Rights Theory, Libertarianism

NAP Roundup

UPDATED and moved to the top (4/23), again on (4/27)

Last Monday, I published an essay on Libertarianism.org laying out a brief case against the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP). It kicked off a bit of debate, so here is a (selective) summary of what’s gone on in the last week.

David Gordon responded by saying that the NAP is just fine. What counts as aggression isn’t just a matter of logic; it’s partly settled by convention. So the more extreme absolutist implications I attributed to the NAP don’t follow. And even NAPpers can hold that starving babies is murder, and a violation of their rights. I wasn’t convinced. But David has had the last word, for now.

Jason Kuznicki thinks that the NAP is silly if it is taken as a complete and literal model of reality. But, then again, so is Newtonian physics. Still, that doesn’t mean we should reject Newtonian physics. And we shouldn’t reject the NAP either, once we recognize its limits as a model.

Julian Sanchez thinks things are worse for the NAP than Jason realizes. At best, the NAP is a rough-and-ready principle that is ultimately dependent for its meaning and justification on an underlying theory of property rights. But really, the NAP isn’t a principle at all. Since what libertarians really mean by “aggression” is just “rights-violations,” the NAP amounts to little more than the claim that it individuals have a right not to have their rights violated. True enough, but hardly illuminating. David Gordon was not convinced.

Finally, this morning at Libertarianism.org, George H. Smith (whose new book you should really, really buy) begins what he describes as “at least” a two part series responding to my piece. He starts by wondering what I propose to replace the NAP with. If my goal is simply to replace an absolutist version of the NAP with a less-absulte presumption of liberty, then how is that different from the (ultimately failed) classical liberal approach of Madison et al.? He then argues that some of my more general claims about the NAP are false. The NAP is about force, not violence. It is about justice, not morality. And it is not a purely deductive theory, but one that relies heavily on convention. Finally, he distinguishes between two ways of dealing with purported counterexamples to the NAP – the first involves admitting that the principle does really have exceptions (i.e. that not all aggression is unjust); while the second involves arguing that apparent exceptions are not really exceptions at all, once we understand how the NAP applies to particular cases in the light of various intermediary principles such as that of tacit consent. George’s first response doesn’t get around to addressing any of the counterexamples I put forth in my original piece, but one can assume, I think, that it’s going to be some variant of this second strategy that he employs when he does.

And that’s the state of the debate! More to come, soon.

UPDATE (4/23):

My response to George Smith’s first essay is now up at Libertarianism.org, in which I take up the comparison George (rather inexplicably, IMO) invited me to draw between the immorality of the minimum wage and the immorality of rape.

And George’s second essay is also up. In it, he takes on the second of the 6 points I raised in my initial essay – that the Non-Aggression Principle prohibits even trivial instances of aggression that produce very large benefits.

UPDATE (4/26)
George and also have an extended discussion in the comments thread here, in which some of the areas of overlap and disagreement between our views seem (to me) to become somewhat clearer.

UPADTE (4/27)
My last posts failed to mention Brian Kogelman‘s post on Epicycles and Non-Aggression. And, of course, I should also mention Jason Brennan‘s and Kevin Vallier‘s contributions right here at BHL. The former takes on the seemingly absolutist implications of the NAP with respect to property rights, and challenges Smith’s skeptical take on thought experiments. The latter challenges the suitability of the NAP to serve as a foundational principle of libertarian justice, on the grounds that it is neither comprehensive nor ultimate.

Meanwhile, my conversation with George Smith has shifted to the comments thread here. It’s ongoing, but hopefully will end better than the last one.

UPDATE (5/5)
George Smith challenges my points about risk, fraud, and property rights. Jason Brennan responds in my defense on the issue of risk.

Roderick Long things a sophisticated eudaimonist approach can save the NAP. Kevin Vallier disagrees. Roderick fires back.

Jan Lester defends the NAP along with a corollary that tells us to try to maximize freedom in cases of conflict.

  • Sean II

    This goes nowhere toward settling anything, but it seems to me that the absolutist version of the NAP has the mark of a cute talking point accidentally grown into an axiom.

    I don’t want to make it sound too romantic, but libertarianism is an underground movement that struggled for decades even to be noticed. A lot of what we think, read, and say is (just has to be) owed to the desperate search for outreach tools; things to say at cocktail parties, things that would immediately set one apart as interesting and unusual, and above all, things that would tend to provoke follow-up questions and comments from people otherwise ill-disposed to listen.

    And in that connection, guess what? It turns out you can almost always get someone (who knows not what you intend) to agree to the premise: initiation of violence is wrong. It works like a charm, so how tempting to think: “Ah, now I’ve got them! Just a few miles traveled down the express lane of logic, and soon they will have no choice but to see that their local highway department builds its roads from slurried blood and bits of crushed human skull.”

    You just don’t get the same result by saying: “I think that although it cannot be categorically ruled out, force should be a last resort in human relations, to be used only when voluntary cooperation has been exhausted. Hey, I know something fun to do. Let’s have a really complicated argument about how to apply that in practice! Who’s with me?”

    • Murali

      But, if we are academic philosophers, we must go beyond the cocktail party oneliners. But if the NAP just isn’t suited to a rigourous philosophy, then we should find an alternate route. Or better, just follow the good arguments where they go. Don’t try to prove libertarianism, just allow the chips to land where they will.

      • Sean II

        Of course. The trouble arises when someone takes the simplistic version of the NAP from the cocktail party back to the lab, with the hope of building it up into an unanswerable super-weapon of logic.

        For myself, I have a really hard time believing that someone with no consequentalist values whatsoever was just sitting under a tree one morning, when it struck him that non-aggression is an axiom for the just ordering of human affairs.

        Maybe I’m wrong, but that sure seems like nonsense. Now I suppose you could say I’m just bulverizing here, and that it doesn’t matter if the NAP was reverse-engineered, since it could still be valid despite the dubious means by which it was “discovered”. I happen to think it does matter, because if the NAP is not valid, then we must certainly try to understand how it came to hold sway over so many libertarians for so long.

        • j r

          That’s easy. Libertarianism attracts people with an undue fondness for deductive reasoning.

          • martinbrock

            Ideological libertarianism attracts people with a deduction fetish, but so do ideological systems generally.

            The attraction seems particularly ironic for libertarians, because in my way of thinking, libertarianism is radically inductive. The economic calculation problem, and Hayekian information problems and spontaneous order more generally, basically assume that most knowledge can only be known inductively.

        • matt b

          What do you think of Michael Huemer’s efforts in the area in the form of his recent book in terms of trying to offer a modified NAP in which we transition from non aggression principle to non agression presumption. Do you think that does any real work in advancing us?

          • Sean II

            I’m all for it, and I think Huemer’s bad to the bone. But…let’s face it, the big problem remains unsettled. We are still here:

            1) Absolute non-aggression leads to madness, just like absolute non-lying, absolute non-using-people-as-mere-means, whatever. I’m plenty libertarian, but if I find myself on a desert island where Murray Rothbard has homesteaded the last source of potable water, he’s either letting me drink, or he’s getting his head bashed in and I’m having Polynesian long-pig for dinner.

            2) George H. Smith is right. Once you breach the principle to make it a mere preference, further breaches will surely follow until the preference itself means either much less, very little, or nothing at all. Every crisis, every exigency opens another breach or widens an existing one, and since every breach will create concentrated winners and yet seem small taken by itself, we have every reason to suspect that the process will be highly resistant to reversal.

            So that’s where I’m it. I want nothing to do with an absolute non-aggression principle, and yet I’m sacred of operating without it.

            In the meantime, I’ll just keep clinging to the crude principle I use in real life, which is an ordinal ranking of interpersonal methods where force is always last, but never completely absent.

          • jdkolassa

            Completely OT, but Sean, do you have a Twitter or Google+ account? You’re a really great guy to have discussions with and I would like to follow you outside of BHL, if that’s okay. Maybe bounce some ideas off of you on G+ (Twitter is too short for the questions of moral and ethical philosophy that I have.) My Twitter is @jdkolassa and my Google handle is +Jeremy Kolassa.

            Anyways, back to NAP discussions, of which all I can say is, I don’t like the NAP because I feel it’s too simple and inadequate, yet like you I’m scared of going without it.

          • matt b

            I don’t think anybody really believes in the NAP except in the most watered down form. Think about some scenarios: 10 percent of people are starving and a surtax of 2 percent would end that. 10 percent of kids are not receiving any education because their parents have no money. A 2.5 surtax could fund vouchers for their schooling. Voluntary meat inspections from private monitoring agencies leads to mass poisoning so we re-institute government control. I mean unless you’re wacked out you’re going to say of course I would favor those state measures to prevent those problems assuming there really was no voluntary solution. I think the BHL approach is much more promising: determining what set of conditions are neccesary to establish a system that can be reasonably be considered sufficiently to the benefit of all and then being very rigorous about rights once sufficiency has been established.

          • CT

            ” … determining what set of conditions are neccesary to establish a system that can be reasonably be considered sufficiently to the benefit of all and then being very rigorous about rights once sufficiency has been established.”

            Isn’t that what everyone is essentially attempting? I mean, I haven’t interacted with too many ‘Rothbardians’, but them disagreeing with your statement would mean they’re all evil – I rather doubt that’s the case.

            So unless you’re ‘wacked out’, you would favour absolute private property rights if all the scenarios you have outlined above actually made things worse, right?

            As for the ‘Rothbardian’ NAP, the whole concept is useless unless you believe in the validity of private property rights (more specifically homesteading) and have a robust definition of property (i.e. what can someone claim as private property). I think most ‘Rothbardians’ do a really crappy job of explaining what can be ‘homesteaded’ and what cannot.

          • Kevin

            “So unless you’re ‘wacked out’, you would favour absolute private property rights if all the scenarios you have outlined above actually made things worse, right?”

            That strikes me as the key question for those abstract scenarios intended to prove that the NAP can be immoral. You’ll note that matt b ultimately couches his conclusion with “assuming there really was no voluntary solution” which I think significantly assumes his conclusion.

            My view basically combines Kuznicki and Smith: let’s look at reality rather than abstractions and consider our alternatives. Let’s consider NAP statistically. How often do those scenarios actually occur under NAP with an immoral outcome vs. how often does (optionally) ignoring NAP lead to an immoral outcome?

            Even by consequentialist standards, I think NAP comes out ahead. Moreover, as you and others have said, NAP has enough wiggle room in interpreting its terms that it strikes me as odd to attack it directly.

          • matt b

            The only way I couched my conclusion was by writing it on a couch 🙂 I don’t have an a priori commitment to the welfare state at all, even in a highly limited Friedmanite or Hayekian form. If solely voluntary charity worked then awesome. I always say voluntary is better. But it does seem reasonable to ask people who say any welfare programs are immoral what they would do if private charity failed to help those truly in need.

          • Kevin

            “on a couch”. 🙂 I just meant that the summary statement: “We should use force in this case, assuming there is no voluntary moral solution” is always true.

            I agree with your libertarian sentiments and it is certainly reasonable to ask that common question, but it includes a specious premise that should be exposed in every answer:

            If private charity fails to help those truly in need, then should the government compel it?” But I would help those truly in need. You would help those truly in need. Most people who are morally convicted to compel others in that abstract scenario would also be morally convicted to voluntarily help those truly in need, and even more so if the culture values individual responsibility as opposed to socialism.

            But the premise of the question forbids us from helping voluntarily — we are only allowed to help involuntarily! Bill Gates cannot help. Warren Buffett cannot help. Even if they wanted to.

            Indeed, in a democracy, it would require at least a majority of would-be moral helpers in order to compel others to fund somebody’s sense of charity and definition of who is truly in need. And if it has (overwhelming) majority support, how likely is it that compulsion is actually necessary to help those truly in need?

            It’s a crazy premise, isn’t it?

          • matt b

            A very good argument with immense surface plausibility and intuitive appeal. However, I think when we dig deeper it’s not quite as clear as you make it seem. So among economists (generally not a group of statist loons) there is 99. something agreement that there are certain goods and services that cannot be provided by voluntary action even though there is overwhelming support for the production of those goods (national defense, police, courts, enviro-protection). Among libertarians and libertarian economists that view is maybe like 70-80 percent with a minority saying full blown an-cap is the way. My point here is that if around 99 percent of economists overall believe you need the state to provide certain goods and services even though they are overwhelmingly in demand and something like 70-80 libertarians and libertarian economists agree then is is really so crazy to think charitable programs might fall under the same umbrella as defense and police as things people really believe in but, for certain reasons, is unlikely to arise or arise sufficiently without government?

          • shemsky

            Matt, I’m assuming that you have a mind which is capable of making rational decisions, and a conscience that is capable of telling you the difference between right and wrong. Most people do, and the ones that don’t aren’t worth having a discussion with. Why are you so eager to surrender your mind and conscience to other people, most of whom you have never met and know nothing about? That’s what seems crazy to me.

          • matt b

            Sorry but I’m a little lost here: “Why are you so eager to surrender your mind and conscience to other people, most of whom you have never met and know nothing about?” What do you mean by this?

          • shemsky

            You want to put yourself and the rest of us in a situation where we are all bound by the decisions of the group, with no right to dissent if we believe that any of those decisions are wrong.

          • matt b

            I truly have no idea where you got that from at all. I’m extremely skeptical of democracy, even more so than a lot of libertarians so yeah I really have no clue why you think I want to put us into a decision in which we find ourselves bound by the group.

          • shemsky

            You are advocating for the state (group) to provide for certain things, including charity. Which means that you advocate for a state to govern society. States don’t allow individuals to opt out of supporting the activities they engage in, even if those individuals consider some or all of the activities the state engages in to be worthless or wrong. Under a state, individuals are bound by the decisions of others.

            You say that you’re extremely skeptical of democracy. So how would decisions be made in the state you favor? A dictator? A central committee appointed by a dictator? Who decides, Matt?

          • matt b

            Well Commisar Zwolinski will be head the commitee on social justice while Commisar Brennan will head the commitee on the negative income tax 🙂 In all seriousness, I would just say that, being a BHL, I believe that coercive institutions can only be justified if they are sufficiently to the benefit of all and I think that it’s unreasonable to expect people to obey rules which prevent them from securing a basic minimum of welfare hence my support, in theory thought not neccesarily in practice, for a limited welfare state.

          • shemsky

            Who defines sufficiently to the benefit of all? Millions of different people will have millions of different interpretations. Your interpretation may seem entirely wrong to other people, as their interpretation may seem entirely wrong to you. What mechanism do you propose to choose which interpretation will prevail? How will we choose those who will be in charge of this coercive institution? And what assurances can you give us that those who are in charge of this coercive institution will continue to govern as intended, once we have given up our sovereignty to this institution?

            Not trying to be difficult, but these are questions that deserve an answer.

          • matt b

            I can appreciate that you’re not trying to be difficult. I think you raise a serious question but what you don’t seem to realize is that your question applies to literally every single conceivable system. Imagine we do away with all governmen tommororow and have anarcho-capitalism. In that universe, there will be people who disagree with the coercive institutions of the anarcho-capitalist stateless society. Those individuals do not get to opt out of a strict system of property rights. If my child is sick and I lose my job and I have no money to pay for life saving drugs and I steal from a pharmacy I will be punished even if I disagree with the rules and say 25 percent of the population does as well. There is no system that is not premised on some sort of coercion at some point and when you challenge an-caps on this they just say “but we’re right to use coercion here.” Maybe so but that just brings back to your original question of who decides and why? In addressing this, bhl like me are in no more a challenging position than any other group advocating any other system.

          • shemsky

            Of course my question applies to every single conceivable system. Which is why I advocate for the right of individuals to dissent from the state or from any other institution that exists. You argue for the state as one institution to which every individual answers to. I argue that the state is not a workable solution. Individuals are the only ones that can decide right from wrong, so individuals must have the right to say no to the things they believe are wrong. As in: “I’m not supporting or participating in mass murder because I believe that it’s wrong, even if the state says that it’s right”. If individuals don’t have the right to say no to the state, then whoever is ruthless enough to gain control of the state gains control of everyone. If the state says that Jews are evil and should be rounded up and sent to concentration camps where they can be systematically exterminated and their remains harvested for whatever we can gather from them, should you have the right to refuse to support or participate in murdering Jews? Yes, you should have that right. You should have the right to say no to the state or to any institution. You should have the right to dissent. That’s all I’m arguing, Matt.

          • matt b

            Right so I think we both agree that the state has no moral authority as such and neither does law, whether it is created by a centralized monopoly or private law in an an-cap society. What I’m arguing for is a state that respects individual freedom, rights, and secures justice. I believe that a state which does those things does has a moral claim in terms of the use of coercion. Now if the state was engaging in mass murder it would not respecting individual freedom, rights, or securing justice and we would have every right to resist it and abolish it. But I do believe libertarian criticism along the lines of “the state is coercive and forces everybody to follow it rules” is really weak since any system imagineable will be coercive about some things. For example, under an-cap I can’t go on somebody’s land even if I’m starving through no fault of my own and nobdoy says “Oh you disagree, well then you can do your own thing.” So at some point we all believe, no matter what our worldview, that people must be made to follow some set of rules even if they disagree with them. The question is just in which cases the rules are so morally neccesary in terms of ensuring they are followed that we have the right to use force.

          • shemsky

            Some set of rules? What set of rules are those? Are those rules just or unjust? Can you prove that something is right or wrong, or do you merely have a belief about whether something is right or wrong? Who, ultimately, decides if those rules are just and must be obeyed or unjust and may be disobeyed? The individual or the group? Do you, as an individual, always have an obligation to obey the rules of the group? You either do or you don’t, Matt. If you do, and if the group says that you have to murder your children, then you are obligated to murder your children, regardless of what you think is right or wrong. If you don’t always have an obligation to obey the rules of the group, then who decides when you do and when you don’t? It makes no sense to say “I have an obligation to obey the group, except for those times when I have decided that I don’t have an obligation to obey the group”. If you have the right to decide when you have an obligation to obey the rules of the group, then you really have no obligation to obey the rules of the group. You may wish to, but you’re not obligated to.

          • matt b

            I’m talking at the level of ideal theory. In a society in which government protected individual freedom and secured justice, people would have an obligation to obey the law since all laws would be just and therefore the agent of their enforcement- the state- just as well. So under ideal theory you would have an obligation to obey the law because each and every law would be just. But the thing here is that under no system is there an unlimited right of individual dissent. In an an-cap society, you have to obey the rules around property even if you think they are deeply unjust. In our current environment, far off from ideal theory, I would say you don’t have a moral obligation to obey all laws at all.

          • shemsky

            In an anarchist society, there will not necessarily be one set of rules that everyone must follow. Why should we all have to follow the same rules? One might decide to follow certain rules in order to associate with certain people who will only associate with you if you agree to follow rules that they consider proper. But there would be no obligation to obey rules that you consider to be unjust. You could even feel free to commit robbery against other people, as long as you only commit robbery against people that don’t mind being robbed. Otherwise there may be problems that will need to be resolved.

          • matt b

            There certainly would be one set of rules surrounding property, there simply would have to be. Saying “You can never set foot on property without consent” would be a universal rule everyone would have no choice but to follow under an-cap. Now what if I think that’s unjust. What if you think that if some people are in need they or someone close to them should be able to go and grabb them an apple or something. Under an-cap, you would have to obey the property rights rules or else be punished. So even under libertarian anarchism there would be some universal rules all would be forced to follow even if they believed them to be unjust. And this is not bad neccesarily (rules against rape and murder for example). So the objection is not really about forcing people to obey rules they think are unjust since no one gives a crap if a would be a rapist thinks his not being able to rape is unjust, rather it’s about which set of rules rise to level of moral neccesity justufying coercion. Is that not a fair statement?

          • shemsky

            Give me the reason why there would have to be one set of rules surrounding property. What if one group of people decide to follow one set of rules surrounding property, and another group of people decide to follow another set of rules surrounding property? Is that wrong? Are you saying that they can’t live in peace? I beg to differ. You may as well be claiming that we all have to go to the same church, or else war will break out.

            As for the would be rapist, what he or she thinks is not a problem. It’s only a problem when they commit rape against someone who doesn’t consent to being raped. I doubt that very many people would side with the rapist. Same with the murderer or the thief or the torturer.

          • matt b

            You misunderstand my position. I’m saying that in a libertarian anarchist society there would be a rule saying “You cannot go on private property without consent.” You do agree that such a rule would and should exist right? Now this rule would be coercively enforced and if some group did not believe in property rights but rather believed in common ownership they would not be allowed to dissent from this rule and not obey it because if they went on, say, the property of a billionaire to take food and give it to hungry people and he opposed that they would be stopped by violence. So ultimately even in an anarchist society you would have some rules that would be enforced by violence against anyone who dissented. So if you think forcing dissenters to comply with a system against their will is ad well libertarian anarchism does that too.

          • shemsky


            Let’s suppose that you and I live in a community that has rich people and poor people. There is a man named Bill who is hungry, and there is a man named Bob who has plenty. Bill wants Bob to give him some food, but Bob says no. So Bill tries to take the food away from Bob, but Bob is able to send him away with nothing.

            Some people in the community think that Bill has a right to take food from Bob whether or not Bob wants him to. Some people in the community think that Bob is under no obligation to share his food with anyone he doesn’t want to. And some people don’t care what happens to Bill and Bob. They just want to stay out of the dispute.

            Here’s my position. If you think that Bill is right, then you should be free to lend you support to Bill and withhold your support from Bob. If you think that Bob is right, then you should be free to lend your support to Bob and withhold your support from Bill. And if you don’t know or care who is right, then you should be free to withhold your support from both Bill and Bob.

            As I said at the beginning of this exchange, you have a mind capable of making rational decisions and a conscience capable of telling you the difference between right and wrong. You can make your own decision in the matter of Bill and Bob, and so can everyone else.


          • matt b

            Understood but this is a recipe for anarchy and not the good kind! Suppose I’m a chef. I sell my signature dish- seafood past- for 23 dollars a plate. Some people are willing to pay even more than 23, they just love it. Other people love it too but they don’t want to pay 23 dollars. They want to pay 13. I tell them that would mean no profit for me or barely any. They say they don’t care and when I refuse for the final time they start coming into my kitchen and taking my supplies. They say they will continue to do so until I sell them the pasta for 13 or less. By your logic, if some people help me resist that’s cool and if some people help the people taking my supplies that’s cool. This strikes me as a really bad universe in which to live.

          • shemsky

            How much worse of a universe would it be if you thought that Bob was the worst kind violent thief and murderer, but were forced to pay to finance his activities anyway? That’s what I’m talking about, Matt.

          • matt b

            Uhhhh this is what bugs me about libertarianians even though I am one. To say “crooks control the state” is such an unqualified, bereft of nuance statement. Yes there’s corruption and cronyism and privilege but when a rich guy kills a poor guy he gets charged and goes to jail. The modern nation state has, on net, been a good thing from a humanist perspective. And your statement that I could work with the good guys is problematic. Why should we assume the good guys would be better armed? Why should we assume the good guys wouldn’t be scared by threats from thugs? The objections go on and on. Anyway this has been a good, clarifying talk and I shall, being the wonderfully gracious person that I am, give you the last word 🙂

          • shemsky

            Why should we assume that coming up with only one judgement, imposed on everyone, will produce better results than different people coming up with different judgements that they each must live with?

          • martinbrock

            Why do you assume that the good guys are better armed within a modern state? Compared to what? The modern state is a monopoly of various arms by definition, so the statesmen are the only guys with these arms. The only guys with these arms are necessarily the best guys with the arms, but they’re also the worst guys with the arms.

          • j_m_h

            Not sure about the numbers but I think you express a commonly held view. I think think it’s still wrong. Cowen’s Theory of Market Failure has some great articles collected in it — but Hal Varian’s comment is on target: in every case government plays some role.

            The issue is that we still have not quite figured out what government as a social institution should be doing. I think we have a pretty good grasp of what markets can do fairly well — and they do not operate in thin air; there is a surrounding institutional structure of governance and rules.

            I’m more and more of the mind that government that is active and has the power to act that bad things ultimately follow. The problem is that we don’t always have some other social structure that is readily available to step in a get something accomplished when the price system and markets are not up to the task. This suggests to me that the proper theory of government should be about a structure that enables people in general to accomplish what we might call non-market mediate goals and ends without necessarily empowering it to take action or be some social authority that can command everyone one.

            Charity and charitable organizations have been around for a long time and, for the most part have very good results. Check out David Beito’s history work on mutual aide societies. One of my old professors noted that a strong push in Britain for state social services was due to charitable givers being concern about over giving because they could not properly monitor beggers.

            Police who are not closely alined with the community also have a bad track record whether or not they are private or government. Take a look at The Agitator blog for all the abuses police currently engage in and then ask if this is better or worse than non-government provision of policing services (by the way, just what are those services — both from a actually delivered versus assumes to be provided).

            So I keep coming back to we really need to rethink government especially if we’re going to say markets and private solutions are not sufficient.

          • matt b

            All of the abuses Balko points out with such painful eloquence and integrity are the product of bad government policies (drug war) and the failure to protect civil liberties by enforcing the Constitution. It’s not a problem with police or state law enforcement authorities as such. And the idea that Beito has tried to promote- all that was fine and well in terms of caring for the poor prior to government- is flatly false. Many were in poverty and government reasonably stepped in to provide help (that does not mean it’s done a great job but I think its failures are traceable to too much direct intervention rather than indirect assistance in the form envisioned by Friedman and Hayek). And then there are areas like environmental protection where there is no reason to believe non-governmental solutions are in existence.

          • j_m_h

            I think you’re making excuses for government. You cannot blame police shooting peoples pets or ignoring first amendment rights on the drug war.

            As for Bieto, I didn’t see any reason to interpret his research as attempting to paint any unrealistic and rosy picture of the mutual aide societies. He’s merely pointing out that quite of lot of what people thing the government has to provide was being provided by people themselves. Nothing there suggests that some additional safety net might not be needed — but it could be a lot smaller than it is.

          • matt b

            I wasn’t blaming any and all ills on the drug war though it should be noted that the dog shooting occurs in “no knock raids” which are almost always drug related as Radley Balko has reported. Ignoring the first amendment is hugely problematic but I don’t think it’s inevitable. I guess we just differ over how realisitc is is to think these abuses could be corrected.
            I don’t neccesarily disagree with that at all. Government puts a lot of people in poverty with its drug war, its licensing, its minimum wage mandate, and more. I would just say that libertarians all too often act as if things were just great prior to the welfare state when many people did go without.

          • j_m_h

            No, several of the reported cases were when the cops were not even interest in the house or the people living there as related to criminal cases. I recall one was actually the case where the occupant called the police, for some information I think, the cops came to the house, knocked on the door but got no answer. Ignored the Beware Dog sign on the fence and then shot the dog because it was there. They have no reason or probable cause for being in the fenced in yard.

            Another was a case where the cops had stopped some one in a car and the person living in the house came out to see what was going on. Their dog (small to medium — 15 to 20 lbs I think) got out the door and was shot because it was, of all things for a dog to do, barking. This happened in front of the the occupant’s young child.

            In neither cases were the respective police departments or city/county forthcoming in holding the office responsible.

            You might also be interested in knowing that the no-knock warrant has not had any statutory standing for many years. The original statute was revoked (I want to say back in the 80s but perhaps the 90s) and has never been re-enacted. For some reason the police just decided to start doing this again — no big surprise there as they often seem ignorant of the actual laws they are suppose to be protecting. What is surprising is the when these cases got to the courts they were not thrown out. Now it appears these action have been legalized not by our Legislators but by judges and DAs who have agreed to take such cases to trial. THAT is not how our legal system is suppose to work. Criminal law cannot be established in the courts.

            Correcting all these things is pretty easy: don’t make excuses for these types of behavior. We didn’t get here over night, but then we didn’t put much effort into it either. We can revere such behaviors without much effort as well by simply not accepting the excuses and by publicly rewarding the good behaviors. This isn’t to say that we’ll end up with perfect police — some will be corrupt and some will be bullies. Those need to be the exceptions and the culture needs to be that mistakes can happen but that doesn’t taint the entire organization if the organization on board with weeding the bad apples out rather than attempting to cover them up for PR purposes.

            I don’t know of any libertarians claiming everything was “great” — whatever that is suppose to mean — prior to the growth of the welfare state in the USA. I haven’t met any libertarians that buy into the existence of utopias so it’s clear they assume bad things are still occurring for good people at times. That said, it’s not at all clear that, controlling for the increase in standard of living all have enjoyed over the past 100 years, that the great social welfare experiment has been successful. It seems to me the larger the effort has grown the larger the percentage of the population considered “in poverty” grows. Some of this might be measurement issues but I’m not sure that is the best or even the most important explanation.

          • matt b

            Thanks for all the information and the link. Lots to think about. I was led to believe the dog shooting as more or less a byproduct of the drug war but it it’s gone even beyond that well that’s scary as hell.

          • j_m_h
          • Kevin

            Sure, we can put charity under that “public good” umbrella, but then what doesn’t fit under that same umbrella? For example, the economy is a public good insofar as its broad benefits are roughly both non-exclusionary and non-rivalrous. Does that mean that the government should control economic activity? Theoretically, central planning can be superior to the free market, we just have to find the right plan.

            In any case, I didn’t intend to actually argue the merits of voluntary charity vs. state entitlements, but instead to challenge the value of abstract moral questions which do not quite bear on reality.

          • matt b

            I actually don’t think that this is what everyone is doing. As Jason Brennan noted in a post in the early days of this website, “In academic philosophy, people tend to use the term ‘libertarian’ in a restrictive way, to refer to people who 1) hold that property rights and other rights are absolute or nearly absolute, 2) who ground their theories of rights and justice on the concept of self-ownership, 3) who reject social justice, and 4) who reject the idea that positive liberty really is liberty, and is a valuable form of liberty which society should project and promote. Libertarians hold that justice requires that we respect property rights, period, even if that means a large percentage of people will starve, lead poor and desperate lives, or have no stake in their society. If that’s libertarianism, count me out.”
            And if you think Brennan or I are mischaracterizing people who are more “hardcore” for the lack of a better term I would just suggest reading Rothbard and his followers firsthand. For them, it is really is all about respecting property rights even if the sky falls (if the sky did fall who would own it though? maybe homesteading can resolve that or, as you point out, probably not 🙂

          • Sean II

            I’m ashamed to admit that, until today, I didn’t know what Google + was. I’ll definitely check it out, now that you suggest it.

          • jdkolassa


          • matt b

            I don’t understand the fear, Sean. I think saying that there is a very strong objective moral preference for voluntary action over force and that coercion is a great evil which can only be justified by really bad things happening absent coercion- basically Huemer’s approach- is really solid. It leaves us with a lot of unaswered questions about what constitutes sufficiently bad consequences but it’s a lot more sensible than the “coerce whenever the majority thinks it right” or social contract justifications for endless coercion or the wild absolutism of the NAP.

      • Although NAP may be a decent “rule-of-thumb”, it isn’t anywhere near a rigorous philosophical principle … in spite of the fact that it was expounded by such contrarian advocates of liberty as Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard.

        The NAP assertion is simply false: it doesn’t work in reality. Liberty works, but NAP does not. The word “liberty” even begs the question: freedom from … what?
        I tried to answer that question long ago, in the Libertarian Enterprise:

  • j r

    Julian Sanchez thinks things are worse for the NAP… the NAP isn’t a principle at all… True enough, but hardly illuminating.

    This is a strange comment. Sometimes the truth is illuminating. And sometimes the truth is a really banal observation about something that should have been obvious all along. The important part here is that it’s true.

  • martinbrock

    … the NAP amounts to little more than the claim that it individuals have a right not to have their rights violated.

    Many proponents of the NAP seem to understand it this way, but I understand it differently. NAP is the claim that free individuals will discover their interpersonal rights, and different groups can discover different, even mutually exclusive, rights. Non-aggression is an obligation of such a group not to impose any rights emerging with the group upon individuals outside of the group.

    • Sean II

      Your version of the NAP sounds suspiciously like the prime directive from Star Trek: TNG. As I recall, it was necessary to overturn that principle on consequentalist grounds approximately 9.6 times per week.

      I predict for you a very similar result.

      • martinbrock

        I’m too old for TNG, but my version is like the prime directive from TOS, and maybe I learned it there.

        Kirk typically overturned the PD on emotional grounds, often to the chagrin of Mr. Spock, and he was typically very honest about his motivation. Politicians pretending to know the consequences of their interventions, like all those french fried children at Waco, typically are not so honest.

        • Sean II

          Star Trek morality reminds me so much of real life descriptive ethics. Everyone runs around espousing these rigid deontological principles, and they’re never more than one act away (get it?) from ditching those principles in the service of some utility. Just to further the confusion, sometimes the deontological principles are chucked over in favor of murky virtue concepts like “courage”.

          The only difference is the Trek writers can always evade the hard parts of the dilemma by having a magical space wizard save the day, or even more simply, by turning up the captain’s badassery to eleven so that things work out all benefit, no cost.

          People in real life solve the problem by means of ex post facto re-writing. They do what they do, and then afterwards select whichever ethical theory makes it sound best. Usually they aren’t as clever as the Trek writers, and they have no like store of good will, but they’re both after the same thing: avoiding the questions they can’t answer.

          • martinbrock

            Avoiding questions that I can’t answer beats pretending to know the answers.

          • Sean II

            Not really. Admitting you can’t answer a question is not the same as avoiding it. The latter entails a pretense that the question either doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter, which can be very harmful indeed.

          • martinbrock

            Then we’re using “avoid” differently. I try hard not to live in denial, particularly denial of my own ignorance.

    • les kyle Nearhood

      I see nothing wrong with your viewpoint, nor would I call it moral relativism. As you are not talking about things that are truly immoral like slavery or human sacrifice. These are simply lifestyles an nobody knows what is best for someone else.

      • matt b

        While the debate over lifestyles has arguably nothing to do with libertarianism as such, I would say it’s not all subjective. For example, do you not think we can say that the life of a Voltaire or a Mill is objectively better than that of a guy who smokes pot all day everyday and eats Cheetos while watching Cheech and Chong?

        • Guest

          Objectively better? No. Subjectively better to most people? Maybe. Subjectively better to people with Phds? Presumably.

          How about Saul Bellow vs. Stephen King?

          • matt b

            I think your argument is a serious one. Some things are certainly subjective. But it’s a far cry from saying that the concept of different strokes for different folks is generally valid to saying there is no such thing as a better or worse way to live. I really think that trying meth when you’re 13, stealing from all your friends to pay for your constant use of it, and thereby being friendless and dying alone in an alley after spending every last penny on drugs is a worse way to live than the opposite of such a life.

          • martinbrock

            From a political perspective, this problem takes care of itself. The meth addict doesn’t need a state to lock him in a cage to suffer destructive consequences of his choices, and his suffering in the alley also makes more a persuasive impression on others dissuaded from meth use by it.

            If you’re inclined to take the first step down this road, the idea of spending a year or two in a cage at some point, with complete material security if not personal liberty, might not dissuade you very much, yet the difference between these preferences (alley vs. cage) does seem very subjective to me.

            I’d be miserable either way, and I’m not inclined to make this choice for someone else on the dubious assumption that I can save him from himself by locking him a cage surrounded by others with a similar history.

            But that’s not your point, of course. Are some choices objectively better than others? “Objectively better” presumes particular, objective criteria and an ordinal relationship between different objective measurements, like a longer life is better than a shorter life.

            Sure, we can measure life expectancy objectively, and we can correlate particular choices with shorter lives objectively, but the preference for a longer life vs. a shorter life, given trade offs that shorten life expectancy, still seems subjective to me.

            I’ve jumped from airplanes hundreds of time, and I know people who’ve jumped thousands of times. I’ve dislocated both of my elbows on botched landings, on separate occasions, and I’ve also seen people die and suffer terrible injuries affecting the rest of their lives in skydiving accidents.

            The risks are very real, but if you’ve never experienced free fall, you can’t possibly know why I don’t regret my jumps and would never interfere with yours, and you might not understand my thinking even if you have experienced free fall.

            I’ve never inhaled methamphetamine and don’t expect ever to inhale it, so I just can’t pretend to understand the trade offs.

          • matt b

            Just to be clear, I completely oppose any and all prohibitionist policies and would never support throwing anyone in a cage for either buying or selling. But I still believe the concept of objectively better has great force. Do you really not think we can say with great confidence that the life of a Voltaire was superior to the life of a guy who started drinking 10 beer a day at 15, went on a bender on his 21st birthday, got into his car thinking he was Superman and drove off a cliff with the sound of his neck breaking the last noise to enter his ear before dying? I mean that seems pretty frickin obvious. I can think of a number of other cases that also seem clear.

          • martinbrock

            I’ll agree that Voltaire’s life is better than your 15 year old, but some people question my objectivity.

          • j_m_h

            You seem to presume a) his life would have been better for him even if he lived a very mediocre live, never realizing any of his dreams and b) that death is the end.

            a) is a very subjective area — you might point out that instead of dying the boy ends up living that mediocre life due to his substance abuse where as if he had taken a different path he may have realized all his dreams. There really isn’t an answer here in any ex ante setting

            b) is problematic in that we simply don’t have any information to speak of. Why rational people assume death is the end I don’t know — we don’t really even understand what life and consciousness is so why we conclude it’s a purely physical existence I don’t know.

            What’s interesting is that your examples all relate to cases where addictive and habit forming agents are influencing our behaviors and choices. In these types of cases we can ask “Is it the drug or the person choosing.” But what is the recourse here and what is the indicated behavior for others? Or is this a case of judging for the sake passing a judgement? In the latter case I think we all agree that the conclusion of the judging is that following the example is a bad idea — which is a better policy stance than tossing the buyer or seller in jail.

          • matt b

            Agree entirely on the last point but my question to you is as follows: do you not think there is a better and worse way to live in any sense whatsoever?

          • martinbrock

            The 15 year old’s individuality is also relevant here. Maybe he lacks the capacity to become a Voltaire. We wouldn’t say that a person with Down’s syndrome objectively chooses wrongly when he doesn’t become a Voltaire.

            “Is it the drug or the person choosing?”

            It’s the drugged person. Some people are more prone to drug addiction than others, and some people are more prone to thrill seeking, like extreme sports, than others, and some people are more prone to sex addiction, and some people are more prone to extreme religiosity, which can also be self-destructive.

            Considering how much time I waste at this web site and similar sites, if my libertarianism qualifies as “religiosity”, I arguably suffer from all of these addictions to some extent. Am I therefore a victim of something other than myself?

            Where does the individual end and his “addictive influences” begin? This question has no obvious answer, and it has no objective answer in my way of thinking.

      • martinbrock

        Most people define “morality” more expansively, but I essentially agree with you. I’m not so extremely relativistic that I can’t assert universal right to life and liberty. These rights are implicit in people’s right to any standards of propriety they prefer. I can never be an anarchist, because I would invade the neighborhood of people threatening to kill a friend of mine or holding him against his will.

    • j_m_h

      I’ve been trying to figure out if I really agree with your view or totally disagree — I’m still not sure. However, I think you’ve shed some light on something that we might all agree is a necessary part of NAP: toleration.

      I think any conception of NAP that lacks the element of toleration ultimately fails — and probably due to some of the points critics of NAP raise.

  • Jeffrey Lawrence Olson

    Interesting. Some skimming of the comments and Matt Z.’s summary made me wonder: What happened to NIOF? It’s a much better descriptive title than merely NAP. Non-initiation as a principle provides a pretty basic and necessary distinction between defensive and aggressive force – justifying self-defense and condemning force-initiation (in general). “Aggression” is a lot harder to quantify than is “initiation” (in general). Yes, rights-violations essentially reduce to a violation of property titles, so calling that or any form of rights-violation “aggression” is insensibly muddying the definitional/conceptual waters. But no such muddying obtains when you point to the first person to do something; that’s often if not usually objectively demonstrable. (I mean that though such “muddying” can certainly occur, it’s not as inherently unclear as is using “aggression” as a blanket-title for all rights-violations.)


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  • The anti-NAP folks don’t seem to understand what it actually is. It’s not a tautological principle of “not violating rights,” but a quite clear and coherent principle of “not initiating force,” or one could even say “not bringing scarce goods into conflict.”

    Property in scare goods is the logical alternative to conflict. It’s presupposed by any form of peaceful cooperation, society, trade, civilization, etc.. Essentially, all peaceful relationships take for granted the [meta-] agreement to make agreements instead of being in violent conflict.

    Any scarce good is either recognized as the property of either the first user, or someone to whom it was voluntarily surrendered by the previous owner, or it is in conflict.

    Any other principle of determining who has a right to particular scarce goods involves taking property by force from some previous owner.

    Now, maybe you think taking property by initiating force is sometimes justified, and we can have that argument too. But first you should call yourself something other than a libertarian.

    • Jesse,

      You say:

      The anti-NAP folks don’t seem to understand what it actually is. It’s not a tautological principle of “not violating rights,” but a quite clear and coherent principle of “not initiating force”

      But I don’t think this can be right. I thought Julian made the argument quite persuasively. What libertarians who believe in the NAP mean by “force” is not what most people mean by “force.” They mean “the violation of property rights.” In other words, they’re using the term “force” in a moralized sense, so that only wrongful force counts as force. But if that’s what they mean, then the NAP really does look like a tautology.

      • Again, you’re leaving out the “initiating.” Maybe it would make it easier to think of it as “bringing scarce goods into conflict.”

        If we lived in the “Garden of Eden” so to speak, where goods are not scarce, there is no occasion for conflict, with the one exception of human bodies (the one thing which would still be scarce). Each person is the owner of his body, inasmuch as conflict is avoided.

        In a world where other goods are also scarce, they too can either be recognized as belonging to the first user, or to someone to whom they have been voluntarily transferred by a previous owner, or they are in conflict.

        This is (so far) not a normative statement, but a positive one. You can recognize property, or you can initiate conflict, but there isn’t a third option as regards human interaction.

        Now, we can make a normative argument as to why you should choose to live in peace with your fellow men, instead of waging war against them (to a greater or lesser extent), but there is no changing what peace would have to mean.

        • If I walk across a field that you own and you physically remove me, then it certainly looks to me like *you* are the one initiating force. Or if I defraud you and you use physical force to get your money back. In both of these cases, I violated your rights, but did so without the use of “force,” on the ordinary meaning of that term. The only way that I could legitimately be said to have initiated force is if you redefine force as the violation of rights. And that’s what most defenders of the NAP appear to.

          • It’s the other way around. What they consider to be “rights” are based on the principle of not initiating force. And again, if you only want to use “force” with regard to bodies and not other property, than I can just as easily call it “not bringing scarce goods into conflict.”

            Now, if you’re just saying that sometimes it’s not immediately obvious who is overriding whom with regard to the use of some object, then that is an empirical question, and in any particular case the people in conflict can argue the facts as to who initiated it.

          • How do you determine which of the two parties on a conflict is responsible for “initiating” it?

          • My hypothesis, for what it’s worth, is that any theory you propose to determine who is responsible for initiating conflict over scarce goods will ultimately reduce to a theory of rights. And then your account will be subject to the same kind of critique that Julian was making.

          • When one person overrides anothers use of some object, he brings it into conflict. And we can see that he’s brought it into conflict before we make any normative claims about whether he had the right to do so.

            The reason that for libertarians the question would be “who’s is the prior use” is that, if a thing is in conflict, the question would be “who is overriding whom,” i.e., bringing the object into conflict.

            If I want to use a field to grow corn, and you want to use it to build a road, we have a disagreement as to how it should be used.

            If you are building a road through my corn field, we get one answer. If I am tearing up your road to plant corn, we get the other.

            Now, if you were to say the second user has a “right” to override the first, then the original user must also have the right to do the same, and all we’ve done is endorsed permanent conflict.

          • martinbrock

            You do not tear up any individual’s road by planting corn on a public road. Members of a community recognize a public road as belonging to no individual, just as people recognize the seas as belonging to no individual even as many individuals use the seas.

          • I don’t know what point you’re responding to with this example, but I’ll just point out that clearly they do not regard the thoroughfare as “unowned” if they use it and prevent others from taking control of it.

            Whatever they call it, some person or group of persons decides how any scarce resource is used and how it is not used.

            The case of the seas has been unfortunately different from that of the jointly-owned thoroughfare. Governments have prevented the establishment of property rights in fishing areas (implicitly claiming the seas as government property), leading to a “tragedy of the commons,” where everyone is incentivised to over-fish, extracting what they can as quickly as possible, and invest nothing in maintaining or improving the resource.

          • martinbrock

            The thoroughfare is owned by the community, or by its members jointly, rather than by an individual member of the community. Any member of the community may use the road subject to rules of the road.

            If the road has an individual owner, any member of the community may use the road subject to it rules, but the rule is that the individual owner must consent or that the individual owner makes the rules.

            If the community recognizes an individual owner of the road, this owner does not make rules determining his ownership of the road.

            A tragedy of the commons leading to over fishing at sea may be a consequence of deficient property rights, but individual property rights are not the only solution to this problem.

      • It’s not a tautology; it’s a proxy for the property rule libertarians favor. I explain this in What Libertarianism Is http://mises.org/daily/3660

        • martinbrock

          Libertarians do not favor particular property rules. They favor a wide variety of property rules. Endless debates over hereditary title and intellectual property and countless other standards of propriety within the libertarian circle clearly indicate these diverse preferences.

    • martinbrock

      Property in scarce goods is the logical alternative to conflict.

      I accept this formulation, but individual property in scarce goods is not the only possible resolution of conflict. A community may decide that a particular path (like a public road) may not be any individual’s property and that proper rules of transit govern use of this path. These rules then are the standards of propriety governing the path.

      Any scarce good is either recognized as the property of either the first user, or someone to whom it was voluntarily surrendered by the previous owner, or it is in conflict.

      That’s not the only possible resolution of conflict, and insisting upon this resolution exclusively is itself a source of conflict. If a community prefers a different resolution, then anyone invading the community’s territory to impose this resolution violates the NAP.

      Any other principle of determining who has a right to particular scarce goods involves taking property by force from some previous owner.

      This statement presumes that some individual owns every scarce resource in the first instance and that ownership is always individual. This strict formulation of ownership is itself the source of endless conflict. The individual ownership model is often useful, and free communities will often adopt it, but insisting that it is the only possible model is the antithesis of liberty.

    • matt b


      I’m pretty comfortable with Mike Huemer’s approach which basically says “There’s a very strong presumption against coercive force but certain consequences can rightly be judged to be so awful that they justify coercion outside of the realm of black and white negative rights protection.” What I’m very uncomfortable with is the elevation of property rights into an absolute which leads you to countless problematic conlusions. For example, my plane crashes in the forest. I spend days searching for food with nothing to show for it until I stumble on your property where I discover a bountiful garden. I start eating. You come and say “stop.” Even after I explain the situation you refuse to let me eat and say you’re going to get your gun if I don’t leave immediately. Under the NAP, that’s perfectly moral behavior. To most people, nay 99.9 percent of people, it is flagrantly immoral.

      • I would say Huemer’s formulation of a “strong presumption” is too weak. Property defines peace, society, etc., because it’s what’s immediately implied by not being in conflict. It other words, it’s not a convention that could be replaced by some other convention for avoiding conflict. It is avoiding conflict.

        That doesn’t mean that it’s a first principle of personal ethics. The question of how to act toward one’s fellow men can only ever be a sub-category of the question of how to act. And the choice to be at peace with others instead of being more or less at war with them is itself based on some other principle of choosing (and I would say the one consistent justification for any choice is the logically antecedent value of happiness/self-interest).

        You can certainly imagine “life-boat” scenarios where you are better-off eschewing peaceful society. But it doesn’t change the nature of property/society. You would still be violating the gardener’s property, and putting yourself in conflict with him, and could not (consistently) appeal to the notion of “rights” when objecting to his defensive action.

  • famadeo

    “If in the name of individual rights one is allowed to to what one wants, great! But if what you want to do is create a new way of life, then the question of individual rights is not relevant. Indeed, we live in a legal, social and institutional world where possible relationships are extremely few, extremely schematized, and extremely poor.” -Michel Foucault

    • martinbrock

      Short of becoming a hermit, an individual cannot create a new way of life. Only a community can create a new way of life. If Foucault advocates some right of secession from an established state for this purpose, I agree with him.

      • famadeo

        “Only a community can create a new way of life.” That’s precisely the point. That’s why individual rights are not relevenat.

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  • My argument for FOO vs. NAP from 2002: “The Libertarian Enterprise”