Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Libertarianism: So Thick that it is Unrecognizable

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 Libertarianism.org.

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.


  1. Wait. This guy thinks the aggressiveness of a tax is measured by the amount of the tax? He believes that a very, very small tax is only a relatively minor aggression? Professor Zwolinski seems unaware that the aggression does not occur when a tax is decreed, but when the tax is collected. All taxes, regardless of size, are ultimately collected at gunpoint. The billionaire who says "no" is going to be arrested, fined, jailed, and ultimately killed depending on how long and how vigorously he continues resisting. The handcuffs will be just as hard, the weapons just as lethal, the jail cell just as miserable, and the death just as final when the collectors come after you for a penny instead of a dollar. The professor is not only thick in his libertarianism, he's thick in the head.

    1. I thought it humorous that he chose this example. Why not leave the examples difficult, something adherents actually struggle to agree upon, for example?

      With this example - one of the most obvious violations of the NAP - he showed his true colors. There is nothing libertarian in this thinking.

      Then again, he did write that libertarians should reject the NAP....He is putting his words to action.

  2. The infant one always bothers me about libertarianism, I believe strongly in libertarianism, but confusion over whether to care for an infant you created I found a tad morally repugnant. Could you abandon one based on the principle, sure it would not violate your natural rights, or the nap in any sense I could see. But my rationalization for this seemingly foggy issue was quickly that by having a child where the mother or father choose to keep the baby to term but then don't want it I would say this. By not aborting it, which would violate NAP, you have entered into a quasi contract with an infant. It has rights as you do, so either it must be given up for adoption, or to a willing friend/relative. Obviously selling the child it seems to me would constitute slavery since an infant lacks the ability to object or make it's own choice with whom to be sold to. So if no option is available in regards to having the infant adopted/given up then the parents are in contract with the infant until such time has reached adulthood/can fend for itself. What age this would be without law I realize is a grey area, & I understand 99% of people would not simply abandon an infant, relative to nap this is simply one area I could not call myself a strict libertarian on. It's to disturbing to allow an infant/child to be regarded that way, so that's how I'd approach it, like an infant had contract rights.

    1. I believe a contract has been entered into upon conception, see here:


    2. I agree the contract begins at conception. The tricky part to me is who defends the child when the contract is broken?

    3. I agree this is tricky. I try to separate the problem in two pieces:

      1) What is the proper application of the NAP?
      2) How?

      It is not possible to deal with the "how" properly until I sort out my conclusion of the "what."

      The how is not always easy - pollution is such an issue.

      For issues involving children, historically it has been other family members, church and local charitable groups, and the like.

      Unfortunately, there is no guarantee. But there is none today either.

  3. Thanks Mosquito

  4. The infant question is repugnant to me.... It shows yet again how the left - right worshippers think without the violence and coercion of law humans are less than even an ape or a cat with kittens. The law now doesn't stop people from abandoning or abusing or starving or killing children it just punishes them if they get caught. A child created by my actions has the same right to life I do and because that life was dependent on me to be brought into this world I am obligated by the laws of nature and God to care for that child or find someone who will.

    And if I kill that child in the womb it is the same murder that killing my neighbor would be except in some ways more heinous as I am responsible for that life and have betrayed him or her.

    Any human who abandons or neglects or abuses or murders a child born or not yet born is a creature less than an animal (A gorilla cares for her offspring) and is commuting a crime against that person and against the future of humanity. It is a crime perpetuated on our entire race when a person is killed... A person that might in innumerable ways have benefited us and is denied ever doing so. I wonder of those over 55 million murdered unborn babies how many Einsteins and MLKs and Mother Teresas and other amazing minds and hearts never drew breath and how we've destroyed our future.

  5. Here, lightly edited, is the body of an email I sent to our host and that he requested I post as a comment:-

    You quote Matt Zwolinski as asking, "...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?"

    On the one hand, if we are allowed to suppose, suppose that by imposing a very, very small tax on billionaires, I could intend to provide life-saving vaccination for tens of thousands of desperately poor children, only to fail? Is it really so obvious that the relatively minor aggression involved in these examples is wrong, given the tremendous lack of benefit it produces? And what if the response is always - succeed or fail, since success argues for more and failure that there was not enough - to impose just a very, very small increase in the tax on billionaires and to widen the tax base to ever more and more people, in a never ending cycle? To my mind, the whole thing fits a "first they came for the Jews..." pattern.

    On the other hand, it gets worse on closer inspection. Suppose that by experimenting on just a very few children, 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? After all, the causal link between vaccine experiments on children and providing life-saving vaccination for tens of thousands of desperately poor children is a lot closer than that between imposing a very, very small tax on billionaires and providing life-saving vaccination for tens of thousands of desperately poor children - since taxes are very deliberately uncoupled from objectives by governments, precisely in order to give governments a free hand to do as they please. And that's even before considering how that pattern could expand if the first round of child experiments failed. You can't argue that children are different, that neither you nor I have the right to risk somebody else's children (which, by the way, is precisely what pro-vaccine advocates do without admitting it when they say that parents should have their own children vaccinated to cut the risk to yet other children). Neither you nor I have the right to impose anything at all on anybody else for the sake of yet others; it is always their call. If things ever are as desperate as "lifeboat ethics", when there is a hard choice as to who will suffer, whether a few should die or all should die, well, that is a grim necessity forcing a choice between evils, and even choosing the lesser evil doesn't make it good - and, of course, rationalising ourselves into accepting it makes it easier to accept and continue it even if it stops being necessary, just as slavery continued long after the brutal times when idle prisoners of war could be safely neither fed nor freed.

    That isn't even a hypothetical, about experimenting for the greater good. The War Crimes Trials falsely claimed that the Nazi human experiments had no scientific merit, as though that would have justified them. But they actually did have scientific merit; many of the results were used to help survival rates of downed pilots at risk of exposure, and the Canadians and others used the results later since they had been obtained anyway. Does that justify the experiments, since we now know with hindsight that many lives were saved overall? At any rate saved overall if we use the accounting trick that the victims were going to die anyway, and never mind that that was only because the same people doing the experiments were doing the killing - and, over the centuries, quite possibly even without that trick.

  6. I see Zwolinski's post as being marred throughout by appeals to "common sense" (which are logically fallacious) and the implicit assumption that value is objective (which is simply false). That said, I do agree with him that the NAP is "parasitic" on a theory of property. I think another way of putting this is that considering "aggression" to be wrong leaves open the question of what "aggression" is taken to mean. One could say that the state adheres to its own version of the NAP, where "aggression" is taken to mean anything that infringes upon its alleged property rights over everything within its borders. As a result of this, I don't see the NAP as being the foundation of libertarianism, but rather self-ownership.