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Disappointments, Harms, and Crimes

The difference is in understanding rights and intentions.

by James Leroy Wilson
July 24, 2008

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Disappointments, Harms, and Crimes
Individuals hurt each other in three ways: disappointment, harm, and crime.

Disappointing others can range from being something of an unkind, obnoxious jerk to being a hopeless, unproductive addict. People can disappoint each other in a variety of ways. One can see an attractive, potential mate be rude to the waitress for no reason. Another may see their spouse lose the family home because of a gambling addiction. People can disappoint family and friends by getting divorced, or by dieing homeless and drunk in the gutter. Whenever A falls short of B's expectations in any way, B experiences emotional pain. Perhaps because B loves A, or because B was counting on A. Sometimes this causes financial difficulty if A's failures, weaknesses, or broken promises made A less reliable than B thought.

The question is, does A's failure to fulfill B's expectations constitute genuine harm, or a crime?

Only if A breaks a contract with B. As Murray Rothbard pointed out in The Ethics of Liberty, failure to fulfill a promise, a commitment, or an expected performance is not a violation of rights if the two parties did not agree in advance that this is so. If there was no contract wherein one would be rewarded for fulfilling the commitment and must pay compensation for failure to comply, then failure to fulfill a promise may make one an unreliable jerk, but that's all. One example borrowed from Rothbard: if a celebrity promises to make an appearance at an event for $1 million and fails to show up because of a bad hangover, he owes nothing to the organizers. He only owes something if he was paid in advance any portion of the money. If he would be paid only upon his showing up, than his failure to show up does not violate the rights of the organizers.

But if he did sign a contract and was given all the money in advance, the obligations change. Perhaps the celebrity overslept and missed the plane to the event. This was unintentional, but the celebrity is not entitled to keep the money and he ought to return it; after all, it's not the event organizer's fault that he overslept, and they were "harmed" in the amount of $1 million by his failure to appear. Perhaps the celebrity pays premiums to an insurance company to pay such valid claims when he unintentionally fails to fulfill his obligations. That would be wise, but in any case, the event organizers deserve to have their money back. They paid for a celebrity to show up who didn't, making the event a disaster. Though the celebrity meant no harm, harm was done, and he should fulfill the clauses of the contract involving payments and penalties.

But what if the celebrity accepted the payment with the intent of breaking his agreement and keeping the money? This is theft, a crime, and not only do the event organizers deserve to have their money back, the celebrity should be more severely punished to strip him of the ability to pull the same stunt on anybody else.

To harm others is to inflict some sort of injury on them, usually unintentionally, for which they are entitled to compensation. To commit a crime, however, is to intentionally violate their rights.

There is some fuzziness between the two concepts of "harm" and "crime." For instance, some car accidents are genuinely accidental, such as a pile-up on a suddenly-icy road. Some involve one exercising poor judgment, such as one not realizing how tired one is and falling asleep at the wheel. Yet other accidents involve negligence such as drunk driving; it is criminal because the driver intentionally knew he was placing himself in a situation where his judgment and reaction would be impaired. This may fall short of first-degree murder, in which one intentionally uses his car to run over and kill somebody else, but willingly placing oneself in a situation where one may endanger others is tantamount to violating their rights.

In the end, disappointment is the emotional suffering that results when two wills collide at an emotional level, where one fails to live up to the others expectations. Harm is the suffering caused when two bodies collide at a physical level, usually unintentionally, but with one at fault who must compensate the other. Crime is what happens when two wills collide at the "ownership" or "rights" level, that is, when one tries to take something that belongs to someone else.

Much of the confusion in our society is that we can't tell the difference between the three. We aren't satisfied with shunning those who disappoint us, we want the law to punish them. We aren't satisfied with compensation from those who unintentionally harmed us, we want to ruin them. We end up equating people who only served people's voluntary requests, like drug dealers and Wall Street financiers, to be as bad or worse than rapists and other violent felons. A bookkeeper's honest error may land him a more severe prison sentence than those who deliberately burglarize property or commit assault. Not recognizing that the category of Rights and Wrongs is different from the category of Good and Bad, we assume that whatever is "bad" must be criminalized.

But the category of Rights and Wrongs  is about what people legitimately own, whereas the category of Good and Bad is about how we want people to behave. No society that confuses these two categories can ever hope to find peace or tranquility, let alone liberty and prosperity.

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