Libertarianism: Phenotype or Genotype?

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Apropos of Brian Doherty's reportage on the tensions between "purists" and "reformers" in the LP, I see that the arbiters of purity over at LewRockwell.Com ran at least three articles on that theme last week: "In Defense of Libertarian Purity," "Principles," and "Evicting Libertarian Party Principles."

Each seems to be built on a premise that I think is pretty radically wrong: that "libertarianism" is fundamentally a sort of moral philosophy rooted in the non-aggression axiom. The principle is definitive; the policy prescriptions that follow from it (low or no taxation, freedom to engage in "capitalist acts between consenting adults," minimal or no regulation, etc.) are accidental. On that view, then, there's just one "pure" libertarian position, which is either anarchist or damn close to it, and all deviations from that position constitute a watering down of the definitive principle, presumably for the sake of political expediency.

If we don't take the biological analogy too seriously, we could call this the view that libertarianism is a genotype rather than a phenotype. That's probably a bit too starkly binary, of course, because there's not really this sharp divide, but rather a continuum of principles people hold at different levels of abstraction, from the metaphysical view in which an ethical ideal is rooted, through general strucutral or procedural principles of government, and down to more or less specific policy-guiding principles. Still, just to have a term, let's call the view represented above the libertarianism-as-genotype view.

What's appealing about the idea, of course, is that obviously even a pretty broad political orientation is much more than just a set of policy prescriptions. A law banning some kinds of pornography might be defended on progressive feminist grounds or conservative "family values" grounds. And both philosophies are ways of approaching new issues, not just a random cluster of positions on existing ones. So the contrasting view—libertarianism as phenotype—shouldn't be that libertarianism is just a set of policy positions. Instead, let's take as our point of contrast the view that libertarianism is what Wittgenstein would've called a "family resemblance" concept, a cluster of both policy positions and lower-level abstract principles and dispositions for thinking about politics. These might include, among others, sensitivity for unintended consequences of state action, respect for the information aggregating power of the price system, an emphasis on the value of autonomy and people's desire to shape their own lives, and a regard for the importance of robust property rights as a means to that end. On this view, there isn't any one "foundational" or essential principle that's definitive of libertarianism, and so there's no thought of explaining variation among libertarians—more or less "radical" views, that is—along some single dimension defined by that principle, where the only question is how much particular people decide to dilute that one purportedly common ideal

There are two main reasons for preferring the phenotypic view: one conceptual, the other empirical. The conceptual reason is that the "non-aggression principle" is, by itself, vacuous. A socialist could claim to support it, provided he coupled it with a concept of property rights on which holding more than one's equal share of social resources counts as coercive infringement of the rights of others. To get particular libertarian conclusions out of that principle, you've got to load a lot of theory into the term "coercion" or "force" or "aggression," such that when I apply coercion to enforce performance of a contract, or to recover my wallet from someone who snatched it from my coat, that counts as "retaliatory" force, even if I'm the first one to employ aggression in any colloquial sense. But once you realize that, the apparently unitary principle is exposed as potentially encompassing a range of very different ones depending on the details of your theory of property.

The empirical reason is that if you talk to younger libertarians in particular, it's just not clear that the rhetoric of "initiation of force" plays a very large role in their thinking at all, at least not as a fundamental political principle from which all else is derived. This is a point I suspect people who were involved in "the movement" in the 70s, say, really don't yet appreciate fully: For a New Liberty is no longer required reading; there's a significant chunk of the younger generation that, however radical they might be, have never cracked a book by Rothbard or Rand and might never. You can, I suppose, just stamp your feet and insist that such people are ipso facto not really libertarians at all, like a kind of extreme prescriptivist grammarian who knows that a word "really means" whatever Webster's said it meant in 1806, even if everyone now uses it differently. This yields some pretty silly consequences: It entails that an anarcho-capitalist utilitarian whose ultimate criterion is aggregate happiness will not be a libertarian "really," nor will a radical minarchist who takes a Rawlsian "basic structure" approach, where as someone who espouses far more moderate views might be, so long as his foundational principle is the NAP, however watered down for practical reasons. This seems like pointless pedantry: If Rothbardians want to argue that, really, all libertarians ought to prefer their version of the theory, let them argue that, rather than getting tangled in a tedious debate over what "libertarian" really means. [Cross-posted @ NftL]

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  1. Good post, Julian. If there is a particular political axiom that libertarians share, it would seem to be respect for individuals and individual freedom. While that may seem trite, it’s also the case that most other political philosophies start with the group (or the community, the collective, society, or whatever) and are aimed at the group’s welfare. Focusing on the rights and welfare of individuals is the exception, rather than the rule. Perhaps it is enough to unite the various factions of libertarianism.

  2. Even though Rand (to speak of something I may know a little about) discussed and endorsed the NAP, she seemed to be schizophrenic, or at least silent, about how there can be government at all…Objectivists have thoroughly destroyed anarchists in debate and separated themselves from that line of thought, but if all things are to be voluntary, how is it then that a government gets its taxing power?

    The answer, I am told, is because it is granted it through the consent of the governed…however, I never signed any consent form. I think the best thing to do to legitimize government (I will only advocate this when we get to the point that government only does what it’s supposed to do) is to have everyone, upon the age of consent, actually sign a contract with the government, agreeing to pay for the services government provides, with said contract being null and void if:
    A) Person leaves America, vacates citizenship etc. etc. OR
    B) If government is found in court to have overreached it’s contractual privileges, meaning we’re entitled to an apology and a refund.

    It’d be great if everyone over 18 in America could file and win a class-action suit against the government.

  3. A good post, one problem I’ve always had with libertarianism is the non-aggression axiom, which I disagree with to a large degree. Which is why I’m an independent and not a Libertarian, even though I agree with most of their positions.

  4. I think that’s probably right if you take it as a “ground level” rather than ultimate principle. I know quite a few libertarians who, as utilitarians, think the ultimate political good is the aggregate happiness of the community as a whole. They just think it’s more likely to be promoted by a thin government that lets people act according to their own lights and form smaller associations dedicated to promoting their own happiness than by direct government attempts to achieve that end. Which, again, is just to say that libertarianism is more about having a cluster of (relatively) superficial things in common than one big deep thing.

  5. I was wondering when this conversation would crop up again.

  6. Julian Sanchez- That also points to the distinction between society and voluntary associations. Since the latter tend to form out of individual choice, it’s easier for an individualist to support that form of community.

  7. Number 6,

    And the former don’t? Does society only exist via coercion?

  8. I think the non-aggression axiom is one of the biggest problems with the libertarian party – any political party should have *general guiding principles* not axioms. Axioms don’t admit to the existence of gray areas or conflicting rights. It should be enough to say that we favor strong support for civil and economic liberties; additionally, we should stress the creativity and human ingenuity of grass roots, bottom up, problem solving. Kind of like what Mackey was saying in his recent speech.

  9. PhiLip- The primary difference is that one is usually born into a society. Also, I tend to think that any group of human beings runs the risk of becoming coercive. The smaller and more voluntary the group is, the easier it is to escape.
    One can simply leave the Rotarians, or even a co-op. It’s much harder to escape a society, especially if you’re talking about one that comprises a nation.

  10. Number 6,

    It’s much harder to escape a society, especially if you’re talking about one that comprises a nation.

    That begs the question though; societies can and have pre-dated governments and nations after all. In fact, what we are beating around the bush, contract theory, assumes such, though varying authors have come to different conclusions about what those societies were like (and don’t let Rawls’ claim that Hobbes, etc. weren’t really serious about their being pre-government societies where people lived in a “state of nature” – Hobbes, etc. did in fact think that their claims were reasonable and possible).

  11. Does society only exist via coercion?

    Fully informed consent and coercion do not exhaust the universe of possiblilities. Your membership in society mostly an accident of where and when you are born, combined with the implied consent of you never leaving.

  12. PL:

    This discussion really is the whole thing nowadays.

    Good post Julian. It gladdens my heart to see a broader movement toward relevance. It seems to me that the libertarian movement has contributed greatly to the discussion in the area of accurate descriptions of “is”. It is the case that incentives matter, it is the case that there are unintended consequences, it is the case that government solutions create markets in political clout to replace the markets of money they supplant, and so forth.

    Where we struggle is in making a compelling case of “ought”. I suspect, after years of trying to make the case, that the moral claims of self ownership and so forth are simply values that not everyone has the constitution to agree with. Value predispositions may even be genetic. When push comes to shove, I can’t really say that a guy who cares about equality of results more than individual liberty is wrong. I can point out an inconsistency if such a person claims to be promoting liberty, and I can point out the consequences of different policies, but I really can’t put a dent in the argument that certain policies OUGHT to be in place to ensure equality, and screw the individual in those cases.

    The traditionalist approach is to bundle the arguments about is with the arguments about ought, and I think that is a mistake. It is especially a mistake to argue, as many of the Rockwell set do, that we only need to discuss the value derived pieces. Rands false simplifications don’t serve us at all, and they need to be abandoned.

  13. R.C. Dean,

    There is no implied consent in never leaving.

  14. R.C. Dean,

    Indeed, Prof. Barnett is right in pointing out that there is very little in the way of consent re: our system of government for vast swaths of the population. Which is why he states that consent cannot be basis of our system of government, only a limited government with robust procedures which protect our natural rights.

  15. PhiLip- You, of course, point to one of the central problem in social contract theory-the issue of consent. I’m not going to pretend to give a definiteive answer; people much smarter than I am have tried and failed. My comments were intended as a general observation about groups of people.

  16. Number 6,

    In small societies I think consent of the whole population is a possibility. In large societies not so much. And in a society with a government attached to it, consent is impossible. Then again, I admit to being wholey swayed by Prof. Barnett’s writings on this issue. But I do think that he is correct. That consent in a society like ours is a chimera (at least as far as the government is concerned). But he also agrees with you re: voluntary associations and the sort of “law” that they create (he uses the example of a neighborhood association).

  17. If Rothbardians want to argue that, really, all libertarians ought to prefer their version of the theory, let them argue that, rather than getting tangled in a tedious debate over what “libertarian” really means.

    I think that’s already the implication. “What libertarian really means” is shorthand for “what libertarian should mean” or “what libertarian means to me”. Most Rothbardians understand that “libertarian” has a less strict popular connotation translating roughly to “likes pot and low taxes”. That doesn’t mean we have to like it, or can’t object when a raving statist like Bill Maher calls himself a libertarian. The whole point is to popularize the NAP strain of libertarianism as the dominant definition.

  18. Actual watering down of principle begins when any libertarian objects to his neighbor storing a thermonuclear bomb in the basement. Doesn’t it?

    I’m too old to stay up all night debating it, but it isn’t just the initiation of force platform that has been abandoned by many younger folks who identify themselves as libertarians.

    MadDog, I don’t have a problem with the non-aggression axiom. Then again, I am not an LP member anymore. But when I was, I signed on for it. It’s really boils down to the good manners someone was talking about over the weekend on another thread.

    I can’t imagine any situation where the non-aggression plank wouldn’t apply so I’m confused as to why you would disagree with the plank. Besides being hard to explain and not written all that well.

  19. “The whole point is to popularize the NAP strain of libertarianism as the dominant definition.”

    Problem is, this strain is incompatible with anything other than anarchy. You can’t collect taxes. You can’t have any foreign policy to speak of.

  20. I’ll listen to Lew Rockwell hold forth on libertarian “purity” when he explains giving a platform to so-called libertarians who compete with the Taliban for the title of “Most Theocratic People on the Planet.” This is what Walter Olson had to say about Gary North and his ilk of libertarian in 1998. This is the Gary North collection hosted at Lew’s place.

  21. Jason my ideal foreign policy is to assign 6 people to each embassy and bring everyone else home. Then, adopt a strict non-interference policy. Then put every country on notice that if they screw with us in an way, trifling or serious, we will nuke them into the stone age. That is a strict interpretation of the non-initiation of force plank. 🙂

  22. Gary North always seemed to be the type to advocate public stoning ( and surely the great sense of community that comes with lynching as well).

  23. Jack Johnstone- I think that’s part of my concern when people start talking about the value of community. While it’s undeniable that communities have benefits, it’s also the case that communities can be repressive and occasionally violent. The line between community and mob or herd seems thin and easily crossed.

  24. Problem is, this strain is incompatible with anything other than anarchy. You can’t collect taxes. You can’t have any foreign policy to speak of.

    That’s not the problem, that’s the good part! 🙂

  25. Ayn_Randian, Jason Ligon, and others: I know that Rand claimed you could finance a government without violating the non-aggression principle. She wrote an essay on it once, basically arguing that the government should charge insurance, basically, on contracts over $X. So most people don’t have to pay anything to the government directly, and no one has to; but if you’re making a multi-million dollar deal and you don’t pay the government it’s 2% cut or whatever, if the other guy cheats you you have no recourse. You talk to the government, the government says “Yeah, he cheated you, but you didn’t pay so we’re not going to enforce it.”

    I don’t know whether this would work; and arguments by Liz Anderson and Charles Taylor have convinced me that the non-aggression principle can’t be the sole underpinning of a coherent political philosophy (basically for the reasons Julian gives: you have to do a lot of work to justify exactly what you’re counting as coercion), so I no longer think that taxation as a concept is prima facie immoral.

  26. In my experience the people to tend to advocate a ‘purist’ position, whether that be the Lew Rockie Rothbardians or O’ist, is that, while extremely intelligent, they lack any empathy or emotional intelligence or call it what you will or at least the ability to display it publicly. I’ve met a fair bunch of these folks over the years, (500+) and almost to a man I can’t be bothered with their arguments cause I am immediately pissed off by their personality or lack there of.

    Karl Hess said that to be a good anarchist you only needed to be a ‘good neighbor, good friend and good lover’ and its hard to imagine any of the hardcore rothbardians at lewrockwell, etc. or that I’ve met in person fitting at least the first two and I’ll defer judgement on the third.

    basically: get yourself some empathy and stop being such assholes cause your IQ is high and perhaps I’ll start to pay attention to what you are saying.

    am I alone on this?

    purists of all stripes fit this mold for me btw, lefty, righty, etc.

  27. I think it’s telling, incidentally, that even in the face of an explicit attempt to make clear that this wasn’t a post about the relative merits of “purity” and “pragmatism,” some people seem incapable of fathoming the suggestion that “libertarianism” isn’t just obviously defined by the NAP, and so try to shoehorn it into a debate about the desirability of watering-down that principle as a concession to practical politics.

  28. Everyone claims to believe in liberty. That doesn’t mean that everyone is a libertarian.

    Libertarianism is both a genotype and a phenotype. It is based on a strict principle (genotype) which is applied in the real world in visible ways (phenotype). The genotype is non-aggression. The phenotype is what that means for the state and individuals.

    If young libertarians aren’t reading the important material, that’s a shame, and it would explain why the LP and other libertarian organizations have strayed so tragically from the libertarian ideal. The answer isn’t to just redefine libertarianism so it encompasses everyone who has falsely self-applied the label, from Neal Boortz to Bill Clinton. The answer is instead to focus on internal and external education, rooted in libertarian principle.

    If libertarianism isn’t rooted in non-aggression, what’s it mean then? What on earth is implied by calling someone a libertarian?

    As for the many people who believe in freedom on most issues but do not adhere to the libertarian principle of non-aggression, why not simply call them libertarian-leaning?

  29. “As for the many people who believe in freedom on most issues but do not adhere to the libertarian principle of non-aggression, why not simply call them libertarian-leaning?”

    Because that phrase already has a clear meaning at the phenotypic level, meaning someone who takes the libertarian position on a lot of different issues, but deviates on enough of the important ones that they’re reluctant to think of themselves as libertarian. It seems silly to use it to distinguish people who might have exactly identical policy views that were arrived at differently.

  30. If you have the exact same policy views as someone who arrives at them through NAP, how did you arrive at them? And why isn’t it fair to see you adhere to NAP in practice? In other words, if you effectively oppose the initiation of force in all real-world circumstances, how is it that you don’t oppose the initiation of force? And if you don’t oppose it in all circumstances, how can you possibly be said to have “exactly identical policy views”?

    Perhaps someone who just hates government so opposes it can have the same “policy views” as a libertarian and yet not adhere to NAP in his personal life ? he could be a thief or murderer, for example. But I don’t think such a person would be a libertarian, do you? If he’s willing to deprive people of their liberty by initiating force on them, he is not a libertarian. It seems to all tie together.

    Personally, I started out agreeing with libertarians on the drug war and the need for much lower spending and other important issues, and then realized it all tied together under the non-aggression principle, at which point I started calling myself a libertarian and attempted to sort out the more difficult applications. When libertarians disagree on a tough issue, like IP, it seems to me that at least one of them is not applying the non-aggression principle correctly, although he might be trying his best to.

    How are we to decided which issues are “the important ones” when deciding who is libertarian-leaning and who isn’t?

  31. The Libertarians no longer follow the NAP.

    What they follow is: kick me as hard as you can. Keep kicking me until it hurts. If it hurts bad enough I may respond. But only once. If you want a second response you will have to hurt me real bad, again.

    Threaten me all you want. I will not respond.

    Even throwing a punch will not count as long as i duck, or you miss.

    =========================================

    There was a time when Libs understood don’t tread on me, ever, in any way, for any reason. Don’t even threaten it. In fact don’t even think about it.

    =========================================

    Jefferson understood the jihadis better than you folks do.

  32. You can, I suppose, just stamp your feet and insist that such people are ipso facto not really libertarians at all, like a kind of extreme prescriptivist grammarian who knows that a word “really means” whatever Webster’s said it meant in 1806, even if everyone now uses it differently. This yields some pretty silly consequences: It entails that an anarcho-capitalist utilitarian whose ultimate criterion is aggregate happiness will not be a libertarian “really,” nor will a radical minarchist who takes a Rawlsian “basic structure” approach, where as someone who espouses far more moderate views might be, so long as his foundational principle is the NAP, however watered down for practical reasons. This seems like pointless pedantry: If Rothbardians want to argue that, really, all libertarians ought to prefer their version of the theory, let them argue that, rather than getting tangled in a tedious debate over what “libertarian” really means.

    I’m converting to Christianity, but I think we can safely throw out all that about the Son of God and rose again on the 3rd day stuff. After all, this is the 21st century.

    So – can I assume this is the last time I’ll have to hear self-described lbertarians whining about how the word “liberal” was stolen from them?

    And Julian, why is it that so many of your arguments for your positions seem to rely on shape-shifting the definitions of words from what they’ve historically been understood to mean, to meanings that hadn’t really occurred to most people?

    Immigrants who don’t speak English and refuse to learn it annoy me far less than people who supposedly speak it and still refuse to do so.

  33. Ah yes, I forgot that the right to self defense means the right to mass murder thousands who happen to live in the same part of the world as the aggressors. And so, if you kick me hard, I’ll steal money from my neighbor and go slaughter the family that lives down the block from a friend of yours.

    Thanks for straightening out the principle for me. I forgot for a second that libertarians should be concerned with what people “think about” and be ready to fight and kill thousands of innocents over it.

  34. Ever consider that occasionally in the real world to help the other guy get the NAP you have to strike first?

    Our jihadi friends were convinced they could win because of so many cut and runs. Carter in Iran, Reagan in Lebanon, Bush I’s failure to depose Saddam, Clintons “fire three rockets and call me in the morning” etc.

    As long as there are alpha male wannabees there will be fools probing for weakness. Best to not show any. Better the occasional rampage. To keep the fear of god in the fools.

    WW2 was started by the NAP carried to extremes. Libs (as masters of history) ought to avoid that mistake.

  35. By choosing guidelines over an axiom, you eliminate any ideological anchor point that the party might have. The absense of an axiom is why the Democrats and Republicans have swapped sides on several issues over the years.

    If you want a party that can win elections even with a tricky electorate, you go for guidelines, at the risk of having the party’s ideology getting hijacked. If you want a party that can win an electorate over to an ideology, you go with an axiom, at the risk of suffering at the polls.

    I’m not too keen on getting unfrozen in 2106 to find the first Libertarian president raising taxes and reinstating the draft. Yeah, it’s a rhetorical strawman, but it’s MY strawman.

  36. Anthony,

    War is in the Constitutiion.

    You can look it up.

    As one wag put it in ’42. “It is pacificts who usually start the next war.”

  37. WW2 was started by the NAP carried to extremes.

    I assume that you mean the events at the start of WWII were characteristic of the flaws of the NAP, not that the NAP caused it. Hitler’s intent to subjugate Europe caused it.

    Regarding the events, the pointing of a gun at my ally is an initiation of force in my book. Hitler did far more than that while Chamberlain (sp?) apologized for him.

    So, I would characterize the start of WWII as more of a violation of the ethics described in the pledge.

  38. “some people seem incapable of fathoming the suggestion that “libertarianism” isn’t just obviously defined by the NAP, and so try to shoehorn it into a debate about the desirability of watering-down that principle as a concession to practical politics.”

    Hmm. This certainly wasn’t what I intended to do. In my view, the principles camp of libertarianism most frequently appeals to NAP and I think there are philosophical and practical problems with that approach. Note the prevalence of slippery slope arguments and the insistence that to play ball with either the left or right coalition is a violation of principle. From these to features of the libertarian landscape, you are in the first place insisting on anarchy and in the second insisting on irrelevance.

    I’ll take a stab:

    Libertarianism is a set of value rankings in which negative human liberty is at or next to the top and a set of policy preferences in which serious questions are raised by any government activity that fails to enhance negative liberty.

    We can arrive at libertarian value preferences directly or by way of the “happy coincidence” of some shades of utilitarianism. I don’t know that maxi min gets you there honestly, but I find myself close to rule utilitarianism these days.

  39. “If you want a party that can win an electorate over to an ideology, you go with an axiom, at the risk of suffering at the polls.”

    The practical flaw appears to be the assumption that the electorate is ideologically driven. The philosophical flaw is the belief that a single axiom is sufficient for all cases, including interactions with those who opt out.

  40. Rimfax,

    Agree. The point is the western powers were paralyzed by the NAP taken to extremes. i.e. instead of whacking the Austrian Corporal at the first sign of trouble (the Rhineland) they kept saying to themselves. “Well that kick wasn’t so bad. Maybe now the beatings will stop”.

  41. I wasn’t aware that World War II was started by pacifists and others who oppose initiating violence! I had no idea Hitler was a pacifist!

    And yes, war is in the Constitution. Slavery was also Constitutional. What does the Constitution have to do with libertarianism?

  42. Regarding “big-L” vs “little-L”, I made my point poorly, and “clouds” is not exactly what I meant. For that I apologize. Let me see if I can be clearer. By adding those terms to the debate, we now have three terms to cope with: “libertarian”, “little-L libertarian”, and “big-L Libertarian”. The first term, “libertarian”, means many things to many people. When LP members use it, they generally mean either “member of the Libertarian Party”, or at least “person who agrees with the principles of the Libertarian Party”, and they’d prefer that everyone agreed with them. But since few people outside the party mean that when they use the term “libertarian”, someone invented the other two terms. Since these are brand-new terms, they have the advantage of no existing wooly definitions–and the distinct dis-advantage that few people outside the party knows what they mean. Unless you’re talking to people in the debate, you have to define them. Are we better off having three terms instead of one? Would we be better off starting conversations by saying “And when I say ‘Libertarian’ I mean ‘member of the Libertarian Party'”? I feel the new terms don’t do much to advance the LP, they just add complexity to the debate. Hence my “clouding” remark.

    Again, I view it as an education thing. I doubt if you said the term “democrat” out loud to anyone in America, they would stop you and say “Wait, do you mean little-D democrat or big-D Democrat?”. The term Democrat in the vernacular means precisely “member of the Democratic party”, just as “Republican” means “member of the Republican party”. If you lowercase it most folks would assume you missed the shift key. Hopefully someday Libertarians will successfully co-opt the word, and this whole debate will drift away.

    As for “some people” who are “incapable […]”, I guess that means me. You will have to excuse my confusion; you started your essay talking about the LP, but after that you never capitalized the word “libertarian”, and I guess you meant “little-L libertarian”. I assumed you meant “big-L Libertarian”. Friends of mine made the same mistake; perhaps in the future you could explain your terms for the benefit of your simpler, less-capable readers.

    Stay tuned for more dictionary and capitalization fun, right here on what Playboy calls “The Best Libertarian Blog”! (Says so, right at the top of the page!)

    larry

  43. One reason I don’t think the non-aggression principle should be the basis for all one’s libertarian reasoning is that it is actually not a very advanced moral principle. It’s basically the Biblical “an eye for an eye”. Once someone has initiated force against me, I am morally justified in doing anything to them in retaliation.

    Consider a more evolved form of the non-aggression principle: (a) I will use no more force than is necessary to defend myself; (b) I will strive to increase my abilities to defend myself from aggression, so that I have the skill to resolve conflict peacefully; (c) when aggression occurs, I will use my powers to try to restore peace and harmony, turning my enemy into my friend if possible.

    Think how much better the latter moral principle would work in a situation like, say, Palestine. In such quagmires, a mature person must realize it doesn’t matter any more who started it. The NAP doesn’t recognize that the aggression itself is bad, even if you didn’t start it.

    (I started thinking about all of this when I started studying the Japanese martial art of Aikido. The moral principle I describe above is the central philosophy of Aikido.)

  44. Not only is nonagression an insufficient formulation of justice, but so is a theory of property, or even the two combined. Even if you know who owns every bit of property involved, and you know that persons shouldn’t initiate force, that doesn’t tell you who should have the right of way at an intersection.

    Not only that, but attempts to formulate ideas of justice naively on some supposedly broadly encompassing principle of property like “self ownership”, while possible in at least some cases, aren’t necessarily the soundest or simplest means of arriving at answers.

    Take for instance false imprisonment. (Like you come over, and then I decide not to let you leave.) The person so held isn’t being denied possession of hir own body as property — it’s right there, where s/he is! Failure to open the door doesn’t seem to be an initiation of physical force, while breaking the lock does.

    Robert

  45. What the NAP means to me:

    If you fuck with me in any way, I will utterly destroy you. OK?

    I like it.

  46. Yeah, Bill.

    Robert, in your scenario it isn’t the non-opening door that counts. The initiation of force is the gun you hold to your kidnap victim’s head that prevents him from opening the door himself.

  47. The thugs stay quieter if they believe in your beligerance.

    That is an ugly, ugly, ugly thought.
    And it is untrue. Switzerland comes to mind. I’m thinking of Canada, too.

  48. It may be a little Randian but it’s tough to sell a philosophy when everything is just a matter of opinion, like picking drapes.

  49. Anthony,

    It was the French, British, and American pacifists who encouraged Hitler. He called their leaders worms. No one (except the Corporal) wanted war. That was the west’s weakness.

    He thought they didn’t have a will to fight.

    Percieved weakness sometimes encourages attacks.

  50. highnumber,

    Switzerland depends on inhospitable terrain and a very long reputation for beligerance.

    Canada depends on the sons of bitches to the south.

    It may be ugly, but it is the rule among animals. Animals with a reputation for pre-emption get left strictly alone.

  51. spur,

    I’ve met a fair bunch of these folks over the years, (500+) and almost to a man I can’t be bothered with their arguments cause I am immediately pissed off by their personality or lack there of.

    So, what was the Reformation like? 🙂

  52. M. Simon,

    Switzerland depends on inhospitable terrain and a very long reputation for beligerance.

    Whatever the merits of your argument, you are entirely wrong re: Switzerland. Napoleon invaded and subjugated Switzerland and its neutrality following the Napoloenic Wars was based not on Swiss beligerance but upon an international agreement which the Swiss did not control. That agreement, for a number of practical reasons largely having to do with Switzerland’s willingness to remain “neutral” and some other factors, has held since then. Switzerland’s position in other words exists because it got its ass kicked.

  53. You know, as I thought about it, I realized that the Non-Aggression Principle actually has no content whatsoever. There’s a lot of underlying work and justification you need for NAP to make any sense-the real core of the argument is what constitutes a ‘right’ and what ‘violating a right’ involves. The NAP is just an attempt to hide the real work and justification behind a simple and seemingly self-evident statement. In this regard, it’s much like the classic definition of justice: “Giving each person what he is due.” Sounds nice, but doesn’t tell you a damn thing unless you also know what each man is due. It’s just empty rhetoric.

  54. “Robert, in your scenario it isn’t the non-opening door that counts. The initiation of force is the gun you hold to your kidnap victim’s head that prevents him from opening the door himself.”

    I got no gun, but my victim got no key to the lock.

  55. Libertarianism is applied autism.

  56. “By choosing guidelines over an axiom, you eliminate any ideological anchor point that the party might have.”

    No, that’s a slippery slope argument. The guidelines are your anchor, but it is not an anchor that you are tied to at the bottom of the sea.

    “The absense of an axiom is why the Democrats and Republicans have swapped sides on several issues over the years.”

    Or is because there was really no anchor to begin with of any sort, no general guidelines that follow a clear enough pattern, that aren’t completely muddled? No clear statement such as “We are the party that supports a robust protection of civil and economic liberties”? Republicans mock civil liberties and call people pansies who strongly support them. The Democrats mock property rights and call people selfish and money grubbers who strongly support them.

    I realize that it does feel good to hitch yourself to a moral axiom (however philosophically or practically problematic such a position is) but let me ask the libertarian puritan this: do the end results matter? In other words, would you rather end up with a state that was 75 percent of the way towards a perfect libetarian vision of limited (or no) government, and then move from there to get even closer to the vision, or stick with the NAP as a principle while the state encroaches even more on our liberties than it does now?

    The Party topped off in popularity about 1980. Since then there has been a great decline in popularity and then small surges back up, followed by small drops back down. It’s not all because of the axiom, and the perception that because of the axiom that libertarians wear tin foil hats, but that’s a part of it. And how successful has anyone found it in your private life to just yell ‘thug’ or ‘thief’ at anyone who does not fully agree with your position?

    Was it Milton Friedman who said “The good is the enemy of the perfect”?

  57. I think there should be a libertarian party and liberty clubs, not to be confused. The party should move away from axioms and pledges towards following general guidelines as well as strategies for projecting the positive, creative, practical aspects of libertarian problem solving. Liberty Clubs can spend time debating the philosophical foundations of liberty, definitions of aggression, etc. which of course would have some feedback into the party, but would not demand reflexive obediance to a philosophical premise.

  58. Pig Mannix wrote:
    “I’m converting to Christianity, but I think we can safely throw out all that about the Son of God and rose again on the 3rd day stuff. After all, this is the 21st century.”

    The illusion to Christianity is interesting in that Christian fundamentalists often will insist that unless you agree 100 percent with their orthodox position, of exactly what it says in the Bible, then you are no Christian. But then ask them this:

    “Oh, so you think the reaction to violence should be to turn the other cheek in all cases?”

    You might get a response something like this:

    Uh, well, um, (eyes shifting side to side) no not exactly, I mean, c’mon…did I say you must follow ‘everything in the Bible’? I mean, there’s the issue of context right?….uh, yeah, that’s it, that’s the ticket..”

    So, what’s interesting for me, is that the fundamentalist libertarian occasionally pulls off his own retreats from fundamentalism when it doesn’t quite suit him. Take immigration for example. Now I recall a certain someone making a strong case for enforcing restrictions of immigration. From the fundamentalist position the NAP should take precedent, as it’s the foundation of the LP. It should even take precedent over whatever it says in the Constitution about immigration, if the fundamentalist is serious that this is an axiom that should never be broken. For one thing, the Constitution was arguably not legally adopted anyway. For another, “I didn’t sign it.” For a third, an axiom means always or never, no exceptions, right? Immigrants, legal or no, are entering a public sphere, contracting with private parties for work and housing. There’s no aggression there. This is not necessarily an argument in favor of no restrictions on immigration. Just an example that ‘consistency’ doesn’t always mean ‘consistency’ for the fundamentalist.

    Jason Lingon,
    You said it better than I could have:
    “Libertarianism is a set of value rankings in which negative human liberty is at or next to the top and a set of policy preferences in which serious questions are raised by any government activity that fails to enhance negative liberty.”

  59. that should be “allusion” not “illusion.” Kreskinian slip?

  60. What I mean to show by my examples is that even nonaggression PLUS property don’t flesh out liberty completely even in important ways, such as these freedom of movement examples. You need to get your car that’s parked across my driveway out of there, even though I don’t own the street you’re parked on and you’re not initiating physical force or fraud. You need to unlock the door of the room you’ve locked me in, even though you own the door and the room and you’re not using force on me and have not deprived me of possession of my body (or my car in the other case). The concept of freedom of movement is not derivable from the combination of NIOF and a theory of property. Nor are NIOF and property sufficient to derive rules of the road, i.e. rules of movement that may not all be said to impact “freedom” per se but a system of rights & wrongs. Even freedom of speech could be characterized as freedom to move the air, such that if someone came up with technology to surround other persons with vibration absorbing material such that they could not be heard thru it, that would reduce their liberty without initiating force against them or affecting their control over their own property.

  61. Let me slightly tweak Robert’s point, which I generally endorse: You can, of course, try to *build these things in* to a theory of property (or “aggression”) if you’re willing to add all sorts of epicycles about use rights in air and implicit easements and so forth. But at that point, what’s pretty clear is that what you’re actually doing is accounting for and weighing a broad range of human values, and then shoehorning them into a propertized framework. And at the level of legal-rule construction, maybe that’s a good idea sometimes, but the important thing to recongnize at the philosophical level is that what you’re clearly not doing (and a good thing, too) is trying to derive everything from some fortune-cookie sized foundational principle.

  62. Mr. Sanchez argues that ?to get particular libertarian conclusions out of that [Non-Aggression] principle, you’ve got to load a lot of theory into the term ?coercion? or ?force? or ?aggression.??

    Yet elsewhere he states, ?I know quite a few libertarians who, as utilitarians, think the ultimate political good is the aggregate happiness of the community as a whole. They just think it’s more likely to be promoted by a thin government that lets people act according to their own lights and form smaller associations dedicated to promoting their own happiness than by direct government attempts to achieve that end.?

    But precisely what do these libertarian-utilitarians have in mind when they allow ?people [to] act according to their own lights.? Are factory workers who seize the means of production acting according to their own lights? What about shoplifters, squatters, graffiti artists, peeping toms, burglars, check forgers etc. It seems that, like those whose libertarianism stems from the Non-Aggression Principle, Sanchez?s utilitarian-libertarians are going to have to ?load a lot of theory? into that phrase ?acting according to their own lights? or whatever other rule earns them the title ?libertarian.?

    Finally, if Sanchez prefers a libertarianism that is free of ?a ?foundational? or essential principle that’s definitive of libertarianism,? then would there not be room under his big tent for ?libertarian? slave-owners, wife-beaters, and witch-burners?

  63. re: “Sanchez?s utilitarian-libertarians are going to have to ‘load a lot of theory’ into that phrase ‘acting according to their own lights’?

    A utilitarian-libertarian would, if he felt the same need as a non-aggression principler to explain all his moral values in terms of a theory. But, most people are comfortable with living their lives, trying to be the best person they can, without being able to fully explain the theoretical basis of their morals.

    Not that it wouldn’t be great to be able to theoretically explain one’s morals. But if you don’t know of any moral theory sophisticated enough to act as a theoretical basis, then it’s better to stick to heuristics and case-by-case analysis than to latch onto some moral theory out of a need for certainty.

  64. Mr. Wilson, the difference is that in Julian’s argument, the phrase ‘acting according to their own lights’ isn’t doing any justificatory work. His argument is that we want to use a ruleset that generally allows people to achieve more of their own ends/be happier/whatever particular implementation of utilitariansim he prefers, and that the simplest shorthand description of this ruleset is ‘leave people alone to live according to their own lights.’ He’s not trying to deny the complexity of what he means by this, or the amount of justification needed to back it up.

    The problem with the NAP isn’t that it’s wrong, necessarily. We’re just saying that repeating “N-A-P! N-A-P!” isn’t a real argument and hides a lot of the real discussion and work. This work isn’t impossible; Rand and Rothbard both made attempts at doing it, as have Nozick and others. But pretending it isn’t there is counterproductive and a bit of a shortchange to the people who’ve put a lot of work into developing it.

  65. Jadagul wrote: “His argument is that we want to use a ruleset that generally allows people to achieve more of their own ends/be happier/whatever particular implementation of utilitariansim he prefers, and that the simplest shorthand description of this ruleset is ‘leave people alone to live according to their own lights.'”

    But the libertarian-utilitarians? shorthand is no more informative or useful than the Non-Aggression Principle, which Sanchez calls ?vacuous.? If the only thing that unites libertarian-utilitarians is that they “leave people alone to live according to their own lights,” they can go off in all sorts of contradictory political and economic directions without violating that ruleset. Isn’t worker control of the factories living according to the workers? own lights? And what about ?free? day-care for the lights of employed mothers, ?free? medicine for the lights of the elderly, and ?free? libraries for the lights of book lovers? Sanchez says the NAP can mean a lot of different things ?depending on the details of your theory of property.? Well, that is no less true of ?living according to one?s own lights.?

    Jadagul wrote: ?We’re just saying that repeating “N-A-P! N-A-P!” isn’t a real argument and hides a lot of the real discussion and work. This work isn’t impossible; Rand and Rothbard both made attempts at doing it, as have Nozick and others. But pretending it isn’t there is counterproductive and a bit of a shortchange to the people who’ve put a lot of work into developing it.?

    Let?s see who?s doing the pretending. Sanchez?s article begins with a criticism of the ?arbiters of purity over at LewRockwell.Com? who believe ??libertarianism? is fundamentally a sort of moral philosophy rooted in the non-aggression axiom.? But this is a bit of a strawman, for he never cites anyone asserting that the NAP is an irredicible ethical axiom. The reasonable desire to keep libertarianism from being watered down to the point that it can encompass drug warriors, military interventionists and jailers of flag burners does not mean that the so-called ?purists? have no ethical argument in support of the NAP. They do, and you can find a link at LewRockwell.Com to Mises.org and the Journal of Libertarian Studies where numerous articles on the ethical foundations of the prohibition of initiatory force are archived: http://www.mises.org/jlsDisplay.asp?sortcol=volume,number&action=date&sortOrder=ASC

    Once more let me ask, is there any position that you or Sanchez would consider beyond the pale of libertarianism? If so, are you not employing your own purity standard? If not, just how useful is that word ?libertarian??

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