More on Non-Aggression

My essay on the non-aggression principle has generated a fair bit of discussion on the interwebs. Some of that discussion suggests to me that the title of the piece threw folks off a bit, or that my central thesis wasn’t as clear as I might have hoped.

So, let me say right off the bat that I don’t advocate “rejecting” norms against aggression per se. What I object to is the NAP as the sole and absolute criterion of libertarian justice. As I tried to make clear in the original essay, I think that a very strong presumption against coercion makes perfect sense. But to hold that that presumption is indefeasible, and the sole relevant criterion of justice, as Rothbard seemed to hold, strikes me as deeply implausible. And it was that absolutism and monism to which I was objecting in my essay.

So, I actually agree with most of what Jason Kuznicki has to say in his piece at, though I might disagree with just how overly-simplified a moral model ought to be to usefully serve its function. The point of my Copernican metaphor wasn’t to write non-aggression out of the moral universe. It was to argue that the moral universe doesn’t revolve around non-aggression.

On the other hand, I found David Gordon’s comments over at Circle Bastiat a little disappointing. David is one of my favorite libertarian philosophers, and I usually find his critiques to be incisive and thoughtful. But his arguments here just seem mostly to miss the mark.

To begin, he disagrees that Rothbard’s NAP implies that it would be wrong to trespass on someone’s property to feed a three-year old child whom someone was starving to death.

That is nonsense. To starve someone who cannot leave is to murder him. You don’t have to touch somebody to kill him: there isn’t a special libertarian concept of murder, different from the ordinary one. Neither is it the case that you are free to violate people’s rights, so long as you do so on your property. Rothbardian libertarianism is not the doctrine that each person is an absolute despot over his own property.

But when I wrote about children in my original essay, I wasn’t really drawing any implications from NAP that Rothbard didn’t draw himself. Rothbard’s own words on the subject were that “the parent should have the legal right not to feed the child, i.e., to allow it to die. The law, therefore, may not properly compel the parent to feed the child or to keep it alive.”

Now, why can’t the law compel the parent to feed the child? Presumably because doing so would be a violation of the parent’s rights. And I assume that if it is a wrong for the law to violate the parent’s rights, it is also wrong for private individuals to do so. Hence it would be wrong for people to trespass on the parent’s property to feed the child.
The parent, of course, can’t prevent the child from leaving. That would be to violate the child’s negative rights. But suppose it is a 8 month old who can’t leave the house of his own accord? In this case, I do not see how Gordon can say that the parent is violating the child’s rights, consistent with the Rothbardian view of property rights and the NAP. There’s a difference between killing and allowing to die, and if the parent is doing only the latter, then Rothbard seems to be committed to saying (and does say!) that the child’s rights are not violated.

With respect to risk and pollution, Gordon appeals to the role of convention in determining harm:

[Rothbard] recognized that setting the limits of harm is matter of convention, settled by the understanding that prevails in a society. Zwolinski here falls into a mistake that many libertarians make. They deny a role to convention in delimiting the boundaries for the application of a concept: unless “nature” settles the matter, use of a concept is an all-or-nothing affair.

Now, I think that to a certain extent, reliance on convention to determine the boundaries and contours of rights makes good sense. But where’s the limit here? If, as Gordon says, “setting the limits of harm is matter of convention, settled by the understanding that prevails in a society,” then would slavery not count as a harm in a society that did not regard it as such? Presumably Gordon would not want to draw this conclusion. But then why should your emitting noxious fumes onto my property and into my lungs not be a violation of rights, just because society has adopted the convention that it isn’t really harmful?

Finally, Gordon says that a prohibition on fraud is perfectly consistent with libertarianism’s fundamental emphasis on property rights:

[Zwolinski] s also correct that “aggression” in the principle must be understood to cover violations of property rights, as well as direct physical assault. Certainly Rothbard understood the NAP this way. But why, immediately before pointing this out, does he claim that a prohibition of fraud isn’t compatible with the NAP, because fraud is not physical violence? Is it too much to expect Zwolinski to realize that his point about the meaning of aggression invalidates his own objection regarding fraud?

This is a fair point. But in my view, Rothbard is inconsistent on violence/property rights. Sometimes he defines aggression as violence, period. And if that’s what aggression means, then fraud isn’t aggression and isn’t prohibited by NAP. Sometimes, however, he defines aggression as a violation of property rights. That’s probably a better way to go. But notice how, understood this way, libertarianism loses some of its intuitive appeal. Now the cornerstone of libertarianism is no longer an opposition to aggression – it’s the enforcement of property rights! Now maybe that’s a philosophically defensible view. I think there’s a lot to be said for it. But I worry about the misleadingness of saying that we’re opposed to one thing, when in fact what we’re really opposed to is something else altogether.

Published on:
Author: Matt Zwolinski
  • Matt,

    First, not everything has to be based on what Rothbard said. I completely disagree with Rothbard on the subject of children as well as abortion, even though I consider myself very much in the Rothbard camp. Just because Rothbard popularized the focus on the NAP doesn’t mean he gets a monopoly on all of terms surrounding it. (heh!)

    Second, there is certainly more to libertarianism than the NAP… for example, the NAP does not tell us how to handle violations of the NAP. It doesn’t even define aggression or property. A big part of libertarianism is justifying certain types of property. This is where the further leftist libertarians part ways from people like Rothbard and traditional “propertarians” (e.g. Kevin Carson).

    Finally, a major thing I disagree with you about is that I really do feel like the NAP is the foundational or central principle of libertarianism. Nobody said that the NAP is the *only* moral principle. You can care about the poor, be a super religious person, be a feminist, or promote family values aside from your being a libertarian. I see the other side of the moral universe as separate from libertarianism. Libertarianism, for me, is about political ideology, minimizing state coercion, and securing freedom and property rights from coercion. Other sets of values are complimentary and need not be integrated into libertarianism, but held up beside it.

    • matt b

      I guess it depends on how one defines libertarian but by your definition Friedman wasn’t a libertarian and neither was Hayek or Buchanan or Von Mises. Few on this blog would qualify either. I think this tells us that defining libertarianism as a general embrace of the NAP is too restrictive. And my god is it a problematic principle leading to all sorts of troubling moral conclusions. For example, if 10 percent of people are starving through no fault of their own and a 2 percent surtax on billionaires could fix the problem the NAP forbids us from instituting the tax. Try convincing a single person who does not already adhere to the NAP that this is a sensible moral conclusion.

      • j_m_h

        I think most consider Hayek, Buchanan and von Mises classical liberals and not libertarians anyway – I suspect that’s how they viewed themselves as well.

        • matt b

          Fair enough I guess though I would say that such a definition leaves us with very few libertarians since the number of people who advocate less government than Friedman can be counted on one hand. I also think a lot of people who really are best classified as classical liberals to identify with libertarians so people hear classical liberal and they’re like “Whattt” I mean political scientists and philosophers know what you mean but even somewhat educated pundits probably don’t.

          • jdkolassa

            Uh, not so sure if it’s one hand, I already got 5 people (Mises, Rothbard, Rockwell, David Friedman, Narveson) and I’m already thinking of Carson, Kinsella, Knapp, Vallier, Brennan, and others.

            Not saying I endorse these guys–I’m more of a minarchist libertarian or classical liberal myself–just saying they exist.

          • matt b

            True, true. I should say have said people who believe in Rothbardian style ideas about aggression and such. Those folks you can count on one hand. I mean not literally of course but they are a very small group.

          • jdkolassa

            Fair enough.

            And may I just say, having got into a heated argument with the Disqus section over at The Atlantic, how wonderful it is to come here and have an amicable discussion that doesn’t make my blood boil.

          • Sean II

            I used to comment there myself, with similar results. Got called a troll pretty much every third visit, which seemed unfair, until one day it hit me: I was acting as a troll, in the sense that I knew damn well what kind of discussion they all wanted to have and I went right ahead trying to lead them into something different.

            The worst silo is, of course, the sweetly creepy personality cult of Ta-Nehisi Coates. There I once got nine down-votes for pointing out that public support for hydraulic fracking could not be wholly explained as a manifestation of white supremacy.

            I’ve since sworn off commenting on any forum except this one.

            Let me say that more precisely: Sean II has sworn off commenting on any forum except this one. I did recently create a progressive alter ego “research troll” character under a different name, for the purpose of learning more about how middlebrow statist lefties think. Naturally, The Atlantic is high on the list of his favorite spots.

          • matt b

            Oh Sean Sean Sean, you at the Atlantic. That can’t be good. That’s like Tom Friedman having a dinner party and inviting all of his friends to swap bromides you show up and they’re like “Can’t enjoy my meal with this guy around.” Did you get a lot of insults?

            I am so happy you decided to go on with that project. How are things going? What does it consist of? Do you pretend to be “one of them.” Report back good man about your trip to the land of statism!

          • Sean II

            As you might expect, the comment leftos occasionally turn out to be two or even three dimensional characters. I can’t say as much for The Atlantic’s above-the-line talent.

            Here’s the best way I can describe the latter as a group…

            You remember in high school there was a social clique which had no name but which might be called “little establishmentarians”? Not the stars of the school play, but the director’s assistant, the script supervisor, etc. Not the head busybody of the yearbook staff, but the managing and copy editors. Not the kid who got kicked off the school paper for writing something actually subversive, but the kid who replaced him and went on to write an utterly non-threatening column under cover of fake edginess?

            Well, that’s who grows up to be Ta-Nehisi Coates and Garance Franke-Ruta and Conor Friedersdorf. (I suppose, in this scenario, James Fallows would be like the “cool” faculty mentor who helps them all pretend that “being engaged” consists of things like knowing the names of minor cabinet secretaries and European opposition leaders.)

            God, how I hated those punks.

          • matt b

            I was laughing and nodding my head in agreement until you mentioned Conor Friedersdorf. That dude cannot be grouped in with the rest of the people you mention. His writing is a model of intellectual honesty and reasoned and respectful engagement. He was after Bush everyday for civil liberties abuses and didn’t stop one bit when President Bush with a better speech came into the WH and continued to undermine the Constitution. He has been the leading MSM critic of drone strikes and the like and has repeatedly defended not only libertarians (fighting back against the idea of us as a bunch of people who dream of implementing Swift’s modest proposal) but defending libertarian ideas such as public sector union reform,ending the drug war, and significant spending cuts. He’s no hack by any means.

          • Sean II

            Hey, being a little establishmentarian doesn’t automatically make somebody a hack, and it certainly doesn’t make him wrong on every issue.

            The thing about Friedersdorf is he’s just so damn careful – careful not to offend, careful not to frighten, careful to aim half his arrows at friends and allies, and careful to give off a tone of apology for the sin of not being on the other side.

            He writes the same way I act when caught in a social situation with a bunch of chatty leftos. I chime in whenever there’s a chance for superficial agreement (anti-drug war, anti-Iraq war, anti-intelligent design), and I avoid the shit out of every other topic. But, then, in those situations I’m not at work and usually just trying to make life easier for my wife. What’s his excuse?

            Look, as I see things the central issue uniting all non-leftists is, or should be, this:

            1) The leading obstacle to good policy is economic ignorance.
            2) Economic ignorance is the left’s leading export.
            3) At some point, failure to challenge them on that account just becomes negligence. We can’t continue small talking them about Iraq and reefer forever. At some point we must get round to telling them they’re wrong.

          • matt b

            So a few things. I don’t think Iraq and pot (no matter what your view is on those issues) are “small talking.” Those are huge questions. Intelligent design is pretty important too as are a number of other social isues we agree with the left on like immigration. But yes I agree they are economically ignorant and their ignorance leads to huge problems. But you don’t convince anybody of that by saying “Listen up you painfully ignorant economic illiterate, you don’t know good economic policy from your fucking foot.” You’ve got to be gentle. And I would say Friedersdorf is but he gets his point across and it’s not like he only talks about lefft- friendly issues (his discussion of California would drive the boys and girls of MSNBC mad.) Anyway, when I talk to the left on economics I say “I very much appreciate your concern about having a freer market hurt the poor but let me point out why that concern is not as well founded as typically thought…” That’s how you got to do it.

          • Sean II

            I think you’re badly mistaken there Matt, and I’d ask you to count up the number of converts you’ve seduced with the gentle approach. Unless I miss my guess, that number should be zero or zero-point-some-fraction-short-of-a-whole-convert.

            This is something I learned equally from my personal life and from facing management problems at work: what sucks is being wrong, not how you find out that you are.

            Now, people will falsify their preferences on this point. Tell them fast, they’ll say you should have told them slow. Tell them slow, they’ll say you should have spit it out. Tell them you’re angry, they’ll say you should have used “disappointed”. Tell them you’re disappointed, they’ll say that hurts more than anger. It’s all bullshit. “You’re wrong” is all at once the best way, the worst way, and the only way to say it.

            Take the atheist movement, specifically Hitchens and Dawkins and Sam Harris. Their stated goal was to get in everyone’s face, tell the theists “YOU ARE WRONG” in no uncertain terms, and try to create a world where professing belief in god brings the same social consequences as professing a belief that Elvis lives. They did a damn good job. It’s a lot easier to be an atheist than it was before, and the other guys are now on permanent defense.

            When it comes to economics – even basic economics – the left is wrong as wrong gets. If we tell them, they may ignore us. If we don’t tell them, they will definitely ignore us. And any way we tell them, it will hurt…for the truth reliably hurts those who have long conspired to deny it.

          • matt b

            I would gladly contrast the number of people converted by the gentle approach with the number of people converted by the “you’re wrong dumbass” approach. And I really don’t think the five horseman of atheism- much as I like those dudes- really persuaded too many people who weren’t already largely in sympathy with their evil Godlessness. I think what they did do is provide confidence to atheists so that they don’t feel so wary of speaking out anymore. I’m not saying don’t be clear and firm, but you can do that in a way that does not make people feel like morons. And I don’t think everybody on the left fails to understand basic economics.

          • Sean II

            “I would gladly contrast the number of people converted by the gentle approach with the number of people converted by the “you’re wrong dumbass” approach.”

            Really? I submit you’re ignoring the obvious on a grand scale.

            Atlas Shrugged is about as a gentle as a steel-toed kick in the taint. It’s a 1,000 pages of “You’re wrong, dumbasses”. That book has brought more people into the movement than any other, perhaps more than all others combined.

            Let me try an analogy, as I always do. Let’s say I’m your friend and I’m addicted to a toxic drug called Statocin. I started taking it to get some symptom relief for (what I wrongly believed to be) the side effects of Capitohol, and then I just got into a vicious cycle with the stuff. It keeps making me worse, and I keep reaching for more of it. More damage is being done, every day.

            You’re my friend, and you want to help me stop. Lot’s of people have tried, but you think you know the right way. You’ll take me out for a nice meal, emphasize all the things we have in common, talk about shared goals. You’ll say things like “beg to differ” and “respectfully disagree”. You’ll use a lot of equivocal words and phrases: sort of, sometimes, may be, potentially flawed, etc. When there is a choice between embarrassing me with the blunt truth or letting me save face with white lies or omissions, you’ll go easy.

            You know what message I’ll get from all that? I’ll get the message that you don’t really believe what you’re saying, you don’t care enough to say it loud and proud, and most of all, you’re gonna fold up like a lawn chair when I go over to the attack and accuse you of being crazy, stupid, or evil, in order to defend my habit.

            The only thing the nice guy approach does better is make us feel good about ourselves. And that’s fine, if you prefer it for that reason. But don’t let’s pretend it works when there is absolutely no reason to think so.

          • matt b

            Rule number one: Don’t compare being on the left with addiction to a toxic drug. People on the left have a very reasonable set of concerns and priorities (that does not mean every single concern and priority is reasonable; some like caring a great deal about inequality as such are not) and it’s just not very sensible to compare people who have that set of concerns and priorities to those suffering from drug addiction. I think your Rand example is fatally flawed. There are a shitload of people who read that book without getting the politics. Yes, really. They just love the celebration of general badassery and individuality but don’t view statism at at odds with it. The number of people who read AS and move on to becoming libertarians/ and or Objectivists really isin’t all that high. And many of those who do grow out of it. Let me put it this way: I’ve met a ton of people who have read Rand and grew out of it and very few who read Friedman, were once convinced, and then grew out of it. One final point- the people who do get into Rand start off as sympathetic/ and or neutral and they tend to be young. If you sat down someone on the left, already commited to that set of values, and had them read AS they would be even less receptive to libertarian ideas than before. Friedman, with his measured, respectful, and friendly tone, is far more effective.

          • Sean II

            The number of people who read Atlas Shrugged and become libertarians is not high. But the number of people who become libertarians without reading Atlas Shrugged is very low indeed. That is what matters, with respect to my point. The book doesn’t have to be an efficient course of conversion, it just has to be a much more efficient source of conversion than Anarchy, State, & Utopia and other sources. Very obviously, it is.

            But that’s small change compared to this:

            “People on the left have a very reasonable set of concerns and priorities…”

            I’m sorry, Matt, but you’re dead wrong on this, and your whole diplomatic mission of mercy is ill-conceived. The only thing it’s going to win you is an award for friendliest villein on the manor.

            There are people – and there have always been people – who for whatever reason despise the thought of voluntary exchange and spontaneous order. Markets have been blamed for making people poor, making them rich and complacent, making them fat, making them toil, making them lazy, making them warlike, making them pacifist, making them racist, making them cosmopolitan, making them libertine, making them prude, etc.

            Over the years, the market haters have found welcome almost everywhere in politics. Today, they mostly live on the left (not that the market benefits much from the kind of “love” it gets from the rights, but still…) And so the left is my primary target.

            Ever see the film A Soldier’s Story? It’s all about this black army sergeant in World War II who thinks that if his black soldiers can just stand a little straighter in their uniforms, lose the dialect, and stop singing so much, they can force the white establishment to respect them. Of course he soon finds out the game is rigged, and it was never about them and how they behaved. They were hated before birth, and will remain hated despite anything they might ever do.

            Your attitude reminds me of that. These statist clowns have been trying to fight the tide of markets since the days of the hand loom. They’ve devised and discarded who know how many different theories of justification. They’ve ignored and evaded who knows how much evidence against them. And here they are in 2013, still hoping to roll back the realm of individual choice and expand the realm of collective coercion.

            It has nothing to do with our debating style. It has nothing to do with our etiquette. They hate Milton Friedman every bit as much as Ayn Rand, and what they do to Nozick is worse than hate him. I was being NICE when I compared left statism to bad drug habit. Most drug addicts aren’t violent, after all.

            So let me stay true to my own principles and bluntly say: You’re kidding yourself, man. Stop it. Wake up. To take the left at its word and concede the benevolence of its motives may suit you as a fashion statement, but…both as a rhetorical strategy and as a premise for analysis, it fails.

          • matt b


            By your logic shouldn’t this entire blog close down? If outreach to the left in any form other than “Hey dumbass don’t be such a dumbass dumbass” is bound to fail what is the point of developing arguments to engage the left as occurs on this blog, especially in Matt and Jason’s posts? And remember that part of developing bleeding heart libertarianism which takes left wing concerns seriously is to convince undecideds and moderate liberals who don’t have hard left moral commitments that they are really more at home with libertarians.

          • Sean II

            The undecideds in this fight don’t read blogs. If libertarianism ever gains any ground in policy terms, it will do so by shifting (slightly) the position of the median voter. There really is no other way.

            The bloggers here don’t discuss and debate with the gang at Crooked Timber for the sake of outreach. They do it because it’s interesting, because it’s first-rate intellectual exercise. Neither side in those exchanges has any illusion of picking up converts in the other’s camp. In that sense, the whole spectacle is about as authentic as a WWE match.

            But set your sights back on that median voter, and things become a great deal clearer. Rand’s moralistic storytelling reaches far more people than the next most successful outreach, which in America is probably the paleo-con natural rights version. That, in turn, is much more popular than consequentialist libertarianism, which is probably more popular than Rothbardism, which is then followed by a bunch of tiny fractions.

            I happen to think Objectivism isn’t a very good philosophy, but that in no way prevents me from noticing that Rand puts more people in touch with libertarian ideas than just about any other source. She’s a better saleswoman dead (mean and nasty) than than the rest of us are alive (and courtly sweet).

            This blog represents one of the tiny little fractions – actually, it represents several different tiny fractions, since BHL is not a school of thought but just a style of thinking. That style is pretty near useless as outreach, but as far as I’m concerned this is a feature, not a bug.

            If BHL was a good at outreach, there’d be a bunch of hacks here posting inane thoughts in 600 comment threads, and that would attract a shock brigade of resident trolls (see: Volokh Conspiracy for an example of just how much that sucks).

            So to sum up: if median voters are the key to outreach, and if median voters are unphilosophical clods, then good outreach will almost always be bad philosophy (except by accident), and good philosophy will tend to makes for very bad outreach.

            BHL is a place where good philosophy is made.

          • jdkolassa

            And I don’t understand how Rand got so many. When it comes to fiction, she’s such a horrible writer.

          • matt b

            I just don’t think that’s right at all. The most natural libertarian constituency is middle-upper middle class professional types. They form the core of what Boaz and Kirby identified as the 15 percent of the electorate basically sympathetic to libertarianism. They’re not Randians and they’re not paleocons. They’re basically classical liberals and a broadly consequentialist message resonates with them. Maybe Rand has brought the greatest number of people into the organized movement but in terms of bringing people out the polls in terms of a electoral and rhetorical strategy her message is no go.

          • Sean II

            A couple problems I see here.

            First, do you seriously believe that 15% of the population is even implicitly libertarian?

            Here’s what that would mean: about as often as you see a black person, you see a libertarian sympathizer. That seems way high. I don’t even have to look at Boaz and Kirby’s questions to know the only way they got that number was by carefully avoiding any and all specifics. In other words, they got that number by wanting to get it.

            Second, perhaps we use the term differently but when you break out the label of classical liberal to describe 15% of the population it feels like opening a bottle of Macallan to quench the thirst of a floor tile installation crew. Usually, I just offer lemonade. Them dudes don’t seem neither very liberal nor very classical to me.

            An interesting thing happens when you view this in the negative, and ask “Forget what people are for…what is the only large group of people in America still resolutely against the drift toward European style corporate statism?”

            The answer – I regret to inform you – is that it’s mostly people who tune in to Rush Limbaugh. Ever take a listen? What they like to hear is a mix of A) Feminists are having free abortions and gay sex with arab terrorists in black housing projects, B) There is a conspiracy to punish “the achievers” who make our economy work, and C) This country is getting away from its conservative roots, and dad gum it, no sidewindin’, bushwackin’, horswagglin’ cracker croaker is gonna rouin me bishen cutter!

            Hmmm…B) sounds awfully Randian, and C) sounds awfully Paleo to me. (I should note that B) also sounds very Big Lebowski and C) also sounds like authentic frontier gibberish, but that’s another matter.)

          • matt b

            Boaz and Kirby agree with you actually. They basically say these people are libsymps rather than thoroughgoing libertarians or classical liberals. So the people most resolutely against European style corporate statism… hm. Well last time I checked it was the Rush Limbaugh supported Republican Party that spent 8 years expanding medicare through corporate giveaways, bailing out banks and failing auto companies, and lavishing big business and rich farmers with subsidies. Rush Limabugh spent that period freaking out about evil Democrats coddlin’ terrorists and giving Mexcians away the store. I wouldn’t even say his analysis is Randian. It’s actually best characterized as nativist, reactionary, xenophobic, the sort of sad wail of an old man who hates the way the country is changing. In other words: deeply illiberal. And Sean- you have a career in writing dialogue for any future Southern based movies and or t.v shows.

          • Sean II

            Unfortunately for me, that credit goes to Mel Brooks and Richard Pryor.

          • jdkolassa

            Yeah, I wouldn’t term these folks Randian. Not at all. There are a ton of what you might be able to call “civil societarians” out there, but there are also just a ton of people who think government is just too big. I don’t know if they qualify as libertarians. But they think government is way too large and want to trim it down.

            We gotta work with those people and expand it more. And, of course, tell those who want big government that their policies are hurting people. People just like them. (Heck, maybe themselves.)

          • matt b

            You’re being far too easy on the right. Yes they want smaller government in terms of state expenditures but that tells us very little. A state which denied gays their rights, fought the drug war, restricted porn, and did little else outisde cops, courts, and defense could probably be funded with 10-15 percent of GDP. But it wouldn’t be a really free society. So libertarians have to be careful not to look at state spending as a percentage of GDP as an exclusive or even primary guide to how free a society is. Just look at the 50s: we really spent a lot less but for many society was a lot less free. So we need to be avoid giving the impression that we regard economics and state spending in particular as being what freedom is all/mostly about. It is definitely an important part of the equation but there’s a lot more to it.

          • jdkolassa

            You’re absolutely right, and I usually find myself bashing the right more than I bash the left. However, the civil societarians aren’t really the right, it was actually a term created by Arnold Kling over at the EconTalk blog as an different variety of libertarianism vis-a-vis Objectivism. That’s what I was referring to.

          • jdkolassa

            Hate to barge in here, but I am slowly coming to Sean’s view over from Matt’s.

            The simple thing is that the left is totally, utterly wrong on economics. What’s more, though, is that they utterly REFUSE to even ENTERTAIN the idea they made be wrong. Say what you will about the right, and I admit that many of them are stubborn and pigheaded, but at the very least most of them try to have an open mind (well, they used to; now it seems more and more then only give lip service, but I digress.)

            The left however, does not keep an open mind whatsoever. They don’t want to pursue reason. I blame this on a combination of Saul Alinsky and that most of them are just extremely stupid–though, in some respects, well-meaning–white college students. They don’t know what the hell they’re talking about and they won’t for some time. They won’t even bother to do their research and demand you do it! (Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:

            I’m beginning to think the only way to break through this at all is to say “YOU ARE HURTING PEOPLE WITH YOUR IGNORANCE.” Make them feel guilty. Get them in that state, where they recriminate over what harm they have caused–then bash them over the head with “In Defense of Global Capitalism” by Johan Norberg. Go on for a bit about the evils of crony capitalism and how you agree that lobbying is a cardinal sin. Tell them that you concur with the cause of the feminists–or hell, say you are if you are–but that feminism can only really happen in a place where individual women can be individuals, and not cogs in a machine. Show how racist and sexist they are for being collectivists who only view people as groups.

            I’m not sure this applies to Conor. What he is doing is good. And he is, in some way, getting across to people on libertarianism. But for us, just average blokes, we don’t have the social cred to do that. So I think we should just go in, full throttle, stop being a pansy, and just tell them they are hurting people. It’s the only way to get them to rethink their position.

          • matt b

            Barge in anytime 🙂 Let me be very clear by what I mean: I think we should talk to the left like Zwolinski and Brennan and the rest of the people on this blog do. They are firm, don’t hide their views, but they don’t assume the other side is evil and can’t be persuaded. Do you see value in their approach? If so, then you might see some in mine which is pretty similiar.

          • Sean II

            JD – two quick thoughts.

            1) I very much like “YOU ARE HURTING PEOPLE” as an elevator speech for leftists. If one has just thirty seconds, that’s a great place to start.

            2) You hit on something I think crucial. We should always try to remember who the enemy is, what type of troops he has, how they are deployed, etc. In terms of the left, I think the disposition of forces looks something like this:

            A) 1% – Professional intellectuals, people like Brian Leiter
            B) 2% – Professional pseudo-intellectuals, people like Rachel Maddow who mostly parrot simplified versions of the thoughts of people like Brian Leiter
            C) 2% – Vested elites: elected officials, unions bosses, lobbyists, university presidents, foundation heads, etc.
            D) 25% – Vested interests: government workers, union members, professors, net tax eaters who are self-conscious of the fact, etc.
            E) 30% – Poseurs. People who mostly just needed something to say, something to pretend to be. People like that girl you met in college who talked about being “pretty much a Maoist”, right up to the moment when she married a biotech startup millionaire.
            F) 40% – Suckers, dupes, pigeons, rubes, marks, chumps, patsies, mugs, and fools. People who really don’t know any better.

            Now, as I see it, the plan of attack should be to forget about echelons A, B, C, and D. Any effort there would be wasted. The place to concentrate on is echelons E and F.

          • jdkolassa

            I agree about forgetting B, C & D, aside from possibly union members & government employees; you could, potentially, make an argument to them that the union is hurting them too, and isn’t in their best interests. Not saying it would necessarily work, but I think there’s a shot.

            I’m not sure, though,about letting off A so easily. Granted, you and me shouldn’t aim for there. But I think Brennan, Zwolinski, Horwitz, et, al, can and should try. There is value in going after the intellectuals and trying to convince them. If you bring them onboard, it does have an effect on others, and can shape the conversation more to our way. But that’s a very targeted, difficult path to take, and so should only be done by experts.

            The grunts like us can focus on the other side’s grunts.

          • Sean II

            Well, it’s part of Zwolinski’s and Brennan’s job to argue with, and aim publications in the general direction of, their statist counterparts in academia. Given the relative strength in numbers, it’s probably also wise for them to do so with excruciating politeness.

            But if you found out one of them was entertaining serious hopes of bringing G.A. Cohen* over to the rebel alliance, you’d immediately call for a CT scan to pinpoint the site of the tumor.

            Buried somewhere in all this is a pair of interesting questions about 1) How much academic scribbling really matters, and 2) How much fix or six decades of massive subsidies for academic scribblers has made all the scribbling matter more or less (I grant without pause that we’ve succeed in increasing the amount).

            * The fact that Cohen is dead only slightly reduces the probability of his conversion. It was already damn near zero

          • good_in_theory

            Always funny to see a post that begins with “the left” and ends with ‘collectivists who only view people as groups.’

            Especially funny to see someone chiding someone else over poor argumentation (and whining about the burden of proof in a Twitter spat? really?) while arguing poorly.

            If the chain of an argument, as it is in the twitter thread, is…

            Lazy Libertarian: Claim 1 – v.1 Not all or no welfare has work requirements (or v.2, to quote, “Government [gives out money to people without making them work for it].” (so v.3 Not all government transfers or benefits require work)

            Loony Liberal: ~(Claim 1) – v.1 All welfare has work requirements. ( or v.2, to quote, “there are work requirements on all gov benefits”) (or, to go with v.3 all gov transfers require work)

            …then, surprise surprise, the burden of proof is on the libertarian. But let’s just ignore your burden shifting (“would you mind linking to those requirements?”). PS: they were probably thinking of this

            Better, of course, to take the entire incident as exemplary of most liberals and then, presumably through selection bias, infer that this meaningless anecdotal experience suggests something special about the left.

            Of course, what really happened is you just argued for disenfranchising yourself (and hell, why not argumentum ad dictum simpliciter, all other libertarians.)

            In any case thanks for the laugh. It’s not every day you get to see someone write a polemic in which they perform the very thing they are inveighing against. It’s probably rather common, though, in the ‘complains about collectivism; talks about people as crass collectivities’ crowd.

          • jdkolassa

            I see somebody opened the floodgates of stupid today. Let’s go down the list of “How You’re Wrong:”

            1) The post I linked to was not about the left, it was about people who did not do their research. If you cannot figure that out, then A) I apologize for not making it clearer and B) you should really do a better job reading anyways.

            2) Yes, I whine about burden of proof in a Twitter spat. If you’re going to have a debate/discussion about public policy, then you need to bring the evidence forward for your claims. You can defer that until later and that’s fine, I agree that not all the time when we’re on Twitter we’re at our desks when we can do research, but if you’re going to make a case, MAKE IT. Anytime, anywhere.

            3) Your summary of the “chain” is completely wrong. Full stop. “Loony Liberal” made a claim that all welfare has work requirements. I tweeted skepticism about that remark and asked for evidence of this claim. She refused and demanded that I do the research for her.

            At what point was the burden of proof shifted to me? Oh, that’s right, it wasn’t. Your entire argument has just been pulled out of your ass. Thanks for that utterly useless diversion.

            4) As for SNAP, congrats! You can do research! That’s all I ask. But I also pointed out that that bill only affected a small proportion of the total number of welfare programs (which I believe is over 100) in the country, so if she (and, as well, you) wanted to say that all welfare programs had work requirements, she would have to do more work. But that never happened.

            5) I did NOT take this as something special about the left. The right does it as well. Many do it. However, I notice it more on the left than I do on the right, oddly enough. What does that mean? I don’t know. What it means is that getting through their thick skulls is even more frustratingly difficult.

            6) I did not argue for disenfranchising myself and all libertarians, because I was arguing about people not doing their research to fulfill the burden of proof–WHICH WAS NOT ON ME.

            7) Where are you getting your quotes from? I do not recall those quotes, which makes me think you’re just fabricating them from the ether. If you’re not, then kindly provide your evidence for these quotes. Link to them directly. If not, then I can only conclude you’re a fabricating liar.

            It’s quite hilarious to see someone come in here, attempt to school me, but fail miserably because they could find a couple of brain cells under the cushions to rub together for one solitary synapse. If you’re going to make an argument, make it a damn good one, not one that is pulled straight out of your ass. Reading what your opponent said is also a good skill to develop, but you might need four or maybe even six brain cells for that.

            I’ve had a really shitty day, and I have no desire or compunction to get into a blowup with some random Internet commentator. Unless it’s you, Becca, having come back to annoy me. Lost the first round and them latch onto this, throw up a sockpuppet name and try to attack me in the BHL comments? Go simper somewhere else. You lost, period. You have nothing to go on except the stuff that you invent inside that head of yours. And if you aren’t Becca, then don’t bother responding unless you actually invest the time and energy to understand what is going on, because I will waste my time with fools.

          • good_in_theory

            Funny. Try reading what you yourself write before going on the attack. You’re wrong. It doesn’t matter how much you type:

            On you talking about the left (1):

            “The simple thing is that the left is totally, utterly wrong on economics.”

            “[The left] utterly REFUSE[s] to even ENTERTAIN the idea they made [sic] be wrong”

            “The left however, does not keep an open mind whatsoever. ”

            “They don’t want to pursue reason.”

            “They won’t even bother to do their research and demand you do it!”

            Do you have trouble with pronouns or something?

            On (2) – whatever you need to tell yourself, it’s twitter. And presumptions of burden of proof outside of a formal debate are messy and complex. My null hypothesis would be, for example, that some welfare requires work and some doesn’t. But that has nothing to do with whether the first assertion in a chain of argument is either ‘all welfare requires work’ or ‘no welfare requires work.’ And if someone were to assert “some welfare requires work”, I wouldn’t assume “no welfare requires work” because they hadn’t presented any evidence.

            As to shifting the burden of proof (3), here


            “Beccablast” responds to your assertion that government gives people money when they don’t work for it.

            All it took was searching “jdkolassa beccablast”. It’s the first hit. I don’t know your twitter handle from adam, so don’t assume I’m someone I’m not. My account of the argument is entirely accurate. You’ve just omitted the beginning of the argument to construct a fatnasy about yourself and your interlocutor.

            Here, I’ll write it out as a textbook example:

            A. “Government gives out money without work requirements.”
            B. “I don’t think that’s true”
            C. “Prove I’m wrong.”

            On (4) – I don’t need any help not making the mistake of taking evidence that some welfare has work requirements as proof that all welfare has work requirements. Failure to provide a counter-indicating example of welfare without work requirements would do fine in an argument, though, but it’s easy enough to successfully give a counterexample – off the top of my head, SNAP. See how easy that was? I proved the position you took on twitter.

            On (5) “I did NOT take this as something special about the left.” Really? Let’s parse your following language: ‘The left do it more …. What does it mean? …. getting through their thick skulls is even more frustratingly difficult.’

            What’s that? You’re inferring from your anecdotal experience that it is more difficult to persuade the left? Hello, invalid inference. Hello, selection bias. Hello, unwarranted conclusions. Stick to “I don’t know what it means,” and stop trafficking in generalizations about groups. It would help you in being consistent with the whole “i hate people who generalize about groups” thing.

            On (6) “Argumentum ad dictum simpliciter” was supposed to be the giveaway that I was joking.

            On (7) See above. There’s a link.

            On 8 – Sorry, school’s still in session, and as of now you’re still failing. On your next submitted response, try not to make basic errors of fact concerning your own written statements.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            No, no, no…I see The Manchurian Candidate all over this. Sean II goes there, get confused, then brainwashed, then “he” (still using “Sean II”) returns and subtely tries to turn us into unthinking statists eager to do the will of the state. Then…the horror, the horror…

          • les kyle Nearhood

            damn I would love to see some of those word wars.

          • matt b

            Oh dear lord, what about? Those people, who pride themselves on their edified appreciation of diversity, go nuts when they find out diversity of thought exists. You must be a horrible monster who wants to steal bread from the mouth of the poor if you disagree with anything Obama does. I used to have an account at Huff Po and I could prefix my criticism with things like “I’ve never voted Republican in my life” and I’d still get comments like “Go back to watching FOX, bagger.”

          • jdkolassa

            Here is the conversation in question. It is, quite literally, about how one of the commentators there is a thickhead.


          • j_m_h

            I think you’ll be able to find plenty of names to put the libertarian label on so I wouldn’t worry too much about that.

            While I know it’s the standard view the all libertarians support small government, small is a relative term here and I’m not sure what that will mean in practice.

          • matt b

            That’s a good point. The operative principle for me is having a government big enough to prevent individuals from harming people without their permission. So if two people want to beat up each other up and harm each other then that’s their choice but if it truly was the case that a world without the FDA and licensing laws and so on and so forth would result in disease, and death, and suffering I would say “Okay I guess those things were needed after all.” And I think that puts me at odds with people like Rothbard. I would also say that what puts me at odds with Rothbardism is some preference for thickness. For example, when Walter Block says that if the Nazis could have got Jews to enter gas chambers voluntarily then this would not violate libertarian principles I don’t go “Ah yes I guess” but rather “You’re out of your fucking mind you crazy fool.”


    Hi Matt:

    You say: “If, as Gordon says, “setting the limits of harm is matter of convention, settled by the understanding that prevails in a society,” then would slavery not count as a harm in a society that did not regard it as such? Presumably Gordon would not want to draw this conclusion. But then why should your emitting noxious fumes onto my property and into my lungs not be a violation of rights, just because society has adopted the convention that it isn’t really harmful?

    I cant’ speak for him, but I suspect that Gordon is only suggesting the use of convention when no right clearly exists under moral principles of self-ownership [I personally would say under Nozikian principles requiring respect for rational agency, but I don’t think this distinction matters here]. Slavery clearly violates the self-ownership rights of the slave, regardless of any conventions to the contrary. On the other hand, there are situations where the existence of a right is up in the air (so to speak).

    Obviously, if a leaf from my tree falls on your yard, I have not “polluted” under any plausible moral principle. On the other hand, if I build a plant that emits deadly fumes, I have. Where to draw the line here, may plausibly be a matter of “convention” [I prefer “community standards”]. Once we employ community standards to determine who has the right to act or enjoin action in any particular case, libertarians are still free to hold that this right has great stringency. As you know, this is a point I push pretty hard in my book.

    • Sean II

      “Obviously, if a leaf from my tree falls on your yard, I have not “polluted” under any defensible moral principle.”

      As a sufferer of seasonal allergic rhinitis, I beg to differ.


        Does this comment prove that libertarians really can’t agree on anything?

        • Sean II

          It was meant to establish that very thing.

          Well…that, and also to express my delight in seeing that moral philosophy is still crazy after all these years.

          We’re working on 25 centuries since Aristotle warned us not to expect more precision than the subject matter admits, and yet here we are again …talking about intentionally starved three-year-olds and homeopathic doses of air pollution.

          I don’t know if you noticed this, but about those three-year-olds Gordon says “to starve someone who can’t leave is to murder him”.

          So that’s where we’re at. Heads up, libertarian Ph.D. candidates. Don’t miss your chance to be the guy who writes a dissertation on: “Toddlers and the Right of Exit: Crawling to Grasp the Pacifier of Universal Non-Agression”.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Hi Sean,

            With respect to the impotence of philosophy, you are raising the $64 million question, and I have only a $.02 answer. In science, any theory that strays too far from our observations is eventually discarded and replaced by a better one, i.e. one with fewer gaps. Those who continue to subscribe to the old paradigm are ridiculed as “flat-earthers” or the like.

            In philosophy, medical ethicists who, quite literally, defend “after-birth abortion” are published in peer-reviewed academic journals: To those of us who may say, “Good God, man, you’re defending murder,” they can reply, ironically, “Where is it carved in stone that murder is wrong?”

          • j_m_h

            Well the correct response is “The definition of a wrongful killing is murder you dolt!” What they should be saying is “We see this as a legitimate killing.”

  • David Gordon


    Thank you for taking notice of my post. I hope it is all right if I make three comments, rather than attempt to respond to all your points.

    My view of the starving child case differs from Rothbard’s,but on his view, I don’t think it follows from his holding that a parent has no duty to feed his child that the parent may prevent someone else from doing so, e.g., by forbidding him entry into his house. The parent’s lack of a positive obligation to feed the child does not entail the parent’s right to ensure that the child die.

    I did not say that what counts as harm is conventional.Rather, when we dealing with certain types of harm, setting the boundaries of harm is—I ought to have said in part—conventional. It is not conventional that slavery is wrong. What I object is a
    claim of this sort; “If slavery is wrong, then a thirty-year indentured servitude contract is wrong too, Then so is a slightly less onerous contract.Then there is no logical stopping point; a labor contract that to the slightest degree limits someone’s future options is also wrong.” That is a familiar sorites argument, and the answer to it, I think, is that we see clearly that some labor contracts are all right and some are not, but that the exact bounds of acceptable labor contracts are a matter of convention.

    I think that your original post suffers from not making clear your target. Is it 1) The “aggression” version of the NAP; 2) the “property rights” version of the NAP; 3) One or both versions of the NAP, as interpreted by Murray Rothbard; 4) Murray Rothbard’s political philosophy, regardless of whether particular views of his are entailed by one or both versions of the NAP; 5) The “aggression” NAP taken as an axiom that entails all other parts of libertarian theory; 6) The NAP, in one or both
    versions, taken as an exceptionless principle of morality rather than as a
    principle of justice; 7) several of the previous items?

  • Hi Matt,

    Excuse me going off at a tangent, but in your response to comments on you say:

    “Good philosophy starts with obvious premises and argues toward unobvious conclusions.”

    This strikes me as a very peculiar statement; yet Jason Brennan made the same claim in a recent post on this site. So, first, where does this claim come from? Is it a claim made by some leading philosopher?

    Second, let me say why I think the claim is false (expanding on what I said in response to Jason’s post).

    The first thing to say is that there are no obvious premises; though there are plenty that may seem obvious. The second thing is that there are infinitely many seemingly obvious premises. We can begin with statements of the form ‘p or not-p’: ‘it is raining or it is not raining.’ ‘the chair is on fire or it is not,’ ‘the moon is made of green cheese or it is not,’ and so ad infinitum. We could them move on to identity statements: ‘1 = 1,’, ‘2 = 2,’ etc. We might then try universal quantifications: ‘Everyone who is male and clever is male,’ ‘Every natural number is either even or odd,’ and so on. The third thing to say is that we are often not aware of the seemingly obvious, so there will be an infinity of seemingly obvious propositions that are below the level of our consciousness. We often become aware of a proposition that had seemed obvious only when it is called into question. So if we were to try to proceed to draw non-obvious conclusions from seemingly obvious premises, how would we decide where to start?

    Quite apart from all that, the claim that good philosophy starts with obvious premises and argues toward unobvious conclusions seems to be plain false about what philosophers are doing when they do good philosophy. What gets people philosophising is problems. A good piece of philosophy will typically explain a problem. The problem may be one that has been around for a while, possibly millennia, or it may be a new problem that the philosopher has discovered. Even where it is an old problem, the philosopher’s explanation of it may lead to a re-description of it that enables an innovative solution. For, what we have is never simply a problem; it is always a theory about what the problem is; and often the solution to a problem begins by replacing one theory about the nature of the problem with a better theory about the nature of the problem. Sometimes the philosopher will simply explain the problem. More usually he will go on to consider alternative solutions and compare them for adequacy. Very often, at least one of these solutions will be one proposed by the philosopher himself. The whole process is one of creativity and novelty. A new problem; a re-description of an old problem; a new criticism of existing solutions; a new solution; a new way of evaluating possible solutions. While, in amongst all this, there may be some deduction of non-obvious conclusions from seemingly obvious premises, that seems to be only a minor part of what is going on. The role of the novel, the creative, even the startling is what is striking here. Problem solving or, at least, good problem solving is a matter of proposing bold, unobvious, novel conjectures and testing them against rivals by means of criticism (sometimes involving an argument from experience, i.e., an empirical test, though that is not usually the sort of argument used in philosophy),

    So I come back to my question: where does the claim that you and Jason made come from?

    • Sean II

      While you wait for an answer Danny, I’ll deposit my two cents.

      I think that idea would have been better expressed in the negative: “Bad philosophy starts with unobvious conclusions and works back in search of allegedly obvious premises.” For some reason Rawls leaps to mind here.

      I would also gladly endorse the idea that “Good rhetoric starts with the most obvious common premises and argues toward unobvious conclusions.” But then rhetoric and logic are not the same thing.

      For me the biggest problem arises when you consider this: “Bad philosophy starts with obvious premises and then psychotically plows its way toward unobvious conclusions, until the edge of madness is reached and passed.”

      This is how we get to a parent telling his starving toddler “you have no right to the contents of my cupboard, but you’re free to leave whenever you like and, if you can find an unclaimed field somewhere, start homesteading yourself some mud pies…if that’s what you’re into at this age”

      But now, all we’ve done is work our way from an obvious premise to an equally obvious conclusion, which is very dull: “Bad philosophy is bad, either because it starts that way or finishes that way, or because it does something bad in between the start and the finish.”


      FWIW, I think your question deserves an answer. It has occured to me that, as you are saying, often a seemingly insoluble philosphical “problem” arises as a result of some confusion in formulating the question itself. For example, w/o going into details, I believe the “problem” of free will really arises as a result of the (false) assumptions brought to the issue.

      • matt b

        As someone who knows embarrasingly little about philosophy outside of ethics and politics, I confess to great ignorance but also great interest here. I find the free will debate maddening. I understand the libertarian- in the metaphysical sense- position but I do not understand compatibilism. Hard determinism seems clear but I’ve talked to hard determinists and I say “Is our having this conversation predetermined and is your choice of the chocolate muffin over the blueberry scone predetermined” and they say “It’s more complicated” Indeed, Sam Harris wrote a whole book denying free will but he does not seem to believe that his choice to, say, go for a run instead of a swim is predetermined. Care to enlighten briefly? And why do you say the assumptions brought to the issue are false?


          Hi Matt,
          Geez, the reason I said “believe” and “without going into the details,” was that I hoped to avoid questions like this one. They are better addressed to one of the BHLs, who do this for a living, rather than an amateur who maybe knows a little something about Nozick. But I will give you the outline of my personal answer, i.e. the one which I use to sleep through the night, rather than one I would submit to a peer-reviewed journal.

          This “problem” seems to get generated in the following way. We live in a determinstic universe; we are part of that universe; therefore, our actions are determined in the same way as physical events. But since Hume, at least, philosophers have understood that “causation” is just the label humans use to describe things that seem interconnected in some basic way, i.e. “B” always seems to follow “A.” What nobody seems able to explain is why, even if we have seen “B” follow “A” countless times, we are entitled to assume that “B” must follow “A” the next time.

          So, what does this say about human beings? Assume that “B” always seems to follow “A” with respect to human action: does this imply that there is some unbreakable connection, a “cause,” that rules out free will? I don’t think so. Maybe for the last 100 fridays, “Joe” leaves work promptly at 5pm and comes straight home to his lovng wife and kids; B follows A. But, on this particular friday, Joe decides to get drunk and go to a strip bar–who would have thunk it. Why do we assume that humans are like billard balls, anyway? Is our behavior as predictable?

          Quantum physics seems to further erode in various ways the simple, mechanistic universe assumed by deniers of free will. It turns out that B doesn’t always follow A; there are only various probabilities. So, even the appearance of unbreakable causality with respect to human behavior fades away.

          • matt b

            I like this quite a bit, Mark. Is there any work you would recommend that offers a review of the so-called compabilist position (which seems incoherent to me which is why I’d like to learn more) and most amateurs don’t publish books my good man. So you’re at least an expert amateur.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Here is one really good (IMHO) essay, written by a widely-published academic, defending free will; it discusses compatabilism and other theories: Also, you probabaly know this already, but the SEP has a lot of good (peer-reviewed) stuff on free will. Even though intended, I think, to be relatively accessible to non-academic philosophers, the entries sometimes require multiple readings, but I know you are up to the task.

          • matt b

            I’ve just started reading but it seems very promising. I did know about that. I love SEP. I learned more on there than in some philosophy classes back in my younger days. Thanks Mark.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Younger days…give me a break!

      • Yes, I argue that the ‘chance objection’ to libertarian free will is misconceived in a forthcoming paper in the Canadian Journal of Philosophy. But it is not for me to say whether my contribution counts as good philosophy. Consider instead some paradigms of good philosophy.

        Aristarchus’ bizarre theory that the earth moves round the sun was not only unobvious, it appeared to be blatantly false; yet the idea was revived in the Renaissance and later became accepted as scientific fact.

        Kant’s ‘Copernican Revolution’ was a startling, counter-intuitive proposal for resolving the problem of knowledge. Although his theory did not do what he intended it to do, it has largely been borne out by developments in psychology (indeed, it might well have been Kant’s philosophising that gave rise to those developments – good science often begins as good philosophy).

        Russell’s Theory of Descriptions may seem obvious to people instructed in modern logic, but it was a novel and unobvious proposal when it was put forward. As Russell says in ‘My Philosophical Development,’ when he submitted it to Mind, it ‘struck the then editor as so preposterous that he begged me to reconsider it and not to demand its publication as it stood’ (p. 63). Russell’s Theory of Types was another counter-intuitive proposal which, though no longer accepted in the form in which Russell propounded it, is generally thought to be, in at least some form, indispensable in logic if contradictions are to be avoided.

        Popper’s proposal that scientific theories are characterised by their falsifiability (rather than their verifiability) also went against the grain but is usually taken to have identified one essential or at least typical characteristic of science.

        What these examples (and many others – I didn’t even mention Hume) illustrate is that good philosophy is an attempt to solve genuine problems; and that solving a hard problem usually requires some ‘lateral thinking,’ that is, it requires departing from the seemingly obvious to look at things in a new way. That is how philosophy contributes to the growth of knowledge and understanding. The idea that philosophy accepts seemingly obvious propositions and merely seeks to identify some unobvious consequences is false to the history of the subject and would turn philosophy from being a serious intellectual enterprise into being something largely sterile, mere scholasticism. Yet we have two philosophers on this site who espouse that idea. The fact that there are two of them suggests that there is some leading philosopher from whom they take the idea. I would interested to know who it is.


          Hey, Danny, can you please send me an electronic copy of this paper.

  • Philopoemen

    The child/trespassing scenario is rather abhorrent (although I admittedly err farther towards “bleeding-heart” than most here) for three reasons:

    1. It’s moral relativism at its worst
    2. It takes “the child is the property of the parent” to an ugly extreme
    3. It rejects the concept of inalienable rights.

    • martinbrock

      In Rothbard’s defense, he does not suppose a child to be a parent’s property. He rather supposes that a child is an independent actor and that a parent has no more obligation to feed a child than he has to feed you or anyone else.

      When human beings were property, a master had a duty to feed his slaves. The idea that a master could dispose of a slave however he liked is historical revisionism. This idea is not the historical meaning of “property” at all. It’s more nearly the opposite.

      While wholeheartedly rejecting historical slavery, I disagree with Rothbard, because I believe that children are and should be property of their parents. The relationship between parent and child must be proper. It must be bound by standards of propriety and not only a parent’s individual will.

  • martinbrock

    Rothbard is very explicit on starving children as you say, and he is inconsistent on aggressive force, but defining aggression of a violation of property doesn’t solve this problem as much as it is the problem.

    If aggression is a violation of property, what is property? You might as well say that aggression is a violation of rules that you’ll tell me later or even rules that you’ll make up as you go along. Aggression then becomes my refusal to be your slave. That’s a loophole large enough for any proprietarian’s herd of elephants.

    Historical libertarians understood that “property” can denote many things and that it sometimes denotes forcible impositions remarkably similar to the impositions titled “theft” by the people defining “property”. The same libertarians ironically thought property an essential element of liberty, but the irony was not lost on them, and their embrace of the apparent contradiction is praiseworthy even when it confuses young (or sophomoric) students of the tradition.

    • Thanks. That’s a great piece.

    • j r

      Sanchez is right on. The NAP is a maxim masquerading as an axiom.

    • CT

      I don’t think supporters of the NAP use it the way Sanchez seems to think they use it. The NAP assumes self-ownership and homesteading. Now, I believe Rothbard does a pretty crappy job of justifying both self-ownership and homesteading to establish the supremacy of private property rights. But Rothbard and other NAP supporters never meant NAP to be the basic, universal axiom which everything else flows (akin to human action for Mises). Rejecting NAP based on the fact that it implicitely assumes that private property is justified is like rejecting Mises’ socialist calculation theory because he implicitely assumed marginalist/subjectivist theory of value.
      And even if Rothbard did a spectacularly poor job in justifying property rights, does not mean that NAP should be thrown in the garbage. In my opinion, Matt Zwolinski’s points were better than Sanchez’.

      • good_in_theory

        Except it’s not like that, because how value and prices work is an observable matter of fact, while whether private property is justified or not is not.

        • CT

          My point was that the calculation argument relies on subjectivist theory (which yes can, nay must, be justified by examining facts) just like the NAP relies on private property being justified.
          So again, you can’t claim that NAP is incorrect just become it assumes that private property is justified. You similarly can’t claim the calculation argument is wrong because it assumes that subjectist theory is correct. No socialist will ever be convinced that the calculation argument is correct unless you convince them they have the wrong value theory. Just like no socialist will ever accept the NAP until you convince them that private property is justified.

          • good_in_theory

            But whether a theory of value is correct depends upon whether that theory can actually explain prices and exchanges. Whether a theory of property is justified doesn’t depend on conformity with some real phenomena, other than our mutable conventions about what is or isn’t property and what we do or don’t use force to protect.

            Edit: And this matters because one can convince someone against the feasibility of calculation by demonstrating, “you can’t calculate that,” as a simple matter of what is possible given our mathematical and technological capacity. You can’t do that with a justification for property.

          • Fallon

            The impression that Hayek and his followers have given is that socialism only presents an “impracticable” problem for economic rationality. Mises saw this as a serious misconception. Technological and mathematical capacity could be taken as a given– and
            there still would be no economic calculation without private property in

          • good_in_theory


          • Fallon

            Irrelevant to you. But what do you care? You have no answer anyway.

          • good_in_theory

            No answer to what? I was discussing whether justifications of private property and the feasibility of economic calculation are analogous You’re nattering on about how deep the difficulty, or impossibility, of planning prices goes, which is, as I said, irrelevant to the disanalogy at stake.

    • j_m_h

      I think the analogy between NAP and telling the truth is flawed. The analogy would have to be NAP and Not Telling a Lie.

      With that as the basis for what follows it’s not clear Sanchez’s argument holds.

      • j r

        What’s the difference?

        And I mean that sincerely, not as internet snark.

        • j_m_h

          I don’t fully buy into the view that everything can be presented as a positive or a negative — as is sometimes claimed about positive and negative rights.

          So the form of Sanchez’s argument is akin to logically saying if p1 then q1 is structurally the same as if not p2 then q2. The assume equivalence here only holds if it’s shown that not p2 is equivalent to p1.

          I don’t think that’s the case when p1 is tell the truth and not p2 is never lie. Most simply, by not speaking at all I may fail to tell the truth but I clearly have not lied.

          • good_in_theory

            Who cares if you’ve lied or not? You’ve equivocated, deceived, avoided, evaded, &etc, and a general maxim against equivocation, deceit, evasion, and avoidance isn’t much different from one against lying.

          • j_m_h

            Under the standard of Always Tell the Truth you have that problem — which is particularly troubling in the case of avoiding. Under the standard of Do Not Lie there is not requirement to speak therefore the choice to avoid answering the question as the person might (which is a subjective question anyhow) have wanted is not a violation of the standard and does not lead us to any slippery slopes.

            I think you’re engaging in the equivocation error here. The two standards are not the simply two sides of the same coin as you want to imply.

    • David Gordon
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  • As a non-libertarian — certainly not of the Rothbardian variety — I feel that Matt has nicely delineated the problems of the NAP from an outsider perspective. Indeed, I find the inclination of libertarian-minded people to dogmatically build entire moral or economic philosophies from specific singular axioms (praxeology anyone?) to be a dubious practice in general.

    To be sure, I strongly endorse a number of issues that the libertarian movement has been at the forefront in promoting. However, there is an irritating duplicity in the way that (some) libertarians approach social, economic and political questions. A good illustration is the use of reductio ad absurdum type arguments to dismiss opposing philosophical paradigms; at the same time ignoring the susceptibility of “libertarian” concepts to symmetrical scrutiny. Matt’s example of pollution and the unwavering rights of property owners is one that I have used before myself, specifically in the context of climate change. A slavish interpretation of property rights could lead to an absurd situation where all industrial activity is enjoined by the desires of a small group of uncompromising environmentalists. Of course, that’s not to suggest that property rights are a bad idea. Rather it should acts as an indication that even the soundest concepts may not survive the absurdity of being taken to their full conclusions.

    • Fallon

      Matt Z. does not attack Rothbard’s economics and focuses on the “ought” side of the gap. But you, you have brilliantly refuted the human action axiom and the validity of its economic implications in one fell swoop. But of course, “human action axiom” is merely a duplicitous reductio ad absurdum. How did Mises miss such a simple yet powerful criticism? Must have been his duplicity– maybe due to his class?

      Please, for teaching purposes, zero your refutation in on one simple deduction– exemplify your critique’s awesome power of deconstruction. Consider it a victory lap! If you would be so kind as to tell me how ‘it might not be true that individuals consciously use scarce means in effort to attain scarce ends?’ Isn’t that what you are doing right now– consciously using scarce means to attain ends as you plot your reply?

      I will now ask one more favor– skipping ahead a little bit in the deductive chain. Could you explain how it is possible to understand e.g. exchange without already having the concepts of exchange in hand? In essence, if economic concepts are not prior to experience how is it possible to interpret economic experience, the implications of scarce means and scarce ends?

      • Wow. That is the most impressive exhibition of strawman duelling that I have seen in ages. Well done!

        Allow me to clear things up for you: The focus of my comment wasn’t the human action axiom at all. I mentioned it once — in passing and in parenthesis no less — because, um, there is an obvious parallel w.r.t. building an entire philosophical edifice from a single axiom.

        So, given that the bulk of my comment has exactly nothing to do with Mises (hard to believe, I know), what was it about?

        Simple: It was endorsement of Matt’s point regarding pollution and the absurd situation that the NAP could lead to if taken at simple face value. I chose to re-frame this as an example of the limits of reductio ad absurdum reasoning, because a) I note that many libertarians actually favour this type of argumentation, and b) I have previously done so to make effectively the same point as Matt.

        By all means though, don’t engage the specific point that I was making. Better to misread spectacularly and pretend that my comments were intended as a self-contained refutation of the entire Libertarian/Misean cannon.

        • Fallon

          The climate issue, indeed, is in your comment. But it is not the only thing. Come on.

          “Indeed, I find the inclination of libertarian-minded people to
          dogmatically build entire moral or economic philosophies from specific singular axioms (praxeology anyone?) to be a dubious practice in general.”

          Seriously, you are going to name praxeology and then claim your comment has nothing to do with Mises?

          • Fallon, you strongly implied that my comment was aimed as a complete “refutation” of Mises. This is what I objected to (because it is patently untrue).

            Yes, I am skeptical of praxeological claims… or, more precisely, the extent to which certain adherents are aware of its limitations. I have expanded on this idea in various other blogs and debates (e.g. here and here). However, that is a separate issue to the one under discussion here and certainly superfluous to the major point of my comment above.

          • Fallon

            The more I re-read you initial comment, the less I am convinced of your subsequent replies. I do not need to go running off to your blog. That is evasive on your part. You may answer here and now, my original questions. It can’t be that hard for you– given the confidence you exude.

          • Good Lord. You really don’t get it, do you? The substantive point of my comment just isn’t about Mises or the action axiom. You are the one who keeps trying to bring *that* into the discussion. How can I respond to criticism of an argument that I never made?

            Moreover, it is completely separate to the actual issue under discussion (which is what you refuse to engage). You are simply trying to distract from the issue.

            And with that. No more from me.

          • Fallon

            “Good Lord” makes your argument stronger. Next time use all caps. That’ll hit your point home.

            My point may have been incidental to what you wanted to accomplish– but in the over all scheme of things it is quite relevant– and your responses have been evasive and quite cynical. You claim as dubious and dogmatic the attempt to build economic philosophy (as well as moral philosophy) from a praxeological, axiomatic basis. I challenged you on both your conflation and justification. You don’t like it. So what.

          • To be honest, I don’t think that all caps will work either. At this stage, I am considering drawing you a picture though. (Maybe that will work?)

            One last time:

            Yes, as per Matt’s phrasing, I do think that it dubious to claim that a single axiom suffices as the sole, absolute and indefeasible criterion for building an entire moral or economic philosophy. With specific regard to praxeology, this concerns the inclusion of (often unstated) subsidiary axioms to explain higher order phenomena; the domain over which “purposeful” behaviour governs people’s actions in everyday life; (or, alternatively) the redundancy of appealing to Kantian-style a priori synthetic typologies when you have already specified the terms and limits of your engagement (i.e. purposeful behaviour) at the outset; the extent to which the praxeological method precludes the use of empirical testing as a means of adjudicating between competing theories (or simply measuring the magnitude of expected effects), etc, etc. Clearly, each of these issues requires a fairly lengthy treatment of their own. I have thus provided several links to places where I have expanded on these topics in some depth, so that you can both read and debate them in a relevant forum. For some reason, you characterise this as “evasive” behaviour. I’ll simply take it for granted that our host appreciates the effort to keep comments on this particular thread as on-topic as possible (i.e. the NAP).

            Furthermore, what I patently did not do — and thus do not need to pointlessly spend time rebutting — is deny that individuals do consciously use scarce means to attain scarce ends. Nor did I claim that that Mises, personally, had built his framework on a simple foundation of reductio ad absurdum logic. As we have by now established, such an assertion is based on a very misconstrued interpretation of my initial comment. (On that note, I must once again point out that you have yet to address the actual substantive point that I did make.)

            To conclude: I see no point in hijacking someone else’s comment thread to debate non sequiturs and peripheral issues. I have pointed you to appropriate places where I am happy to continue *those* debates. But unless you want to engage the relevant issues of this thread — the NAP or my point about property rights, pollution and the limits of reductio ad absurdum — truly, I think that it is better for all involved if this conversation was brought to an end.

          • Fallon

            Okay. Better. Your comment has explanatory content.

            Mises certainly included subsidiary postulates– like the disutlity of labor– which is derived from experience. Mises ensured that deductions referred to the reality man faces. Indeed, one can imagine a place where work is enjoyable the more one does it.

            Mises was inspired by Kant’s resolution of e.g. Leibniz’s rationalism v. Hume’s empiricism. Man understands experience aided by an inherent conceptual readiness revealed through introspection. “As Kant argued, we do not derive concepts from nature, but interrogate nature with the aid of these concepts.” (Prof. Pete Leeson)

            Though, one should be careful not to label Mises a Kantian otherwise. For Mises, the world is imposed. The action axiom must reflect this in order to be valid.

            I do not believe this discussion is hijacking Matt Z.’s intention. Eventually any conclusion, a restructuring or discarding of the NAP, will have to pass the “Is” test. Without solid economic grounding what good is moral coherence?

        • Fallon

          If you really meant to only address the “ought” then at least admit your writing lacked clarity and was very easy to interpret as attacking the “is” as well. You did say “moral or economic philosophy…”

          What does “or” mean here?

          Your hyperbole in response works against you.

          • Well, I happen to think my writing was perfectly clear. I do, however, think that your response belied a knee-jerk defensiveness that is hard to fathom. Consider my “hyperbole” a response in kind.

          • Fallon

            garbage. you tried to get away with one and got called on it.

        • Fallon

          Do you mean “canon” in terms of holy decree? That is kinda ironic coming from a global cooling er warming er climate change er what is it now adherent.

          • Do you mean “canon” in terms of holy decree? That is kinda ironic coming from a global cooling er warming er climate change er what is it now adherent.

            Perhaps this discussion is not worth continuing, after all. Have a good day.

            PS – See point 5 here.

          • Fallon

            More evasive links. As I thought. You have nothing.

          • Bless. Yes, an extremely evasive link… to a dictionary:

            canon (n). A group of literary works that are generally accepted as representing a field.

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  • One thing I’ve learned reading the Austrians: All values are ultimately “spiritual values.” It is “material values” which is the floating abstraction which cannot be “concretized” (as the Objectivists would put it). Value is individual, subjective, and context dependent, not collective, intrinsic, and independent of context.

    I think the debate here is pointless. Mr. Zwolinski needs to ask himself the following question: What essential quality definitively distinguishes “property” from “loot.” Now tell me: is libertarianism about aggression or property?

    Don’t get wrapped up in floating abstractions like “social justice,” Mr. Zwolinski, and your thinking will be much clearer. It is only individuals who act and think. There is no social brain or social being which can think or act. Therefore, justice is always individual. In the event we try to apply justice, “socially,” according to arbitrary group distinctions, or to those groups whose “membership” is assigned through force, that we commit the grossest injustices.

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