June 28, 2022

What John Galt Would Say to Will Smith

A liberty lesson from the slap heard round the world.

I’m not an avid follower of celebrity news, but there was an altercation at the Academy Awards last night that is not only consuming the attention of the media and the public, but is actually quite relevant to the ideas that FEE promotes.

I’ll let you look up the details if you haven’t heard them yet, but this is what happened in brief. After the host Chris Rock delivered a joke about actress Jada Pinkett Smith, her husband Will Smith—the A-list actor—walked on stage and literally slapped Rock on live television. Smith then walked back and cursed the host from his seat.

As it turned out, later that night, Will Smith won the Oscar for Best Actor. In his acceptance speech, Smith tearfully apologized (although not to the person he struck).

Now, in a sense, this is a tempest in a teacup. In a world in which governments around the globe are waging wars on liberty, and in the Russian government’s case even waging literal war on a civilian population, one highly-paid entertainer striking another in a public meltdown may be considered a distraction. But given that, appropriately or not, it is commanding public attention, we may as well try to extract lessons from it: especially for the benefit of teens and kids.

For most people, it is plain as day who was in the wrong on that stage. But it can be illuminating to reflect on exactly why.

Any young person would do well to frame what happened last night by reading “Galt’s speech” from the best-selling novel Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. In that famous speech, Rand’s John Galt proclaims:

“So long as men desire to live together, no man may initiate—do you hear me? no man may start—the use of physical force against others.”

This has been referred to as the “non-initiation of force” principle. Murray Rothbard defined “aggression” as the initiation of force, and so the idea has also been called the “non-aggression principle.” The “initiation” part is key, because it establishes that forceful self-defense is legitimate. Understanding this principle is fundamental to understanding liberty and justice.

People naturally ask an important question when judging any violent conflict: “Who started it?” But a more precise phrasing would be: who started the violence? Who initially violated someone else’s person or property?

Will Smith clearly felt Chris Rock’s joke was offensive and disrespectful. He may have regarded it as damaging to his family’s reputation (although it can hardly be more damaging than how he responded).

But as Rothbard wrote in The Ethics of Liberty, nobody has property right in their reputation, because a reputation “is purely a function of the subjective attitudes and beliefs about him contained in the minds of other people.” And a person, “can have no property right in the beliefs and minds of other people.”

So, Rock’s joke, whether it was all in good fun or needlessly cruel, violated nobody’s rights, and Smith was the one who initiated force and was in the wrong.

It may seem silly to litigate a celebrity slap, but it is worthwhile to clarify these principles when they come up, because, however commonsensical they may seem, people reject them all the time, and we all suffer for it. For example, the way people frequently use the term “microaggression” threatens speech rights by blurring the line between non-violent behavior and initiatory force. And the bulk of public policy today uses government force to counter non-violent behavior that some people find objectionable.

Liberty is constantly endangered, because most people don’t clearly see the line that separates just from unjust force. To save liberty, we need to educate the public (young people especially) about the ideas of liberty, especially the non-initiation of force.

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This article, What John Galt Would Say to Will Smith, was originally published by the Foundation for Economic Education and appears here with permission.  Please support their mission.