The Humble Libertarian

Mind your business.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Struggling With The Non-Aggression Principle and The Libertarian Fetish for Systematization

Grab a cup of coffee, you're in for some deep digging into the philosophy of liberty and the non-aggression principle:

I'll let Matt Zwolinski make his own point in his piece, "Six Reasons Libertarians Should Reject The Non-Aggression Principle." You can read it here.

Thoughts as I'm reading this:


I do appreciate Bryan Caplan's sentiments, in this piece, which Matt Z links to in the article above:

But in any case, all this talk violates the fundamental rule of philosophical reasoning (indeed, all reasoning): You don't use the obscure to argue for the obvious. It's silly to say, "Murder violates man's nature, so murder is wrong," when you can just say, "Murder is wrong."

Rothbard's at his strongest when he points out that governments habitually perform actions which almost everyone would admit were wrong if they were committed by a private individual. This, in my view, is real moral reasoning - instead of arguing for the obvious (murder is wrong because blah blah blah), he's arguing from the obvious (murder is wrong, so it's wrong when government does it, too).

This is how I believe libertarians will be most effective at presenting their case to the world. There's little need or use for systematizing the obvious. People are already with you.


Matt says the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP) prohibits all pollution. I don't know. Can anyone actually demonstrate a substantive, aggressive harm to themselves as a result of my burning wood in my fireplace?

Matt would likely say, of course, that's his point. This is simply what happens when you hold the NAP as an absolute. I still don't know. It seems to me that it's one thing to hold NAP as absolutely inviolable, and another to define aggression so broadly as to see it happening everywhere when it is apparently not.

Again, I imagine Matt would say aggression as absolutely defined is still happening in the instance of my fireplace, ever so marginally, and if you hold it as an absolute, you must account for this. Now we're splitting hairs over splitting logs. If Matt's argument is that no NAP proponent should hold NAP in such absolute terms, I'd reply that I don't know of any who are.

Continuing my completely imaginary conversation with Matt (begging his forgiveness if I'm misrepresenting him), he'd say that NAP is no longer absolute then. That this concession kills NAP.


And this is where I think Zwolinski and I are in the same place. These kind of ultra-thorough systematizations of everything seem fruitless to me. Let's talk about what's obvious and what's facing people and how to make them freer and richer and happier.

There's a usefulness in systematization, but there's also a diminishing marginal return on it, and I'd say we libertarians, many of us with a clear (and very ironic) fetish for systematizing all of reality, have probably passed the point of marginal returns on marginal investment. Let's invest more of our time and attention where we'll get more liberty.

(Edit: relevant)


To support his thesis that NAP "Prohibits Small Harms for Large Benefits," Matt uses an example that makes me uneasy:

"Or, to take a perhaps more plausible example, 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? Even if we grant that taxation is aggression, and that aggression is generally wrong, is it really so obvious that the relatively minor aggression involved in these examples is wrong, given the tremendous benefit it produces?"

Man, I just can't go there with you. It's only a successful reductio if it actually reduces to absurdity. I don't think it's absurd not to use a gun and highway robbery to pay for the kids' vaccines. I just can't save kids' lives that way.

I've always liked the parable of the Good Samaritan because the Good Samaritan reaches into his own wallet at the end to pay the innkeeper for the mugging victim's care. If he picked the hypocritical Law Expert or Priest's pocket to pay for the mugging victim, it would rob him of his moral ascendency. Snort: What if the mugging victim is lying bleeding because someone robbed him to help someone? Okay, Matt's not calling for a mugging, just a small tax on billionaires. But what if they don't pay? Impose a fine. And they refuse to pay that? We put them in a cage, right? Poor Wesley Snipes.

Okay we, don't have to go that far. What if we just took the money to pay for the vaccines, but left Wesley in his mansion. No need to be ugly about it. This is about the kids, not punishing Wesley. I just still can't do it. If you've got a good cause and you really believe in it, you don't need to take from people. Just do something about it. Be the change you want to see in the world. Don't steal the change you want to redistribute to the world. Once we take just a little for such an obviously good cause, how much more little can we take for everyone else's bright idea? Even if the cause isn't so obviously good to you? Maybe we can figure out which ones are good by taking a majority vote on it. Now you have TARP. And EPA. And FDA. And Fast and Furious. et al. I know, slippery slope. But damn, isn't it though?


As for Matt's point on the "all-or-nothing attitude toward risk" imposed by NAP, I agree that NAP is insufficient here. I don't know that this is a necessary imposition of NAP, but I think it sure shows its rigidity and limits. I'll say it: I think we need a "thick libertarianism." This also goes for Matt's point on NAP and property theory.


Regarding Matt's final point on children and libertarianism, I'm not familiar with where Rothbard takes it, but if he's seriously saying it's okay for a parent to withhold food from their child because that is not a positive, aggressive act (like clubbing the child's head), I'm definitely not with Rothbard. That's nuts! I'd say the answer to this problem is Stefan Molyneux.

Molyneux would argue that a child's relationship with their parent is not voluntary. I would agree. They didn't choose to be there and they don't have any practical way to leave if they want to. So it's up to the parent to feed the child, or else the parent is committing aggression. In fact, the parent's obligations go even farther in Molyneux's view and mine. If a parent raises their voice at the child, who is not living in their house voluntary and cannot leave, the parent is aggressing. If I yell at you, which causes psychic trauma, you can just hang up the phone or walk away. Unfriend me, whatever. So there is no aggression as the relationship is voluntary. But, if a parent does so, the child has no such recourse.

The only way to be a truly non-violent parent to your child, who exists and is under your custody through no voluntary choice of their own, is to go to the greatest lengths to be incredibly, incredibly good and patient and gentle and generous to your child. If you can't do that, don't have a kid. If you can't do that and choose to have a kid anyway, don't call yourself a libertarian.

Thanks for the article, Matt. Here's Matt's last word:

'There’s more to be said about each of these, of course. Libertarians haven’t written much about the issue of pollution. But they have been aware of the problem about fraud at least since James Child published his justly famous article in Ethics on the subject in 1994, and both Bryan Caplan and Stephan Kinsella have tried (unsatisfactorily, to my mind) to address it. Similarly, Roderick Long has some characteristically thoughtful and intelligent things to say about the issue of children and positive rights.

Libertarians are ingenious folk. And I have no doubt that, given sufficient time, they can think up a host of ways to tweak, tinker, and contextualize the NAP in a way that makes some progress in dealing with the problems I have raised in this essay. But there comes a point where adding another layer of epicycles to one’s theory seems no longer to be the best way to proceed. There comes a point where what you need is not another refinement to the definition of “aggression” but a radical paradigm shift in which we put aside the idea that non-aggression is the sole, immovable center of the moral universe. Libertarianism needs its own Copernican Revolution.'

Fist bump to Craig Schlesinger for passing this along to me.