Do externalities justify initiated force?

The State is the ultimate negative externality

When you get something for nothing a statist might call you a “free rider.” Economists call “getting something for nothing” a positive externality.
When you must pay a cost you didn’t willingly incur economists call that a negative externality. Examples include…

  • You burn something and the smoke harms your neighbors lungs
  • You open a new grocery store and the old grocery store across the street loses business

Statists believe The State must initiate force to eliminate negative externalities. But please notice something about the two examples provided above…

  1. The air pollution example involves aggression (initiated force). Your pollution trespassed on someone else’s lungs, causing harm. Legitimate government can address this aggression, using defensive force. But…
  2. The grocery store example involves no aggression and cannot legitimately be addressed by government. In fact, any action to prevent a new store from opening will only create new negative externalities. It will harm the people who wanted to open the store, and the consumers who would have shopped there

In other words…

  • It’s appropriate to use defensive force to correct negative externalities that involve aggression (as with pollution).
  • It’s self-refuting to initiate force to stop negative externalities that involve no aggression. This is because initiated force is itself a negative externality — that is, it forces people to pay a cost they didn’t willingly incur..

The logic should be clear — you cannot eliminate negative externalities by creating new negative externalities.
Consider this real-world example. In many places you must receive a “certificate of need” in order to open a new hospital. Such regulations…

  • Create state-sanctioned cartels or monopolies
  • Harm would-be business owners and consumers
  • Require threats of initiated force
  • Are themselves negative externalities

In short…

  • Negative externalities do not justify initiated force
  • Initiated force is itself a negative externality
  • The State uses initiated force for nearly everything it does. Therefore…
  • The State cannot cure negative externalities. Instead…
  • The State is the ultimate negative externality

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Show Comments 9


  1. The point trying to be made here is not done very good. There should be more examples and better ones showing how the government operates entirely by implementing negative externalities. Saying they do and only giving one example doesn’t cut it.

    1. Hi Matt. Thanks for the criticism. We’re going to have to decline to follow your advice in this case, not because it’s bad advice, but because of the criteria we use for constructing our Mental Lever articles. There are many articles on the web that do what you ask. Anyone interested to learn more can easily do a search. However, the purpose of our Mental Levers is to provide for short explanations of key ideas. This precludes long lists of examples, especially for this article, which was already running longer than most of our Mental Levers. However, we may try to do what you say in a blog post at some point, and then link to that blog post from this Lever article. Thanks for your suggestion and interest in our work.

  2. Might be worth pointing out that one way of differentiating between harms caused by aggression or trespass and non-coercive “harms” is to ask whether the harm is to the physical integrity or very existence of some property, or whether the “harm” is to the subjective value of the property as perceived by its owner. To try to limit or eliminate the second category of harms can only ultimately result in complete economic stasis.

    1. I believe aggression is being misused in some of these examples, and in many NAP arguments. It leads to arguments against NAP. I (and others) have difficulty characterizing an accidental violation as ‘aggression’. Aggression implies intent to do harm. Without human intent there can’t be aggression. A falling coconut may kill someone, but that’s not aggression unless another person dropped it with intent to harm.
      If I initiate force, or intend harm in any action, that is rightly characterized as aggression. If I accidentally cause harm to person A while initiating force against person B, that is aggression — an unintended consequence of aggression. But if I accidentally cause harm as an unintended consequence of peaceful intentions, I may be completely or partly responsible and liable for damages, but I’m not guilty of aggression. Otherwise my mere existence is a daily exercise of aggression.
      If NAP is to be a viable principle on which to base a political philosophy — and I believe it is — then it must be exact in definition. Aggression is not unavoidable, it’s a choice; a choice to cause harm when no threat is imminent or debt is owed. Otherwise NAP is impossible.

  3. Your logic is confusing and needs clarification.
    Your statement should be something like this.
    Negative externalities do not justify initiated force unless there are aggressive.
    Government should only be initiate force only when there is aggressive externalities. I.g. pollution.

  4. I believe I understand the point of your article. However, by emphasizing the idea that the State cannot cure negative externalities, but is itself the ultimate negative externality … it gives off the impression that you are therefore arguing not for limiting the State, but for abolishing it.
    And then what do you have?

    1. Hi Will. Thanks for your comment. We understand your concern. It’s a common view. We would answer it in this way…
      * We do not consider The State to be a legitimate form of governance
      * We want to replace The State with legitimate forms of governance, that never initiate force, and only use force defensively (as in criminal due process)
      * We believe that the popular understanding of the word anarchy applies more to The State than it does to our conception of government — The State is lawless, promotes chaos, and cannot be ruled
      We illustrate all of these points in various other Mental Lever articles. You might want to browse through the Mental Lever section of our site. All of our Mental Lever articles are very short.

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