Column by new Root Striker Kris Borer.
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In what was probably the most subtle April Fools joke of 2013, Matt Zwolinski posted an article called "Libertarianism and Pollution" on libertarianism.org that attacks the very foundation of the libertarian ethical system: the Non-Aggression Principle. Unfortunately, it was such a cleverly disguised ruse that not everyone will be able to appreciate his humor. They might even think that Zwolinski is just another Internet troll, and not the esteemed member of academia that he is. In order to prevent anyone from getting the wrong idea, this article is meant to help clarify what Zwolinski is talking about.
Zwolinski starts with an amusingly absurd definition of libertarianism, saying that libertarians are people who are usually in favor of liberty. Obviously, such a vague description would fail to distinguish libertarianism from all but the most tyrannical, authoritarian systems. However, its vagueness is necessary to draw in the unsuspecting and gullible. He then points out that there are certain libertarians, like Murray Rothbard, who think that one should not violate the rights of innocent people, ever. This contrast between narrow-minded, intolerant libertarians who follow the Non-Aggression Principle and more open-minded people like Alan Greenspan, is the crucial setup for the joke.
To this end, Zwolinski says that, "When we think about cases of rape, theft, or slavery . . . libertarianism’s absolute prohibition seems plausible on its face." Yet, he wonders aloud how practical such a principle can be. For example, he says that just having a fireplace to warm your home produces pollution that could potentially be a violation of the NAP. Zwolinski then slyly pretends not to have read Rothbard's "Law, Property Rights and Air Pollution", even though he quotes from it. Of course, we know that he is familiar with the passage where Rothbard says:
"If A is causing pollution of B’s air, and this can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, then this is aggression and it should be enjoined and damages paid in accordance with strict liability, unless A had been there first and had already been polluting the air before B’s property was developed. For example, if a factory owned by A polluted originally unused property, up to a certain amount of pollutant X, then A can be said to have homesteaded a pollution easement of a certain degree and type."
So, Zwolinski really knows that ethical analysis is not just a matter of did A send pollution onto B's property. It requires one to take into account not only the physical acts that take place, but also their historical context and the societal norms involved. It is a matter of resolving conflicts, which requires one to discover if conflict exists in the first place. Only then can it be decided who is responsible. As he is well aware, libertarians don't go from town to town scolding people just for having chimneys. They use understanding, in the Misesian sense, to figure out what is going on in any particular situation before trying to pass judgment.
To be sure, things get a little dull while he tries to fill page space with strawman arguments against Rothbard's "absolute prohibition on aggression [and] strongly subjectivist theory of value," or when he whimsically leaps from the idea that the NAP prohibits some pollution to the idea that the NAP prohibits all pollution. Again, it is not that Zwolinski has no conception of how to apply the NAP to solve ethical problems (or even how to define it). He is merely putting on a little show in preparation for the finale.
So what is the punchline? If Zwolinski was able to equivocate enough that the reader followed along uncritically, he then springs the conclusion on them: The only choice a libertarian has is to ditch the Non-Aggression Principle in favor of utilitarianism. At this point, many libertarians will laugh and say, "Oh Matt, you had me for a second." All in good fun. However, what about those poor sobs who have all of this go over their heads? Will they cry out that Zwolinski is doing a great disservice to the cause by spreading his confused interpretation of deontological libertarianism? Will they burn the midnight oil pointing out the flaws in his arguments? One can imagine the rampant indignation that might occur if this little prank gets out of hand. Hopefully, with the help of this article, not too many will take him seriously.