Spoilers for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018) ahead.
Perusing Netflix, I happened upon one of their newest original films, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, an unusual collection of short films all based in the Old West ranging from comedic to depressing. The first in the collection detailing the short-lived but exciting life of the title character, seems to mostly contain humorous intent, but had me pondering the violent reactions of the Coen Brothers’ singing cowboy.
Scruggs is a cheery, brightly dressed sharpshooter who strolls through the open desert with a pep in his step and a song in his heart, an atypical depiction of a boots and spurs adorned hero. He rejects the label of a “misanthrope” given to him by the authorities claiming:
“I don’t hate my fellow man, even when he tiresome, surly and tries to cheat at poker. I figure that’s just the human material and him who finds any cause for anger or frustration is just a fool who expected better.”
This is a stark contrast from the Clint Eastwood depiction of a scowling, negative man on the go.
After Scruggs’ opening monologue, he enters a saloon where he is denied whiskey because the cleanliness of his outfit suggests him to be a do-gooder. When the cowboy quips on one bar patron’s lack of hygiene and need for a “sunnier disposition,” the man pulls his shirt up to reveal his gun and puts his hand on it. Tim Blake Nelson’s character then proceeds to shoot everyone in true gunslinger style. Later, Scruggs again murders a man, but in one of the most creative ways I’ve witnessed: stomping a loose board of a table causing Surly Joe’s pistol to fire into his own head.
It’s interesting to ponder those deaths within the context of the non-aggression principle. Under the NAP, Buster Scruggs’ killings would be justified as he was threatened and thus would have been acting in self-defense. Simply put, a threat is an aggression and can therefore be countered with another aggression. But does this demonstrate the most moral action?
The San Saba Songbird, one of Buster’s many nicknames, makes little to no effort to deescalate the situations and he has no qualms about harming people as his first choice. As soon as the bar patron in the beginning touches his gun, he shoots. When Surly Joe tries to force him at gunpoint to play his hand of cards (which, oddly enough, was a healthy two pairs with aces high), Scruggs ensures he is downed. The question becomes: Even though violence is allowed in retaliation to aggression, should it be employed as the first option?
This is where the limitations of the NAP are most prominently displayed, as it broadness allows many interpretations of justice including eye-for-an-eye retribution. Is the proper response to someone trespassing to shoot them? Can I beat somebody for taking my prized one-of-a-kind porcelain poodle? These questions have no clear answer under the principle of non-aggression.
Standards of jail time and compensation need to be defined for wrongs committed and those standards should continually be scrutinized so that the victims feel whole again while avoiding cruelty to the criminals.
Studies are showing that the most effective way to combat crime is to rehabilitate prisoners using education and substance abuse programs, reducing their chances of returning after release. Having criminals confront their victims and witness in person how their actions have negatively impacted them has also been an effective measure to reducing recidivism.
As libertarians, I believe we should be looking for peaceful solutions to the issues that will surely arise from a decrease in government and subsequent rise in liberty: violence shouldn’t be the response from the starting line. The NAP is a good foundation, but to create a just society, we need doors, windows and a roof built on that foundation.
While Buster Scruggs was justified in his use of defensive force when he felt threatened, he could have just as easily left the bar and avoided the carnage. Liberty will not be an easy accomplishment with many hurdles, and the distribution of justice will be one of many things that needs to be solidified to maintain a civil society.