Tuesday, December 30, 2008

On Coercion for Spammers: A Reply to Jacob

Over at the Crash Landing blog, Gene Callahan wrote:
...I often think that libertarians may tend to get confused (of course not all libertarians, and of course not all the time) between defending the general concept of property rights and defending such rights as they are currently defined. Now, I think it's fine to have a default position of "Don't tamper with current rights on a lark," but there are times I think it would be a very good idea to tamper with them. For instance, I would have no problem criminalizing what these "Wow Gold" folks have been doing to this blog. I've got to be spending a half an hour per week deleting their comments and the e-mails they generate. I consider what they are doing no different them coming over to my house with megaphones and shouting about "Wow gold" at a cocktail party I'm throwing.

Basically, the setup is this: Some spammers have somehow found a way to get past his blog's authentification defenses, and he's irate. But in the comments section of the post, a controversy arose. It appears that a fellow named Jacob is uncomfortable with the idea that we would feel justified in using coercive force against these miscreants, and thinks that Gene is dead wrong for thinking that it would be okay. In response to Jacob, I wrote the following, which I'm reposting here in case anyone finds it interesting:

Libertarian conceptions of rights are founded on the idea that others ought to be respected. When individuals don't want to be pestered, and they make that clear, then continuing to pester them is disrespectful of their individuality. We call that harrassment, and we generally think that people are justified in taking some coercive measures to act in opposition to harrassment.

If we adopt that standard, then it seems to me like we would also want to adopt another standard: people shouldn't perform actions that they can reasonably foresee pestering someone, even if the person haven't asked them to stop. Doing so would seem to fall short of treating people with respect, just like harrassing them does.

I think it's pretty reasonable to suppose that the people spamming Gene's blog are well aware that their actions are likely to pester him. If that's true, then they would indeed be failing to respect Gene by continuing to post their spam. And if libertarian conceptions of rights are built around the idea of due respect, then it wouldn't be unreasonable to suppose that Gene has some claim against having obviously irritating spam posted on his blog. If, then, we apply the same standard to obnoxious spamming as we do to harrassment, we could not unreasonably come to the conclusion that some degree of coercion might be justifiable in response to the incursion.

Now, exactly what kind of response (if any) we would advocate is an open question. But I don't think that it's so unreasonable to think that people who are knowingly seeking out and irritating other people should be stopped or reprimanded somehow. My solution: publish their names and addresses in the newspaper.

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