Power & Market

Is Accidentally Spreading a Disease the Same Thing as “Aggression”?

In my latest Mises Wire article, I argued why I believe the State—or, for that matter, the collectivity—has no right to coerce individuals into taking vaccines. However, let’s assume someone retorted as follows: “Ok, I agree the State has no right to impose vaccinations upon citizens; that said, if one person (say, A) does infect another one (say, B), then the former has aggressed against the latter—and therefore needs to compensate for the damage done. Hence, vaccination (or mask wearing, etc.) is to be considered as a legitimate preemptive measure taken upfront by the State so as to avoid aggression”. Then, how could my Rothbardian ethical stand be defended?

The fact is that, as I will briefly argue, such a counterargument can be easily proven untenable, because it misconstrues the Rothbardian definition of “aggression”—which, incidentally, seems to me the only sensible one.

So, how do we define “aggression”? An aggression occurs when A imposes his will over the legitimately acquired property of B, thus depriving B of his right to enjoy his property to whatever extent he deems appropriate.1 Or, put it differently, “an aggressor interposes violence to thwart the natural course of a man’s freely adopted ideas and values, and to thwart his actions based upon such values.”2

Now, let’s consider some practical examples of infections. First, let’s consider, e.g., venereal diseases. Would we contend that, if A and B agree to have an unprotected sexual intercourse, and A carries (unwittingly) a venereal pathogen and infects B, then A aggressed against B? Of course, we would not—at least, if we accept the definition of “aggression” I provided. In fact, A did neither deprive B of the possibility of having sex the way the latter deemed fit, nor employed violence to thwart B’s freely adopted choice of having unprotected sex: as a matter of fact, both A and B voluntarily agreed not to take precautionary measures. Thus, B employed his property (his body) how he freely chose to, accepting the risks (getting venereal diseases) involved in the course of action (unprotected sex) he freely engaged in.

Second example: fungal infection of the skin. Let’s assume A and B go to the same gym, and A (again, unwittingly) carries a fungal pathogen. Let’s assume, moreover, that the gym owner does not mandate wearing flipflop in the changing room. Then, if both A and B walked barefoot in the gym’s changing room, and B got infected by the fungal pathogen carried by A, could we assert that A aggressed against B? Of course, again, we could not, because B freely chose to walk barefoot and accepted the risk of getting a fungal skin infection.

In both cases, even though A’s behavior did—to some extent—cause, at least indirectly, a damage to B, we cannot speak of “aggression”—because B was never coerced into doing anything he did not want to. In other words, such a scenario is no different from A and B freely signing a contract regulating the employment of their properties (their bodies) and/or the physical goods they freely and legitimately rented (or bought) from a third party (the gym’s premises).

So, if we accept this kind of argument, why should things be different with covid, vaccines, masks, etc.? If A and B enter a restaurant whose owner does not mandate mask wearing, and B gets covid from A, why should we accuse A of having aggressed against B? They both freely signed a contract with the restaurant owner, and neither of them was hampered in his right to freely enjoy—to the extent he deemed fit—his property in his body and/or physical goods.

Both A and B chose where to be (in the restaurant) and their course of action (relax themselves while eating and drinking something), and freely accepted the risk involved in the consumption of the goods and services they bought from the restaurant owner. They both valued the “expected” (i.e., potential) uneasiness of getting infected less inconvenient than the trouble of wearing masks at (or getting vaccinated before entering) the restaurant.

Now, one possible counterargument against my stand could be the following: “Ok, you claim that aggression cannot occur when people voluntarily engage in behaviors involving some extent of risk. So, let’s assume B accepts walking in a dangerous neighborhood; then, if he gets robbed and/or battered by A, your argument would compel you to maintain that A did in fact not aggress against B, because B freely accepted the risk involved in walking in a dangerous neighborhood. But then, wouldn’t the very concept of aggression become (in practice) useless and unworkable?”

However, such a counterargument is obviously a fallacious one. Indeed, whereas any case of infection implies accepting some kind of (direct or indirect) contact with other people, this is absolutely not the case when B walks on the street. In fact, when B walks on the street—assuming we live in “Rothbardian-land”, with privately owned streets—he is renting some “range of motion” from the street owner. But still, B moving his body on that street does not imply (unless explicitly mentioned in the contract) that he also accepts the risk of being battered or robbed. In other words, whereas it is perfectly conceivable for B to walk on the street expecting no physical contact with A, it would—on the contrary—make no sense for B to enter the restaurant (or walk barefoot on the gym floor) without contemplating the possibility of getting infected by A.

To stress this point further, consider the difference between battery and a boxing match. In the former, if A batters B, then A has deprived B of his right to the full enjoyment of his body. In the latter, instead, A and B freely sign a contract agreeing on certain rules for the boxing match: they both are enjoying their properties (their bodies) the way the deem fit—e.g., testing their physical prowess. In fact, on the contrary, it should definitively be considered an instance of aggression if one or more third parties—e.g., the State—prohibited A and B from having their boxing match, thus employing coercion to thwart the natural course of their freely adopted choices.

Lastly, we ought also to consider that, in practice, it is impossible to tell who does actually infect whom. If (say) thirty people enter a restaurant and (say) five among them are carrying a respiratory disease, and then—say, a week later—ten more people develop the same disease, how could we know which one among the initial five infected people did infect the other ten? Moreover, if one person visits more than one place, encounters more than one infected person, and then gets infected, how could we ascertain where did he get the infection? And who did infect him?

The argument warranting State-mandated vaccination (or mask wearing, etc.) in the name of the Non-Aggression Principle is evidently untenable. Even if we set aside practical considerations, there can occur, in principle, no aggression when human beings freely engage in purposive behavior—and this holds true for activities involving infection risk as well.

  • 1Cf. Murray N. Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty (1982; New York: New York University Press, 2002), p. 45.
  • 2Ibid. p. 47.
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