The nature of the appropriate use of force is the central concern of libertarian philosophy. This philosophy offers a concise answer: initiating the use of force is never acceptable, but using force to defend against an initiator of force (hereafter referred to as an aggressor) is always acceptable. Unfortunately, this answer is not as clear as it may appear to be because there is confusion over what constitutes using force to defend against an aggressor. This confusion, coupled with the influence of statism, has led to an idea known as the immediate danger standard, which says that using force against someone who is not presenting a physical threat at the exact moment that force is used constitutes aggression. Let us explore both why this standard is wrong and why it has risen to prevalence.
The starting point for all of libertarian philosophy is self-ownership; each person has a right to exclusive control of one’s physical body and full responsibility for actions committed with said control. Note that in order to argue against self-ownership, one must exercise exclusive control of one’s physical body for the purpose of communication. This results in a performative contradiction because the content of the argument is at odds with the act of making the argument. By the laws of excluded middle and non-contradiction, self-ownership must be true because it must be either true or false, and any argument that self-ownership is false leads to a contradiction.
Each person has a right to exclusive control of one’s physical body, so it is wrong for one person to initiate interference with another person’s exclusive control of their physical body without their consent. This is how the non-aggression principle is derived from self-ownership. Each person has full responsibility for the actions that one commits with one’s physical body, so one may gain property rights in external objects by laboring upon unowned natural resources, and one owes restitution for any acts of aggression that one commits against other people or their property. The reason for this is that one is responsible for the improvements that one has made upon the natural resources, and it is impossible to own the improvements without owning the resources themselves.
Because the non-aggression principle and private property rights are derived from self-ownership, they are dependent upon self-ownership. That which is dependent cannot overrule that upon which it is dependent. Therefore, self-ownership takes primacy if there should be a conflict between self-ownership and external private property rights, or between self-ownership and non-aggression. Libertarian philosophy is a logical construct. Therefore, it is subject to logic in the form of rationality and consistency. This means that logical contradictions are objectively invalid, and hypocrisy is subjectively invalid. Contradictions cannot be rationally advanced in argument, and hypocrisy cannot be rationally advanced by the hypocrite. For private property rights, the non-aggression principle, or indeed even self-ownership, to apply to a person who has violated another person’s rights of the same kind is inconsistent. As such, a thief or vandal has no standing to claim property rights, an aggressor has no standing to claim non-aggression, and a murderer has no standing to claim self-ownership until restitution is made for their crimes. In the latter case, restitution is impossible because a murder victim cannot be made whole. The practical result is that if an aggressor refuse to perform restitution and continue in a state of criminality, they may be attacked in ways which would violate the non-aggression principle if done to a non-aggressor, as an aggressor’s actions demonstrate a rejection of the non-aggression principle.
Libertarianism Versus Immediate Danger
The ideas of absolute self-defense and open season on unrepentant aggressors that come to us from a rigorous interpretation of libertarian theory synthesize a far more expansive view of the proper use of force than the standard of immediate danger. The libertarian view is not only logically sound, but superior in practice as well because it allows libertarians to deal with situations that those who adhere to a standard of immediate danger cannot resolve. Let us consider four examples of this.
First, there are cases in which people engage in behaviors that pose a deadly risk to innocent bystanders. Someone who drives under the influence of substances which impairs one’s faculties endangers the life of everyone in the vicinity of such behavior and is therefore committing an act of aggression against everyone who could reasonably be hit by the car. There are aspects of current DUI laws that need to change, such as being able to get a DUI while sleeping in a car or riding a bicycle, but it is a valid concern for an individual or a libertarian security service to act against. The use of force to stop the car and detain the driver so as to keep him from continuing to drive under the influence of an intoxicating substance is justified, even though there may not be a person who is in immediate danger. The alternative is to wait until the driver actually injures or kills someone, which is obviously inferior to a proactive approach.
Second, an immediate danger standard does not allow one to recover stolen property. A guard of stolen property has not directly victimized anyone, but is acting to aid and perpetuate a violation of property rights. A thief who possesses stolen goods but is not currently in the act of thievery is not immediately endangering anyone, but is an unrepentant aggressor. When the rightful owner of the property or his agent comes to reclaim the property, the use of force to subdue a guard of stolen property in order to reclaim the property is justified. The alternative produces the absurd result that a thief may get away with property crimes simply by guarding and fencing whatever he has already stolen, so long as he is never caught in the act.
Third, those who commit crimes indirectly by hiring out their dirty work escape under an immediate danger standard. A person who hires thieves or contract killers does not directly steal from or murder anyone, but such a person is vicariously responsible for the crimes or attempted crimes committed by his agents. The use of force by the would-be victim or an agent of his against someone who hired the criminals is therefore justified, even though the employer of the criminals did not directly victimize anyone. In this case, the believer in the immediate danger standard must face one thief or assassin after another until finally losing one’s property or one’s life instead of eliminating the threat at its source.
Fourth, there is the long-term goal of all consistent libertarians: the abolition of the state. At its core, the state is a means for certain people to do that which is criminal for anyone else to do while evading consequences and accountability. When government legislators and regulators make policy, they are threatening the populations they govern with theft, assault, kidnapping, and murder carried out under color of law. They hire out the enforcement of these laws to their police and military personnel. These personnel sometimes put citizens in a situation that a proponent of the immediate danger standard would recognize as appropriate for defensive force, but most people offer sufficient compliance with the state to avoid facing men who have guns literally pointed at them. Those who restrict themselves to an immediate danger standard will consistently lose to those who operate under no such handicaps, and will certainly never use the amount of defensive force necessary to create and maintain a libertarian social order.
Statist Influence On Libertarians
Given the clear shortfalls of the immediate danger standard, why do so many professing libertarians advocate for it? As with most instances of corruption in the world, the state is to blame. The state is a group of people who exercise a monopoly on force within a geographical area. They use this monopoly on force to maintain monopolies on the creation and enforcement of law, the provision of criminal justice, and the final arbitration of disputes. The state uses an imminent danger standard for lethal self-defense in its legal codes because this furthers the goal of perpetuating the state.
If the libertarian standard were used, it would render much of the state’s police and court functions irrelevant. If one were legally allowed to use any amount of force necessary to stop those who recklessly endanger bystanders, to reclaim stolen property, and to eliminate crime bosses, it would show everyone just how little need they have for government protection services. Whatever errors may occur in such actions pales in comparison to the destruction wrought by states. Such a culture of independence and self-responsibility cannot be allowed among human livestock by any competent human farmer. A culture in which such uses of force by the citizenry are commonplace would swiftly eliminate its criminal element, thus depriving the state of the propaganda line that the state is necessary to protect against criminals. That those in power would rather endanger their subjects by allowing the criminal element to persist than give up power is the most cynical explanation for their behavior, so it is likely to be correct. Third, and most importantly, the conduct of government agents would be considered criminal if they were not government agents. The libertarian standard, which has no respect for badges, costumes, or affiliations, would thus lead people to use force against government agents for being unrepentant aggressors.
One might protest that one lacks agency in matters between an aggressor and a victim whom one does not officially represent, but the concept of agency has been shaped in a world dominated by states. The concept of agency in a libertarian social order would likely impose fewer limits on an individual’s conduct, thus leaving one free to use force against unrepentant aggressors even if not in an immediate self-defense situation. The possibility of becoming an outlaw subject to the every whim of anyone who cares to attack an unrepentant aggressor presents a strong deterrent against committing acts of aggression.
Libertarians presently live under statism, and most make the subjective value judgment that it is better to live to fight another day than to defy the state in such a bold manner when they lack the manpower and resources to win the ensuing conflict. This is understandable, but this has unfortunately confused some libertarians into believing in the imminent danger standard instead of reasoning through the philosophical answer. It is one thing to comply with the state under duress in order to live, advocate, work, and prepare for the day when forceful noncompliance is feasible, but it is entirely another to internalize and promote the standards of the state. The immediate danger standard is statist nonsense, and libertarians must understand this if they are to create and maintain their preferred forms of social order.