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Six Reasons Libertarians Should Reject the Non-Aggression Principle: A Response

Libertarianism.org has an article from Matt Zwolinski entitled ‘6 Reasons Libertarians Should Reject The Non-Agression Principle’. The intent of this brief essay is to answer each of these six points in turn, and to demonstrate that if one is to consistently hold to a libertarian view of politics, that they must subscribe to the NAP. This essay will examine and respond to each enumerated point one at a time.

    1. It prohibits all pollution: This argument is fairly easy to answer. If one holds to the NAP as their foundation for a libertarian political ethic, it necessarily follows that polluting the property of others (even unintentionally) is wrong. Of course corporate pollution would be prohibited by the NAP, but what of individual pollution such as smoke entering the airspace of another’s property in the case of a family bonfire? There are two potential solutions that solve this problem while adhering to the NAP. First, we have Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s concept of covenant communities. Part of the covenant between the local landowners could be to allow (or disallow) minor personal pollution such as the smoke of a bonfire burning off in a given direction outside of the bonfire holder’s property. Second, we have the other solution that tightens up on the principle of homesteading a great deal. That is, one could easily argue from the Lockeian principle of homesteading (that is, mixing one’s labor with an unclaimed resource and thus making it one’s own) that the air above the land owned by a given person has not been sufficiently homesteaded to qualify as property, and thus having smoke enter into that space would not qualify as an act of inadvertent aggression. Finally, even if one holds to the NAP as understood by the author who rejects the NAP as a basis of libertarianism, the offense of pollution (in most cases) is sufficiently minor that it can be worked out between neighbors without need of a judicial ruling as to what damages one neighbor owes another.
    2. The NAP prohibits small harms for large benefits: Ind ethicists and we will not tolerate any deviation that tries to paint our position as n this case, the author argues from a pragmatic basis of ethics, which shows his complete misunderstanding of the NAP. The NAP is a duty-based ethic, and is not at all interested in a cost-benefit analysis of the so-called greater good. Of course the NAP prohibits small harms for large benefits! We (that is strict adherents of the NAP) argue that if one must commit an act of aggression to against one man to save the whole world that the only morally acceptable choice would be to not commit an act of aggression. We (libertarians) are not utilitarians, we are duty-bound ethicists. We certainly believe that our position also works out for the so-called “greater good” in the end, but that is not the reason why we hold to this principle.
    3. All or nothing attitude towards risk: According to the author, running any risk of aggression against another human being is wrong according to the NAP. Well, in this case he is right, at least to a degree. It is a violation of the NAP to knowingly act in such a way that puts the life, liberty, or property of another human being at direct risk. However, even the most hardline NAP holders among us will recognize that there are degrees of aggression, and degrees of appropriate response to aggression. It is true that if you put a revolver to my head with one bullet in the chamber and the other five empty and pull the trigger, that you have placed my life at significant risk, but it does not necessarily follow from this that you are attempting to murder me. Perhaps you knew exactly which chamber contained the bullet and were just playing some sort of sadistic prank. However, that does not mean that I automatically have the right to make you play Russian Roulette with a fully loaded revolver as a balanced means of retaliation. The NAP includes as its corollary that all reactions to aggression must be equal in degree, that is if you punch me on the shoulder, I am not free to pull out my shotgun and blow your head off. So, this supposed all or nothing attitude towards risk adds up to nothing in light of a libertarian theory of justice and punishment.
    4. No prohibition of fraud: This claim is (perhaps) the most ridiculous of all claims in the article. The NAP does not, in any way, allow for fraud. Fraud properly defined is taking the property or person of another under false pretenses. The NAP of course covers this, since it requires that no man may commit any act which takes away from another their right to life, liberty, or property.
    5. Parasitic on a theory of property:

Suppose A is walking across an empty field, when B jumps out of the bushes and clubs A on the head. It certainly looks like B is aggressing against A in this case. But on the libertarian view, whether this is so depends entirely on the relevant property rights – specifically, who owns the field. If it’s B’s field, and A was crossing it without B’s consent, then A was the one who was actually aggressing against B. Thus, “aggression,” on the libertarian view, doesn’t really mean physical violence at all. It means “violation of property rights.

This argument offered in the fifth point asserts that whether or not one has committed an act of aggression is entirely dependent on who is the owner of the given property. This is patently false, and a gross misrepresentation of a libertarian theory of property rights. Libertarian theory based in the NAP holds to a principle of proportionality, that is, if you walk across my field without permission, it is true that you have committed an act of aggression, but this act is so minor that it does not merit a clubbing over the head as presented in the above example. The NAP requires that any and all responses to aggression be in equal proportion or less to the aggression, that is, if you punch me in the face, I do not have a moral right to drop a nuclear bomb on your city. Likewise, if you walk across my field, I do not therefore have a right to whomp you over the head with a club, because the injury caused by being whomped over the head with a heavy club is significantly greater than the injury caused to my property by you walking across it without permission.

6. What about the children? This point is tough, because I agree with it at least in part, but certain distinctions must be made. The great libertarian philosopher Murray Rothbard made errors, and this area is one of them. Rothbard argues that parents have a moral right (based on the NAP) to starve their children to death, and to prohibit others from entering their property to feed their starving children. This thinking is, of course, morally abhorrent, and it also is not in consistent agreement with a proper understanding of the NAP. For all of Dr. Rothbard’s incredible contributions to the liberty movement, this is one area in which he was in grievous error, and in disagreement with a proper understanding of the Non-Aggression Principle. I have linked a full essay here explaining the faults in Rothbard’s thinking on this issue, but to summarize, the parents of any given child have a moral obligation to provide for its physical needs (that is those needs necessary to maintaining a right to life) until that child is able to provide those means on its own. The child did not consent to its own birth, but rather the parents of the child consented to participate in an activity that could potentially lead to a child, leaving them on the hook (morally speaking) to provide for that child at least until the point when it is able to viably provide for itself. 

So, here are six objections to the non-aggression principle as the basis of a libertarian political ethic, and here also are six counterpoints that effectively smash those objections to bits. These objections clearly fail in their attempt to replace the NAP as the driving ethical system of libertarian polity, and so they should be viewed as nothing of consequence to the libertarian who holds to the NAP as the foundation and summation of his libertarian political theory.

Published in R Campbell Sproul