The Non-Aggression Axiom of Libertarianism

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The
non-aggression axiom is the lynchpin of the philosophy of libertarianism.
It states, simply, that it shall be legal for anyone
to do anything he wants, provided only that he not initiate (or
threaten) violence against the person or legitimately owned property
of another. That is, in the free society, one has the right to
manufacture, buy or sell any good or service at any mutually agreeable
terms. Thus, there would be no victimless crime prohibitions, price
controls, government regulation of the economy, etc.

If the non-aggression
axiom is the basic building block of libertarianism, private
property rights based on (Lockean and Rothbardian) homesteading
principles are the foundation. For if A reaches into B’s pocket,
pulls out his wallet and runs away with it, we cannot know that
A is the aggressor and B the victim. It may be that A is merely
repossessing his own wallet, the one B stole from him yesterday.
But given a correct grounding in property rights, the non-aggression
axiom is a very powerful tool in the war of ideas. For most individuals
believe, and fervently so, that it is wrong to invade other people
or their property. Who, after all, favors theft, murder or rape?
With this as an entering wedge, libertarians are free to apply
this axiom to all of human action, including, radically, to unions,
taxes, and even government itself.

The non-aggression axiom and private property rights theory which
underlies it have recently come under furious attack, amazingly,
from commentators actually calling themselves libertarians. Let
us consider two cases posed by these people.

First,
you are standing on the balcony of a 25th story high-rise apartment
when, much to your dismay, you lose your footing and
fall out. Happily, in your downward descent, you manage to grab
onto a flagpole protruding from the 15th floor of the
balcony of another apartment, 10 floors below. Unhappily, the owner
of this apartment comes out to her balcony, states that you are
protesting by holding on to her flag pole, and demands that you
let go (e.g., drop another 15 floors to your death). You protest
that you only want to hand walk your way down the flag pole, into
her apartment, and then right out of it, but she is adamant. As
a libertarian, are you bound to obey her?

Second case. You are
lost in the woods, freezing, with no food. You will die without
shelter and a meal. Fortunately, you come
upon a warm cabin stocked with staples. You intend to eat, stay
the night, leave your business card, and pay double any reasonable
price that could be asked. Unfortunately, the cabin has a sign
posted on the door: "Warning. Private Property. No Trespassing." Do
you tamely go off into the woods and die?

Opponents
of the non-aggression axiom maintain that you have no obligation
to die in either of these cases, much less in the name
of private property rights. In their view these concepts have been
adopted to promote human life and well-being, which, ordinarily,
they do, and superlatively so. But in these exceptional cases,
where the non-aggression standard would be contrary to utilitarian
principles, it should be jettisoned. The non-aggression principle,
for them, is a good rule of thumb, which sometimes, rarely, should
be ignored.

There are several grave problems with these critiques of the non-aggression axiom.

1. They misunderstand the nature of libertarianism. These arguments
implicitly assume that libertarianism is a moral philosophy, a
guide to proper behavior, as it were. Should the flagpole hanger
let go? Should the hiker go off and die? But libertarianism is
a theory concerned with the justified use of aggression, or violence,
based on property rights, not morality. Therefore, the only proper
questions which can be addressed in this philosophy are of the
sort, if the flagpole hanger attempts to come in to the apartment,
and the occupant shoots him for trespassing, Would the forces of
law and order punish the home owner? Or, if the owner of the cabin
in the woods sets up a booby trap, such that when someone forces
his way into his property he gets a face full of buckshot, Would
he be guilty of a law violation? When put in this way, the answer
is clear. The owner in each case is in the right, and the trespasser
in the wrong. If force is used to protect property rights, even
deadly force, the owner is not guilty of the violation of any licit
law.

2.
These examples purposefully try to place us in the mind of the
criminal perpetrator of the crime of trespass. We are invited,
that is, to empathize with the flag pole hanger, and the hiker,
not the respective property owners. But let us reverse this perspective.
Suppose the owner of the apartment on the 15th floor
has recently been victimized by a rape, perpetrated upon her by
a member of the same ethnic or racial group as the person now hand
walking his way down her flag pole, soon to uninvitedly enter her
apartment. May she not shoot him in self-defense before he enters
her premises? Or, suppose that the owner of the cabin in the woods
has been victimized by several break-ins in the past few months,
and has finally decided to do something in defense of his property.
Or, suppose that the owner, himself, views his cabin as his own
life preserver. Then, may he not take steps to safeguard his property?
To ask these questions is to answer them, at least for the consistent
libertarian.

3. The criticisms of
libertarian property rights theory base their views on the philosophy
of emergencies. The non-aggression axiom
is all well and good in ordinary circumstances, but when there
are life boat situations, all bets are off. The problem, however,
with violating libertarian law for special exigencies is that these
occurrences are more commonplace than supposed. Right now, there
are numerous people dying of starvation in poor parts of the world.
Some are suffering from illnesses which could be cured cheaply,
e.g., by penicillin. We have all read those advertisements placed
by aid agencies: "Here is little Maria. You can save her,
and her entire village, by sending us some modest amount of money
each month."

In
point of fact, many so called libertarians who have attacked
the non-aggression axiom on these emergency grounds live in housing
of a middle class level or better; drive late model cars; eat well;
have jewelry; send their children to pricey colleges. If they truly
believed in their critiques, none of this would be true. For if
the cabin owner and the apartment dweller are to give up their
property rights to save the hiker and the flagpole hanger, then
they must
give up their comfortable middle class life styles in behalf of
all the easily cured sick and starving people in the world. That
they have not done so shows they do not even take their own arguments
seriously.

The logical implication of their coercive welfarist argument is
far worse than merely being required to give a few dollars a month
to a relief agency. For suppose they do this. Their standard of
living will still be far greater than those on the verge
of death from straightened circumstances. No, as long as these
relatively rich "libertarians" have enough money to keep
themselves from dying from poverty, the logic of their argument
compels them to give every penny they own over and above that level
to alleviate the plight of the endangered poor.

Dr. Block [send him mail] is a professor of economics at Loyola University New Orleans. See his Autobiography Archive.

Walter Block Archives

     

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