March 14, 2005

Libertarian Purity Test

This test seems to crop up in Internet discussions every three to six months. In that way, it's a very successful test. However a lot of people don't seem to enjoy its overall message very much, not least of all because it's so hard to get a good score.

I always score somewhere between the mid-90s and mid-110s, but then I think the key is that most of those policies have to be phased-in over time in order to do it correctly. What make me a "neo" libertarian is that I think there's a wonderful practical benefit to incremental liberty. Rather than shunning all compromise or transitional policies as some libertarians are wont to do, I think those are exactly the tools we have to use in order to see real improvements in US policy. Eventually we'll get closer and closer to many, though certainly not all, the policies stated above.

I disagree with Dan Drezner, though, that vigilante justice is an automatic 'no.' I tend to lean more or less toward the kritarchist view that the state ought to (ultimately) have no power or moral rights beyond those of any individual human. The reason is simple: there's no such thing as a state, it's just a group of people. We give it power through elections, legitimacy and consent, but ultimately the state is just a club we elected to lead us. They have only those powers individuals grant them.

There are some things - murder, kidnapping, theft - that states do or threaten to do under nicer names ('forfeiture' for example). No human has the right to do these things, so just because a group of people get to call themselves bureaucrats or elected officials doesn't bestow them with literally superhuman (above-human) rights or powers.

One of the primary jobs of an appropriately libertarian or neo-libertarian domestic agenda, as I see it, is to remove as many of the illegitimate superhuman powers that government has granted itself as possible. It won't be possible to remove them all, especially in the realm of criminal justice, but certainly we can start with the worst of the lot and proceed from there.

But my point on vigilante justice is this: although it may be impractical to have vigilantes roaming the streets, it's certainly not immoral. The state has a right to execute prisoners because ALL humans have the right to punish criminals or prevent crime. Just pull out your basic Locke:

"[I]t is unreasonable for men to be judges in their own cases, that self-love will make men partial to themselves and their friends: and on the other side, that ill nature, passion and revenge will carry them too far in punishing others; and hence nothing but confusion and disorder will follow..."

It's not immoral for people to exercise vigilante justice, it's simply impractical because they will be so biased in its application. It's worth pointing out that I believe the US ought to intervene in cases of genocide or mass murder for a related reason: precisely because any state or human has the right to intervene when a horrible crime (murder, rape, kidnapping, genocide) is taking place. If people couldn't do it, then states couldn't do it. The same thing applies to the question of vigilantism. The only thing making state police actions non-vigilante is that they passed a law saying as much. (Obviously there are other critical distinctions, but they're all practical, not directly moral.)

I'm not suggesting we flatly legalize vigilantism or that assassinations of government officers is a good thing, but I am saying a) that vigilantism is not inherently immoral and b) that there's no reason why government officials, if guilty of a heinous crime like murder or genocide, deserve immunity from punishment that regular people would not receive.

I mean, what are we doing in Iraq if not international vigilantism? There is no world government or police; the closest thing to it, the UN, was not exactly on board with the invasion. There was no world government sanctioning the invasion of Iraq. I don't think any sane person would have objected has Saddam been assassinated, thus de-necessitating the invasion - and he was the biggest government official in Iraq. It was morally right to go into Iraq and it would've been morally right to assassinate Saddam even though (or perhaps because) he's the top government official in Iraq.

That's a little different than legalizing vigilantism or assassination in the US, admittedly. But the moral principle shines through: it's not inherently wrong to use vigilantism, it's just that it's so susceptible to misuse. So we shouldn't just legalize it, because that's how you get Jews punished for the Black Death, black guys lynched for suspicion of rape, etc. The moral question aside, it's not practicable to have a widespread legalization of vigilantism, because we need an accountable, limited police force to do things.

Of course, if somebody gets arrested for avenging a murdered or raped family member, I think we ought to be a lot more lenient than many states currently are.


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