Monday, February 11, 2019

Anorexic Libertarianism

Anorexia…is a psychological and potentially life-threatening…disorder.

One of my earliest endeavors at this blog was to work through libertarianism – the thinnest of thin libertarianism.  My approach was simple: take the non-aggression principle and deduce.  I honed my understanding by working through dozens of posts and essays by many libertarians, trying to understand if or how well the thinking conformed to the non-aggression principle.

Much of the writing that I analyzed veered to the left – various social causes having nothing to do with the NAP.  Having gone after many of these, I was challenged: “why don’t you take on Hoppe with the same gusto that you employ against left-libertarians?”

Well, I did.  And I found that Hoppe was correct.  But Hoppe wasn’t redefining the non-aggression principle – he wasn’t making it “thick”; instead, he offered that cultural boundaries were important if one is to maintain a libertarian society.  This understanding sent me on my path to consider libertarians and culture, tradition, and custom.

Around this same time I came across a discussion of libertarian punishment theory applied: the aggrieved property owner is free to decide the punishment for any transgression of his property.  Anything short of this and you are a thick libertarian.

What about shooting a child for picking an apple?  Yup, if that’s what the owner wants, then that is the libertarian answer.  Private property is inviolate, more valuable than life in all circumstances.

Well, that didn’t sit well with me.  I thought…there is no way such a society will remain free.  If punishment (along with dozens of other daily actions) does not conform to something approaching generally acceptable cultural norms, something like the opposite of liberty will be the result.

Now, in hindsight, I suspect one could conclude this punishment theory from the NAP –the aggrieved property owner decides.  Property is inviolate, and value is subjective.  Who but the farmer can say what the value is of his apple?  Well, you all know where this journey has led me: if liberty is the objective, then what must be added to libertarianism, to the non-aggression principle?

Any ideology taken to an extreme will result in totalitarianism.  Now, that isn’t such a stretch to accept for ideologies such as communism, socialism, etc.  But is it also true of libertarianism?  Taken to an extreme, perhaps the farmer does have the right to shoot the child for picking an apple; the aggrieved property owner can inflict any punishment on the offender – no matter how trivial the offense.

It might be the thinnest of thin libertarianism – an ideology taken to an extreme – but it sure won’t result in liberty.  It will result in pretty much the opposite. 

All well enough for punishment.  What about defense?  A child (yes, I purposely use children in these examples to drive home the point) takes a candy bar and walks out of the store.  The shopkeeper chases the child and shoots him in the back.  “Whew!”  That punk didn’t steal this one dollar candy bar.”

He defended his property, sure enough.  It could be argued that his action fully conformed to the non-aggression principle.  But what of liberty?  What happens down that road?  Any punishment that the aggrieved decides?  Any defense of property for even the most trivial transgression?  Yes, it might be thin libertarianism applied, but is it liberty-inducing behavior?  If you think so, there are many neighborhoods in places like Los Angeles, Chicago and Baltimore for you to find your liberty.  They live by such rules there.

What about the issue of encirclement, another issue that brings up some conflict between property and life?  And, dare I say, abortion?  Even for those who view it as a strict property rights issue – the mother owns the property of the womb – is killing the unborn child just punishment (or defense) for this supposed transgression of trespass?


We have purified libertarian theory based solely on the non-aggression principle enough already.  Let’s work on finding liberty.


  1. I have never understood or accepted the concept of libertarian punishment. It's an oxymoron in my mind. The same goes for using overwhelming or excessive force in defense of property. Any functional society will have mechanisms in place to sue for damages. Those same mechanisms would very likely be turned against the shop owner for shooting a child over an apple.

    These were fun puzzles when I was new to libertarianism, but not so interesting anymore. So I agree with your conclusion, better to look for liberty in our very non libertarian world. In any case, there are far more grievous threats to life and property than children to worry about.

    1. Jeff, what term should I use when considering the consequence for someone violating the NAP? Retribution, vengeance, reparation?

      "...there are far more grievous threats to life and property than children to worry about."

      When aggression against the most vulnerable and most innocent of society is OK, I am not sure that there is a threat more grievous than this. All other aggression is child's play thereafter.

      A culture of murder; a culture of murder against those least capable of defending themselves and those most innocent. Where will anyone find safety?

    2. "Jeff, what term should I use when considering the consequence for someone violating the NAP? Retribution, vengeance, reparation?"

      Reparation sounds reasonable as it can be measured against damages. Punishment may not seem like vengeance, but when applied at the governance level they tend to mean the same thing IMO.

      "When aggression against the most vulnerable and most innocent of society is OK, I am not sure that there is a threat more grievous than this. All other aggression is child's play thereafter."

      Are you talking about the apple snitch or abortion? I don't believe any libertarian-ish society would allow the killing of a child over an apple. I thought I was agreeing with you, actually. I meant that children don't represent a serious threat to property.

    3. Jeff, I apologize: I misunderstood your second point. Applying it to abortion, it would seem murdering the child is a rather severe [reparation, punishment, etc.] for a not very serious threat.

      As to reparation, what is reparation for someone taking my eye? Do I take one of his or two?

      A bit more complex: what is reparation for someone taking $50 from me? Is the only consequence that he has to return the $50? I have certainly been repaired. But what of the riskless thievery that this would create? Heads I win, tails I don't lose?

      Does he owe me the $50 plus $50 more? After all, there must be some cost for being caught a thief. If so, what would we call this second $50? "Punishment" seems like a good word, doesn't it?

    4. BM, I don't think the answers to those questions will be found in the NAP or in any other valid libertarian theory. The answers IMO will be what works for a particular culture and society. Your focus on those is why I read your blog.

      I personally would prefer to live in a society that doesn't enshrine "an eye for an eye" into its culture and laws. If events are common enough to require such laws, that society is already moving in the wrong direction. The next step will be to levy taxes to build prisons.

  2. BM: "Let’s work on finding liberty."

    At least you don't waste time with small stuff VBG!!!

    Joking aside, I have never really found a good definition of liberty. I keep running into the same problem as with the NAP rule: fine if applied to individuals, but it breaks as soon as I try to apply it to society.

    1. I forget if it was Jeff or Ryan at LvMI who said the following (paraphrased): liberty doesn't mean perfect choice, it just means many choices - and, I would add (or maybe they did), an ever-increasing number of choices given where we are today.

      You are right, I think, about liberty: it will only be found in a societal framework; inherently this means that no one will find what they would describe as perfect liberty. Just ever-increasing choices.

      We find this in a (relatively) free market for goods and services - where we don't get perfect choices, just many choices; some day the same might be said for our choices in political relationships.

  3. Libertarianism is best understood as a reaction against government mediated justice. Its motivation is to get the production of justice out of the hands of a ruling political class and back under direct consumer control. As it is of course libertarians have only their hypotheticals to bandy about completely divorced from practice. Now the concept of justice arose in the medieval era, as an alternative to settling disputes by physical combat. In place of the private duel emerged the public resolution mediated by the learned noble figure of the community. As bionic has pointed out this period is the high-water mark for justice insofar as the goal of justice is the peaceable settling of disputes. Following the Carolingian era justice was taken over by government both as a strategy of power and as a means of revenue. In time and under socialism, justice has been colonized and reworked as a strategy of discipline fundamentally opposed to its original conception. Belligerent socialist justice is deployed to deliberately incite rather than resolve conflict the better to bring down a massive surveillance-police power by which all subjects can be placed under a state of domination - and one need only think of the War on Drugs whose level of destruction of both tangible property and individual freedom the devil himself surely despairs of ever equaling.
    The most pressing problem for libertarians is not in the theoretical domain but rather in the commercial: : How are they to privatize the production of justice so that it can be ceaselessly monitored, clarified and refined by consumers in the way all other businesses are ?