In the wake of recent assassinations of NYPD officers and violence against police elsewhere, libertarian authors at Reason Magazine and Liberty.me have called the shootings “horrific and unjustifiable,” “assassinations,” “executions,” and “murder.” Let us examine these claims from first principles and see whether this is the case or whether killing government police officers is within the bounds of the non-aggression principle. Then, we will look at some of the philosophical objections raised by these authors and others and see whether or not they are valid.

Did Ismaaiyl Brinsley murder officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, or were these killings justifiable?

Let us begin with the essence of libertarianism: the non-aggression principle. The non-aggression principle says that it is never morally acceptable to initiate the use of force, and that the use of force to defend against a force initiator (a.k.a. aggressor) is always morally acceptable. We should then explore its limitations. Like any logical statement, the non-aggression principle is subject to logic in the form of rationality and consistency. To claim that one should be free from victimization by aggressors while committing acts of aggression is a performative inconsistency. As such, only a person who abides by the non-aggression principle is logically able to claim protection under it. To abide by the non-aggression principle, one must not initiate the use of force and if one does, one must make restitution for doing so. This means that one may employ violence against any aggressor at any time for the purpose of obtaining restitution for aggression and/or repelling the threat that an aggressor poses, and that one may escalate the use of force as far as necessary to accomplish these goals. Let us look at some basic examples to see how this works:

  1. Alfred is walking down a street. Bob picks Alfred’s wallet out of his pocket and runs away. Alfred chases down Bob, puts Bob in a submission hold, and takes back the wallet as well as Bob’s wallet. This is acceptable. The use of force was initiated, defensive force appropriate to the situation was used, and restitution was made. Concerning Bob’s wallet, Bob cannot claim a property right to his wallet while violating Alfred’s property right to his wallet, so Alfred may choose to take Bob’s wallet without penalty.
  2. Cate breaks into Daniel’s house and steals from it. Daniel hires Acme Dispute Resolution to investigate. Their agents find forensic evidence linking Cate to the crime with complete certainty. They send agents to recover the stolen goods if possible and deal with Cate if necessary. The agents find Cate with the stolen goods and attempt to negotiate with her. Cate uses deadly force to try to repel them. The agents kill Cate, recover the stolen goods, and return them to Daniel. This is acceptable. The use of force was initiated, Daniel hired agents to help him do what he may morally do but may be practically incapable of doing himself, an attempt to obtain restitution was made, the aggressor escalated the situation to the point of deadly force, defensive force appropriate to the situation was used, and restitution was delivered to the victim.
  3. Elle is walking down a street. Farkas approaches, points a gun at Elle, and demands Elle’s purse. Elle hands it over. Farkas runs away with the wallet. Gina witnesses this from a few blocks away. Gina pulls out a gun, runs toward Farkas, and shoots Farkas dead. Gina returns the purse to Elle. This is acceptable. Even though Gina was not the victim and was not hired by the victim, an aggressor who threatens deadly force against people may be stopped with deadly force by anyone who is willing and able.
  4. Hector murders Ivan. No one finds out about it until Jacob is able to prove it with certainty 25 years later. Jacob then kills Hector. Upon being questioned, Jacob presents the ironclad case that Hector was a murderer. This is acceptable. Even though a long time has passed, Hector initiated the use of force and committed a crime for which no restitution is possible, as the life of Ivan cannot be restored. Hector cannot claim a right to his life while having violated Ivan’s right to his life by murdering him. Jacob (and anyone else who figures out that Hector is a murderer) is therefore entitled to choose whether to kill Hector.
  5. Karl has done nothing wrong. Lana hires Mark to murder Karl. Karl kills Mark in self-defense. Lana hears of this and hires Neville to murder Karl. Karl captures Neville and asks him who hired him. Neville refuses to answer, so Karl tortures him until he does. Neville finally tells Karl that Lana hired him. Karl does more research to confirm this, hunts down Lana, and kills her. This is acceptable. Karl is obviously justified in killing Mark to protect himself from being murdered. Karl is justified in torturing Neville because it would be inconsistent for Neville to claim rights to his body while he is seeking to deny Karl rights to his body by murdering him. Karl is justified in killing Lana because while she is not acting directly to murder him, she is hiring agents to do it for her, which makes her vicariously liable. There is also the matter that the alternative is absurd; Karl should not have to spend his life dodging hitmen hired by Lana until he finally fails to do so and gets murdered.
  6. Omar owns a store. Omar has signed no contract with the mafia for their protection, and would rather hire other security forces or defend his property himself. Patrice is a mafia member sent to collect protection money from Omar. Omar informs Patrice of a robbery that occurred at his store the previous week, and refuses to pay on the grounds that the service was unsatisfactory and that he does not want the mafia’s protection. Patrice tells Omar that the mafia has no obligation to protect him and threatens to beat Omar and lock him in a cage if he does not pay. Omar demands that Patrice leave his store. Patrice refuses to leave, begins to attack Omar, and Omar is no match for Patrice in a fight. Omar pulls out a gun and kills Patrice. This is acceptable. Patrice violated Omar’s freedom of association, trespassed on his property, and physically assaulted him. Omar did what he had to do to defend himself and his property (although he may have to do more in the future, as the mafia will be after him now).
  7. Quentin is selling batteries on the street, and no one has demanded that he leave their private property. Roger, an agent of Sally’s Coercion Cartel (SCC), approaches Quentin and tells him that in accordance with SCC policy, he is not allowed to sell batteries in the area without paying 10 percent of his profits to SCC. Quentin demands to be left alone. Roger attacks and kills Quentin. SCC summons a council of non-SCC members who are threatened with punishment for not responding. These people are to judge whether Roger has done something criminal. The proceeding is conducted entirely by SCC personnel in a location chosen by SCC leadership. The result is that Roger is exonerated. Tara finds Roger and kills him. She then hires Ultimate Defense Agency to help her apprehend the leadership of SCC and stop them from stealing from and killing any more merchants. They kill some SCC leaders and capture the rest. This is acceptable. Roger has committed an act of murder, and it is therefore inconsistent for him to claim a right to his own life, so he may be killed. The case of the SCC leaders is more complex. Like Lana from Example 5, they are not acting directly, but are hiring people to initiate the use of force for them, to the point of murdering those who do not comply with their extortion. But as they continually employ agents who initiate the use of force, they are presenting a constant threat which may be answered with as much force as necessary to end the threat. Some surrendered once presented with defensive force, while others kept initiating the use of force and were killed.

Examples 6 and 7 bear closer examination. What if Patrice is not a mafia member, but a government tax collector? What if Roger is not a member of Sally’s Coercion Cartel, but a government police officer? What if the SCC leadership were government legislators and executives instead? From a moral standpoint, nothing would change. It matters not what costume one wears or what organization one claims to work for; the non-aggression principle is a moral absolute. Its violation by an aggressor, along with a refusal by the aggressor to stop aggressing and make restitution for the aggression, may be defended against by as much force as is necessary to end the threat.

The caveat here is that officers Ramos and Liu are not known to have killed anyone in the performance of their jobs. But they are known to have chosen to become government police officers, the job description of which is to enforce the laws and to be paid from government coffers for doing so. To enforce the laws is to present a consistent threat to initiate as much force as necessary to stop a person who is known to be breaking the laws. The laws are not determined in accordance with the non-aggression principle, but by the whims of politicians. As some of the laws are contrary to the non-aggression principle, those laws are immoral. Thus, to become a government police officer is to choose to present a consistent threat to initiate the use of as much force as necessary to stop a person who is known to be breaking immoral laws, or in other words, acting morally. Also, the money paid to a government police officer was collected through taxation, which violates the non-aggression principle by forcing people to turn over their money to the state or be subject to initiatory force. As officers Ramos and Liu chose to enter a profession where they presented a consistent threat to initiate the use of as much force as necessary to stop people who are doing nothing immoral while receiving stolen money for doing so, it would be inconsistent for the non-aggression principle to apply to them. Thus, killing them to defend innocent people from their aggressions is within the bounds of the non-aggression principle.

Now, let us consider common responses and objections which were not dealt with above:

So Ismaaiyl Brinsley was a hero?

Although he eliminated two aggressors, he also killed an innocent person, which makes him a murderer. He was therefore not a hero.

By using force against another person, the cop-killers of New York are now playing the state’s game.

This objection shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the proper use of force and the nature of the state. The state’s game is initiatory force. By using force against government agents, cop-killers use defensive force. To equate the two is a serious error unbecoming of a true libertarian.

In a battle between government agents and civilians, there can be no victory; only blood spilled upon blood.

The idea here is that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. This is only true if matters reach the point of large-scale conflict and the numbers on each side are roughly equal. The number of civilians is far larger than the number of government agents, and it would only take a few percent of civilians defending themselves against government agents to render the government inert. But even the threat of power has power, and it is unlikely for a large-scale conflict between government agents and civilians to erupt if the civilians strategize correctly. After all, centralized power has consistently been shown to be ineffective at dealing with decentralized opponents. At the point of this writing, the hazard of being an NYPD officer is perceived to be so high that police are drastically limiting their activities. At some point, the hazard of being a government agent would become so high that it would make more sense to go do something productive for a living than to go up against so many people who are willing to use defensive force as to face almost certain death.

Police are human beings. They do the best they can. Their lives are valuable.

People who choose to initiate the use of force are almost certainly not doing the best they can, and if they are, then their survival is dependent on immorality, which makes their survival immoral. Also, value is subjective, and it is possible to subjectively value the human life of an unrepentant aggressor at zero or less.

Absentee parents are the most powerful predictor of problematic children. Killing government agents results in absentee parents because dead people are necessarily absent. This will cause an increase in violence as these problematic children grow up and commit crimes.

It is important to remember that this is not a zero-sum game. Government police officers, if left unchallenged, will enforce all of the laws and thusly imprison innocent people, which results in absentee parents and the accompanying problems described above. Also note that an increase in violence is not necessarily a bad thing if the recipients of violence are aggressors far more often than they are innocent people. Such an increase in violence would serve as a chilling effect against aggressors by eliminating some aggressors and raising the cost of engaging in such behavior for the remaining ones, thereby resulting in a long-term drop in violent crime after the short-term rise.

All police are not collectively responsible for the acts that a few individuals among them have committed.

This is only true in a direct sense. While not all (or even most) government police officers have gotten away with a murder in the line of duty, they are all willfully part of a system that helps the few who have avoid responsibility and retribution for their crimes. Such action creates vicarious liability. They are also still guilty of continuously threatening innocent people with potentially deadly force for engaging in behaviors that politicians happen to dislike.

We have a justice system. Why can’t we use and trust it to hold government police officers accountable?

We cannot use the system because it is inherently biased. In a criminal proceeding against a government police officer, a government police officer is being tried in a government courtroom presided over by a government judge in a case presented by a government prosecutor (who likely has a working relationship with the police officer) to a jury convened by the government under pain of fines and/or imprisonment for not responding for jury duty. How such an astronomically large conflict of interest can be tolerated by a free people is frankly baffling.

If killing government agents is acceptable, why don’t you start shooting?

Just because an action is not forbidden does not mean that it is obligatory. It might also be positive but not obligatory, neutral, or negative but not forbidden. While using defensive force against government agents is morally acceptable, it is usually tactically unwise. Although the NYPD has significantly lessened its oppression of the populace in response to the loss of two of its officers, this is incomplete and impermanent. To completely end the oppression of statism through defensive violence will require a critical mass of people who are willing to participate, and these people will have to be reasonable people who are fed up with the abuses of statism and have realized that no other options are going to work in their lifetimes, not lone wolves with mental illnesses who cause death and destruction to innocent people as well. Without such a critical mass with the proper motivation, such efforts will only serve as an excuse to bolster government police and military forces while curtailing liberty further and making libertarians look like dangerous extremists.