Harming the Cause for Liberty


Column by Bradley Keyes.

Exclusive to STR

Harm - a small but powerful word with a strong, emotional pull.

No one wants to be harmed.

But is it the best word to use when trying define liberty?

Phrases such as:

"As a voluntaryist, it is my personal opinion that, we should take individual responsibility, that our decisions regarding our bodies should be left to us, individually, as long as those decisions do not directly harm another human."


"For me, it is putting into action the tenets of the Non-Aggression Principle, which states, “Do not seek to harm others for personal gain.”

Both from an otherwise good article posted yesterday, are often used to try to explain or define a philosophy of liberty or voluntarism.

But is the use of the word harm clear and correct, and equally important, can it be misunderstood or twisted?

If I start a business and run it better than my competitors, have I harmed them?

If you invent the everlasting light-bulb, have you harmed the current manufacturers?

If someone falls in love with you and turns down another suitor, have you done them harm?

Just listen to the cries about the harm that will be done when someone proposes simply cutting the growth rate of government spending, let alone actually cutting or eliminating spending.

Look at what has happened with the US Bill of Rights. How has "shall not be infringed" been twisted? What does "unreasonable" mean?

What does "harm" mean? You could argue that the examples above are not ones of harm, but to do that, you need to get into the fundamentals of violations of rights, initiation of force, and voluntary exchange.

And that is my point. It's better to start at the fundamentals, to start with necessary, basic principles even if they don't roll off the tongue as easily.

In the battle for liberty, it is best to be as clear and as accurate as possible. Even the smallest wedge can be used to split an argument if it's hammered on enough times.

So what do you think? Is the word harm harmful to liberty?

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Bradley Keyes's picture
Columns on STR: 4


DP_Thinker's picture

I believe that those words can harm liberty.. I've heard people argue that "emotional harm" has been caused. Which we know is nonsense and not at all in line with the NAP. I believe that "aggression" or "coercion", by either force or fraud is are much better words to describe the NAP to others.

I will note that I have used "direct physical harm" as an argument, and that also might not be a good way of saying it..

Suverans2's picture

G'day Bradly Keyes,


The Black's modern-day (c.1990) "legal definition" (page 718) for the word certainly leaves much to be desired, in my opinion.

Harm. The existence of loss or detriment in fact of any kind to a person resulting from any cause.

And, where are the commas? What a mess!

Could not find a legal definition for that word in Bouvier's 1856 Law Dictionary, Black's 1st (c.1891), or Black's 2nd (c.1910).

alexeth's picture

Greetings Suverans2,

"Harm" is a phrase to underpin lawsuits, so the broadness of that legal definition does not surprise me. You could almost say "harm" is anything someone can sue another over. As much as that bugs me, I think it actually does not support BK's thesis. If you can successfully sue someone for harm, then it wasn't something they should have done in a free society. So maybe it's a good word for that purpose. Even so, I agree with BK, that it is squishy enough not to help explain liberty.

I do agree "responsibility" is a good word, so that someone may harm another and is responsible for restitution. I agree with DPT that "coercion" is a better word for defining a liberty-violating act. When someone implies a threat of violence for making you "volunteer" to do something you don't want to do, you were coerced even if you weren't harmed. Seatbelt laws and taxes spring immediately to mind. In fact, any safety-based coercian is better described by coercion than by harm, as the safety rule might be explained as *preventing* harm, but that still doesn't mean it is compatible with liberty. Unharmed, but coerced, my liberty is still violated.

Suverans2's picture

G'day alexeth,

I usually greet agents of the city, county, state, etc. who accost me, with a question something along the lines of; "Hi, has there been an accident, has someone been harmed?" This is to set the stage for, "no harm, no foul ". Obviously we couldn't substitute the word coerced in there, so, any ideas?

alexeth's picture

No idea, S2.

I agree with BK that "harm" doesn't well explain things. However, it is still a very good word. I think coerced also captures things that get past "harm". Even with some thought, I don't currently have an improvement.

Samarami's picture

That's a good one, Suverans2! I'm pasting that to my sun-visor.

I bit the dust and concluded that I enjoy trucking and traversing the country more than I enjoy presenting the image to you rabble-rousers that I'm freer than you (which is a bunch of vanity and self-dishonesty) since I "...snub the white man out of his authoritarian licensing...", etc etc etc.


Steve's picture

We need different words to distinguish between damage caused by violating rights or not violating rights. Fred Foldvary does just this in The Soul of Liberty:
He uses "harm" for the former and "injury" as the broader word encompassing both the latter and harm.