Rights Theory, Libertarianism

The NAP is Back!

A little over three years ago, I published an essay entitled, “Six Reasons Libertarians Should Reject the Non-Aggression Principle.” That essay kicked off a spirited debate, with notable responses from George Smith, David Gordon, and Julian Sanchez, among others.

Since then, I haven’t written much about the issue for the blogosphere. But I have been thinking about it. And the result of that thinking has now been published in a new essay, “The Libertarian Nonaggression Principle,” out today in the newest issue of the journal Social Philosophy and Policy. [1]

The short version of my thesis is: I don’t actually think we should “reject” the non-aggression principle, but I don’t think we can really base a libertarian theory off it either.

The longer version’s in the abstract:

Libertarianism is a controversial political theory. But it is often presented as a resting upon a simple, indeed commonsense, moral principle. The libertarian “Nonaggression Principle” (NAP) prohibits aggression against the persons or property of others, and it is on this basis that the libertarian opposition to redistributive taxation, legal paternalism, and perhaps even the state itself is thought to rest. This essay critically examines the NAP and the extent to which it can provide support for libertarian political theory. It identifies two problems with existing libertarian appeals to the NAP. First, insofar as libertarians employ a moralized understanding of aggression, their principle is really about the protection of property rights rather than the prohibition of aggression. Second, the absolutist prohibition on aggression, which libertarians typically endorse and which is necessary to generate strongly libertarian conclusions, is grossly implausible. The essay concludes by setting forth a version of the NAP that does not suffer from these problems. It argues that this more moderate and defensible version of the NAP still has important libertarian implications, but that a full defense of libertarianism cannot rely upon appeals to nonaggression alone.

Read the whole thing here.

[1] That issue contains some other fantastic essays as well, including one by our own Jason Brennan entitled, “When May We Kill Government Agents? A Defense of Moral Parity,” and one by Eric Mack on “Elbow Room for Self-Defense.” Both of those essays, unfortunately, are gated. But maybe if you bug Jason or Eric they’ll give you a free copy.

Published on:
Author: Matt Zwolinski
  • Pajser

    Excellent article. I didn’t found single mistake in it. As I am Marxist communist, maybe it is not desirable for author. After reading his article, libertarian who believes in NAP is in twice worse position; not only that simple form (Don’t punch first) doesn’t defend property rights, but it provides moral presumption against these (“John’s claim to a property right in his land is backed by the threat of physical violence. And the same, of course, is true of other property rights as well …” p. 86). There is important exception – collective property of the whole planet, the world communist state – because no one is “left out”, and use of the collective property by members of collective is allowed – except if it is explicitly banned. It is strong advantage of collective over individual property. The capitalism is violent by very existence; the communism is violent only when collective makes decisions. Which is funny, but not that great problem as it might appear on the first sight.

    • martinbrock

      Marxist socialism requires a state, but he never advocates a world state or collective property in the planet.

      The NAP, as libertarians often express it, presumes a particular formulation of individual property rights, and this presumption is problematic, but a communitarian formulation, more like the libertarianism of Karl Hess and also more like pre-Marxist communism, does not remotely imply a global state.

      Libertarian (or voluntarist) property rights are collective rights, because they are terms of free association and thus require the consent of persons expected to respect them. An individual owner’s exclusive use of a parcel of land within a community, or another resource subject to a community’s standards, is a condition of membership in the community. An owner owes other community members respect for all of the community’s standards as much as any member owes the owner respect for property in the resource.

      A free society, governed by the NAP, is a network of free communities in which respect for a community’s standards, possibly including respect for an individual’s property in land or other resources, is the price of membership in the community. “Free community” neither implies nor rules out individual property rights. Free communities respect any formulation of individual property rights that members of the community agree to respect.

      Non-aggression is an obligation of non-members not to invade a community to impose standards that the community’s members do not freely choose to respect. The NAP applies as much to an egalitarian, income sharing community, like a Christian monastery or a Kibbutz or an intentional community like Twin Oaks, as it does to a voluntary association of Rothbardians requiring respect for individual property in all community resources and requiring nothing else. The NAP protects the Rothbardian community, but it doesn’t require or imply that any community respects individual property rights.

      • Pajser

        Martinbrock, I think Marx never advocated global state explicitly. Some communists did, for instance, Lenin. I do not like him, but he is not marginal. I think global communist state is a logical consequence of communist ideas.

        I agree that libertarian property rights defined through consent of community do not produce ethical problems. However, division of the world in the communities produces causes problem similar as general property rights: restriction of freedom of non-members. They are not allowed to use resources controlled by community, except if community explicitly permitted it. It is restriction of freedom, maybe justifiable, but it requires justification.

        The world communist state doesn’t require such justification. Organization of the state does not restrict anyone’s freedom. When world communist state proclaims its first law, it will restrict some freedoms, by violent means, and that requires justification. (I think it is sometimes possible – I am utilitarian. Maybe I am wrong.) Maybe the best first decision for global communist state is indeed to establish largely independent subcommunities (as you propose in your article on archipelago – I’ve read it, enjoyable reading.) If it can be shown that it gives greater benefit for price (certain loss of freedom) than other alternatives, I would advocate it. But organization of economy on the principle “from everyone according to his capability, to everyone according to his needs” seems almost identical to maximization of total utility to me so that’s what I currently advocate.

        • martinbrock

          I’m no Leninist, but I doubt that he ever advocated a global state. Sounds more like Trotsky and by extension like the neoconservatives who gave us Pax Americana and the global war on terror.

          Communism implies a global state only if you assume that everyone everywhere must be forced to accept the same formulation of property rights or ownership of all capital by a state. Communists like Kropotkin don’t advocate such a thing, and I can’t imagine a single authority over all of the world’s capital without imagining an incredibly despotic state impoverishing its subjects.

          The problem with a platitude like “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” is that politicians commanding all of the world’s capital can’t possibly realize it, even if they want to, but they can channel much of the world’s output to themselves and the realization of their ambition, and real politicians will.

          And I don’t want this platitude or any other realized globally anyway. I want people free to choose how they produce and how much they produce for themselves and for others according to their own values. I don’t expect most people to choose a radically individualistic community, governed by Rothbardian property rights, but I certainly want Rothbardians free to organize themselves this way without interference from any external authority, much less a single authority over everyone everywhere.

          Thanks for reading my blog at liberty.me. Feel free to comment there.

      • Theresa Klein

        It’s an interesting idea that a Rothbardian micro-communities wouldn’t be required to respect individual property rights. It’s certainly true that in a Nozickian meta-state that any group would be free to go off and form a communist society if they wanted. The one condition, of course, is that they cannot compel membership in such a society. There are some individual rights that must be respected and enforced above those of the microcommunities, and the right to join or leave such micro-communities at will has to be one of them.

        I think that ultimately such microcommunities would end up settling on a system of private property rights very like the libertarian formulation of property rights, because that system both incentivizes individuals to be the most productive, and respects their autonomy enough that productive individuals would be inclined to stay.

        Historically, what has happened in communist societies is that they had to forcibly prevent the most productive people from leaving. The communist style micro-communities would be likely to suffer the same fate.

        Ultimately, to have a just society there would have to be a higher authority that would enforce the right of individuals to leave any of the micro-communities and go to another.

        • Pajser

          I expect that there is some incentive for people with potential for high incomes to move toward countries with freer market. However, it is questionable whether it is strong determinant of the political development. In 1850’s, government spending of developed countries was around 5% of GDP. These days, it is about 50%. It couldn’t happen if such incentive is really strong or relevant.

          It is less than obvious that pseudo-communist countries had to forcibly prevent the most productive people from leaving. Most of them did it, surely, but assumption that they expected that closing borders will increase their economic growth – and their disdain for personal freedoms are sufficient to explain it. In fact, one of pseudo-communist countries had open borders – Yugoslavia. In period 1950-1990 it progressed better than Western Europe.

  • Ben Kennedy

    As a moral skeptic, I think any rights-based justification is inherently problematic. I’d rather see us jettison all rights-language, and speak in terms of moral imperatives that we want our institutions to satisfy. If Libertarians want property rights to trump welfare (or whatever else) – then just say that, not make grandiose and unsupportable claims about how non-aggression is built into the fabric of the universe.

    • Reasonable Extremist

      A moral skeptic speaking in terms of moral imperatives? This seems a tad at odds.

      • Ben Kennedy

        There is no contradiction – as long as I know that my moral preferences are simply that – preferences created by evolution, not intrinsic real features of the universe. To quote Richard Joyce:

        “We may, thus, sum up the standard moral error theoretic strategy by saying that it combines a rich view of moral concepts with a meager ontological view of the world”

        • Reasonable Extremist

          This is very interesting. So in your view moral imperatives are comparable, to say, the imperative to eat?

          • Ben Kennedy

            They are comparable in the sense that they are outputs of an evolutionary processes, and the way that all feelings (hunger, moral wrongness, etc) are just things that happen in our brains – at least evolution is more compelling than divine creation or other competing theories

          • Reasonable Extremist

            Okay. So in this sense not doing “bad” things just makes evolutionary sense while doing them does not and that’s where we get bad from?

          • Ben Kennedy

            Yes – if we accept that evolution produced the rest of our incredibly complex bodies that we are just barely beginning to understand, the notion that our moral senses evolved is very plausible. Joshua Greene’s book “Moral Tribes” gives a good readable account of this

          • Reasonable Extremist

            May I ask you this: what evolutionary benefit do you think we derive from helping the poor, the sick, and all that? Richard Dawkins gave an interesting answer to this once but I didn’t find it convincing. I’d be curious to hear yours

          • Ben Kennedy

            It’s pretty straightforward – the emotion of empathy (which motivates us to help the poor, etc) facilitates cooperation among members of a species, which in turn makes it a lot easier to survive. It very well could have derived from parental empathy toward children. Also, empathic behavior has been observed in chimpanzees, which should give us further reason so believe that it can arise through evolutionary processes

  • Greg Diderich

    I find that Rothbardian libertarians, (which I used to be), don’t actually believe in NON aggression, but in PROPORTIONAL aggression. The red flag is when they say something like, “you give up your rights when you initiate aggression”. That’s incompatible (incompossible? what a great word.) with the idea of “natural” or “inalienable” rights. Nonetheless, when aggression occurs, Rothbard talks about proportional response to that aggression, usually on the order of a multiple of two to the aggression.

    This leads to several problems. One is subjectivity. Who decides what is twice the aggression? Another problem is that who initiated violence is often unclear. An example Matt has in the article is one where a person doesn’t realize he is trespassing and the owner attacks him. In both peoples’ minds they are responding proportionally. Finally, I already mentioned, and I think Matt makes the point too, if a right is conditional on your actions, it’s not a right.

    A positive point for proportionality though, is for dealing with the “aggression everywhere”. If my hair falls on your property, the amount of harm it does is negligible, and I can expect the just moral retribution to be negligible as well. The transaction cost of punishment is higher than the punishment. Or in the case of the CO2 example from the article, breathing out CO2 is a minor aggression and preventing me from breathing is not a proportional response.

    I understand however, that this too, softens the the definition of a “right” much more than libertarians would allow if you point blank asked them to define a right. It becomes for these small aggressions a matter of consequences, not rights.

    For consistency, i believe that strict NAP adherence means strict non-violence. That solves the issues above of proportionality and of determining who initiated. A person’s right to body is inalienable, no matter what. Self defense is then as impermissible as initiating violence. Even if someone is stealing my bread, they still have their right to their body. I can recover my bread, if I can, but not with violence or threat of violence. I believe this to be a much more logical conclusion to NAP, than the standard no aggression unless aggressed upon. However, the problem remains of minor aggressions such as breathing or dropping hair on someone’s property. Perhaps we are all sinners, and cannot be perfect, though perfection should still be sought.

    Lately i’ve been letting NAP basically unravel in my mind to see what it tastes like. I have enjoyed your articles very much. I think NAP is a good negative right, in general, but I feel there must exist a complimentary positive right. There are things that we should do and things that we shouldn’t do, and they are like two opposite sloping lines, with shoulds outweighing shouldn’ts on one side of the graph and vice versa. But then I don’t see how that could be objective either.

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  • TheOneLaw

    I stand to retire the NAP.
    I love the NAP for its history, but it has served its purpose.
    It is now time to evolve one more time.
    The idea that libertarianism/(or other) is based on the blurry ideas of a principle is something that has bothered me for years.
    (Principle sounds nice until you realize popular vocabulary ranks it somewhere near unicorns and fairy dust in relation to reality.
    It has as much reality as daydreams about a twitter conversation.)
    People have been saying that the NAP is ‘a preatty good idea’, a nice hope,
    lets all hold hands close our eyes and wish the future into being filled with NAP.
    I call this a pointless exercise, as it always has been and always will be.
    An encounter with Michael Badnarik back in 2004 set me to recalculating this whole mess. Now I have just begun posting how what has been regarded as the NAP should be viewed.
    It is not some altruistic goal, some blurry-eyed ideal.
    It is a LAW, as binary and exact as necessary.
    The One Law very exactly defines Freedom.
    It defines the judgement of who is in and who is out of society.
    It does not try to be and fix everything.
    The One Law addresses exactly one point and nail that to the wall.
    There can only be One Law.
    It has only One purpose and that is to forbid Harm.
    I will not further disturb you here, but you can find it if you search:
    In this Universe there exists only One Law: No Being shall Harm another Being.
    Legislation is a Crime against Humanity.