Monday, March 27, 2023

The Highest (Political) Value

What is the highest political value, or end?

Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end.

John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, The History of Freedom

Yes, that’s my answer as well.  Liberty.  Now, that answer needs some explaining, because liberty is understood or developed very differently by different people.

“Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.” – George Bernard Shaw

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” – United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights

“Liberty," boomed Wednesday, as they walked to the car, "is a bitch who must be bedded on a mattress of corpses.” – Neil Gaiman, American Gods

“We are convinced that liberty without socialism is privilege, injustice; and that socialism without liberty is slavery and brutality.” – Mikhail Bakunin

“Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of production and trade...” – Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

And this:

“Cultural liberty is a vital part of human development because being able to choose one’s identity – who one is – without losing the respect of others or being excluded from other choices is important in leading a full life.” – United Nations Development Program

To further clarify my answer and use of the word: I have liberty in my person and in my justly acquired property.  I have no unconditioned liberty beyond this; I have no right to encroach on another’s person and property without permission.  In other words, liberty is conditioned by the non-aggression principle:

The non-aggression principle is an ethical stance which asserts that "aggression" is inherently illegitimate. "Aggression" is defined as the "initiation" of physical force against persons or property, the threat of such, or fraud upon persons or their property. In contrast to pacifism, the non-aggression principle does not preclude violent self-defense.

This raises a question, and a real point of confusion for many.  Which is the highest political value: liberty or the non-aggression principle?  Or, to put it another way, is libertarianism sufficient for liberty?  Wait, I think I asked this question once before:

If liberty is the objective, is the non-aggression principle sufficient?

My conclusion:

Is libertarianism [the non-aggression principle] sufficient for liberty?  Everything about man’s cultural and moral evolution answers with a resounding “no”; everything about how cooperative relationships are formed answers with a resounding “no.” 

What is the objective?  Is it to live lives of NAP purists and theoreticians, or is it to achieve liberty?  Which is the higher political value?  What if both cannot be achieved – which is preferred?  Murray Rothbard opens his book, The Ethics of Liberty, with the following:

“All of my work has revolved around the central question of human liberty.”

The man who has written more about liberty and the non-aggression principle is clear that his objective is liberty, not the purification of the NAP.

Now, one will say, “without the NAP, you do not have liberty.”  Fair enough.  But what if with only the NAP I also do not have liberty?  Also fair enough.  What should I then aim for: liberty or the NAP?

A false choice, you say.  Is it?  To repeat the quote by which I opened the post that started one of the lengthier discussions we have had at this blog in a long time:

…you cannot protect the value of respecting each other’s liberties with the value of respecting each other’s liberties. That value has to come from somewhere…

For the non-aggression principle to function, something more is necessary – something foundational, something that precedes it.  For this, again we turn to Rothbard:

“What I have been trying to say is that Mises's utilitarian, relativist approach to ethics is not nearly enough to establish a full case for liberty. It must be supplemented by an absolutist ethic—an ethic of liberty, as well as of other values needed for the health and development of the individual—grounded on natural law, i.e., discovery of the laws of man's nature.”

For the non-aggression principle to function, a natural law ethic is required.  And this comes to the “throw the bums out” part.  If an individual is a regular violator of the natural law ethic, and advocates that others do the same, they are a threat to the liberty of all others in the community.  They do not belong in a community dedicated to maintaining liberty.  They will destroy the liberty of others if they remain – even if their actions do not violate the non-aggression principle.

Hans Hoppe has demonstrated this necessity better than anyone, which I examine here.

But what does this mean?  This ethic covers far more ground than the NAP – don’t hit first, don’t take my stuff.  Are we now to expand “laws” to address violations of the Golden Rule (a neat summation of the natural law ethic)?

No.  Per Thomas Aquinas, the individual who perhaps did more than anyone to develop and explain the natural law ethic:

Now human law is framed for a number of human beings, the majority of whom are not perfect in virtue. Wherefore human laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder, theft and such like. (Emphasis added)

Human law is to be applied in cases of murder, theft and such like.  In other words: don’t hit first, don’t take my stuff.  For Thomas, natural law describes an ethical way to live, not a basis for human law.

Walter Block applies this well:

A more sophisticated understanding of libertarianism does not say, with the NAP: “Thou shalt not murder, initiate violence against innocent persons or their legitimate possessions.” Rather, it states, that if you do, you will be punished in accordance with libertarian punishment theory.

It is in this way that the non-aggression principle should be considered.  When it is considered as a moral code and peddled as all that is necessary for liberty, it is asked to do more than it is capable of doing.  Which, the, in the eyes of many, turns it into a joke.


So, what to do with this?  On a clean sheet of paper, one can build a covenant community with natural law ethical standards included as a condition for remaining in the community.  Those who sign up for this agreement have done so voluntarily, therefore are not suffering a violation if the community throws them out for violations of the ethic.

But we don’t live in this clean sheet.  We also don’t live in an environment where enough of the population (let alone the tools of control and indoctrination used against the population, e.g., government, media, universities), accept and are willing to enforce such conditions on behavior.

This is why I offer that it is up to the Church to teach natural law, and to expect such behavior from its members.  This is why I believe it is necessary that universities, certainly Catholic universities, revert to teaching this ethic as a core part of a healthy liberal arts program.

Until this happens, our liberty will continue to sink.  And if it doesn’t happen, eventually natural law – which cannot be violated egregiously and for an extended time without consequence – will defend itself.

With vengeance. 


  1. "...being able to choose one’s identity – who one is – without losing the respect of others..."

    This is an amusing statement. In the context of our cultural crisis, it is downright hilarious.

    I can be whoever (whatever) I want to be (identify as) and everyone else must respect my decision. Not only that, but they must also treat me with respect regardless of how they feel about my decision. Not only that, but if anyone does not treat me with respect, that is a violation of my right to choose my own identity and, therefore, they must be punished for their disrespect. The fact that they are also choosing their own identity, which must also be respected, is irrelevant to my situation and, interfering with my right to be respected, cannot be tolerated.

    In other words, all animals are equal and some are more equal than others. The pigs are most equal of all.

    Respect cannot be demanded from others, it must be earned. The current spasm of a culture and society in terminal decline, gender identity, is a vivid example of this. While it may be argued that adherents of this (and other) deviant life choices must be allowed their way, it is unrealistic to assume that opponents will have respect for those choices. In fact, the loss of respect should be expected and attempting to force the issue only makes the matter worse.

    The emperor who chose to display his "identity" nakedly and publicly only had the "respect" of his subjects as long as no one pointed out the truth, but once this was done, all support for his position evaporated and he was seen for what he really was--a pompous, proud person humiliated, ridiculed, and mocked. It did not matter that he occupied the seat of power. He simply could not order the respect of his subjects. Neither can those who currently claim to be wearing such "beautiful garments".

    I respect the "right" of anyone to be themselves, but I do not have to respect them if they make foolish choices. Is this not the NAP/liberty tension at work?

    1. "...that is a violation of my right to choose my own identity..."

      It is stretching the definition of property rights a bit far, isn't it.

    2. The paragraph referred to was meant to be a sarcastic comment on the irrational reasoning of the UN. Perhaps I should have been more plain?

  2. I certainly hope that Catholic universities will return to the teachings of the Natural Law tradition. But I am not optimistic. Most of the philosophy department at my former employer, Fordham University, are far from advocating Thomism. Forget about the Theology Department: except for the patristic scholars, the cutting edge theologians are presently espousing "Queer Theology", at least. at that Jesuit institution. My son was exposed to the concept of God as paradigmatically template transsexual, in his Introduction toTheology (required) course. And if any neo-scholasticism survives, it is, I have argued elsewhere, closer to Kant than to Thomas. Some small Catholic colleges have kept the faith, but, my guess is, exposure to Natural Law is probably equally accessible at Hillsdale College or Grove City, i.e., secular schools where the Great Books tradition is still alive. I mentioned to a trusted colleague that, when Fordham covid policy prompted my retirement, Christian political thought would not be taught to its students in the future.

    1. Deacon, I have commented often that when the Church is once again united corporately, it will be with the Orthodox Liturgy, the Protestants teaching Bible study and Sunday School, and the Catholics teaching natural law in universities.

      And of the three, the Catholics are furthest away from fulfilling their obligation.

  3. A problem with the NAP is that it fails the "seven generations before and seven generations after" principle/practice. At least it hasn't proven itself this way yet. So perhaps it's a great idea that doesn't work or at least can't stick, lacking in principle somewhere.

    I think I can use Rothbard to triangulate where this is so. He is forced, as a principles thinker, to conclude children are owned by their parents/guardians, hence his controversial position on abortion for example. He understands that applying NAP strictly to raising children is not tenable, if raising children with the emotional stability to appreciate NAP upon maturity is to be the reliable outcome. Children must serve to learn to properly lead, even their own lives. So NAP can't reproduce itself; perhaps it leads often to the next generation of Leftists.

    An alternative, which is very classical and omni-cultural (unlike NAP), is to use the model of the good father and his natural authority over his children whom he knows better than they know themselves, as a model for other relationships as well. It doesn't work in overcentralised political structures very well, even as some tried to extend the analogy to terrible outcome, leading to the desire for theory like NAP. But when it stays local, human and decentralized then it can be very Hoppean. Natural Elites that "know" their "subjects" naturally win their "consent" through the "authority" of their wisdom. Ruler and subject this way are bound by Agape/Eros.

  4. Before Bionic I have understood you as saying violations of natural law do not justify violence or forceful punishment, but violations of natural rights do.

    However, the more you write and the more I think about it, the more I see that some non-forceful violations of natural law do justify violence/forceful punishment.

    Now where exactly does that line belong? I don't know. But I would start with 2 things. Any ideological form of Communism/Socialism/Post-modernism/Critical Theory/Intersectionality. Also, anything advocating for the existence of non-binary sexes. Both of these belief system directly oppose natural law. They also in the end call for violent revolution against natural law, as seen with the rhetoric and now action of trans people killing Christians.

    Practically that means outlawing external expressions of these ideologies and the formal teaching of these ideologies in universities, clubs, and commercials. It includes DEI programs in schools and similar policies in corporations like ESG or at least some part of it. When I mean outlawing I mean jail, deportation, or property destruction. Yes that means censorship and book burning.

    I can see where some of this may cross that invisible line. But I also see that this is the strategy of Leftists pushing those ideologies. One set of beliefs or the other will become illegal at some point. There is no middle ground. Secular things don't exist.

    To learn more about natural law and Rothbard's ethical system of liberty follow the link.

    1. I think we need a more sophisticated definition of property - something more than physical possessions, but something less than feelings. It is worth exploring.

    2. Yeah. That is a good point. Many libertarians are strict materialists in their descriptions libertarian theory but I have thought for a while it is insufficient. One example is intellectual property. You can't tell me an author shouldn't own a story they write. It shouldn't be up to who ever can print out the words the cheapest. The author created the story and therefore should own it not just the manuscript or first draft they type.

      Another example is the rights of parents and children. Any theory that treats a child like an adult in case or a parasite in another isn't abiding by natural law. It is dehumanizing what God created. Children also don't have the right to choose whose house they live in and whose provision they partake in. The parent has a right to raise their own child. But thin libertarians can't get past stick figure representations of humanity and the world.

      My thoughts on Rothbard's comments on the rights of children and parents:

    3. I don't see the definition of property as being in need of change, only context. Property is an institution and, like all institutions, once it abandons its purpose and becomes an end in itself, it can become evil. On the other hand, it needs the will and the means to defend itself in order to fulfill its purpose, or else it will be sidelined whenever it's convenient. It's a thin line to walk, but then so is every other aspect of our existence (libido vs. restraint, thought vs. action, etc.)

      Property has this to be said for it: even when it fails to fulfill its purpose, it is largely self-contained and self-correcting. That's why it's such a great foundation on which to build a society... it gives the clearest picture of where the buck ought to stop.

      It's worthwhile to enumerate today's harebrained ideas that ought to be shunned, but let's not pretend that this list will remain unchanged... and let's not pretend that these ideas don't exist. I'm entering the grounds of bad psychology here, but one of the things that really destroys trust, and especially inter-generational trust, is hiding things. Bad ideas ought to be exposed and eviscerated, not hidden away as if one were fearful of them.

    4. cosmic, one of the ideas I am chewing on is the idea of culture or tradition as "property." It isn't "physical," in the sense most purist libertarians demand, nevertheless, it is of value, something concrete that can be left to descendants and received from ancestors, necessary if one is to sustain life and property as libertarians would define these terms.

      Again, chewing on it. I have about three lines written on this for a post, but need to sort out in my head how to make any sense of it.

  5. Cynical me can't help smirking at the thought that the woke Church can somehow reform itself. But the Church has been around for a while and it's been through some rough patches, so who am I to say?

    Covid has taught me that blindly following fads is a built-in feature of the vast majority of individuals and that is disheartening, because it means that there is no permanent defense against bad ideas: they will keep coming around to cause great damage.

    But knowing that this has always been the case, and watching the believers and their cult leaders somehow manage to fall apart despite holding all the cards... maybe I'm just setting my expectations too high. The same weakness that allows bad ideas to take hold ensures that those ideas cannot endure. Quite possibly, the key to this whole decadence business is largely weathering the storm.

    So maybe the Church still has life in it... maybe the saner individuals can gradually regain ground as the madness slowly abates. But it's a long way from being out of the woods.

    1. “Christendom has had a series of revolutions and in each one of them Christianity has died. Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.”

      ― G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man

      I don't lose hope, although I may not see it in my lifetime.

  6. Property Rights are, in my opinion, divided into 3 parts. Your body, your possessions, your land. (Pecked out on a phone.)

  7. I was convinced years back of the injustice of intellectual property once I started considering what should be done to punish violators. It struck me that a physical punishment would be disproportionate, or worse than the "crime," taking someone's physical resources when they have taken none from anyone else.

    But the justice of intellectual property can be regained if we simply make the punishment of violators similarly non-physical, i.e. discrimination, boycott, ostracism, excommunication, or if we allow libertarian positive law, law within private law associations, to handle the matter. But as you said this is the clean sheet, and does not provide a roadmap of how to un-soil the muddy sheets we currently have.

    I think it is still of paramount importance to keep our end goal in sight, but the question of what or who to support now is not so easy as applying the NAP to every candidate's proposals. Everything is tainted with the effects of long-standing aggression. If you remove aggression from one situation, it may cause worse effects from an adjacent aggression. Immigration is a perfect example of this.

    I look at this question with another question: what gets us closer to a strong and lasting culture capable of supporting liberty? DeSantis' war with Disney? All in favor. Curtailment of immigration of peoples likely to vote Democrat? Yes please. Taking the vote away from certain groups of Americans likely to vote for more state power? Alleluia!

    The NAP is still correct, but we have to give some thought about how to unravel the various aggressive policies that have accumulated. Contra Rothbard, button-pushing is not a sensible (or realistic) option.