Monday, January 11, 2016

From a Libertarian Perspective Was Donald Trump Justified in Demanding That a Protester's Coat Be Taken Away From Him?

By Robert Wenzel

During a Donald Trump campaign event last week in Burlington, Vermont, a protester emerged from the massive crowd to heckle Trump, as the protester was being escorted out by security, Trump shouted orders to security, "Confiscate his coat." (SEE: Trump Demands Guards Confiscate Coat from Vermont Heckler).

On FOX News a criminal defense attorney, Remi Spencer, who was commenting on the incident, said that Trump was urging a crime of theft be committed, but would be such from a libertarian perspective? I would argue no.

In a libertarian society, the default rules of the owner of the property where an event took place would be supreme, in a contract the owner could grant overruling sub-authority to the event organizer with regard to some situations, which likely would include how to deal with attendees who violate an organizers rules--such as a "no heckling."

If this rule is violated, from my perspective, it is the victim (with authority), in this case Trump, who stipulates the penalty.

I have seen some libertarians suggest that the penalty in a libertarian society should be an eye for an eye, while others suggest it should be two eyes for an eye. But, these suggestions violate subjective value theory. An outsider can't possibly know what will satisfy a victim of a non-aggression principle violation. Only a victim can judge what he values as sufficient penalty in terms of compensation and deterrence for further NAP violations against him.

If Trump demands an individuals coat for a NAP violation, then that is fine. If Trump wanted to shoot the guy that would be fine. Neither would necessarily be a crime from my perspective of what a libertarian society would be like.

I hasten to add that I suspect what would occur in a libertarian society is that property owners would stipulate that they operate under an XYZ penalty code. That is, different penalty codes would develop and an owner could choose to recognize a certain set.

Few would dare enter a wild west area, where no penalty codes were stipulated in advance.

No one is going to go into a Macy's if the penalty for farting in one of their stores is death by beheading.

Thus, each owner would likely have his own penalty codes, either a generally recognized set of penalty codes, or his own independent code. There would be no fear of outrageous penalties under these situations because if people wanted to interact with others, they would have to have "reasonable" penalty codes, but they would still be in line with their won subjective values. Of course, in these situations, it would also be to the benefit of  most property owners to post and otherwise let know what penalty codes they operate under.

There could still be wild west areas, but most would stay away from these areas, just like most women wearing short skirts and expensive jewelry would stay off the streets of San Francisco's Tenderloin or Cologne, Germany at 3:00 in the morning.

 Robert Wenzel is Editor & Publisher at and at Target Liberty. He is also author of The Fed Flunks: My Speech at the New York Federal Reserve Bank. Follow him on twitter:@wenzeleconomics


  1. ─In a libertarian society, the default rules of the owner of the property[...]─

    Is it really that much trouble to just throw the guy out, coat and all? The rules of the owner of the property do not necessarily include the taking of property unless stipulated in a mutually-agreed contract ("Hecklers shall have pieces of clothing removed from their persons before being escorted out. Initials here X")

    1. Agreed. Not having an advance agreement is a profound problem exactly because of all the different possibilities RW sketched.

      Both parties may genuinely have different interpretations. Did the heckler sign a clearly outlined no-heckling agreement? Maybe to him his catcalls were just lively participation. Did the heckler agree to stake his coat to bond his performance? Did he agree to assign Trump as the sole arbiter of whether a violation occurred? Without all this in black and white, we can't arbitrarily decide that Trump taking his coat is justifiable. Eviction is the only remedy needing no agreements.

  2. I've really never seen you explain your viewpoints on punishment for a crime(or in this case, a property rights violation) quite to this degree.

    Going way back to your example a year or two ago, where argue a farmer should be able to shoot a child over stealing an apple from his orchard- I still have problems with how this would be considered "justice" if allowed to happen.(at least in our culture)

    The acknowledgement that some crazy farmer might hold the value of an apple equal to that of a child doesn't violate the "subjective value theory", nor does stopping said farmer from executing the child.

    You can acknowledge the fact the farmer values the apple higher than the child's life and still not allow him to kill the child.

    The question is, is that itself a crime or re-victimization?

    Bionic Mosquito has touched on "culture" (custom?) recently as a part of libertarian society over at his blog. I think this plays a role to some extent as it doesn't seem possible to codify all actions in society from a practical standpoint.

    In your previous example of the apple, even if the farmer posted a sign saying "those stealing my apples will be killed if caught"- it would probably be hard in American society to do so given the culture here even if there wasn't a central government.

    Now I'm not so sure in other cultures-some Muslim/Sharia law types for example(but I'm not an expert in that area), that type of justice might be welcomed.

    I think of the old times or in some of those cultures in modern day where thieves get their arms cut off(which still isn't death), and it might be acceptable in their general society/culture(and I don't now what age the thief would start receiving such punishment in that culture).

    I have to think on the whole topic some more. I always liked Lila Rajiva's answer back when you touched on this before in regard to "proportionality of justice" which I believe in some ways can be objectively answered even though you are correct that everyone has different values for different things-

    But, to your point...said proportionality still has a subjective element and varies from both person to person and culture to culture.

    I have to think on the topic more.

    1. I agree with BM- no culture would ever condone a property owner killing a child for stealing an apple.

      The shooter would be ostracized and isolated. Unless he had massive wealth he would become an exile subsisting on his precious apples. Even if he possessed enormous wealth he would soon be relegated to small libertine and dangerous "towns" or confined to his own property. Few people are going to allow someone like that free passage, especially transport companies.

      He would become the equivalent of El Chapo, a wealthy man fearing the bounty that would be placed on his head by the family via KickStarter. I would certainly donate a few bucks to fund the mercenaries that wanted to kill him, and I'm sure millions more would feel the same.

      So, the guy that (rightly, under strict private property law) murdered the kid that stole his apple, would soon be the target of people who stood to benefit (since the person/s who killed him would claim all the money) and his "life insurance company" would radically raise his rates, eventually bankrupting him, and at least isolating him so throughly that he fears for his life daily.

      Or so I've theorized.

      In truth no culture would ever evolve to accept child murder as acceptable, even a purely private property Anarcho-Libertarian-Capitalist dyspeptic utopia like Rothbardia.

      RW is just pushing buttons.

  3. There are no rules in anarchism, but that doesn't seem to stop people from fantasizing.

  4. The property owner gets to make the rules for people who want to be guests. But when the guests break the rules, they become trespassers. The owner doesn't get to decide what the penalty is for trespassing.

    The owner gets to eject the trespasser, but doesn't get to decide what law is regarding the penalty for trespassing. The penalty/law is decided by the market.

    The owner can lie about what his subjective value is and therefore can justify $100,000 compensation, because the guest broke the rule of "no wearing red hats allowed", for example.

  5. It was a joke for Christ sake! That's one reason people like the guy. It's called showbiz and he's pretty good at it.

  6. Trump said he'd send him his coat back in a "couple of weeks." I agree with you Robert. I don't see a problem here. You're going to disrupt a speech? You're going to get tossed. You were dumb enough to take your coat off when it's 10 degrees below out, then I think you've got a lesson to learn.

  7. Agree with Francisco here. I think where the owner fails to stipulate the totality of the rules, then the rules that apply must be reasonable and proportionate to the offense.

    I see the invitee as having something of a fraud argument -- you invited me and did not provide notice that you had out of the ordinary rules.

    Death penalty rules, except in cases of self-defense, seem to me to be never justified as they will be grossly disproportionate.

    All that said, in practice, I think RW is absolutely correct. Contracts and commercial codes will circulate and apply. The only reason why I think the theoretical arguments above are significant is because they will provide a rule and measure to the private parties that come up with these codes, and I believe they fall within the general expectations of invitees.

  8. I think you are way off here, Robert. The only way the taking of the coat would be justified would be if the heckler explicitly agreed beforehand to such a penalty. Absent such an explicit contract, the situation would be governed by any implicit contracts ruled by proportionality. Unless it was already common practice to take people's coats for heckling, such an act would be a violation of the heckler's property rights.

  9. "In a libertarian society, the default rules of the owner of the property where an event took place would be supreme..."

    You need to rethink this, RW.

    I'm a libertarian who does believe in rule of just law (I'm not a stateless Rothbardian). Where do you draw the line? Who draws the line? Would you say Trump had a right to execute the guy in front of the crowd if he "rules supreme" on his own property?

    To be a libertarian means holding to principles that promote peaceful rational individualism like the NAP, private property, equal freedom, etc. And for that society to be viable, these principles have to be uniformly enforced by due process.

    Trump dispensed arbitrary summary justice by taking the guy's coat. Apparently, the guy was not a threat to anyone - he was disruptive. And sure, Trump had the libertarian right of private property and freedom of association to justify having him peacefully removed...

    But not to take his coat. As a libertarian, I find that Trump not only stole the guy's coat, he also violated the NAP by putting him outside in below-freezing weather. That is an act of endangerment which I believe violates the NAP.

    Entering Trump's property voluntarily does mean honoring his wishes... to a point. It is a civil agreement; not a pact with the Devil. And breaking a civil agreement should only involve a proportional remedy AFTER due process. The proportional action by Trump in this case was to have the guy escorted off the property... with his possessions.

    IMO Trump's right of property does not trump the NAP or due process and rule of law. Trump was very much in the wrong and exhibits to me again he'd be a tyrant as POTUS. In my "Libertopia," the guy would have a civil claim against Trump (for theft) and if he was injured by the weather, a criminal complaint.

    1. I agree 99%

      I honestly think RW is on shaky ground, but you can see in my comment above that he's more pushing a theoretical. Or taking the piss.

  10. To start with, where does it say Trump owns the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts where the rally took place?

  11. The key point here is how any justice is actually administered. Absent the threat of physical violence, there is no justification for the use of physical violence by the property owner. As such, Trump (in a libertarian society) would take the heckler to a private civil court where he (or his lawyers) would argue how much they were subjectively harmed, and a judge or jury would determine whether to award damages and how much those damages should be.

    Without any physical violence (or threat of immediate physical violence), Trump and his people would in no way be justified in acting as judge, jury, and executioner on the spot.

    A person has the right to protect themselves and their property from physical harm, but that doesn't automatically extend (contra RW and Rothbard) to a right to inflict immediate violence on someone who is not attempting to initiate physical violence against your person.

    The mistake of Rothbard was to treat any violence against property the same as violence against one's person. The former can often be adjudicated after the fact, while the latter often needs to be met with physical self-defense. In cases of armed robbery (or strong-arm robbery), physical force may be used. However, if a robber drops your wallet when you point a gun at him, you cannot shoot him in the back as he runs away. The initial crime can now be (with the threat gone) adjudicated after the fact, while shooting in the back becomes an initiation of violence.

    1. Excellent point.

      Proportionality is key- killing a child for stealing an apple when a court was available would (even in a pure private property society) violate any "insurance contract" the killer had, resulting in virtual exile. No property owner would allow him on their property. If the child's family started a GoFundMe to put a bounty on the killer's head, no amount of money would save him.

  12. In Bob's scenario "If you violate X rule while on X property, X is this punishment. By signing this you agree" thats correct. However in this scenario it's just another example how much of a petty tyrant Trump can be. In this particular example he's acting like a leftist, he's not entitled to another man's property unless the heckler actually caused some sort of property damaged in which the coat was taken as apart of compensation. The social justice warrior way of hurt feelings doesn't count.