Tuesday, May 21, 2013

To Protect and Serve

On a radio show I listen to frequently, I've noticed that a lot of hay has been made over the technical obligations of public servants to the people. The critique flows all the way up to the high-water mark of prominent, elected officials. But it also trickles down to the fingers of service and enforcement. In either case, but especially the latter, I think the critique is somewhat misguided.

The main thrust of the argument lies in the conception of government as a social contract, where people exchange their power and allegiance for protection and stability. Or so the story goes. The condemnation comes out of the fact that public servants are not (enforceably) obligated to live up to their end of the bargain in many ways. For instance, police officers can not be physically required to answer a distress call. That may, of course, result in such an officer losing his job. But, nonetheless, the contention seems to be over whether such servants should be physically forced to serve.

As a libertarian, it's easy to get caught up in that argument. Personal assets are being expropriated to provide for such services. And, contrary to the much of the senseless progressive mantra, libertarians just as well as anyone should expect to at least receive the services they've paid for (even if they are against the arrangement to begin with). But, it is important to consider that there may be limits to what justice can demand. We're certainly entitled to compensation for these expropriated assets. But the question of "How?" is a more complicated one.

Let's suppose that you and another individual write up a contract for lawn work. The other individual never delivers on his promise and, alas, you have already paid him ahead of time for these services. Justice would seem to demand, if nothing else, that you would be repaid. Or, if amenable to both parties, servicing the existing contractual obligations may be sufficient. What would not be acceptable, however, is tying the other individual up, leash and chain, to force him to perform those services. This is because, while that individual may owe you something, he is still a human being. And unless he is volitionally egregious with respect to the rights and well-being of the others around him, enslaving him in such a manner is beneath human dignity. Without further details, justice only seems to demand compensation in this case.

Now let's consider the same situation. But, instead, the other party has forced you into such a contractual agreement under duress. Later you're put in a position where you are able to extract justice. What is its composition? Well, clearly, we could at least demand compensation for whatever was expropriated under duress. Can we then also force such a man to actually perform those contracted services? Unless you're working with a highly punitive framework of justice, it's hard to see why that should be the case. It seems appropriate, perhaps, to demand additional compensation for the anguish you might have endured in being threatened in such ways. But it's not clear that force or incarceration are called for (unless that individual should refuse to compensate).

There will, of course, be people who disagree pretty strongly with that. But most radical libertarians are fairly skeptical if not critical of forced performance in contracts. Now, understandably, we're talking about a contract that is not only invalid but carried out under duress. So it's easy to understand how one can get angry at the person on the other side of the gun barrel. I guess what I'm saying is that such reactions speak more to our anger and desire to punish than they do to the content of justice. Maybe my view of a "truly libertarian" world differs, but in the world I envision, people are not enforceably obligated to perform as per their contracts. Restitution, not retribution - this speaks to the content of justice.

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