Saturday, June 1, 2019

Thin Libertarianism Applied

Mike Rozeff has, on and off, continued an examination of abortion and Walter Block’s evictionism.  His most recent post examines the reasonably analogous example of a shipwreck survivor.  Rozeff links to a Block blog post, in which Block receives via an emailer the following scenario:

“A ten-year-old girl survives a shipwreck and is floating around in the ocean surrounded by sharks. A Libertarian comes along in a sailboat. The ten-year-old climbs onto the sailboat to save herself and the Libertarian picks her up and throws her back into the water, shouting, ‘How dare you trespass on my boat!’ She drowns.”

Rozeff considers this “almost exactly the same as the abortion case,” while recognizing that in the case of abortion the owner of the “sailboat” (so to speak) voluntarily allowed the passenger on board.  Rozeff cites Block on abortion / evicitionism (and an example that demonstrates that despite the fine line Block attempts to draw between these two terms, there really is no distinction):

However, if the ‘gentlest manner possible’ implies the death of this very young human being, then so be it: the mother still has that right.” [Emphasis added [by Rozeff].]

To which Rozeff concludes:

If gently sliding the girl back into the ocean implies her death, then “so be it”. The libertarian sailors have that right.

He then offers that Rothbard says pretty much the same as Block.

Rozeff paraphrases the steps implied in this lifeboat / trespass / shark example and then offers: “I suggest that each step here be examined closely to find weak spots in the theory.”  I suggest that these aren’t weak spots in the theory; these demonstrate the weakness of expecting more from the theory than it is intended to deliver.

Rozeff then follows-up with some questions.  I will offer – and address – a few of these, and conclude with some summarizing thoughts (note: “RB” in the below means “Rothbard-Block”):

Does absolute ownership in this case imply RB may cause a life to end?  …Have RB interpreted libertarian law correctly?

We certainly have seen this argued from at least one other libertarian, and in the thinnest of libertarianism I cannot find a basis with which to argue.  Other than me, no one publicly argued against just such a position by a prominent libertarian a few years ago, so this can be considered as evidence in support of RB.

What happened to Rothbard’s theory of proportionality in punishment? Why does it or a variation or extension of it not apply?

It could apply (and I would argue, it would damn both the sailboat owners and the pregnant woman), but the concept of “proportionality” cannot be clarified via a thin application of the non-aggression principle.  It is a question that can only be answered by custom and tradition.  The NAP offers: “Don’t hit me first; don’t take my stuff.”  How does one find proportionality in this?

Is the ten-year-old guilty or innocent? Do the circumstances in some way mean that she’s not trespassing? Why are her rights inferior?

Under the thinnest of thin libertarianism, she is guilty of trespass.  What rights does she have?  She is trespassing.  There is nothing in the NAP to suggest an appropriate manner by which the property owners can take action.  The actions is in the hands of the boat owner.

Why must there be an end to the trespass, if there is one? Why do RB’s absolute rights prevail?

On what basis, from the thinnest of thin libertarianism, would RB’s rights not prevail?  It is their property.


If it is moral to save the girl (Rothbard acknowledges that he’s concerned with legal rights not the morality of abortion), is it a failing of libertarian law not to handle it in a case as startling as this one?

Now we get to the meat of it.  It is not a failing of libertarian law, but it is a failing of law intended to deliver liberty.

Are we after purifying the application of libertarian theory or are we after liberty?  Because if the only acceptable manner by which societal relations are governed is thin libertarianism, we will not arrive at liberty.

In other words, this is a failure of those who believe thin libertarian law will lead to a free society.  It will not.  Just wait until the father of the child gets word of the incident.  See how long a society will stay peaceful – and, therefore, in liberty – when this is how neighbors treat neighbors.

Libertarianism is damaged by those who use it as the alpha and omega of realizing a free society.  I value and respect the NAP far too much to damn it in such a manner; I don’t expect more from the NAP than it is capable of delivering; I choose not to make of the NAP a laughingstock.

The non-aggression principle can speak to when physical punishment is or isn’t appropriate; it cannot speak to the morals necessary to establish and maintain a free society; it cannot speak to the issue of proportionality, whether in defense or punishment – and commonly recognized proportionality (in the eyes of the community) is a necessary factor in maintaining peace and, therefore, liberty. 

We would be well served to stop expecting too much from the NAP.  Doing so only degrades the principle.


  1. Burglar enters home, finds unarmed and defenseless female and proceeds to rape her. Burglar is able to enter home using a child through window. An obviously a non-Blockean libertarian neighbor noticed something was wrong and calls the cops ... or goes investigating.

    1) Burglar/rapist escapes but child is left behind and caught. Should the raped woman be able to grab child by the neck and wringing it, or cut the child into pieces, or bash the child head's against a wall, or just throw the child out a window?

    2) Replace child with a dog/puppy. Same allowable revenge as with the child? (Some people will feel more emotionally invested with an animal)

    I am glad that Rozeff is challenging Block but Rozeff will get no-where because Rozeff does not want to challenge or question Block's "there ain't no positive duties." If you are an atheist, of course there is no positive duties. And, of course, what constitutes a NAP violation it do be defined on a pin's head while denying the angels are even there. In the mean time, well, there can never be a we in determining how to handle NAP "violations."

    Block and Rozeff are not infallible, so, people like them, would it not be better (wise?) to seek advice from mature and respected persons as to what is best way to handle a NAP violation? Well, of course, since there is no positive duty ...

    As to Christians, the duty is ultimately to God. In a Christian community (a we, I know) there will be a standard, not perfect in implementation but sure as hell better than Block's or Rozeff's.

  2. I hate this argument and as usual BM is correct. The issue is that the NAP is simply not enough to run a virtuous society where people want to be neighbors. How silly is it to argue that people are better off in a society where it is just fine to refuse help to a stranded person. In fact their arguments are so beyond sense that they get picked apart easily by the leftists among us.

  3. Your conclusion nails it - especially the last three paragraphs.

    As far as abortion goes, it is beyond me how anyone on the right end of the spectrum, with all the talk about life, liberty and property, can support abortion (as so many libertarians do.) If you don't have life, liberty and property aren't even an issue.

    As far as Walter Block goes, below is an email I sent to him in August of 2014. (he did reply to this with his usual list of books and articles but did not address the comments I made.) I believe how this applies to your comments is self-explanatory. It's a bit long - my apologies.

    Dr. Block –

    On the lewrockwell blog recently, you made a comment about animal cruelty – “I regard this as the biggest and perhaps the only flaw in libertarianism. I share your sentiments fully. I can't for the life of me figure out a way to make animal torture a crime, compatible with the libertarian non aggression principle.”

    May I suggest you are starting in the wrong place? The Bible answers this question for us:

    “A righteous man has regard for the life of his animal, But even the compassion of the wicked is cruel.” Proverbs 12:10

    There are quite a few verses in scripture that relate to the question, but I’ll mention only a few to minimize my intrusion on your time.

    “Know well the condition of your flocks, And pay attention to your herds;” Proverbs 27:23

    “The LORD is good to all, And His mercies are over all His works.” Psalm 145:9

    "Are not five sparrows sold for two cents? Yet not one of them is forgotten before God.” Luke 12:6

    "What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture and go after the one which is lost until he finds it?” Luke 15:4

    There are many other verses I could refer you to. A google search on the Bible and animal cruelty will yield many articles that provide both verses and principles (being good stewards of what God has created, e.g.) that address the issue.

    Ultimately, we are addressing morality here. But the NAP is not sufficient. We need an authority outside of our self; otherwise it’s just an opinion. How do we “impose” (I know that’s a contradiction) the NAP on someone who doesn’t start there? Someone who doesn’t believe in the same morality we do? The Hitlers, Stalins, Bushes, Clintons and Obamas of the world?

    As wonderful as your arguments are on many subjects (I don’t agree with you about everything), they ultimately boil down to being an argument for morality. E.g., you believe it is wrong to steal – so do I. It violates the concept of personal property and is often done violently. But again, how do you answer the person who doesn’t believe that it’s wrong? (You know, like Congress.) If there are no absolutes, what do you do with the person who simply says your opinions about morality, ethics, the NAP, statism, anarchism, etc, are just that – opinion? The result of random collisions of atoms in your brain. Remember the old Goldwater slogan – “In your heart, you know he’s right?” How much more true is that when it comes to God? There is a reason we all know the difference between right and wrong even if we don't act that way. The NAP is not enough, as your frustration at not being able to provide a suitable answer to your correspondent shows.

    "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding." Proverbs 9:10

  4. "Just wait until the father of the child gets word of the incident. See how long a society will stay peaceful – and, therefore, in liberty – when this is how neighbors treat neighbors.:

    This is why libertarians need to account for human behavior when applying an abstract philosophy to the real world. In la-la land, the father accepts the man's "right" to allow his daughter to drown and moves on with his life. In the real world, the odds are that violence ensues, and depending on the circumstances destabilizes an entire community.

    That might actually be the real question for libertarians to consider in situations like these: Not whether someone has the "right' to do something, but is it an action that is likely or not to create, maintain and/or perpetuate a free and peaceful society? If a man exercising his "right" to do something like that undermines the peace, then what is the point of even discussing it? It gets to the heart of what someone is actually interested in achieving (or not, as the case may be).

  5. I suppose Bionic, that the issue is, in fact; empathy. An empathetic person would not care if his rights were violated - he would be more concerned about helping the individual in distress.

    Perhaps one of the reasons that the NAP is giving us issues is because we are trying to extend the NAP to cover the actions of sociopaths who, by definition, have little or no empathy. On reflection, it may be that most of the problems we face as we attempt to codify a society of liberty are due to the actions of sociopaths. Perhaps, in the absence of such people, the NAP is sufficient.

    Here in Albany, NY where I work, there was a very LOUD protest today from pro-abortion forces. Several thoughts ran through my mind but the one pertinent to this conversation would be that, as a society, we surely have sunk to the depths of depravity when we put death as a better outcome then, say, life in an orphanage or adoption. In the case of abortion, I think that a small, core group of feminist sociopaths have convinced the larger group to "toss the little girl out of the boat".

  6. I was thinking of this from a different angle. The Country of Tonga has a monarch who ultimately owns all of the property on the island. Can he just kick off anyone he wants? You could ask "Didn't the residents homestead the property they currently hold?" The answer is no and that all of these people regardless of how they got there have been at the mercy of the royal family. Could the royal family own the island if they established ownership of the island generations ago? Who will argue the ownership rights of the royal family? Who can the residents argue with over their land claims when the royal family is the only owner?