Column by Paul Bonneua.
Exclusive to STR
I just came across Matt Zwolinski’s article, Six Reasons Libertarians Should Reject the Non-Aggression Principle. I think he does point out some problems, but comes to the wrong conclusion.
His conclusion: "There comes a point where what you need is not another refinement to the definition of 'aggression' but a radical paradigm shift in which we put aside the idea that non-aggression is the sole, immovable center of the moral universe.”
I should first point out that this has the flavor of a straw man, not the sort of thing one wants in the conclusion of one’s argument! And that is in fact the largest problem with it; his premises is wrong.
First, it depends on what one considers a “principle.” Is it like a scientific law, as immutable as gravity? Is it a commandment from God? Is it a guideline, or a custom? Is it a preferred recipe for a good society? What?
It’s true that at least some libertarians try to make a scientific law out of NAP (Molyneux comes to mind with his “Universally Preferable Behavior”) but I doubt most libertarians buy that.
Second, is it really the sole thing that libertarians care about? I myself have written that MYOB might be as important as NAP. This is not that controversial among libertarians, I suspect, and other things as well might be important to them.
Third and most important, even if one accepts all six of Zwolinski’s arguments, one is not forced logically to reject NAP at all, with the possible exception of those libertarians who fall in the “NAP is scientific law” camp - and even those need only leave that camp and join the rest of us libertarians outside it.
My own view of NAP is tempered by my understanding that humans are imperfect beings and that our principles are more in the form of guidelines than scientific law. It’s all too easy to come up with examples where defensive action can shade into aggression, for example. No, for me the point is more like this: NAP is the default. We should normally act non-aggressively, and in fact we usually do; and those who often don’t really live on the edges of society. If some proposed action on our part seems questionable with respect to NAP, then we have to find some justification, plausible to the great majority of society (not just to ourselves or to some noisy minority), for going ahead.
His first example is pollution--the fact that we all pollute (burning wood in stoves, for example). I would agree that this seems to violate the default of NAP. But this earth has had fire from the beginning; would the vast majority of people really question wood burning--when also informed of the drawbacks of every alternative? Does NAP consign us to shivering in the cold?
No; while NAP may at least suggest that, reasonable people would not agree that all wood fires be eliminated. On the other hand, there might be at least social pressure in densely-populated cities not to burn wood and to find some other alternative to keep warm. There’s nothing wrong with social pressure! We don’t have to throw out NAP. In fact, it is social pressure that takes care of such examples, and that in turn makes NAP a viable proposition.
The same sort of argument goes for his example of risk:
Most of us think that some of these risks are justifiable, while others are not, and that the difference between them has something to do with the size and likelihood of the risked harm, the importance of the risky activity, and the availability and cost of less risky activities. But considerations like this carry zero weight in the NAP’s absolute prohibition on aggression.
If you think of NAP not as an absolute prohibition, but as a default for human behavior justifiable by the approval of others, then this objection to NAP evaporates. In fact, considering it so is what supports NAP, rather than destroys it, as Zwolinski contends.
In his example of fraud, I too have had a problem with the notion of fraud as aggression (a bit of libertarian dogma), personally coming down in the caveat emptor camp. But his objection of fraud is taken care of by simply writing fraud out of the category of aggression. To me, fraud is more a thing allegedly (but not really) giving the state an excuse to “protect” us from it, not a real harm. People are responsible for the choices they make, and if they choose to be suckers, it’s on them. There is no need for state protection from it, much less for NAP to prohibit it. What keeps fraudulent behavior at a low roar is self-interest and reputation.
His objection dealing with property rights is certainly interesting and probably the center of the split between “left-libertarians” and the not-so-left. I tend to sit on the fence on that one, along with Rothbard, apparently. I see no need to throw out NAP because of that.
His “what about the children” objection: “NAP implies that there is nothing wrong with allowing your three year-old son to starve to death”, is much like earlier examples--it’s only if you view NAP as a immutable scientific law, rather than a guideline with some possible exceptions based on what people generally think is reasonable behavior. But all non-statist political philosophies have difficulty with the question of children; the statist ones don’t as they consider children the property of the state to be dispensed with as the state sees fit. It is a philosophical difficulty, sure; but no need to go statist to get around it! That’s just jumping from the kettle into the fire.
Philosophy is important, but it is not mathematics or the physical sciences. That’s the answer to Zwolinski’s objections--not chucking NAP entirely!