a libertarian society.

This answer shocked me because it waited for a problem rather than trying to avoid the problem in the first place. But it did seem to follow a certain ruthless internal logic. If one is against “initial use of force” then how else would you deal with someone driving recklessly but by waiting for them to actually cause damage and then sue them?

However, this answer seemed to leave a number of uncomfortable questions (i.e. explanation gaps).  The first problem is that one person’s “reckless driving” is bound to be another person’s “acceptable risk”? Amplifying this concern is the fact that rules of the road are intentionally arbitrary. There is no reason why driving on the left side of the road is better or worse than driving on the right side of the road. The point of having such a convention comes from the value of having everyone arbitrarily pick a single side and stick with it. Taking a stance that no one has the right to tell you which side of the road to drive on — and then only stopping people once they cause a crash — wouldn’t make for very safe roads.

Are speed limits any different? On freeways, the maximum speed a lone automobile can drive (particularly on a straightaway) without reducing safety is quite high. A lot higher than any current speed limit in the USA anyhow. What makes driving at high speeds dangerous isn’t that certain speeds are inherently more dangerous than others. (Depending on the make and model of the automobile, of course.) The danger comes from the relative differences in speeds between vehicles. That’s why we went from limits of 55 MPH to 90 MPH and hardly affected road safety.

So I am not sure road engineers have a technical way to come up with a “best speed” (particularly on long freeway straightaways) rooted in the laws of physics or their craft. Instead, they’d likely need to pick a max speed based on personal experience and an understanding of human social conventions. Wouldn’t this essentially be a ‘speeding law’ disguised as ‘expert opinion?’

And wouldn’t this all ultimately be an inferior version of what we already have? Aren’t the roads safer precisely because we do have speeding laws that are enforced rather than waiting for people to cause harm and then suing them?

The Wild World of Libertarianism?

Honestly, this introduction to the “libertarian world” sounded pretty awful to me. I suspect it went a long way towards forming an early negative opinion of the whole philosophy. I conjured up images of a world where anyone could choose to shoot a gun in the park for fun, or drive down the ‘wrong’ side of the road, and you had to wait for them to kill someone before you could sue them because you couldn’t act without an ‘initial use of force’ which I was convinced (after my first conversation) required actual physical violence.

Luckily it turned out that my introduction to libertarianism was from a branch that was extra extreme. Many libertarians would have no concerns at all with laws against reckless driving or setting speed limits. In fact, I’ve met libertarians just as insistent that speeding and reckless driving laws in no way violate the idea of ‘initial use of force.’

Negligence as “Initial Use of Force”

It’s interesting to look at the reasoning from these other libertarians. Consider the act of firing a gun in the park for fun again. Shouldn’t this act itself be defined as an “initial use of force”? The person doing this is certainly acting in a severely negligent way. Even if their intent really wasn’t to cause people harm (perhaps they were even doing their best to make sure they weren’t firing in the direction of others!) the very act of them firing a gun where they are likely to cause harm to others is itself a “coercive act” in that most people would rather not be around someone doing something dangerous like that.

Once you realize that an “initial use of force” can include something like negligently firing a gun in a park, the idea of having speeding laws / reckless driving laws doesn’t seem problematic anymore. ‘Driving recklessly’ (which we then narrowly and legally define in some admittedly arbitrary way) is an “initial use of force” for the exact same reasons firing a gun in a park can be so classified. Your choice to drive in a way that puts others at risk against their will is as much an act of ‘coercion’ as any other despite there being no clear physical force, or even harm, taking place.

Intellectual Property Laws

Another interesting difference between libertarians is over how to define “initial use of force” within the realm of intellectual property laws. Some libertarians believe that all intellectual property laws are immoral because they amount to trying to limit what people are allowed to think when no actual physical ‘property’ is being exchanged. Can one truly make thoughts the basis for property? And is ‘stealing an idea’ truly ‘stealing’ at all? In what sense is it “initial use of force?” (See this link for discussion)

But other libertarians strongly disagree. They start with a view that ideas can be owned and that this is a perfectly natural way to think of ‘property.’ For these libertarians, someone that plagiarizes them has “initiated force” against them and they have no issue at all with the idea that this person can now be sued and have money taken from them.

Intellectual Property is a Culture Specific Notion

It’s interesting to note, however, that whether or not ideas can be ‘property’ does seem to be a purely cultural idea. Throughout history, most cultures had no concept of intellectual property at all. In fact, during the ‘biblical era’ people could hardly imagine owning an idea. Instead, they gladly wrote books and claimed that someone else (presumably a famous mythical person) wrote the book so that their ideas would spread easier. This led to the whole category of writings known as pseudepigrapha where authors would fraudulently claim that their book was written by some great mythical hero (Abraham, Moses, etc.) in hopes of getting their ideas to replicate as much as possible because people thought that a great hero wrote the book. Such societies still had their secrets, of course, but the assumption was that a secret was yours to keep, not that you could sue someone for ‘stealing it.’

In other words, throughout most of history, most people that have lived not only couldn’t conceive of ‘owning an idea’ but intentionally didn’t take credit for their ideas – ascribing them to mythical people instead – as a way to encourage the spread of their own ideas. This is basically the opposite of how we see things today.

So it is interesting that part of what determines if you perceive “initial use of force” to include intellectual property seems to be related to purely cultural ideas that first require laws to be made to create a new kind of ‘property’ that treats ideas as if analogous to physical objects.

To clearly see how strange it is to think of intellectual property violations as an ‘initial use of force,’ imagine someone violates your copyright and you sue them and a court decides they must pay you for ‘damages’. Yet nothing physical was ever damaged. For that matter, presumably, the copyright violator never agreed to the copyright laws in the first place. Further, he has no contract with you. So libertarians that believe in Intellectual Property (which are fairly common!) are certainly getting rather creative in their interpretation of what constitutes an ‘initial use of force.’

Initial Use of Force vs Initial Use of Physical Force

This then brings us to one of the main issues that exist with the Libertarian concept of ‘initial use of force.’ When libertarians speak of it, they often try to leave you with the impression that they mean ‘initial use of physical force.’ Consider, for example, Logan Chipkin’s interview with Stephan Kinsella.

The libertarian understanding of rights which is the non-aggression principle. The core way we state [the non-aggression principle] is that you can never initiate violence. …it’s not wrong to respond with violence… [like] defensive retaliation. …we don’t think it’s immoral to use force to defend your rights, but we do think it’s wrong to start force or initiate force. (Link)

Note how Stephan doesn’t here refer to it as initial use of ‘force’ but instead calls it ‘violence.’ And Stephen is hardly the only libertarian I’ve come across that acts as if ‘initial use of force’ and ‘initial use of violence’ are one and the same thing.

But as we’ve seen, they aren’t. In fact, they aren’t even close to the same. Speeding laws, laws against reckless driving, laws against firing guns in parks, and intellectual property laws are all examples of laws that libertarians apparently can’t agree upon as to what does or does not constitute an ‘initial use of force.’ And both sides view their side as the only reasonable interpretation of ‘initial use of force’ and see it as ‘objectively obvious.’

Contract Law is NOT Initial Use of Violence

It’s tempting here to then claim that maybe this is two branches of libertarianism. Perhaps one branch interprets ‘initial use of force’ as specifically ‘initial use of violence’ and the other interprets it as something more like ‘any action that may lead to harm (or at least loss of property, including intellectual property).’ However, it turns out that this can’t be the case.

One thing that all libertarians of all schools agree upon is that contract law is paramount. But contract law requires us to interpret ‘initial use of force’ as something other than ‘initial use of violence.’

Imagine that you live in a libertarian stateless world and someone hires you as a painter and that a dispute takes place between you and your employer. In your view, the employer got what they paid for. But the employer insists that you didn’t do the agreed-upon work to his specification and you owe him at least $1000 back.

Now for the sake of argument, let’s say that the employer takes you to the court and police system he’s hired. (See this article for how libertarians feel this might work in a stateless society. But see also this article criticizing that view.)

Now it happens that you have not hired this security company. But suddenly they show up at your door with their warrant from the court (that you also haven’t hired!) stating that their court system found you to be guilty and you now owe your employer $1000.

Now bear in mind that this is a company you have not hired that is now insisting they have a right to forcibly enter your home and take your money that you sincerely believe is still your money. You have no contractual obligation to them whatsoever.

Now it doesn’t matter who is in the right or wrong here. It’s possible you really do owe this money and you are mistaken that the money is yours. Or the court system itself might be mistaken.

The key point is that contract law can never work in a world where “initial use of force” is equated to “initial use of physical force (or violence).” Or else the court and police would be unable to take your money from you to settle this contract and would have to wait for you to first do something violent first. So it must be the case that libertarians that try to equate ‘initial use of force’ with ‘initial use of violence’ are simply mistaken and no libertarians truly believe those are one and the same.

Mask Laws

In light of the above discussion, it’s interesting to see how all of this applies to one of the recent libertarian political flash points: mask laws.

In the current political environment, it seems most libertarians have come down against mask laws. This is usually justified on the grounds of said laws violating “initial use of force” or being ‘coercive.’ Yet, some libertarians have argued exactly the opposite – that choosing to not wear a mask is itself the “initial use of force” because it represents a negligent act. From this point of view, choosing to not wear a mask in a pandemic is negligent behavior similar to our example of shooting a gun in the park. And again, both sides vehemently insist it is objectively obvious they are right and the other side is wrong.

In short, it would appear that an appeal to ‘initial use of force’ can be used by both sides of the mask law debate.

Is “Initial Use of Force” Easy-to-Vary?

So is the Non-Coercion Principle truly objective or is it just a matter of taste and libertarians are simply backing into it. Or put another way, is ‘initial use of force’ really just an easy-to-vary explanation?

Libertarians certainly act as if finding an ‘initial use of force’ is an objectively obvious thing – even while vehemently disagreeing with each other over where to draw the line. But as we’ve seen, libertarians apply (or not) the concept of ‘initial use of force’ to such wide-ranging ideas as negligent acts, contract laws, and intellectual property.

Once you realize that libertarians can’t possibly mean ‘violence’ (or physical force) when they refer to ‘force’ this raises an interesting question. Is it possible that there is enough latitude in how one interprets the word ‘force’ such that any law can by justified as a violation (or not!) of ‘initial use of force’?

Here would be my question to my libertarian friends. Can you name a law that currently exists in real life that you feel violates the principle of ‘initial use of force’ that I can’t just as easily claim follows the principle?

Given that the word ‘force’ can include any form of physical violence, any form of negligence that might cause harm, any enforcement of a cultural norm that is deemed valuable (i.e. intellectual property), or any violation of contract, I feel doubtful it’s even possible for libertarians to point to an objective counterexample to this principle. Certainly mask laws do not qualify because one can easily just argue that not wearing a mask in a pandemic is negligence and therefore coercive to those that don’t want to be around someone acting in that way.

Nevertheless, I’m not sure. I would challenge my libertarian friends to do their best to find a good example of a law that violates this principle of initial use of force that I can’t cleanly argue the opposite using the very same principle. If they can’t come up with such an example, then it must be the case that this principle is an easy-to-vary explanation and thus a bad explanation.

“Force” as Theory-Laden Observation

One consistent observation I’ve made throughout this post is that not a single libertarian I’ve ever argued with has ever thought ‘initial use of force’ was anything but obvious — even while vehemently disagreeing with each other. This strikes me as a classic example of how theory determines observation — not the other way around.

If you are starting with the assumption that ‘force’ delineates moral and immoral acts, then whatever you personally experience as undesirable will automatically be seen as ‘force’ against yourself and thus the ‘initial use of force.’ This may even radically differ from situation to situation because you can’t experience how the other person feels, i.e. when your actions are experienced by the other party as coercive. You may therefore apply the principle entirely inconsistently over time. It will likely always be you that just happens to always experience the ‘initial use of force’ first in every circumstance.

Could it therefore be that Andy is correct that the Non-Aggression (or Non-Coercion) Principle is a circular argument?:

By calling on the NAP, one is just stating that “I am entitled to this” [but] using different words. If I have a different theory of justice (and by extension theory of entitlement) than a Libertarian, calling on non-aggression or defense of coercion will offer no insight on which theory is correct.

Borrowing from Popper, to make sense of any piece of data, one must have a working theory. The piece of data alone can’t tell you much, as he said “all observations are theory-laden.” The same goes for coercion or aggression. One needs a working theory of entitlements to decide what is coercion or aggression vs defense. Unfortunately, many Libertarians do not understand that aggression is merely a way to define violence presupposing a theory of entitlement. Instead, they think that non-coercion is a theory of entitlement itself, aka begging the question.

Put another way, is the Non-Aggression principle simply a fancy way of saying “you shouldn’t act in ways inconsistent with libertarian political views because we feel libertarian political views are the correct ones”? How does searching for an ‘initial use of force’ help us answer this question if ‘force’ simply means ‘breaking the laws we feel should have been implemented’?

6 Replies to “Is “Initial Use of Force” an Easy-to-Vary Explanation?”

  1. This text clarifies a lot of my own thoughts about libertarian views. For example: If we could just get rid of the state most of our problems would be solved automatically. One solution to all problems. When the discussion shifts over to what it is that will replace the state and how to deal with the problems arising in this new system, libertarians tend to disagree with each other on the solutions. When you say it is caused by easy to vary explanations it all makes sense to me. I think it would be more productive if libertarians didn’t try to throw out a large part of the western tradition (the state) all at once, but instead proposed small changes to the current tradition that would move it closer to their ideal. Then we could deal with new problems that arise one at a time and course correct along the way.

    1. Thanks for commenting.

      I tend to think of it like this. Libertarians should pay more attention to Karl Popper’s epistemology and how it applies to governments. They should abandon Popperian utopianism.

      I realize they don’t feel like they are utopian. And the word “utopian” can have many different meanings. For example, “utopian” might mean “perfection” and no libertarian believes their ideas will result in perfect. Thus they see themselves as not utopian. Okay, fair enough under that particular definition of “utopian.” (Though I’m fairly certain Plato didn’t think his utopia would result in perfection either, so I’m not sure I see why this definition is relevant.)

      But Popper is specific as to what *he* means by “utopian” and as far as I can tell, libertarians are “utopian” in exactly the way Popper intended the term. Once this is understood, the rest of the ideas that uniquely define libertarians crumble away. What you’re left with is classical liberalism which also believes in the free market, believes in minimizing government where possible, etc.

      1. Yes. I considered using “utopian” to describe libertarian ideas when writing the comment above. I share your view but struggle to express it with the same clarity.

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