Coons: What is Law?

DNick Coonsepending on which dictionary you consult, you’ll find a variety of definitions for the word “law.”  For instance, “the collection of rules imposed by authority”, or perhaps, “legal document setting forth rules governing a particular kind of activity.”  All of these various definitions are technically correct, but they blank out the method of their enforcement.

Laws are enforced by the threat or use of violence.  Let’s take an example.  There is a law against murder, and rightfully so.  If person A is attempting to murder person B, then person C (perhaps a police officer) can rightfully point a gun at A’s head to prevent the murder.  This is an example of using violence in retaliation, or self-defense, and is perfectly acceptable.

But Libertarians hold that it is never acceptable to initiate violence against another individual.  There is a key difference here between “initiate” and “retaliate”.  Using force in retaliation is using force in response to someone else initiating force.  It is the initiator of force who is in the wrong.

Let’s take another example.  There is a law specifying a minimum wage of $7.25/hour.  An unskilled teenager unable to find work has approached me and asked if he could work for me.  I don’t have any job openings, but I do need my floor swept and mopped regularly.  I’d like to hire him for this job, but I can’t justify spending $7.25/hour.  I’m also taking a risk on someone with no work experience, whether they can handle the job appropriately, or even show up on time.  I offer him $4/hour, and he accepts, knowing that he doesn’t have any work experience, this is a way for him to build his work ethic and move up to a better position, with a referral from me, and make a little spending cash in the process.  So he and I agree to this amount.

But there’s a law against this.  If we’re caught, there’s going to be communication back and forth with government agents where they order me to cease and desist, and to pay the difference, all of this backed by the threat of violence if I don’t comply.  Ultimately, they are requiring that I pay someone $7.25/hour in spite of the mutual agreement between my employee and myself, and their minimum wage is enforced at the point of a gun.

Let’s take one more example.  There are laws criminalizing certain drugs.  This means that government uses the threat of violence in order to enforce drug prohibition.

There are certain occasions where I will agree to, either personally or by proxy, threaten someone with violence — Only when someone else is initiating the use of force.  Examples include preventing a murder, theft, or rape.  And there are many occasions where I will not sanction the threat of violence, either personally or by proxy — When the act being taken does not infringe upon the rights of anyone else; that is, when someone else is not initiating force.

Every law proposed requires that it ultimately be backed by violence if its targets don’t comply.  Next time you support the passage of a law, remember that you’re supporting the use of violence if the law is not followed, and think about whether violence is an appropriate response to those who don’t wish to comply.

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