Libertarianism: So Thick that it is Unrecognizable

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Thanks to Robert Wenzel, today I came across this dandy of a post, entitled “Six Reasons Libertarians Should Reject the Non-Aggression Principle, by Matt Zwolinski.

Matt Zwolinski is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego, and co-director of USD’s Institute for Law and Philosophy. He has published numerous articles at the intersection of politics, law, economics, with a special focus on issues of exploitation and political libertarianism. He is the editor of Arguing About Political Philosophy (Routledge, 2009), and is currently writing two books: Exploitation, Capitalism, and the State and, with John Tomasi, Libertarianism: A Bleeding Heart History. The latter is under contract with Princeton University Press. Matt Zwolinski is the founder of and a regular contributor to the blog Bleeding Heart Libertarians.

Not a mere child, at least not chronologically.  On to Associate Professor Zwolinski:

Many libertarians believe that the whole of their political philosophy can be summed up in a single, simple principle. This principle—the “non-aggression principle” or “non-aggression axiom” (hereafter “NAP”)—holds that aggression against the person or property of others is always wrong, where aggression is defined narrowly in terms of the use or threat of physical violence.

Technically, I would add the term “initiation” somewhere in the definition; otherwise, Matt pretty much nails it.

From this principle, many libertarians believe, the rest of libertarianism can be deduced as a matter of mere logic.

“Mere” logic…as if logic on this subject comes so easily to thick libertarians.

On its face, the NAP’s prohibition of aggression falls nicely in line with common sense…. But the NAP’s plausibility is superficial.

In the remainder of this essay, I want to present six reasons why libertarians should reject the NAP.

Interesting; Professor Matt doesn’t suggest that libertarians add on a bunch of garbage to libertarianism to make it more palatable, hip, mainstream, or cool.  He suggests libertarians should reject that which is the heart of libertarianism.  And this is published at a site called

Matt offers his six reasons:

·        Prohibits All Pollution

·        Prohibits Small Harms for Large Benefits

·        All-or-Nothing Attitude Toward Risk

·        No Prohibition of Fraud

·        Parasitic on a Theory of Property

·        What About the Children???

I find no need to go through each in detail.  The founder of the blog Bleeding Heart Libertarians (who would name his blog for a term that has no definition?) believes he has stumped advocates of NAP with statements such as:

As I noted in my last post, Rothbard himself…

Murray Rothbard, who ploughed virgin soil with virtually everything he wrote regarding libertarian theory and the NAP, somehow didn’t resolve every single issue – at least in the eyes of Professor Z.  Shame on Murray – you failed as a central planner.

Not just industrial pollution, but personal pollution produced by driving, burning wood in one’s fireplace, smoking, etc., runs afoul of NAP. The NAP implies that all of these activities must be prohibited…. And this is deeply implausible.

Does implausible require the rejection of a political theory?  I will come back to this later.

…suppose that by imposing a very, very small tax on billionaires, I could provide life-saving vaccination for tens of thousands of desperately poor children? …is it really so obvious that the relatively minor aggression involved in these examples is wrong, given the tremendous benefit it produces?

One thing all of the advocates of thick (or, in this case, unrecognizable) libertarianism have in common is to ignore property rights.  Fair enough – just say so plainly (none have yet answered my call).  At least Matt the prof doesn’t have to worry about reconciling his bleeding heart version with the NAP, because he rejects the NAP.  It would be refreshing if Tucker, Richman, and the like would be so forthcoming.

…according to NAP, the only legitimate use of force is to prevent or punish the initiatory use of physical violence by others. And fraud is not physical violence.

I have not read enough to know if this is a settled question in libertarian circles.  Whether is it or isn’t – is this a reason to reject the NAP, or a reason to explore its application to real-world circumstances more fully? More on this later.

…“aggression,” on the libertarian view, doesn’t really mean physical violence at all. It means “violation of property rights.”

Doesn’t Matt discover a glimpse of the contradiction he makes regarding the issue of fraud?

…the NAP’s focus on “aggression” and “violence” is at best superfluous, and at worst misleading. It is the enforcement of property rights, not the prohibition of aggression, that is fundamental to libertarianism.

I think Mr. Z hasn’t read the second paragraph in the book Libertarianism for Dummies. Or even anything much of Rothbard.  As if a simple statement of principle is enough to capture the foundation of the theory.

…the NAP implies that there is nothing wrong with allowing your three year-old son to starve to death.

I have read enough to know that this is not a settled issue amongst libertarians.

Professor M-to-the-Zwo is looking at this construct of libertarian theory; he sees that it is not complete – not every single question of life is fully and satisfactorily addressed, at least to his understanding.  He stares at it and says “as the structure is not complete, the entire building must be rejected.”

Two thoughts come to mind.  First, as I hinted at earlier: for any libertarian thinker to state, categorically, how various issues might be resolved in a libertarian world would be to admit that life can be efficiently centrally planned.  Of course, it cannot.  Because it cannot, Matt decides to reject the principle.

More fundamentally – and I am saddened, but not surprised, to see that someone so lacking in basic understanding can reach a position of teaching young, impressionable minds – the NAP is a principle.  Nothing more.

While the application of the principle is quite clear in most circumstances, in several areas there are libertarians who are still struggling with the appropriate application.  In a few cases, I am satisfied that different communities might come to different answers on a few things – each community believing that its answer is consistent with NAP in the context of actual life.

The NAP is a principle; a guiding light, if you will.  Mr. Z is suggesting that a principle should be rejected because either a) its application has not been fully worked out in every situation, or b) taken to the extreme, life seems unlivable.

If this is the case, every principle should be rejected.

And perhaps this is the goal of thick, bleeding heart libertarians.

Reprinted with permission from Bionic Mosquito.

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