Eugene blogged about how even (most) libertarians don’t say that laws shouldn’t restrict people from engaging in activities that might (and will in the aggregate) impose costs on innocent third parties because these activities don’t harm anyone. Eugene argues that these activities do harm people. In most of these cases, he agrees with the hardcore libertarians who say that the liberty of the people engaged in behaviors that endanger others is worth preserving. But he denies that that’s because their behavior does no harm. It’s worth preserving because, on balance, it’s better and sometimes we have to weigh these things.
I think he’s right. I’m probably more libertarian (i.e. more skeptical about the ethical and practical merits of governmental interventions) than Eugene is, but even I think that a simple application of the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP; basically that nobody has the right to initiate force against other people) to all cases is wrong. Sometimes we should take actions that will initate force
against people who have not directly harmed anyone. Sometimes reckless people impose uacceptable risk on innocent third parties and should be stopped before they actually harm them. I suspect we’d all draw the line somewhere (blindfolded-spinning-nuclear-weapons-juggling, anyone?).
On the other side of the coin, sometimes we must harm innocent third parties when there is no practical alternative. An example of this is waging war against an enemy who has used human shields to protect his military targets.
It sucks. It would be nice if life were simple and a trivial rule always yielded the best results. But we don’t live in a world like that. We live in this one, and sometimes it gets messy. This is not a reason to ignore the issue of coercion, or invite abuse. It does make sense to give tremendous weight to the value of liberty and innocent human life. But not infinite weight.
I think the NAP is a great general guideline. I think it encapsulates a lot of knowledge and wisdom about people and force. But it is not an immutable law of nature. It is not encoded into our DNA. There are cases when it’s unreasonable; and libertarians need a good theory to address how institutions should identify and handle these cases (including how errors can be corrected).
While looking for a good link for the NAP, I came across this article by J. Neil Schulman that I think is excellent.