Sean Parr
To Dan Popp's defense of fighting non-violence with violence, part two
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By Sean Parr
April 18, 2015

What follows is a continuation of a back-and-forth between myself and Dan Popp on the topic of the relationship between Christianity and libertarianism. Part One should be read first, as it details the two competing Christian comprehensions of the state and public policy, what libertarianism is and the manner in which it is not anti-Christian, property and ownership, and the violence of the law.

The Founding American Government and the Effects of its Growth

Popp presents the founding United States government in a very troubling (read: fallacious) way. If it is true that it was Christian, avers Popp, then the proposition that it was libertarian must be false. He proceeds as if there is no other possibility. His point, here, not only relies on a nonexistent dichotomy between Christianity and libertarianism, but it suffers from a vicious circularity. Popp takes for granted the very thing that he is trying to demonstrate; namely, that libertarianism is anti-Christian.

This question begging tendency of Popp's surfaces again when he looks at the sorry present state of America's depraved culture and says that as America "becomes less and less Christian she becomes more and more libertarian." Again, less Christian does not equal more libertarian, and vice-versa. And, upon reflection, how silly is Popp's statement here? America is becoming less Christian. Agreed. But more libertarian? What a joke! Did Popp have some place to be before he proposed this incoherency? Was he rushed? If Popp can show me where Jefferson was wrong when he said that "the natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground," and how, historically, this has not been the experience of the United States of America since the revolution I will, again, eat my hat. In what world does modern America enjoy more freedom than it did at its founding? If anything, the slow crawl toward collectivism has exponentially hastened in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries to the point where America is substantively no different than the European social democracies.

Popp is trying to make a connection here that does not exist. It is not only possible, but a positive certainty that Popp has misplaced his ire for culture's degradation, directing it at liberty rather than at the true culprit: government (the wide-ranging scope of which, ironically, Popp is fighting to maintain so that non-violent people can think on their sins within the confines of the Big House).

As Hoppe pointed out:
    Families considered normal by conservative standards are household families, and the family disintegration and moral and cultural decay which contemporary conservatives deplore is largely the result of the erosion and destruction of households (estates) as the economic basis of families by the modem welfare state.
The message here: it is not libertarian policies that those such as Popp should blame for the moral rot that they observe, but the state itself and all of its distorting, socio-cultural collectivist activities. The fiction must be resisted that the negative results of welfare expenditures (the breakdown of the marriage culture and the resulting exacerbation of social ills) are the consequence of anything but the expenditures themselves and the agency that allows for and distributes them.

And (as an aside), when Popp states that the founding United States government "certainly was not libertarian," he goes too far. It was not perfectly libertarian, in the same way that Popp admits that it was "far from... perfectly Christian," but – as Bailyn, Nisbet, Rothbard, and others have professed – it was libertarian nonetheless. In fact, it has been recorded that "historians now realize that the American Revolution itself was not only ideological but also the result of devotion to the creed and the institutions of libertarianism."

Harm

I am grateful to Popp for expanding this discussion into an area of advanced libertarian theory; to wit, the subject of harm. Libertarians pinpoint not harm, but physical invasion as the action that warrants the violence of the law to combat it. The idea is that "once a nonphysical-invasion sense of harm is adopted, almost any outlaw act might be justified." Taking issue with this reasoning, Popp presents a thought experiment:
    Let's say that Farmer Brown sprays pesticide on his crops, and this pesticide makes its way into the river, and this water is consumed by a pregnant woman whose baby is malformed by the tiny bit of poison in the water. Has Farmer Brown attacked this baby? No. He's not even aware of its existence. But government has an obligation to prevent that harm.
Popp here believes, incorrectly, that he has spotted a chink in libertarianism's armor. The law, in Popp's thinking, must step in on behalf of the pregnant woman and her baby and, by extension, on behalf of society against the victimless crimes [1] of drug use, prostitution, etc. because these things cause harm. Well, Popp is half right. The law must step in on behalf of the pregnant woman and her baby, but remain reticent on behalf of society with regard to drug use, prostitution, etc. because the former constitutes an invasion that causes harm and the latter does not.

How does Farmer Brown's action constitute invasion?

An invasion means not simply boundary crossing, "but boundary crossing... that in some way interfere[s] with the owner's use or enjoyment of [his] property." In Popp's example the boundary crossing is the pollution of the pregnant woman's water supply. The interference is the pregnant woman's subsequent illness and that of her baby (to whom she is the guardian). It is for this reason that libertarianism holds that "pollution amounts to an invasion."

An invasion of the sort offered by Popp can either be a trespass ("a visible and tangible or 'sensible'... physical entry that is a direct interference with the possession of land") or a nuisance (an "invisible, 'insensible' boundary crossing").

The pesticide in Popp's example falls into the nuisance category.

Now, as Rothbard has stated, "the practical difference between a tort action for trespass and for nuisance is that a trespass is illegal per se, whereas a nuisance, to be actionable, has to damage the victim beyond the mere fact of [boundary crossing] itself." For example, radio waves would qualify as nuisances, but their unwanted boundary crossing into private property would not be actionable, as they are harmless in that they do not restrict anyone in any way from using their property (either in person or in external things).

The nuisance in Popp's example falls into the actionable category.

The pesticide in the pregnant woman's water interfered with the use or enjoyment of her property in person and that of her baby (to whom she is the guardian). This invasion should be illegal and enjoined provided that there exists proof of harm and the establishment, beyond a reasonable doubt, of a causal connection between the actions of Farmer Brown and the misfortune of the pregnant woman and her baby.

The law stepping in on behalf of the pregnant woman and her baby has good historical precedence. As Walter Block has observed:
    Typically, a farmer would complain that a railroad engine had emitted sparks which set ablaze his haystacks or other crops. Or a woman would accuse a factory of sending airborne pollutants to her property, which would dirty her clean laundry hanging on a clothesline. Or someone would object to the foreign matter imposed in one's lungs without permission. Almost invariably, the courts would take cognizance of this violation of plaintiff's rights. The usual result... was injunctive relief, plus an award of damages.
I do not fault Popp for putting forth this challenge to libertarianism. It is a good challenge, but he is not the first to propose it and I am not the first to meet it. There is a good deal of discourse on this issue.

I will now submit some space to allow an objection of Popp's to fall flat on its face. That author states that if the following three propositions are true, "then a libertarian government is by nature a dysfunctional government."
    1). "There is a God."

    2). "God brings harm to societies that condone sin."

    3). "Governments must try to prevent harm to their citizens."
I acknowledge the truth of the first proposition. I allow the truth of the second, arguendo, but look at what Popp has done here. He indicts libertarianism for not criminalizing all sins (while granting that "a libertarian government might suppress a few of these," namely, the ones that involve invasion) and, further, he obfuscates legally permitting some sins (the ones that don't involve invasion) with condoning and, worse, actively promoting them. Although many may find racists and adulterers disreputable, no reasonable person seriously believes that they should be tossed into prison for their bigotry and promiscuity. The fact that the law should allow them to walk among us, unfettered, is not to suggest a sanction of their behavior; it is simply to keep the law within its proper boundaries. In the same way that to not love something is not to hate it, to tolerate something is not to endorse it. And, as an obviously intelligent Christian, Popp should know better.

That being said, the third proposition of Popp's is false and so libertarianism makes it out of his criticism unscathed. As Vance states, the proper role of the law "is supposed to be to protect life, liberty, and property from violence or fraud. It is simply not the business of government to prohibit the advertising, sale, and use of what it deems to be harmful."

It is for fear of going down a slippery slope that libertarians shy away from the notion that everything "harmful" should be illegal (e.g., drinking Coca-Cola; eating fatty foods; Sheila leaving Billy for Greg). Drug use, prostitution, etc. do not fall into the category of initiatory aggression, which is not to say that they are harmless, moral, or wise actions in which to engage. But we must resist the compulsion to pretend that they constitute invasions with which the violence of the law must contend. "A government with the power to outlaw harmful substances and immoral practices is a government with the power to ban any substance and any practice." As Ludwig von Mises phrased it:
    Once the principle is admitted that it is the duty of government to protect the individual against his own foolishness, no serious objections can be advanced against further encroachments. . . . And why limit the government's benevolent providence to the protection of the individual's body only? Is not the harm a man can inflict on his mind and soul even more disastrous than any bodily evils? Why not prevent him from reading bad books and seeing bad plays, from looking at bad paintings and statues and from hearing bad music? The mischief done by bad ideologies, surely, is much more pernicious, both for the individual and for the whole society, than that done by narcotic drugs.
The Right to Do Wrong

Popp engages in a bit of equivocation when asserts that "there is no right to do wrong." He takes wrong in the moral sense of that word; one should not sin against God, however non-violently (solicit a prostitute, say). He takes right, however, in the legal sense of that word; it should not be lawful for one to solicit a prostitute (this is the entire point that he is trying to make; the criminalization of immoral, non-violent actions). Sinning against God is always morally wrong, but there is a legal right to do it so long as it does not involve the initiation of violence – for the law, rightly understood, "is concerned with the use of violence in society. That is all."

An example of a moral wrong that should be legally impermissible is murder. There is no legal right to murder – especially very young human beings. This point, I feel, needs clarification. Popp states that "under a libertarian government... [child killing, abortion] could be legal." This a very hotly debated issue within the libertarian community and pro-lifers, like myself, are making great strides in convincing many libertarians that abortion equals an unjustified, disproportionate aggression to the person of the fetus. Myself (here and here), Laurence Vance (here), Jakub Wisniewski (here, here, here, and here), Libertarians for Life (here), and others have made important anti-abortion contributions to the literature and will continue to do so until the battle is won.

Conclusion

All collectivists rely, with nearly equal vehemence, upon the wiles of the government to settle most all of their respective gripes; never stopping to reflect on the possibility that the injustices against which they lobby (1) owe to the actions of the state itself or, at least, (2) may be better and more morally addressed by means other than state violence. What Mises has offered, I believe, certainly applies to Popp: "Every collectivist assumes a different source for the collective will, according to his own political, religious and national convictions."

Popp, strangely, uses his Christianity to justify fighting non-violence with violence. If Popp could only see that peaceful measures within a framework of freedom are more suited to the Christian precepts that he touts, then he would be well on his way to becoming a Christian who happens, also, to be a libertarian. And there would be nothing inconsistent with that.

I believe that Dan Popp is guilty of falling prey to all four of the relevant counts cited by Vance as reasons why some Christians incorrectly and unfortunately reject libertarianism:
    One, misconstruing libertarianism as a hedonistic philosophy instead of a political philosophy. Two, the poor presentation of libertarianism by libertarians. Three, wrongly thinking that libertarianism demands that one be pro-abortion. Four, morality; the two-fold failure to make a distinction between vices and crimes and crimes and sins.
I nonetheless thank him for responding to the concerns I have with his position. I have attempted here to show Popp the respect he deserves by taking my time to write up what I feel is a good and comprehensive rejoinder to his very well written recent contribution to this debate. And, if Popp is interested in adding anything further to this back-and-forth, I am comfortable giving him the last word on the matter. But before I do, I leave him with this: It was not for fear of jail time that Christ set us free.

It was for freedom.

NOTES:


© Sean Parr

 

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