Is Non-Aggression Enough?

A lot of people think that libertarianism is defined by something like the “Non-Aggression Principle.” To be a libertarian, they think, is to believe that it’s always wrong to initiate physical force. And that’s all there is to it.

This, essentially, is Ayn Rand’s view about the fundamental principle of morality. And, of course, it is also Murray Rothbard’s.

I think there are a number of serious problems with this way of characterizing the fundamental libertarian moral commitment. At the very least, a commitment to non-aggression by itself isn’t enough to solve very many of the political problems about which there is real philosophical dispute. And that is because the non-aggression principle is largely indeterminate. There simply isn’t enough to it to help us decide between competing resolutions to disputed problems.

At least, that’s what I will argue in a talk I’m going to be giving for Students for Liberty this Friday. The title of the talk is “Beyond Non-Aggression: On the Need for a ‘Thick’ Libertarianism.” And I’ll be delivering it over the web on October 26th at 10:15 AM PST. Here’s the Facebook page for the event, or you can just cut straight to the chase and register here. It’s free! It’s open to all! It’s free!

I’ll argue that the non-aggression principle is indeterminate. I’ll argue that a kind of “thick libertarianism” can help us to resolve this indeterminacy. I’ll argue that John Stuart Mill was right. And I’ll argue for open borders! All in about 20 minutes. Come for the spectacle, if nothing else.

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Author: Matt Zwolinski
  • Neither Rand nor Rothbard — and especially not Rand — thought NAP was the fundamental principle of morality. And Rand, at least, always claimed we need a wider moral context to know how to apply the NAP.

    • Sorry, misspoke. I should have said “fundamental principle of libertarian morality,” or “political morality.” And yes, your point about Rand is well-taken and one I acknowledge (to her credit) in the paper.

      • martinbrock

        Rothbard distinguishes “morality” from “justice”, and his “justice” is apparently your “political morality”, i.e. “justice” justifies coercive force. Morality motivates an individual act, but it does not entitle him to interfere forcibly with another individual. Justice does entitle one individual to interfere forcibly with another, if not “aggressively”.

  • j r

    At the very least, a commitment to non-aggression by itself isn’t enough to solve very many of the political problems about which there is real philosophical dispute.

    Why stop there? The non-aggression principle isn’t even enough to solve problems about which there is absolute agreement. Rothbard is the guy who said that “the War for Southern Independence” is one of only two just wars in American history. Under this conception, holding other human beings in bondage is not aggression, but taking action to free those human beings is.

    The real problem is that there is no non-aggression “principle,” rather there is a somewhat ad hoc application of right and wrong to various forms of aggression, roughly in line with the things that libertarians tend to value.

    • Jeff Riggenbach

      Oh, yes. Everyone knows the U.S. invasion of the Confederacy was undertaken to free the slaves.


      • j r

        I know that there was slavery before the war and not after it. Go ahead and throw all your pro-Confederate points at me. You’re only going to end up proving my point.

        • Fallon

          You don’t have to be pro-Confederate to understand that Lincoln did not invade the South with the intention of freeing the slaves. Even when confronted by victory in the war his first inclination was deportation. Lincoln was, further, a big supporter of local laws that made black migration prohibitive. This must be common Wikipedia knowledge by now?

        • martinbrock

          Why did Andrew Jackson threaten to invade South Carolina during the Nullification Crisis of 1832? Jackson was a slaveholder himself and an outspoken defender of slavery, so ending slavery presumably wasn’t his purpose.

          In Lincoln’s first inaugural, he says that he’ll only defend U.S. government property and collect duties and imposts from the Confederate states, and he explicitly states that interference with slavery is not his purpose. Why don’t you believe him?

          How does Lincoln in 1861 differ from Jackson in 1832?

          Blind faith in the good intentions of the Federal government is not remotely equivalent to opposing slavery.

        • martinbrock

          Slavery did end without “aggression” across the British Empire decades before it ended in the United States. The U.S. arguably seceded from the empire to avoid this end.

    • Jeff Riggenbach

      Oh, yes. The U.S. invasion of the Confederate States of America was undertaken to free the slaves.


  • martinbrock

    The non-aggression principle is both not enough and too much.

    It’s not enough, because the principle is meaningless without a specification of “property”. Practically all of the substance of the principle follows from the definition of “property”, so without this specification, it’s just an empty phrase. You might as well tell me to “be good”.

    The Rothbardian principle is too much, because it takes a particular definition of “property”, including title in perpetuity for first use, for granted. Many libertarians do not accept title in perpetuity in general, because title in perpetuity is the foundation of rent seeking.

    Locke didn’t call hereditary title “property” at all. He called it “paternal power” and associated it with loyalty to a nation-state. Rothbard even advocates perpetual title to radio frequencies over the air, a case in which possession for use is far more practical and less restrictive.

    Free association is a more robust principle permitting a far greater range of individual choice and a greater variety of social organization.

    • Could I get references for the people who argue for title in perpetuity (whether based on first use or otherwise)? I’d prefer non-Rothbardian references, if you happen to have that, but Rothbard will do. (Only if this is not a burden or a hassle).

      • martinbrock

        I’m no authority on political history, but for Rothbard, see Man, Economy and State, Chapter 2, Part 12 for example. He also discusses the subject in Ethics of Liberty. For Locke, see Second Treatise of Civil Government, Chapter VI (“Of Paternal Power”), Section 73, but I wouldn’t say that he argues for. For Blackstone, see Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book II, Chapter 7, but he doesn’t argue for as much as he describes the law of his day.

    • I do not necessarily agree with Rothbard, but I find your own thinking too utopian. I can have an establishment of my property rights without your agreement, as long as I have the agreement of my society(some form of government). The society sets up laws to protect it’s members, The libertarian problem is that there are no real liberties without some form of government, and yet government is always the primary danger to liberty.

      • martinbrock

        All thinking is utopian, so mine could hardly be otherwise. Reality is also outside of your head.

        If my gun is larger than yours, your property right without my agreement is little use to you. Your government cannot be omniscient and omnipresent, even if you imagine it so, even if it imagines itself so.

        A community sets up laws agreeable to members of the community, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. You want to surround yourself with people who want to be ruled by the same rules that you want, and that’s also what I want, even if I don’t want the same rules myself.

        I don’t want to violate what your rights within your community, unless your community deems it your right to impose its rules on my community.

  • Sean II

    Based on a very un-random sample I’ve collected over the years, it seems many of the non-aggression only people turn out to be LUGs – Libertarians Until Graduation. So far, I haven’t known any who grew up to be Walter Blocks.

    The NAP Only makes a really slick talking point when you’re young, because it’s great fun to stand there with a bong in your hand saying “You heard me right. If everyone wants to move onto a collective farm after the revolution, I say fine…let them do it, as long as they do it voluntarily.”

    “Oooooh”, say the girls. “Who is this libertarian mystery man? He doesn’t follow the rules like everyone else. He’s dangerous.” (The girls don’t actually say that, except in the daydreams of post-adolescent libertarian poseurs.)

    But it’s all such bullshit. We know people won’t use their freedom to throw themselves onto a kolkhoz. We know a hundred million women won’t look at a massively flexible and innovative labor market and then shout “psych!”, before choosing an eternity of unpaid housework instead. We know gay people won’t start checking themselves into creepy re-programming camps. We know Jews won’t say “I know! Let’s build us a shtetl just outside of Buffalo and party like its 1899.” We even know that young white men, once they can get jobs without kissing ass at Omnicorp…we know they won’t keep walking into barbershops and asking for a Romney Headsuit. We know people will smoke weed like crazy once “prison rape” has been removed from the list of side effects.

    What would that be called: Descriptive Ethics Thickness? Oh Come On And Stop Pretending Thickness? We Don’t Want Freedom Just So You Assholes Can Go And Waste It Thickness?

    That last one might need an acronym.

    • martinbrock

      That’s quite a rant, but I don’t understand the point. Are you advocating WDWFJSYACGAWIT or mocking it?

      “If everyone wants to move onto a collective farm after the revolution, I say fine…let them do it, as long as they do it voluntarily.” This idea never got me laid very much, but yeah, I go along with it. Pass the bong.

      People will not smoke weed like crazy once “prison rape” has been removed from the list of side effects. They’ll either freely join a community limiting their weed smoking, or they’ll live in an unlimited weed community that doesn’t produce very much for its members to consume.

      Either way, that’s O.K. with me, but I expect most people to choose a weed-limited community, because most people prefer productive specialization and trade to unlimited weed.

      When people were much freer, because states lacked the powerful technology of modern states, intentional communities didn’t look like the weed-dominated, hippy communes that you imagine here. They looked like Christian or Buddhist monasteries or Greek city states.

      • j r

        When people were much freer…

        When exactly was this?

        • martinbrock

          I define “much freer” implicitly in the post. People were much freer when states were less powerful because they lacked the coercive technology of modern states. These people were not richer than modern people, only freer from organized coercion. As people become richer, states become more powerful.

          The state of nature was never a war of all against all. See Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid for example. It wasn’t a utopia either, but it was wonderfully free.

          • j r

            Except that just about every society that I can think of in recorded history contained some not-insignificant number of people who were in fact not free from organized coercion at all: women, slaves, serfs, indentured servants, ethnic minorities, lower castes, etc.

            Are you talking about hunter gatherer tribes?

          • martinbrock

            Women are no less free than men in the past. It’s absurd to think of Elizabeth I as less free than one of her common, male subjects, and a male lion in the state of nature is no more or less free than a female, even if he is the dominant male in a pride.

            Slave, serf and indentured servant are all legal categories associated with statecraft. Serfs (and even slaves) were much freer than prison inmates today, and they were nowhere near as subject to the lords of their estates as you might imagine.

            A feudal lord could not possibly have exercised much authority over serfs on a daily basis. He had no telephone, and his officers had no automobiles or guns, much less communication satellites, predator drones and a GPS.

          • j r

            You have a very interesting definition of freedom.

          • martinbrock

            You’d like to discuss another definition?

          • j r

            How about the one that’s in the dictionary?

          • martinbrock

            Which dictionary? What’s you point exactly?

            We’re discussing political freedom here, not one’s freedom to be anything s/he imagines.

            1. the state of being free or at liberty rather than in confinement or under physical restraint: He won his freedom after a retrial.

            There’s What’s the problem?

      • Sean II

        Oddly enough, I did have a point. It was this:

        Thick libertarianism is the only kind of libertarianism that can ever really be put into practice, because any actual libertarian society is bound to favor certain values, and there isn’t any great mystery about what those values are.

        There can, for example, never be a libertarian society that shuns alcohol, or takes teen abstinence seriously, or hates gays, or fails to pursue material comfort, or remains too long in love with any religion.

        Think about it this way: if you sent an army of flawlessly efficient NAP-enforcing Cylons to Riyadh, what would happen? Within one half-generation – just as long as it takes for a new crop of kids to hit puberty – the place would turn into Dearborn. Fifteen years after that, it would look like San Francisco on its way to some place we can’t even imagine.

        Our group that seems to understand this perfectly well is our opponents. People like Ann Coulter and Bill O’Reilly and Dick Morris and Michael Bloomberg know perfectly well what will happen if you give freedom to human beings, and they don’t like it.

        Thin libertarians propose to bullshit them (and everyone else), by lamely pretending liberty is just some formal thing…and “don’t worry, we promise no one will actually use freedom to do anything you don’t like.”

        • martinbrock

          A libertarian state cannot shun alcohol or homosexuality, but a libertertian state must permit people to shun alcohol or homosexuality. All people will never share all of my values. If some people want to shun my homosexuality, they should be free to do so within their community. Other people don’t exist for my benefit any more than I exist for theirs. A libertarian state must tolerate intolerance of me.

          An invading army enforcing the NAP is a contradiction in terms. An army enforcng the NAP must defend Riyadh from invading homosexual drinkers while protecting a right of people in Riyadh to move to San Francisco or vice versa. The army must occupy both Riyadh and San Franciso simultaneously.

          Ann Coulter should move to Riyadh, so she can be happily surrounded by their friends, unless she’s happier surrounded by her enemies (as she seems to be).

          • Sean II

            You haven’t understood me. Let me try again.

            Despite a convincing feint to the contrary for a few thousand years, human beings don’t actually like being miserable. They show this very convincingly when given half a chance.

            Alcohol is fun. So is gay sex if you happen to be gay.

            A society without force is a society where people cannot stop each other from drinking and getting down.

            In such a society, despite whatever bullshit norms happen to be in place when the NAP clock starts, people are eventually going to drink and get down…and do all the other things that keep them from being miserable. And everyone else is eventually going to get used to it.

            If you take away the hope of gaining coercive power to stop others from drinking and having gay sex, even the people who despise those activities will end up withdrawing their opposition in time.

            The desire to ban drugs, alcohol, gay sex, profit, whatever…those things don’t exist independently of statism and the state, they are IDEAS MADE POSSIBLE ONLY BY THE EXISTENCE OF THE STATE (or some similar coercive apparatus).

            If you once took the machinery of force away, people would learn not even to think like that. The whole habit of dreaming up ways to ban things and control other people’s behavior would wither away.

          • martinbrock

            I don’t imagine a society without rules. I imagine a society in which people choose the rules governing them.

            When my utopian clock starts, people drinking and getting down in a community ruling out this behavior must find another community. The community ruling out this behavior may forcibly interfere with the drinking and getting down only long enough to respect a habeas corpus right of a miscreant.

            When brought before a court in this minarchy, a miscreant may choose to remain in the community subject to its rules, perhaps in jail for a time, or he may move to a different community permitting more drinking and getting down. If he leaves the teetotaling community, he takes with him only what the community’s rules permit him to take.

            If the drunken community is poorer than the teetotaling community, being poorer in the drunken community is the choice he must make. If even the most drunken community will not accept him, he either changes his personal drunkenness standards, or he dies.

            I doubt that people will cease wishing to live apart from drinking and gay sex in time. Some people will, and some people won’t. The state is an instrument of banning these things, but the desire to ban these things is not a product of the state.

            You seem to imagine some New Libertarian Man evolving in your Libertopia, a universally tolerant man unlike most, if not all, of the people surrounding me now. I have no similar illusions, so my “thin libertarianism” seems more realistic to me.

          • Sean II

            Your libertarianism isn’t thin…it’s collectivist. If I read you correctly, you’re not giving any liberty to any individuals at all, only the right to shop around between a bunch of different and differently coercive “communities”.

          • martinbrock

            All libertarianism is collectivist in this sense. A group of people agreeing to respect Rothbardian property rights is a collective as much as any other, and my utopia gives everyone a right to join this collective.

          • Sean II

            But to say that is simply to misunderstand the claim that rights-based libertarians are making. If a person has rights, they don’t depend on anyone else’s agreement, they just exist, and there is a technical problem to solve in figuring out how to protect them.

            Perhaps you think that’s silly, but at least grant them their terms.

            Also, no groups every agree on anything. If you want a world where 51 percent of people in a given boundary can force their will on the other 49, who then have the option to “love it or leave it”, well…you should probably just say that. Don’t cloud the waters by pretending that a “group of people agreeing” is something than can actually happen.

          • martinbrock

            The idea that rights don’t depend on anyone else’s agreement is nonsense.

            First, again, if my gun is bigger than yours, your nominal “right” to limit my behavior without my agreement is little use to you. It’s a “right” only in your imagination.

            Second, granting that you have a right limiting my behavior without my agreement only grants you a right to dictate my behavior.

            Yes, I think the idea silly. I’ll grant proponents their imaginary “rights”, for the sake of discussion, but granting them a right to imagine limiting my behavior without my agreement is not equivalent to granting them a right to limit my behavior without my agreement. Will you grant me this distinction?

            A free community need not agree on everything. It must only agree on the terms of membership in the community.

            I absolutely do not want a world where 51 percent of people in a given boundary can force their will on the other 49, but I do advocate the love it or leave it rule. If I dominate only a little land, asking you to leave me in peace on my land hardly seems a tyrannical imposition on you.

            Groups of people agree on things all the time. We have many churches in the U.S., and schisms often occur, but every church has more than one member.

  • Fallon

    If NAP logic means that a property owner automatically has the right to kill anybody that comes through the boundary unpermissioned, then the NAP is too much fail. All apologies to the great Prof. Block.
    On the other hand, a relativistic interpretation that does away with the “absoluteness” of NAP invites Lifeboat ethics writ large. The door is open to the twentieth century once again. The old Rawlsians, High Liberals, Neocons, and statists of all stripes, will have unanswerable leveridge.
    Does “thick” libertarianism resolve this dilemma? In what way does the younger Mill, who advocated a limited welfare state, block the way to the total state? It is not merely a question of preference for what the state ought to do, is it? Once the concept of state is legitimized– so is its nature.
    There is also the necessity of concrete property associated with the individual in serving real exchange in the market. Without it, and to that degree, prices lose real meaning. The prospects for a rational and forward moving division of labor become diminished… In other words, Thick libertarianism should be able to solve both dilemmas simultaneously. Is it up to the task?
    Maybe NAP v. Thick is like resolving quantum and relative physics. Unified theory?

  • Jeff Riggenbach

    “At the very least, a commitment to non-aggression by itself isn’t enough to solve very many of the political problems about which there is real philosophical dispute.

    Most political problems have no solutions.


    • martinbrock

      I really miss the Libertarian Tradition podcast.

  • j_m_h

    Matt, doesn’t every statement of some general principle run into that indeterminate issue? One of the strengths of non-aggression as a defining principle is the clear juxtaposition created against one of the common definitions of the State or Government: “monopoly on the use of force”

    It’s also probably something that emerged based on a given cultural, social and political environment — so as these settings have changed the appeal will diminish, and probably return in another 15 or 20 years.

    For me it does capture a very important political and social point of view. Moreover, it’s not even a radical point of view for government; just consider how States and the international community of States view first strikes in a War conflict — typically the first to violence is viewed as violating that same non-aggression principle. At the same time it’s odd that even the “free society” States all seem to grant their policing forces too much latitude in striking first at citizens within the society while often making it difficult for the citizen to strike back in defense.

    While I agree that the principle itself doesn’t get one to the end of the journey I think the above juxtapositions are well worth keeping out front.

    Putting it a bit differently, I’m sure you’ll have some very good points to make but don’t toss any of the babies out with the bath water.

  • Besides non-aggression, there needs to be a recognition that theft is also wrong- and that includes any damage to someone else’s property (it takes away from the value of that property- steals a portion of it).

    “There simply isn’t enough to it to help us decide between competing resolutions to disputed problems.”

    No one needs to make a decision for everyone else. Did someone steal? Then they were the bad guy. Did someone initiate force? Then they are at fault. It’s only difficult if you want to excuse theft and aggression for some purpose you value.

    • purple_platypus

      That’s part of the generally accepted definition of “aggression” in this context.

  • guillermo perez – calderas

    iremos sin falta.. aunque es una utopia creer que con el principio de no agresión pasaremos por la vida sin ser atacados . siempre hay gente intolerable que no sabe ni desea convivir ya sea por los prejuicios que por la cultura en que fueron educados un beso calderas de gas

  • Sol Logic

    Is there audio of this lecture somewhere? Link, anyone?

  • Zahir Escamilla

    Que tal estuvo el evento? unos compañeros empresarios de calderas de gas me comentaron sobre el asunto. Cuando se efectúe un evento parecido y sentido en España espero poder asistir. Un saludo