How libertarians (should) view the United Airlines de-planing.
By Jim Babka
NOTE: This article was updated on 9/23/21
Dr. David Dao had a valid ticket for United Express Flight 3411 on April 9, 2017. The flight was full, but United Airlines needed four seats to transport its own employees. It offered vouchers to buy the needed seats, but all the passengers declined. United then selected four passengers for mandatory removal. Dr. Dao was one of those passengers. Three of the passengers cooperated, but Dr. Dao did not, because he had patients he needed to see the next day. He felt the health of his patients outweighed United’s need to transport its employees. So United had airport police use violence to remove Dr. Dao. He was knocked unconscious and injured his arm during the incident.
Was this a defensive use of force by United, or an immoral act of aggression against Dr. Dao?
United owned the plane. It was their property. But Dr. Dao had a valid contract, in the form of a ticket, to use a seat on that flight. Who committed the act of aggression in this case?
The Zero Aggression Principle (the 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.” 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 remove someone from your property, but that’s excessive force if you didn’t first ask them to leave peacefully. It’s also excessive force if you shoot them for failing to comply immediately. The amount of defensive force you employ must be proportional to the situation, otherwise it ceases to be defensive, and becomes aggressive.
Did United Airlines use defensive force or excessive (aggressive) force against Dr. Dao?
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 the ZAP extends further than property rights.
Natural Rights and Empathy
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. They easily imagined being in his seat. They were the traveler, eager to reach 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. The public was appalled — and Dao’s fellow passengers were shocked — by the use of force.
Most people hate injustice, and that’s what they saw in the viral video of Dr. Dao’s removal. 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
The ZAP describes a moral duty. We cannot aggress against others. This moral duty includes a prohibition against using excessive force to defend a property right.
Politics ignores this moral duty. Instead, people delegate aggression to their most elite neighbors (politicians and bureaucrats). These elites write rules and enact prohibitions, levy taxes, and use those funds to hire and arm rule enforcers. It’s a violent system. And it shouldn’t be lost on you 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.
It’s a simple fact – an auction to find a passenger who was willing 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. Instead, they used excessive force to defend their property right, and thereby committed an act of aggression against an innocent person.
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 non-violently with just a little creativity and some social acumen.
Whenever someone objects to a Democratic or Republican dictate, 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, most Democrats and Republicans go on to suggest that the victim had it coming, unless, perhaps, it was a member of their own political tribe, in which case the response is outrage and finger-pointing at the other political tribe!
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.
Please observe the similarities between the United deplaning of Dr. Dao, and the current de-platforming of various groups and opinions by major tech firms like Facebook, Google, and Amazon. Just because you have a property right to de-plane or de-platform someone doesn’t mean that you should.
United Airlines had non-violent options, and so do the big tech firms. Social media customers already have tools they can use to filter content they dislike. The big tech companies could simply expand those tools instead of censoring and de-platforming people.
There’s more to obeying the Zero Aggression Principle than simply defending property rights. Empathy, and the other natural rights that derive from it, are also important. One should never use excessive force when defending a right. The force used must always be proportional to the threat. Better yet, find a solution that doesn’t use force at all.
Jim Babka is the co-creator of the Zero Aggression Project and the President of Downsize DC.