Killing for Laws

People get killed when laws are enforced. How should this bear on our thinking about the laws’ legitimacy?

There is too much law. Considering that people in the business of keeping track of it cannot even tell how much of it there is, I don’t think this claim is reasonably open to dispute. But what laws should we get rid of? One seemingly attractive answer is: all those we are not willing to kill to enforce. It’s a great rhetorical weapon against laws: while we’re probably willing to resort to violence to stop violence, the boundaries of permissible law shrink very, very fast beyond that. But on further reflection I think this is not the right way to think about the issue.

Conor Friedersdorf quoted Stephen Carter’s statement of this view in a short piece in The Atlantic some years ago. (I haven’t tracked down the source of the quotation, though I haven’t looked very hard.) Professor Carter wrote:

[E]ven a breach of contract requires a judicial remedy; and if the breacher will not pay damages, the sheriff will sequester his house and goods; and if he resists the forced sale of his property, the sheriff might have to shoot him.

This is by no means an argument against having laws. It is an argument for a degree of humility as we choose which of the many things we may not like to make illegal. … The statute or regulation we like best carries the same risk that some violator will die at the hands of a law enforcement officer who will go too far. 

David Henderson picked this up in a recent post on EconLog, which is how I came across this particular statement of the “willingness to kill” test for the appropriateness of law. Professor Henderson suggests that you

[t]hink about all the laws and regulations you want. Then think about whether you want the government to be willing to kill people if those who disobey escalate their disobedience. … Then ask yourself if that affects your thinking about any of the laws that you previously said you wanted. Laws that make gasoline cans almost useless? Laws that say you can’t have more than a certain volume of water per minute coming out of your shower head? Laws against using marijuana? Laws against growing marijuana?

Like I said above, the suggestion seems to be that we shouldn’t have such laws ― not just as a matter of policy, but that it is immoral to have such laws and to expose people to the risk of death at the hands of law enforcement for disobeying them. And, to repeat, I’m not convinced.

Part of the reason why was given shortly after Mr. Friedersdorf’s piece appeared by Joe Carter at the Acton Institute’s blog. Mr. Carter referred to Frédéric Bastiat’s argument that resort to law, and to force in enforcing it, is legitimate when, but only when, an individual would be justified in using force to assert his or her natural rights (i.e. life, liberty, and property). The law is a collective substitute for individual self-defence or self-help. Now, just as an individual will sometimes be justified in using force, but not deadly force, in protecting his or her rights, so the law’s intervention may be justified only to a degree. But an individual does no wrong if the accidental consequences of an application of force in self-defence exceed what would have been a priori justified in the circumstances. (Mr. Carter gives the example of a person struggling with a thief who falls and breaks his neck. It would have been wrong to kill the thief intentionally, but the person is not blameworthy for the accident, even though it would not have occurred had they not defended their property.) And this too applies to the law: “Intentionality”, says Mr. Carter, “carries a lot of weight in such scenarios, whether the force is being applied by me or by the Sheriff”.

I think this is mostly right, but I would add a couple of qualifications or nuances. First, I’d sharpen Mr. Carter’s argument a bit. In the example he gives, it’s not only the case that the person who struggles to keep his or her property and in the process accidentally causes the thief to die is blameless. It’s also that the thief is actually wrong ― not just to commit the theft in the first place, but also, additionally and separately, wrong to persist in it and to struggle to hang on to unjustly acquired goods. Similarly, at least if assume that the enforcement of some laws is justified, and further that it is sometimes just (more on this presently), then at least in some subset of cases “escalating disobedience” is actually wrong. The thinkers and practitioners of civil disobedience ― Thoreau, King ― warned against it. So it’s not obvious that we should have special solicitude for the person who escalates disobedience ― at least in some (significant) number of cases.

This brings me to the second qualification to Mr. Carter’s argument. He concludes by writing that “the problem is not the violence” which sometimes accompanies the enforcement of the law, but “the injustice” of far too many laws. But we have been painfully reminded, over the last few years, that too often “the violence” is indeed a problem. Even if the underlying law is just, it can nonetheless be enforced unjustly, in ways that make it impossible to analogize the suffering caused in the process to an accident of no real moral significance, let alone something the law-breaker is to blame for. Far too often, law enforcement resorts to lies, intimidation, excessive actual or threatened violence and deprivation of rights. These problems can be and too often are compounded by prejudice, notably racial prejudice. Also far too often, moreover, law enforcement agencies and agents are unaccountable for these wrongs.

This is precisely why the “willingness to kill” argument, although not strictly valid, is intuitively appealing. At the very least, it draws our attention to the costs that our preference for and belief in the legitimacy of laws imposes on others (and sometimes, though rarely, on us). It also draws our attention to the fact that, our world being rather imperfect, these costs will be rather higher than ideal theory or even analogies to improbable accidents suggest, and unjustly so. And again the injustice is often compounded by the fact these costs weigh heavier on some groups of people than on others ― on the excluded, on the deviant, on the different. We can and should try to reform the system by which our laws are enforced to lessen the disparity, but we can and should also reform the legal system as a whole to reduce the cost of its enforcement for everyone, in recognition of the fact that injustice equally distributed does not cease being injustice.

Lastly, and despite the foregoing, I’ll add that, much as I love Bastiat, there is at least one kind of laws that are, I think, justified but do not fit the strictures of his definition: namely, laws that solve coordination problems. The classic example is the rule as to which side of the road people should drive on. I don’t think that such laws can easily be explained in terms of defence of natural rights; no one person has a right to dictate to another where to go. But such laws serve to make it easier for everyone to enjoy their freedom around other human beings and increase opportunities for peaceful collaboration. They are legitimate if any laws ever are, and even anarchists would want to devise (non-state) mechanisms for enforcing ― coercively if need be ― equivalent rules. It would of course be quite wrong to punish driving on the wrong side of the road by death, and we wouldn’t want anyone to to be killed for breaking this rule, even though it is very useful and not very onerous. But that doesn’t mean that there ought to be no rule about what said of the road to drive on, even if in some small proportion of cases rule-breakers who escalate their disobedience ― say by trying to drive away at high speed when the police attempt to stop them ― will end up dead.

With these qualifications, I think that the “willingness to kill” argument doesn’t quite work, but it draws our attention to some real issues. The concerns that make it appealing to some people are not decisive for or against a particular law, or even for or against a particular theory of legitimacy. But they should at least weigh on us when thinking both about individual laws and about theories of legitimacy, and make us prefer there to be less law rather than more, other things being equal.

A Proclivity for Plunder

The left and the right are united in wanting to regulate the internet by taking from their enemies and giving to their friends

You might think that Steven Guilbeault, environmentalist activist turned Canadian Heritage minister, and Josh Hawley, a leader of the will-to-power faction of the American right, don’t have too much in common. But, as it happens, they do: both think that, when it comes to regulating social media, plunder is the right policy. Even by the standards of the times, their positions are unusually crude. But they have at least the merit of exposing a widespread misunderstanding of the permissible bounds of the activity of the state.

Mr. Guilbeault, as Michael Geist has noted on his blog, is promising to throw more money at the Canadian media and cultural sector and, in order to do so, to “go and get that money where that money is. Which is web giants.” The current idea, as Professor Geist explains in another post, appears to be to charge Google, Facebook, et al. for linking to news articles listed or shared on their platforms, but there may be other chicanery in the works, such as requirements that these companies, or some others, spend some amounts determined by government fiat on content deemed Canadian, or that they give such content a prominence they otherwise would not.

This brings me to Mr. Hawley who, as Christian Schneider explains at The Bulwark, is trying to induce regulatory retaliation against Twitter and Facebook for blocking or limiting the sharing of a dodgy New York Post article. This demand is only the latest in a series of claims by people who used to believe in free speech and free markets (Mr. Hawley’s Twitter biography describes him as “constitutional lawyer” first and husband, father, and senator after that) that social media companies must be made to carry their or their ideological allies’ communications, and punished in case they limit these communications’ reach or prominence.


As you can see, these plans agree in the essential principle that successful platforms must either be requisitioned directly or have their bank accounts raided for the benefit of favoured constituencies. Only the details ― namely, the identity of the beneficiaries ― differ. But then again, once the principle has been accepted, the details can and will change as the partisan make-up of governments shifts. It would be a mistake to focus on the latter rather than the former, though as Mr. Schneider notes, it is a mistake that is quite common on American right: “[t]his may come as a shock to Republican senators, but a freshly empowered Biden/Harris [administration] will not likely make content moderation determinations premised on what produces the largest font of liberal tears.”

The principle on which Messrs. Guilbeault and Hawley operate is plunder. They are not alone, of course: so do countless other politicians, not to mention people who vote for them. As Frédéric Bastiat wrote in his great essay “The Law“:

Man can live and satisfy his wants only by ceaseless labor; by the ceaseless application of his faculties to natural resources. This process is the origin of property. But it is also true that a man may live and satisfy his wants by seizing and consuming the products of the labor of others. This process is the origin of plunder.

Plunder by a single person or a small band is criminal. Plunder by a monarch and a dictator is illegitimate. But plunder under colour of law by a democratically elected government ― why, that is simply public policy:

Under the pretense of organization, regulation, protection, or encouragement, the law takes property from one person and gives it to another; the law takes the wealth of all and gives it to a few — whether farmers, manufacturers, ship owners, artists, or comedians. 

By the way, lest you think that the belief that this sort of policy immoral is some peculiarly French radicalism, here’s Justice Chase, speaking in much the same terms in Calder v Bull, 3 Dall (3 US) 386 (1798):

An ACT of the Legislature (for I cannot call it a law) contrary to the great first principles of the social compact, cannot be considered a rightful exercise of legislative authority. … A law that punished a citizen for an innocent action, or, in other words, for an act, which, when done, was in violation of no existing law; a law that destroys, or impairs, the lawful private contracts of citizens; a law that makes a man a Judge in his own cause; or a law that takes property from A. and gives it to B: It is against all reason and justice, for a people to entrust a Legislature with SUCH powers; and, therefore, it cannot be presumed that they have done it. (388)

And lest you think that this is just American radicalism, let me also quote to your Sir William Blackstone, who wrote in his Commentaries on the Laws of England that “the principal aim of society is to protect individuals in the enjoyment of those absolute rights, which were vested in them by the immutable laws of nature”, (124) and which “may be reduced to three principal or primary articles; the right of personal security, the right of personal liberty, and the right of private property”. (129) The protection of these rights is the proper object of the law, so that

the law, which restrains a man from doing mischief to his fellow-citizens, though it diminishes the natural, increases the civil liberty of mankind; but that every wanton and causeless restraint of the will of the subject, whether practised by a monarch, a nobility, or a popular assembly, is a degree of tyranny. (125-26)

Yet wanton tyranny and plunder is precisely what Messrs. Guilbeault and Hawley propose. Google, Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, and the others have laboured to create platforms and services that hundreds of millions of people want to use. Their creators started from very little ― the beauty of the internet is that barriers to entry are pretty low. But now, instead of imitating them and creating platforms and services of their own, others ― be they journalists whom too few people want to pay for the privilege of reading, artists whose work is of little interest to anyone, or conspiracy theorists ― demand to be given access to these platforms or to the revenue that they generate. And politicians are only too happy to oblige.

Why wouldn’t they be? They think it costs them nothing. They are wrong. As Bastiat points out, one odious consequence of the perversion of the law into an instrument of plunder is that, because people naturally tend to associate what is just with what is lawful, they come to think of plunder and oppression as just: “Slavery, restrictions, and monopoly find defenders not only among those who profit from them but also among those who suffer from them.”

The other danger of turning the law from protection of liberty and property to their destruction is perhaps the more dangerous because it is even more widespread:

As long as it is admitted that the law … may violate property instead of protecting it … Political questions will always be prejudicial, dominant, and all-absorbing. There will be fighting at the door of the Legislative Palace, and the struggle within will be no less furious.

This, and with increasing intensity, is what we are seeing. The stakes of politics are so high because it is admitted on all sides that the power of the winners is virtually untrammeled. The limits and restraints whose existence would in the past have been recognized, at least implicitly, such as the principle that a government shouldn’t simply raid the coffers of a particular company or handful of companies, let alone dictate what messages media ― social or otherwise ― should carry, are no longer recognized. On the one hand this is an escalation. On the other, nothing more than accepted principles being taken to their logical conclusion.

The prize of victory ― a permission to plunder ― is great. The threat of defeat is greater still. Because one expects to use power to engage in plunder oneself, one comes to expect one’s opponents to do likewise, at one’s expense. Losing an election means not simply that someone else gets to enjoy the honours of office, but that they get to despoil and silence you. Hence the desperation of the American right to hang on to power; but hence also the conviction of the Canadian left that it is entitled simply to take from those whom it does not like. These afflictions are not peculiar to countries or to parties. They proceed from the same source: the common conviction that there is no limit to political power, and in particular that plunder is part of the legitimate spoils of political office.

Now of course no one wants any of this to happen. Political schemers do not want moral decadence and civil war. But, they feel, they have no choice. If their preferred schemes do not get implemented, there will be no Canadian newspapers or no right-wing conspiracy theories on Twitter! They are convinced that if something is not done by force and the behest of a politician (preferably themselves), it will not be done at all.

And hence the state becomes the answer to all problems. Much of the right now believes this as fervently as does the left. As in Bastiat’s and in Hayek‘s time, this socialist mindset is spread across political parties. Yet as Bastiat wrote,

Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all.

We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.

Messrs. Guilbeault and Hawley have no faith in the ability of their fellow-citizens to take care of themselves. Cede to the siren songs of libertarianism, they think, and the sky will fall. Let the other party take power, and it will fall just as surely, if a little slower. They want to save humanity with their projects. Alas, but their preferred means of doing so is plunder. For all their undoubted differences, their commitments to civilization are no more different than those of Alaric the Goth and Attila the Hun.


Again, the projects of Messrs. Guilbeault and Hawley are only an unusually start illustration of how much ― too much ― almost all ― of our politics is done. Very little of it is about establishing general rules that protect the rights of all equally. All that matters is ― as Lenin asked ― “who, whom?”. Who is going to plunder and silence whom? Who will be the winner and who the victim? For vae victis.

This is bad policy of course, but more importantly, dangerous and immoral. No person and no party, no matter the size of their majority, have the right to behave like this to their fellow human beings. As Bastiat said: “No legal plunder: This is the principle of justice, peace, order, stability, harmony, and logic. Until the day of my death, I shall proclaim this principle with all the force of my lungs (which alas! is all too inadequate).”