Note: As COVID-19 and the ongoing culture war are likely to be saturating our thoughts at the moment, this somewhat lengthy essay may provide a refreshing opportunity to delve into some libertarian theory concerning the defence of one’s home or business premises from trespassers. Self-defence generally is relatively neglected in libertarian theory compared to theories of private policing and court systems. Nevertheless, if political division continues to translate into increasing violence and civil unrest, then the greater clarity on this topic that the essay below seeks to achieve may not be entirely irrelevant to our current problems.
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In Defence of Booby Traps
By Duncan Whitmore
Recently, Walter Block began a short thread on the LRC blog concerning the libertarian position on setting booby traps for the purpose of defending private property from trespassers. The discussion by no means exhausted all of the considerations involved in this topic, but a longer treatment may help to clarify some of the principles concerning self-defence in a libertarian legal order.
Every person in a free society is permitted to use defensive force against invasions of their person or property. Booby trapping does not question the principle of self-defence per se; rather, the difficulty is with whether this particular mode of protection may be considered defensive at all or whether the trap constitutes, in and of itself, an aggressive act in the event that it is sprung. Continue reading
Statism and Judicial Activism
By Duncan Whitmore
In a previous essay concerning the Supreme Court’s judgment against Boris Johnson’s decision to prorogue Parliament1, we noted that several commentators had criticised the judgment for its “political” nature, calling for greater scrutiny of the judiciary and the judicial appointments process.
It will be argued here that castigating the case as the moment when the judges crossed over from law to politics is wide of the mark, and that a politicised judiciary is a necessary and unavoidable outcome of the growth of democratic statism. As we shall see, this is a trend which Britain has endured for around a hundred years (with an acute acceleration in the post-war era). Consequently, the only way to ensure a relatively impartial, apolitical judiciary is to roll back the size and scope of the state.
The Judiciary in Political Theory
The state’s power of adjudication receives relatively little attention in everyday political discourse. Nearly all of the headlines are attracted by what the executive and the legislative spheres of the state – Presidents, Prime Ministers, parliaments, and so on – are up to rather than the wigged magistrates presiding over dark, dusty courtrooms.
One reason for this is that the non-judicial state institutions have a greater scope to act unilaterally. The government can announce initiatives and Parliament can enact laws without the need for any outside stimulus. The courts, on the other hand, are in the position of having to wait for a case to come before them, i.e. for people to find themselves in an active conflict with other people. The direct outcome of such a case may impact upon only a handful of participants and, even if the principles under scrutiny are far reaching, the judges may rule only on a single specific point at any one time. Moreover, the prevalence of democracy focuses discussion of your political rights on your ability to vote in elections which, in most cases, is not the method of selection for the judiciary. Participation as a jury member is, to be sure, viewed as a civic duty also, but this may occur only a handful times during a person’s life, and direct involvement in a court case as one of the litigants is even less likely. Thus, the perception that the judiciary has a relatively diminished ability to touch everyone’s lives has lent them a degree of remoteness compared to other organs of the state. Continue reading
“A Judicial Jamboree” – Boris and the Supreme Court
By Duncan Whitmore
Last week’s judgment of the Supreme Court (“Miller/Cherry”1) that Boris Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament was unlawful has been greeted as a “triumph” of democracy on the Remain side but, conversely, as an unwarranted judicial wading into politics on the Leave side – together with calls for the scrutiny of judicial appointments akin to what is seen with the US Supreme Court.
It will be argued here that, while undoubtedly significant, the court’s judgment to review the government’s decision for prorogation (and its disagreement with that decision) was not the most extraordinary aspect of the case. As we shall go on see in detail, the case is really an outcome of a continuing, decades-long attempt to squeeze historic, pre-democratic elements of Britain’s constitution into a democratic straitjacket.
What is astounding, on the other hand, is that the robustness and confidence of the decision represents a continuation of the same theme we identified in a previous essay on Brexit and the British Constitution – that the pro-Remain establishment, instead of simply cutting its losses and swallowing Brexit, is blind to the fact that its efforts to thwart the referendum result is jeopardising everything that legitimises (in the eye of the public) the sustenance of the British state. As Sean Gabb has said in his own post on the matter, “all that surprises me is that the Remainers are so committed to stopping Brexit that there is no part of the Constitution they are not prepared to feed into their political shredding machine.” Surely they must have realised the Supreme Court’s decision, delivered without a single dissenting voice among eleven justices in spite of convincing counterarguments, would brazenly and wantonly take a sledge hammer to yet another veneer of legitimacy over the state system that keeps them in power – the notion of an independent and apolitical judiciary? Continue reading
Libertarian Law and Legal Systems Part Five – Property Rights, Trusts, Unjust Enrichment and Other Considerations
By Duncan Whitmore
In this final part of our survey of libertarian law and legal systems, we will cover some remaining areas of legal liability and a few miscellaneous considerations before being in the position of sketching a final map of libertarian law.
The Standard and Burden of Proof
In Part One, we mentioned that legal procedures, adopted in order to ensure sound judgments, would be the product of entrepreneurial forces in just the same way as quality in the manufacture of, say, shoes and automobiles is guaranteed by the marketplace. We can, however, speculate upon what some of the standards are likely to be.
In contemporary legal systems the requisite standard of proof differs depending upon the type of action. The imposition of criminal sanction demands that proof of the defendant’s culpability be established beyond a reasonable doubt, whereas civil liability can be imposed by merely the balance of probabilities. The reason for this, presumably, is that criminal sanction is viewed as being a greater incursion of one’s liberty than civil remedies such as furnishing compensation. Not only could one be locked up in prison but one is usually lumbered with a criminal record so that it is impossible to disassociate oneself from the illegal act for at least a period of time. Furthermore, the traditional replacement of the victim by the state in the prosecutorial process of criminal trials is, no doubt, deemed to require stricter due process to protect the individual from persecution by the state.
Much of this is irrelevant from a libertarian point of view. Although we have not discussed in detail the different remedies that flow from criminal liability on the one hand and from civil liability on the other, the enforcement of all laws in a libertarian society risks violating an individual’s liberty if that individual is, in fact, innocent. Taking someone’s money in order to furnish compensation for a tort is as much a physical invasion of that individual’s person and property as locking him away for a crime. Low standards of proof would result in legal remedies themselves becoming de facto breaches of the non-aggression principle. Therefore, in order to legitimise the proposed legal remedy it is likely that only the strictest standards of proof will be accepted by a libertarian legal system – even for tortious as opposed to criminal liability. In other words, the fact of physical invasion, the extent of the aggression and the corresponding intent of the defendant must all be established beyond a reasonable doubt, or some equivalent that the libertarian courts devise. Continue reading
Libertarian Law and Legal Systems Part Four – Liability for Wrongs
By Duncan Whitmore
The fourth part of our survey of libertarian law and legal systems will explore causative events of legal liability arising from wrongs – that is a breach of some obligation owed by one legal person to another without the necessity of a pre-existing relationship such as a contract.
There are two issues that demarcate the approach of a libertarian legal system towards wrongs as opposed to that of a contemporary legal system. First is the definition of a wrong and second is the standard of liability – that is, the point at which the defendant becomes legally liable for a wrong.
Libertarian Definition of a “Wrong”
In contemporary legal systems, a wrong is some sort of act on the part of an individual that is viewed as being subject to legal sanction. Unfortunately, we have to start off with such a vague tautology as, looking at the variety of acts that are subject to legal regulation, this is about as precise as we can get. In many cases, of course, the wrong will be some form of harm caused by one individual to another which serves as the causative event to generate a legal response.
“Harm” is very broadly defined and can include violent and physical inflictions, such as murder, serious bodily injury, or damage and destruction to property, all the way to more ethereal harms that may include nothing more than speaking one’s mind such as “defamation” and causing “offence”. However, events currently classified as legal wrongs needn’t have a victim at all as the act may either be wholly unilateral or take place between consenting individuals. As an example of the former we can cite nearly all offences related to drug possession and dealing, and of the latter the criminalisation of certain sexual practices owing either to their nature (such as in sadomasochism) or to the gender of the participants (i.e. homosexual intercourse). Basically, it is no exaggeration to admit that a wrong, legally defined, in our contemporary, statist legal systems means nothing more than some act that the ruling government or legislature doesn’t like and wishes to outlaw, to the extent that even quite innocuous behaviour may find itself being subjected not only to legal regulation but to criminal sanction.
As we outlined in part one, no legal liability is generated in a libertarian legal order unless the wrong, or the “harm”, consists of a physical invasion of the person or property of another – in other words, only those actions that violate the non-aggression principle are subject to legal regulation. Continue reading
Libertarian Law and Legal Systems Part Three – Consent and Contract
By Duncan Whitmore
We will begin our survey of the causative events of legal liability in a libertarian legal system with those that arise from consent because, even though people may view “the law” as being synonymous with wrongs such as crimes and torts, consensual legal relations are, in fact, the most frequent types of legal interaction that arise in an individual’s life.
The predominant form of legal relations arising from consent is, of course, the contract; a person may enter tens of these contracts every single day by, for example, just purchasing a coffee, a bus ticket, or lunch, whereas most people would scarcely commit a single crime in their entire lives (although we might note that today states are happy to spill oceans of ink in criminalising, through legislation, even the most innocuous of actions). While any good legal system must have strong proscriptions against horrific acts such as murder and rape, it is the contract that is the primary preoccupation of everyone’s daily lives.
The first question to consider, then, is what exactly is a contract? Although it should be clear that all contracts concern some sort of bilateral arrangement, different legal systems have varying and often elaborate definitions. Continue reading