Last week’s TGIF, “One Moral Standard for All,” drew a curious response from Matt Bruenig, a contributor to the Demos blog, Policy Shop. In reading his article, “Libertarians Are Huge Fans of Initiating Force,” one should bear in mind that the aim of my article was not to defend the libertarian philosophy, but to show that most people live by it most of the time. The problem is that they apply a different moral standard to government employees.
Mr. Bruenig’s article, which will satisfy only those of his readers who know nothing firsthand about libertarianism, charges libertarians with failing to understand that the concept “initiation of force” must be defined in terms of a theory of entitlement. It is that theory which reveals who, in any particular violent interaction, is the aggressor and who is the defender. Thus, he says, an act that a libertarian would call aggression would look different to someone working from a different theory of entitlement. (Strangely, he believes he can validate taxation by this reasoning.)
That Mr. Bruenig thinks this is news to libertarians indicates how much research he did before writing his article. I know of no libertarian who would be surprised by his statement. But Mr. Bruenig goes further and accuses libertarians of circular reasoning in defining entitlement and the initiation of force, or aggression. Is he right? Let’s see.
To be fair, I will quote him at length.
Suppose I walk on to some piece of ground that a libertarian claims ownership over. Suppose I contend that people cannot own pieces of ground because nobody makes them. In my walking on the ground, I do not touch the libertarian or threaten to touch him in any way. Nonetheless, the libertarian proceeds to initiate force against me or calls the police to get them to initiate force against me. Libertarians are fine doing this and therefore libertarians are huge fans of initiating force. The initiation of force or the threat to initiate force is the mechanism that underlies all private property claims.
Now a libertarian will see this and object. They will say that, in fact, violently attacking me for wandering on to some piece of ground is not the initiation of force. It is defensive force. Aimlessly wandering on to ground is actually the initiation of force. I am the force initator because, despite touching and threatening nobody, I set foot on some piece of the world that the libertarian believes belongs to him.
I must stop here. As I understand libertarianism, a property owner has no right to violently attack someone merely for aimlessly wandering on his land. The means of defending oneself and one’s property must be morally proportionate to the rights violation. Aggression and its synonyms are terms of art that apply to a large range of actions, from the trivial to the lethal, and these terms do not imply that violence or deadly force may be used in response to any and all violations. Any uninvited crossing into another person’s moral sphere counts as an invasion, no matter how slight or nonviolent. But since the sole permissible objective of defense is to terminate the invasion and obtain compensation for damages (if any occur), one may use only the minimum force required to accomplish those goals. Any greater use constitutes aggression in itself.
As Roderick Long formulates the Principle of Proportion: “If S violates O’s boundary, O (or O’s agent) has the right to invade S’s boundary in whatever way is necessary to end S’s violation of O’s boundary, so long as O’s (or O’ agent’s) invasion of S’s boundary is not disproportionate to the seriousness of S’s violation of O’s boundary.” (Also see Long’s “The Irrelevance ofResponsibility” [PDF].)
Mr. Bruenig shamefully tries to inflame his readers with images of libertarians beating up or shooting — with impunity — free spirits who harmlessly stroll onto private property.
But at this point, it’s clear that when the libertarians talk about not initiating force, they are using the word “initiation” in a very idiosyncratic way. They have packed into the word “initiation” their entire theory of who is entitled to what. What they actually mean by “initiation of force” is not some neutral notion of hauling off and physically attacking someone. Instead, the phrase “initiation of force” simply means “acting in a way that isinconsistent with the libertarian theory of entitlement, whether using force or not.” And then “defensive force” simply means “violently attacking people in a way that is consistent with the libertarian theory of entitlement.”
This definitional move is transparently silly and ultimately reveals a blatant and undeniable circularity in libertarian procedural reasoning. Libertarians like Richman claim that they think we can determine who is entitled to what by looking towards the principle of non-aggression (i.e. the principle of non-initiation of force). But then they define “non-aggression” by referring to their theory of who is entitled to what. [Emphasis added.]
So in the case of the libertarian in the hypothetical who attacks me, here is how the libertarian line goes. The reason the libertarian is entitled to that piece of land is because they are being non-aggressive. The reason the libertarian’s attack on me is non-aggressive is because he is entitled to that piece of land.So their claims of entitlement are justified by appealing to non-aggression and their claims of non-aggression are justified by appealing to their claims of entitlement. It is truly and seriously as vacuously circular as that. [Emphasis added.]
We stand charged with circular reasoning. How do we plead? Not guilty.
First, note that Mr. Bruenig presents no evidence for his charge; he quotes no libertarian at all, let alone me. (I’m not claiming that no libertarian ever argued the way Mr. Bruenig describes, only that such an argument does not inherently underlie the libertarian philosophy.)