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Apr 22, 2013

Rape and the Minimum Wage

Aggression and property rights are, by themselves, not the only categories relevant to moral or juridical evaluation.

Just to clear up any misconceptions, I think the minimum wage is an unjust and inhumane public policy. It is morally wrong. I also believe—I hope less controversially—that rape is a serious moral wrong. And no, George, I didn’t need to study history, sociology, or empirical economics to come to that conclusion.

I suppose George Smith thinks he has snared me in some sort of philosophical trap by forcing me to admit this. After all, in my original essay on the libertarian Non-Aggression Principle (NAP), I criticized devotees of the NAP for the casually a priori approach they often take to issues like the legitimacy of public roads, public schools, and the minimum wage. But—A-ha!—if I don’t think that careful empirical study is necessary to determine the injustice of rape and child molestation, then how can I simultaneously hold that it is necessary in order to determine the injustice of the minimum wage? Gotcha!

Well, maybe it doesn’t sound quite so much like a gotcha when I put it that way. Is it really so absurd to believe that the immorality of rape is considerably easier to discern than the immorality of the minimum wage? That the latter might require a more careful study of a wider array of empirical evidence than the former? I suppose it doesn’t seem that way to me. Some acts wear their immorality on their sleeve—it is part of “what is seen,” to borrow Bastiat’s famous distinction. With others, and perhaps the minimum wage is one of them, most of the wrongness derives from facts that are “unseen,” and require a bit of careful digging to unearth. Is there really an inconsistency here?

Of course, if you think as I do that coercion is bad, then you’ll think that minimum wage laws are prima facie objectionable even before engaging in this digging. But notice that even in the case of rape, we wouldn’t want to end our analysis here. Rape is coercive, yes. And it involves a violation of one’s property in one’s body. But if this is all we understood about rape, then we wouldn’t have come anywhere close to understanding the full weight or significance of its injustice. We wouldn’t understand the devastating psychological effect that rape can have on a woman. We wouldn’t understand that women are often blamed for their own rape, or the ways our entrenched institutions protect rapists while shaming and silencing their victims. We wouldn’t understand, in other words, why a lot of people think rape is an especially serious injustice, or one that calls for more attention and more action to effectively combat.

Rape is aggressive and a violation of property rights, just like stealing someone’s car radio or imposing a minimum wage law on them. But rape is not just like a minimum wage law. And that is because aggression and property rights are, by themselves, not the only categories relevant to moral or juridical evaluation.

This is a rather obvious point, as far as moral philosophy goes. But it does seem to pose a challenge to those who believe that all the thorny questions of justice can be resolved by the application of a neat and tidy principle like the NAP. If not all aggression is on a par—if some, like rape, is very seriously wrong, while some, like shining a flashlight at your house, is not wrong at all—then why should we believe that the non-aggressiveness or aggressiveness of conduct is anything like a sufficient indicator of its justice or injustice? And why should we believe that aggression (no matter how small) must never be permitted in order to produce any kind of social or individual benefit (no matter how large)?

Smith raises a number of other points in his essay, most of which I won’t be able to address here. Which is just as well, I suppose, since he hasn’t yet managed to develop many of those points himself. He stresses (contra Rothbard) that the NAP is about “force,” not “violence,” but doesn’t bother to explain what he takes the difference between those two concepts to be. He asserts that the NAP is about justice, not about moral permissibility, but again he leaves the difference almost entirely unexplained. Since these distinctions appear to play an important role in Smith’s argument, I assume that he will explain them at some point in his series. But until he does, there is little I can do to respond to them.

Smith concludes his essay by accusing me, somewhat uncharitably, of having engaged in a “hit-and-run” against the NAP. I’m not sure what he was expecting from a 1,200 word blog post. Apparently, criticizing the NAP on a number of grounds isn’t enough—I should have developed and articulated my own alternative theory of libertarianism too. Well, I’m happy to do that, and to discuss in more detail the various topics I raised in my initial post. There is certainly more to say about each of them. So I must object to Smith’s characterization. It’s only a hit-and-run if you hit and then run. And I’m not going anywhere.