The Non-Aggression Axiom

A transcript of the Lew Rockwell Show episode 11 with Walter Block.

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ANNOUNCER:  This is the Lew Rockwell Show.

ROCKWELL:  Dr. Walter Block has to be one of the most prolific scholars in America.  He’s written 300 referee journal articles, maybe 1,000 op-eds.  He’s written 10 books.  He’s edited 20 more.  Not only that, but he’s professor of economics at Loyola University in New Orleans where he holds the Harold E. Wirth chair.  He’s a senior fellow at the Mises Institute and a Libertarian in the tradition of Murray Rothbard.

And I’ve had some people ask me, what exactly is this non-aggression axiom that Libertarians talk about as so central.  Why is it important?  And so there couldn’t be a better man to address that than Walter Block.

Walter, great to have you here.

BLOCK:  Oh, I’m delighted to be here.  Thanks for having me.

ROCKWELL:  You’re going to tell us about the non-aggression axiom?

BLOCK:  Yes.  I see the non-aggression axiom as pretty much the essence of Libertarianism.  The way I see it is sort of like a tepee, you know, with sticks, and there are little bits of sticks pointing above the tent and then there’s where all the sticks come together, and then the sticks go down to the grown at the bottom of the tepee.  And right where all the sticks come together is the non-aggression axiom.  And that’s the essence of Libertarianism.

And the non-aggression axiom says that there’s only — well, it says, in fact, that there are only — you have a wonderful pink tie, Lew, and I’ve been admiring your pink tie.  And there are two ways that I can get that pink tie from you.  One, I can do it compatibly with the non-aggression axiom, and the other, I can do it incompatibly.  Well, what would be compatible?  Well, one way, I’d say, “Lew, I’ll give you five bucks for the tie.”  And you say no.  And I say, “How about 10, 20, 50″?  Or I can say, “I’ll be your best friend forever if you give me the tie or I’ll give you my watch for your tie.”  Any of these ways would be the voluntary way.  And this is compatible with Libertarianism.  But then what I could do is grab the tie and pull it and run away with it, or I could pull a gun and say, “Unless you give me the tie, I’m going to shoot you,” or something like that.  And that would violate the non-aggressive axiom — (laughing).  That would be a paragon case of violating the non-aggression axiom.  And all Libertarianism says is that the proper way to get that tie from you is the only legitimate way to get ties or food or clothing or anything from people is with their consent.  And the other way, where you ride roughshod over them and you just grab the tie, well, that’s an improper way.

Now, when you tell most people that, and you say that’s all Libertarianism says, most people say, “Well, I’m a Libertarian; I don’t believe in grabbing your tie.”  The difference between Libertarians and most people who give lip service to the non-aggression axiom is that we really mean it.  We’re rabid.  We make deductions from it.  And you know in sports they say the way to success is to keep your eye on the ball?  Well, in political economy, the way to be successful, from a Libertarian perspective in any case, is to keep your eye on the non-aggression axiom; never violate it no matter what.

So, for example, if three of us walk in here and we all want your tie and now we have an election as to whether we should take Lew’s tie, and we all vote to take it and then — we’re democrats so we allow you to vote and you say no and, you know, we take your tie.  Well, see, even if a democracy votes for it — and Hans Hoppe has done a brilliant book, Democracy: The God That Failed — something like that; I can’t think of the exact title.  And what he’s saying there is that even if the government does it, it’s still compulsion.  It’s still inordinate.  It’s still improper.  It’s still incompatible with the non-aggression axiom.

Now, the way I see it, there’s an opposite side of the coin, the Libertarian coin.  On the one side is the non-aggression axiom.  On the other side of the coin, equally important, is property rights.  Because, look, suppose I grab that tie and I run away.  Have I aggressed against you?  Not necessarily.  It depends on who is the rightful owner of that tie.  If you stole it from me yesterday, and now I see you with it blatantly sitting in front of me and I grab it, well, then I’m in the right; you’re in the wrong.  So even though I’m grabbing your tie, I’m still compatible with the non-aggressive axiom.  You’re the bad guy because you stole it from me yesterday.

So then you have to ask, well, how do Libertarians justify property rights.  And the way, stemming from Rothbard and Locke and Hans Hoppe and Stephan Kinsella and other Libertarian theoreticians who have done a lot of work on this, it’s pretty much homesteading.  The first guy that mixes his labor with the tie or with the natural ingredients that went into the tie is the proper owner.  So if I homestead a cow and you plant some corn and then I trade you — so now you own the corn and I own the milk from the cow.  So how else can property rights be justified in a derivative sense?  Well, Robert Nozick has this phrase — and he was also a good Libertarian in many ways, although not a perfect one, as none of us are; we’re all just struggling here.  What he said is that there are legitimate title transfers.  Well, one legitimate title transfer is trade.  I trade you the milk that I produced and now I get the wheat that you produced.  And even though you didn’t produce the milk and I didn’t produce the wheat, we can now trace our ownership to them through homesteading and trade.  Well, what are the other ways of doing it?  Well, there’s gifts, there’s betting, there’s any legitimate title transfer which doesn’t violate the non-aggression axiom.

So I think that would be the essence of Libertarianism, the non-aggression axiom and property rights.  And armed with these, and if we keep our eye on this ball or on this coin — to shift metaphors in midstream — we will not go too far wrong in our analysis of Libertarianism.  And then what we do is we apply it to all sorts of weird cases.  My book, Defending the Undefendable, for example, is an attempt to apply it.  We try to apply it to abortion.  We try to apply it to war.  We try to apply it to rent control or the minimum wage or just about anything.  And the question we ask is a simple one: Does this or does it not violate the non-aggression axiom and private property rights?  You can apply it to free speech.  You can apply it to blackmail, libel, all sorts of weird and exotic things.  And it’s a wonderful — it’s sort of like a magic lantern or something or an open sesame, a key to understanding political economy from a Libertarian point of view.  You just apply it rigidly and you don’t accept any exceptions to it.

ROCKWELL:  Walter, our dear friend, Murray Rothbard, once said that the state was a gang of thieves writ large.  Isn’t government simply a permanent violation of the non-aggression axiom?  I mean, isn’t everything the government does based on compulsion?  If you don’t pay a parking ticket, and sufficiently resist it, they claim the right to kill you over it.  So doesn’t the belief in the non-aggression axiom mean really you can’t believe in the state?

BLOCK:  Let me just tell you a little bit about how I came to Libertarianism.  I first came to it through Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden, and their view is limited government.  Namely, the government has one legitimate function and that is to protect people from bad guys.  And to that end, there are three and only three legitimate functions of government.  One is armies to keep foreign bad guys off of us, not to attack people in other countries but to keep them off of us; police to keep local bad guys off of us; and courts to tell who the good guys and the bad guys are.  And that seemed pretty reasonable to me.  And I think most Libertarians are called Minarchists, or minimal-government Libertarians.  If you were to take a survey of people calling themselves Libertarians, I think that that would be roughly the modal view or the most popular view.

When I met Murray in 1966 or ’65, somewhere in there — I’m not a historian so I don’t remember — (laughing) — but he converted me from that view, the Minarchist or the minimal-government/Ayn Rand kind of Classical Liberal view.  He converted me in about five minutes.  Well, maybe five seconds.  He just kind of said what you just said and, all of a sudden, it was like a bolt that hit me.  See, I had been used to showing the government is inefficient in rent control or foreign policy or welfare or whatever.  And he said, look, it’s the same government and they’re necessarily violating the non-aggression axiom.  And I was really into the non-aggression axiom; it’s just that I hadn’t applied it as consistently as I should have been.  And in about five seconds or five minutes, Murray converted me to the one true faith or to the proper belief in political economy, and that is we have to rigidly adhere to the non-aggression axiom and tolerate no exceptions from it.

And government necessarily is an exception.  And it’s an exception in two ways.  One, it taxes.  And, two, it demands a monopoly of defense services — army, courts and police — in a given geographical area.  And both of them are violations of the non-aggression axiom.  Certainly, to tax people is to — taxation is robbery.  It’s at the point of the gun.  If you don’t pay your taxes and, as you say, if you resist enough, I mean, they’re not going to kill you just for not paying your taxes.  The first thing you’ll do is get a nice little letter: “Hey, did you forget?  It’s April 15th.  Please come pay your taxes.”  And when you ignore that, they send you a second letter or a third letter, escalating.  And if you keep ignoring them, one day, there will be a very polite knock on the door and there will be a very polite policeman who will say, “Please come to court.”  And if you resist, they’ll grab you.  And if you resist more, then they’ll shoot you.  So there is a very thick velvet glove around the iron hand.  And a lot of people say, well, you know, when you get stopped by the police on the street, they’re very, very polite.  So it’s a big velvet glove, and a lot of people don’t see that at the bottom is this iron fist of aggression.

Now, one of the objections to this is, well, it’s really a club.  Now, look, if you join the golf club and you don’t pay your dues, they’re not going to let you be in the golf club — (laughing).  If you join the chess club and you don’t pay your dues, they’re not going to let you be in the chess club.  So the objection to this Libertarian theory — and it’s an interesting objection — is that it’s really a club.  It’s the United States of America Club and taxes are just dues.  And if you don’t pay your dues, you can’t be a member; you have to leave.  And the question is, is it really like a club?  And I’ve written quite a bit on this.  And every Libertarian I think — (laughing) — worthy of his salt has written why it’s not a club.  Jeff Hummel has done, Hans Hoppe, Murray Rothbard, Stephan Kinsella.  A lot of people have written — Roderick Long has done, David Gordon.  I could just keep dropping names forever.  But this is a fallacy.  It’s not really a club.  If it’s a club, you have to show some evidence of joining.

Look, suppose I sue you for 100 bucks.  The burden of proof is on me to show a bill of sale, something.  I just can’t say, “Lew owes me 100 bucks,” and go to court and the judge is going to say, “Yes, Lew, pay Walter the 100.”  I have to have some evidence.  Well, where’s the evidence that I joined this club?  I mean, if I join the chess club or the golf club or the swimming club or some other kind of club, I sign something.  Well, I didn’t sign anything.  Yes, there were a bunch of people that signed the Declaration of Independence, but only about 15 of them.  John Hancock signed it big.  But I’m not John Hancock.  I didn’t sign anything.  And that’s just the Declaration of Independence.  Nobody signed the Constitution.

The story I like to tell is, somebody is living out in western Pennsylvania or Ohio or somewhere out there in the boonies, and it’s 1776 and the revenuer comes out there  and says, “Hey, we just started this club  and it’s called the United States of America Club.”  And the guy in Ohio says, “Oh, that’s great.  I’ll be good neighbors with you.  We’ll trade and everything is great.  I wish you the best of luck with your club.”  And the revenuer says, “You don’t understand.  You’re in the club” — (laughing).  And the guy says, “What, I’m in the club.  Uma, uma, uma, I’m in the club?”  You know, my grandfather homesteaded this land in 1602 or whenever it was, and now you’re coming in 1789 and you’re saying I’m in the club, and saying that if I don’t join the club, I have to leave”?  Is that compatible with the non-aggression axiom?  And then I usually tell my students that before I heard this, I had a full head of hair and now look me, and it’s due to this argument, which is a little exaggeration, but what the heck.

So it’s not a club.  What kind of club says you’re a member of it whether you want to be a member of it or not?

ROCKWELL:  Walter, it’s only a club I guess in the sense that it has beaten in many skulls here domestically and millions overseas.

BLOCK:  That’s the first good argument for this thesis that’s I’ve heard.  It is a club in that sense — (laughing).

ROCKWELL:  Walter, you mentioned your wonderful book Defending the Undefendable.  I want to highly recommend it.

Probably the most fun way to learn economics in the history of the world, Defending the Undefendable.  Also a great, fun way to learn Libertarianism.  His articles are very much worth reading as well.

Walter, thanks for being with us.

BLOCK:  My pleasure.  Thanks for having me.

ANNOUNCER:  You’ve been listening to the Lew Rockwell Show, produced by LewRockwell.com, the best-read Libertarian website in the world.  Thanks for listening.

ROCKWELL:  Well, thanks so much for listening to the Lew Rockwell Show today. Take a look at all the podcasts. There have been hundreds of them. There’s a link on the upper right-hand corner of the LRC front page. Thank you.

Podcast date, August 4, 2008

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