Initiation of Force vs. Victimization

Written on January 24, 2009. Written by .

New York Supreme Court
Laying down the law.
Photo courtesy of wallyg

The term “initiation of force” comes up a lot in libertarian philosophy because it is the fundamental concept behind the non-agression principle, which states that the initiation of force is inherently illegitimate. Note that the word “initiation” is important because it allows the retaliatory use of force to remain legitimate. In this context, “initiation of force” is a shorthand for the initiation of physical force, the threat of physical force, theft, breach of contract, etc. This usage raises a bit of a problem because it isn’t exactly clear what the etc means. We need a more precise definition.

Some Objectivists say “‘force’ is defined as that which inhibits the proper functioning of a human mind as perpetrated by another human.” Source Unfortunately, this leaves out theft, breach of contract, and other serious issues which would make the non-agression principle relatively useless because the idea is to use the non-agression principle as a guideline for the design of government. If you were to try to include theft in this definition, it would be hard to imagine how you could exclude other inconveniences like asking someone the time of day. Furthermore Objectivists claim that “Man’s rights can be violated only by the use of physical force. It is only by means of physical force that one man can deprive another of his life, or enslave him, or rob him, or prevent him from pursuing his own goals, or compel him to act against his own physical judgement.” [Rand Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal Page 296] This statement can be interpreted two ways. If you interpret it normally, it is absolutely false. I can deprive someone of their life by poisoning a beverage and deceiving them into thinking that it is safe to drink. Deception is not physical force, so this contradicts the assertion, and there are many other possible contradictions here. The other interpretation is that this statement is in fact intended to be a definition of the term “physical force” in which case we will have to abandon our pre-established definitions of the words “physical” and “force”. And if this statement is a definition, then it has no substantive meaning because definitions make no logical claims.

If we want a better definition to fit into the non-agression principle, one that can serve as a basis for guiding legislation, our best bet is to try to reverse engineer a definition from the goals we wish to obtain. What we really want is to prevent individuals from harming one another. Of course we are not going to be able to achieve quite this much with legislation, there will always be accidents and those who don’t respond to laws, but it is a sort of superset of what we need. If we break down and classify all the mechanisms of harm, we should then be able to cross off the unneeded excess, leaving just the bits that belong in the non-agression principle. So we use a form of diairesis to divide the different ways you could come to harm into a binary decision tree.

There may be better ways of performing the divisions, but this form was the best I have found so far. By the design of such decision trees, the leaves of the tree constitute a complete set of ways for you to come to harm unless if the leaf does not completely capture the definition provided by the nodes above it. For example, if you can think of a way in which you lost when you had a choice, and you weren’t threatened or deceived, but it still wasn’t your fault, then the tree might be incomplete. So really you just have to check the vertical branches, because all the decision nodes are guaranteed to be completeness-preserving.

Now we can cross off the cases in which there is no perpetrator: “Own Fault” and “Natural Loss” (which includes natural disasters and accidents), which leaves a list of crimes: Threats, Deception, Physical Force, Theft, Breach of Contract, Trespassing* and Counterfeiting. Perhaps a word that better captures these is “victimization”. Also, we can assume that victimization only occurs when the victim actually suffers some real loss, so that deception is not always considered a crime. Similarly physical force shouldn’t be a crime if it is just a pat on the back.

Using the term “victimization” also handles some cases that “initiation of force” can’t. It doesn’t really make sense to say that someone has initiated force on you if they have had no interaction with you or your property. Or if you did allow this, it would be a perverse usage of the words. But counterfeiting can cause you harm even if the counterfeiter never has any interaction with you or your property. It is just their effects on the markets that indirectly devalues your property. I see this as a significant flaw in libertarian arguments when it is claimed that preventing the initiation of force is sufficient for justice.  Instead, “initiation of force” should be replaced with “initiation of victimization” where victimization is defined as any of the categories of crime listed above that result in harm to the victim. Now, one could cling to “initiation of force” by saying that the counterfeiter did directly interact with and deceive someone, albeit not necessarily the victim, in order to spend the fake money. However, this observation doesn’t buy you anything because there are even more subtle and devious means of counterfeiting… [To be continued]

* Trespassing is used here to refer to any deprivation of property rights, including trespassing on intellectual property i.e. piracy, if you agree that intellectual works can be property.

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