Shall We Abandon the Non-Aggression Principle?

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It has been fashionable of late for some libertarians to broaden the libertarian non-aggression principle in their attempts to make libertarianism less thin and brutal and more cosmopolitan and humanitarian.

I will not address this controversy here. I recently made very clear my views on libertarianism.

What I do want to address is an older libertarian attack on the non-aggression principle that has recently reared its ugly head.

Some libertarians, way back when (Liberty, May 1988) and more recently (here and here), have actually called for abandoning the non-aggression principle altogether. (See replies to the recent cases here and here).

I think it would be important before continuing to revisit exactly what it is that libertarians mean when they talk about the non-aggression principle being foundational to libertarianism. For this I turn to two of the greatest libertarian theorists and proponents: Murray Rothbard and his long-time friend and disciple (in the good sense) Walter Block.

Says Rothbard:

The libertarian creed rests upon one central axiom: that no man or group of men may aggress against the person or property of anyone else. This may be called the “nonaggression axiom.” “Aggression” is defined as the initiation of the use or threat of physical violence against the person or property of anyone else. Aggression is therefore synonymous with invasion (For a New Liberty).

Libertarianism holds that the only proper role of violence is to defend person and property against violence, that any use of violence that goes beyond such just defense is itself aggressive, unjust, and criminal (“Myth and Truth About Libertarianism“).

The fundamental axiom of libertarian theory is that no one may threaten or commit violence (“aggress”) against another man’s person or property. Violence may be employed only against the man who commits such violence; that is, only defensively against the aggressive violence of another. In short, no violence may be employed against a non-aggressor. Here is the fundamental rule from which can be deduced the entire corpus of libertarian theory (“War, Peace, and the State”).

And explains Block:

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 (“The Non-Aggression Axiom of Libertarianism“).

Libertarianism is a political philosophy. It [is] concerned solely with the proper use of force. Its core premise is that it should be illegal to threaten or initiate violence against a person or his property without his permission; force is justified only in defense or retaliation. That is it, in a nutshell. The rest is mere explanation, elaboration, and qualification—and answering misconceived objections. (“Libertarianism or Libertinism”).

Clearly, Rothbard and Block are saying that it is the initiation of aggression against the person or property of others that is always wrong.

But if we are to abandon the principle that the initiation of aggression against the person or property of others is always wrong, then what are the alternatives? I see only two:

The initiation of aggression against the person or property of others is never wrong.

The initiation of aggression against the person or property of others is sometimes wrong.

No civilized person, libertarian or not, would accept the first alternative. This leaves us with the second. The can of worms that this opens up should be quite evident. This is why most would then try to postulate a third alternative—that the initiation of aggression against the person or property of others is basically wrong. But this still leaves the door open for the initiation of aggression against the person or property of others to only sometimes be wrong.

The real problem comes in when the non-aggression principle is applied to the state. Many people who say that they subscribe to the non-aggression principle on a personal level have no problem supporting government aggression against certain peaceful activities.

What separates genuine libertarians from imposters and those who shun the name but likewise claim that they accept the non-aggression axiom in principle is the axiom’s application. As Rothbard elaborates:

Libertarians simply apply a universal human ethic to government in the same way as almost everyone would apply such an ethic to every other person or institution in society. In particular, as I have noted earlier, libertarianism as a political philosophy dealing with the proper role of violence takes the universal ethic that most of us hold toward violence and applies it fearlessly to government.

Libertarians “make no exceptions to the golden rule and provide no moral loophole, no double standard, for government.”

It is government that is the greatest violator of the non-aggression principle. It is generally not neighbors, coworkers, gang members, muggers, rapists, and thieves that we have to worry about. The aggressions they commit against the person or property of others pales in comparison to state aggression. Fanatical right-wing ideologues who want to lock drug users in cages and throw away the key have no power to do so except by the power of government.

So, if we are to abandon the principle that the initiation of aggression by government against the person or property of others is always wrong, then we are once again left with two alternatives:

The initiation of aggression by government against the person or property of others is never wrong.

The initiation of aggression by government against the person or property of others is sometimes wrong.

The first alternative is the view of Lenin, Stalin, and Sarah Palin. The second is the view of conservative pundits and Republican politicians.

Again, the implications of this second view should be obvious. And again, to try and retreat to the position that the initiation of aggression by government against the person or property of others is basically wrong still leaves the door open for the initiation of aggression by government against the person or property of others to only sometimes being wrong.

Shall we abandon the non-aggression principle? Of course not. It is what separates men from beasts. To do so is to legitimize personal and state aggression.

In this article I have merely sought to show what the unsatisfactory alternatives are to the non-aggression principle. If libertarians who have disparaged the non-aggression principle really don’t want to abandon it then they shouldn’t say that they do.

The non-aggression principle can and should be applied, clarified, explained, built upon, have implications derived from it, and made the basis of logical deductions, but it should certainly not be abandoned.

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