Walter E. Block,
I had once believed that, according to libertarian theory, the non-aggression principle (NAP) could be stated as follows:
“It is illicit, and punishable as a crime, to initiate or threaten aggression against an innocent person.”
When I did so, I placed threats and the actual initiation of violence against a law-abiding person (according to libertarian law) on the same plane. If it was improper to initiate violence against such a person, then it would also be illegal to threaten violence against him. Turning this around, I also maintained that if it was improper to threaten violence against an innocent person, then it would also be illegal to actually use violence against him.
But upon more mature reflection, I now see I was in error on this matter, and I thank David Gordon, who knows everything about everything, for setting me straight.
Suppose, for example, a mad bomber announced that he had an Atom Bomb located in mid-Manhattan, and was going to explode it in an hour. This is much too short a time to evacuate even a small proportion of people in that borough of New York City; there are an estimated 25 million people located there, during business hours.
It also transpires that the police (hopefully private, but you never know) have the mad bomber’s beloved three-year-old son in custody elsewhere, safely out of harm’s way, at least from the nuclear device. Or, at least, they have located him, and now have him under tight surveillance. May they use violence against this toddler, to punish his father? No, no, a thousand times no, is the answer that emanates from libertarian theory. This baby is entirely innocent, and it would violate every precept of basic libertarianism to so much as lay a harsh finger on him. But, now, let me ask, seemingly, a similar question, but, actually, a very different one: Would it be compatible with libertarianism to threaten the father with his son’s life if he sets off the bomb? And, here, I answer very differently than I would have previously done. As I now understand the libertarian theory (hey, I’m “growing in office” under David’s tutelage), such a threat would be entirely compatible with this philosophy. Threats are very different than the actual utilization of initiatory violence, at least in this rare type of case.
Why the very strong libertarian emphasis on threats in the first place? These are crucially important since they can do the “work” of actual violence. A hoodlum points a gun at a shop-keeper and demands the contents of his cash register. The victim complies, under duress. The criminal walks out with his loot in hand, and does not, does not need to, further molest the businessman. So, if all libertarianism proscribed in its NAP was actual violence, this act of the criminal would be considered legitimate, a sorry state of affairs for our philosophy. In fact, threats are so important that they are the only counter-example I can think of to the doctrine of free speech (that is, that you may say anything you want, on your own property, including uttering threats to blackmail, engaging in libel and slander, etc.) The exception? In virtually all case, thou mayest not utter (mere) threats of violence against innocent people, as did the mugger in this example of ours. But, as we have seen, there are exceptions to this general rule.
This brings me to Donald Trump. He has been viciously excoriated by the mainstream media (what else is new?) for statements to the effect that he would not only bring terrorists to justice but, if elected president, he would also take steps to have their family members killed along with them. May he actually do so, and act compatibly with libertarianism? Of course not. We posit that these folk are not guilty of any crime a libertarian would recognize; that they have not aided and abetted the terrorist in his murder of innocent people in any way, manner, shape or form. But may he threaten to do so, as he has done? Most certainly, Yes. If the police may threaten the baby boy of the Atom Bomber, then Mr. Trump may do so with regard to family members of those who murder indiscriminately.
Would it be pragmatic to kill not only terrorists but also their family members? This is an empirical question, so we cannot vouchsafe any apodictic answers. But, it is entirely plausible what it would “work.” That is, that such scurrilous acts would indeed reduce terrorism. However, libertarianism is a civilized perspective. It admits of making these threats, but not of actually carrying them out.
So far, then, in these statements of his, Donald Trump has not violated the NAP. He is only threatening to kill relatives of terrorists. He has not actually done so. He may never do so. Therefore, libertarians, at least, should cut him some slack with regard to these statements of his.
As a founding member of Libertarians For Trump, I say that our community ought to lighten up on him in other ways as well. For my views on that matter, see these publications of mine:
Block, Walter E. 2016. “Libertarians for Trump.” March 15
Here are some of my interviews, debates, all in support of Donald Trump:
And, also, these:
April 15, 2016. On Donald Trump. Freedom’s Phoenix