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You don't coerce or injure others. Why can politicians do it?

United Airlines and the Zero Aggression Principle

This key libertarian principle is about more than property rights

How libertarians (should) view the United Airlines.  Retweet
By Jim Babka

When passenger David Dao was dragged off a United Airlines plane, it was a violation of the Zero Aggression Principle (sometimes called the non-aggression principle).

The Zero Aggression Principle (ZAP) says that it’s wrong to use threats, backed by actual violence to achieve personal or social goals. As libertarians, we usually apply this principle to The State. But many of us suddenly lose perspective when it gets applied in the voluntary sector. There are two reasons for this…

First, libertarians haven’t really nailed down what aggression means.

Second, much of the libertarian universe has been under the thrall of an incredibly prolific writer by the name of Murray Rothbard. He taught that the ZAP is based on property rights. But it’s more than that, actually.


Libertarians usually define aggression as “initiated force.” That is, it’s the first punch thrown or a violent act without provocation. But if you spend years contemplating this libertarian rule, as I have, you’ll come to realize that this definition is insufficient.

Libertarians are very rarely pacifists. They don’t believe self-defense or due process are aggression. And most libertarians believe in governance and value order. If you don’t believe me, go watch a bylaws debate at a Libertarian Party convention.

It’s better to say that aggression is excessive force. One can throw the first punch to disarm someone who just pulled a knife. What we’re concerned about is the use of unwarranted violence. Harming others is a greedy act.

Indeed, Dr. David Dao was harmed by United Airlines. Excessive force was used for the airline to achieve its goals.

Property Rights

A property rights analysis of the event is insufficient. There are other factors. Numerous libertarians, discussing this matter in social media, have observed that…

  • The plane is airline property. They can kick off whoever they wish.
  • The ticket came with a carriage contract. It warns you that you may be bumped.

If the ZAP is based only on who has property rights, then United was within its rights to remove Dr. Dao, or any other passenger. But ZAP extends further than property rights.

The Basis

The ZAP is based on natural rights. And natural rights come from empathy.

The public outrage directed at United stems from the fact most people empathized with Dao. That is, they easily imagined being in his seat. They were the traveler, eager to get to their destination. These days, flying isn’t fun. The airport is already a police state. People understood Dao’s reluctance and resistance. Being bumped is a costly inconvenience. They were appalled — even fellow passengers were instantly shocked — by the use of force.

Most people, libertarians included, hate injustice, and that’s exactly what they saw in the viral video of Dr. Dao’s removal from the plane. The public thinks Dr. Dao was within his rights and the airline was not. The decision as to who had what right was empathetically determined by bystanders. No one would want to be treated the way Dr. Dao was.

What a libertarian would expect from United Airlines

If the ZAP is a moral principle. It explains a duty we have. We cannot aggress against our neighbors.

Politics is about ignoring this principle. People delegate aggression to their most elite neighbors. These elites, incumbent politicians, write rules and enact prohibitions, levy taxes, and use those funds to hire and arm rule enforcers. It’s a violent system. It also shouldn’t be lost on anyone that United called federal aviation officers to do their dirty work.

But if the ZAP is your moral principle, then you’ll try to think of the most peaceful method to address the matter at hand. Instead of escalating violence, you’ll de-escalate it. This is what we should actually expect from all law enforcement officers. But we should have expected it all the more in this case where we had, essentially, a market-based solution that was so readily available an Economics 101 student could’ve devised it. United should have held an auction to see who would give up their seat for the lowest price.

United spokesman, Charlie Hobart, said Dr. Dao was a “volunteer.” He was, after all, offered some money to de-plane. But Dao had actually been drafted. And he didn’t think the modest money offered was worth giving up his seat.

Until the 1990s, the IRS was fond of insisting that the income tax was “voluntary.” After all, you took time out of your schedule, filled out complex forms, signed the affidavit at the end, and yielded up money. No one came to your house and put a gun to your head, right?

Some definition of voluntary! Yet it seems United bought into this definition. Perhaps that’s because The State is omnipresent in the airline industry. The law permitted United to call government enforcers to help Dr. Dao volunteer!

Let’s be clear, another seat was needed. Someone was going to have to get off the plane. But if United operated by the ZAP, they would’ve continued to seek readily available peaceful means to achieve their goal instead of giving up and calling for violence.

Libertarians frequently speak of market solutions. And it’s a simple fact that, at some point, the auction to find a passenger to deplane was going to find a taker. They were probably only a few hundred dollars away. Think of the money and hassle United would’ve saved themselves if they had used a peaceful auction instead of violent police action.

What libertarians expect of their Democrat and Republican neighbors

One more very sharp point needs to be made about this. Non-libertarians reading this are hypocrites. United’s decision to call enforcers to, as they put it, “re-accommodate” passengers is precisely what your politicians do every day. Despite your outrage at United, you urge these incumbents to write new laws and collect greater levies to send enforcers to interfere in a virtually unlimited number of activities that could be solved with a little creativity and some social acumen.

When someone objects, the enforcers don’t take it very well. They escalate rather than de-escalate the situation. The result is that people get injured and even murdered. And when that happens, some of you go on to suggest that the victim had it coming!

Is violence sometimes necessary for self-defense? Might we even have to call for an arrest in some situations? Yes and yes. But aggression is a blunt, overused tool to solve problems. Excessive force as a means to solve a personal goal is immoral and should be abandoned.

There is an alternative. Free markets do a much better job of providing regulation and necessary accountability. Consider that United Airlines stock lost $750 million in a single day over this episode. No grandstanding Senator was required.

The libertarian wistfully wishes that politicians had to pay a similarly steep price for their much more frequent and very similar failings.
Jim Babka is the co-creator of the Zero Aggression Project and the President of Downsize DC.

By: Jim Babka

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