A Rebuttal To Zwolinski's Argument Against the Non-Aggression Principle


Matt Zwolinski has created something of a cottage industry for himself by writing posts on Libertarianism.org in which he invariably argues against libertarians holding, AHEM, CORE LIBERTARIAN VALUES.

Last week, he argued in favor of libertarian-ish Friedrich Hayek's heretical call for a government-distributed basic income.

This past week, he gamely argued against the, um, libertarian-ness of the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP), evidently oblivious to the fact that without it, libertarianism regresses to "dope-smoking Republicanism" as Rush Limbaugh once termed it.

Anyway, here is my rebuttal to Zwolinski's argument.  Keep in mind I am no scholar, nor do I have a degree in philosophy or politics, yet I think I have at least cast doubt on his thesis regarding the Non-Aggression Principle;                                                                               

"...In the remainder of this essay, I want to present six reasons why libertarians should reject the NAP. None of them are original to me. Each is logically independent of the others. Taken together, I think, they make a fairly overwhelming case.

1. Prohibits All Pollution – As I noted in my last post, Rothbard himself recognized that industrial pollution violates the NAP and must therefore be prohibited. But Rothbard did not draw the full implications of his principle. Not just industrial pollution, but personal pollution produced by driving, burning wood in one’s fireplace, smoking, etc., runs afoul of NAP. The NAP implies that all of these activities must be prohibited, no matter how beneficial they may be in other respects, and no matter how essential they our to daily life in the modern industrialized world. And this is deeply implausible. "                                                                          

My comment: Prohibited of course as a matter of principle, practically speaking however, this would result in fees (for example, a fee to the road-owner for pollution in excess of that agreed, then a fee to the road neighbor, etc.) adjudicated by a disinterested third party, proportionate to harm for most de minimus trespass. No epicycles necessary.            

2. Prohibits Small Harms for Large Benefits – The NAP prohibits all pollution because its prohibition on aggression is absolute. No amount of aggression, no matter how small, is morally permissible. And no amount of offsetting benefits can change this fact. But suppose, to borrow a thought from Hume, that I could prevent the destruction of the whole world by lightly scratching your finger?                                                                

My comment: Go for it. Realize however, again, that by doing so you still violate the NAP, and will likely have to pay a small fine in restitution. Of course the thought comes to me that if you try to prevent the destruction of the world by lightly scratching, say, President Obama's finger, you will most certainly get a harsher sentence, executed in a summary fashion.                                                                                                                   

...Or, to take a perhaps more plausible example, suppose that by imposing a very, very small tax on billionaires, I could provide life-saving vaccination for tens of thousands of desperately poor children? Even if we grant that taxation is aggression, and that aggression is generally wrong, is it really so obvious that the relatively minor aggression involved in these examples is wrong, given the tremendous benefit it produces?                            

My comment: Did 100% of the billionaires agree to it? If not, then it is impermissible. But that has never stopped a government from instituting a tax.

3. All-or-Nothing Attitude Toward Risk – The NAP clearly implies that it’s wrong for me to shoot you in the head. But, to borrow an example from David Friedman, what if I merely run the risk of shooting you by putting one bullet in a six-shot revolver, spinning the cylinder, aiming it at your head, and squeezing the trigger? What if it is not one bullet but five?                                                                                                   

My comment: The risk here is known and quantifiable. Common sense tells us that this is unacceptable aggression.                                                                                                                                                

...Of course, almost everything we do imposes some risk of harm on innocent persons. We run this risk when we drive on the highway (what if we suffer a heart attack, or become distracted),  

My comment:The owner of the road sets the rules for use of the road. All road users accept the risk as a condition of use. DUH.

...or when we fly airplanes over populated areas.                                                                                            

My comment: Libertarians believe in the homesteading principle as opposed to the ad coelum principle. As a property owner you are limited to defending the property you have homesteaded. The risk to property presented by airplanes flying over a given property is asymptotically low and has gotten much lower over the history of flight, presumably in part because crashing a plane is so catastrophic for the crasher and the crashee. By all means, if a plane crashes on your property and causes a loss, you are entitled to restitution. Of course the fact that this is already the case seems not to deter Zwolinski's spurious analysis at all.                                     

...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. That principle seems compatible with only two possible rules: either all risks are permissible (because they are not really aggression until they actually result in a harm),                               

My comment:There is simply no quantitative way of evaluating (from the perspective of the property owner) whether certain risks constitute aggression a priori. You could certainly take the airlines to a (private, in the libertarian case) court and argue that it constitutes aggression, and present the case that your homesteading right to the surface property is superior to the airline's right to its homesteaded property (the airspace 30,000 feet above yours, and, if they care to join you, your neighbors').                                                                      

...or none are (because they are). And neither of these seems sensible.                                                             

My comment: A false dichotomy, as I argue.                                                                                              

4. No Prohibition of Fraud – Libertarians usually say that violence may legitimately be used to prevent either force or fraud. But according to NAP, the only legitimate use of force is to prevent or punish the initiatory use of physical violence by others. And fraud is not physical violence. If I tell you that the painting you want to buy is a genuine Renoir, and it’s not, I have not physically aggressed against you. But if you buy it, find out it’s a fake, and then send the police (or your protective agency) over to my house to get your money back, then you are aggressing against me. So not only does a prohibition on fraud not follow from the NAP, it is not even compatible with it, since the use of force to prohibit fraud itself constitutes the initiation of physical violence.                                                                                                                                                   

My comment: this is a stupid argument. Evidently Zwolinski has never heard of contract theory.                       

5. Parasitic on a Theory of Property – Even if the NAP is correct, it cannot serve as a fundamental principle of libertarian ethics, because its meaning and normative force are entirely parasitic on an underlying theory of property. Suppose A is walking across an empty field, when B jumps out of the bushes and clubs A on the head. It certainly looks like is aggressing against A in this case. But on the libertarian view, whether this is so depends entirely on the relevant property rights – specifically, who owns the field. If it’s B’s field, and Awas crossing it without B’s consent, then was the one who was actually aggressing against B. Thus, “aggression,” on the libertarian view, doesn’t really mean physical violence at all. It means “violation of property rights.” But if this is true, then the NAP’s focus on “aggression” and “violence” is at best superfluous, and at worst misleading. It is the enforcement of property rights, not the prohibition of aggression, that is fundamental to libertarianism.                                                                                                                                            

My comment: Another boneheaded argument. Since when is the intent of the trespasser, or the proportionality of the retribution / restitution unimportant? If the property is not posted or fenced, if the trespasser is pursuing prey or a lost child, or, conversely, if the trespasser is armed and carrying building materials / bulldozer etc. is quite relevant to the proportionality of the response, and would certainly be in evidence in any proceeding brought by the unfortunate trespasser's family against the short-sighted property owner. Sometimes it's better to ignore a small insult, see the finger-scratch example. Again this is so common-sense it seems ridiculous to have to say it.                                                                                                                                            

6. What About the Children??? – It’s one thing to say that aggression against others is wrong. It’s quite another to say that it’s the only thing that’s wrong – or the only wrong that is properly subject to prevention or rectification by force. But taken to its consistent extreme, as Murray Rothbard took it, the NAP implies that there is nothing wrong with allowing your three year-old son to starve to death, so long as you do not forcibly prevent him from obtaining food on his own.                                                                                                     

My comment: This is a common anti-libertarian smear of Rothbard, and libertarianism generally, and it seems as though here we have got to the real point of Zwolinski's essay. It is SO heinous that I will let Murray address it himself, see the full argument in its context here.;http://mises.org/rothbard/ethics/fourteen.asp                        

...Or, at least, it implies that it would be wrong for others to, say, trespass on your property in order to give the child you’re deliberately starving a piece of bread. This, I think, is a fairly devastating reductio of the view that positive duties may never be coercively enforced. That it was Rothbard himself who presented the reductio, without, apparently, realizing the absurdity into which he had walked, rather boggles the mind."                        

My comment: Again, who is engaging in reductio here? Do your duty, and let the courts handle the aftermath, again, EXACTLY WHAT WE ALREADY HAVE NOW.

Jesus, some people are dense.

The Reason Romney Lost, Explained

Mitt Romney, as successfully portrayed by the Democrats, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

Mitt Romney, as successfully portrayed by the Democrats, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

In this piece in Rolling Stone, about Rush Limbaugh, and Republican "morning after" analysis (har har) ,Matt Taibbi dials back the venom and really tries to "help". But the reason Romney lost is exactly that Obama and the Democrats quite successfully portrayed him as anti-woman, anti-working person, anti-poor, anti-hispanic, pro-(HORRORS) business, pro rich people, etc. Romney, for his part, never gave anyone anything resembling a concrete reason to vote FOR him. OH, and special mention to the Republican Party for flushing millions of votes by marginalizing Ron Paul and his supporters at the convention, stealing his delegates, and refusing to accord him the respect he deserved.  Have fun talking to yourself, Rush.

Forbes Discovers Social Security Fraud TWO YEARS AFTER US

Where Your FICA Taxes Are Going Still, nice to see the facts getting out there; "Forget about “lockboxes” and other rhetorical devices used by politicians to perpetuate the unconstitutional falsehood that is Social Security, the unhappier reality is that the minute your employer withholds your Social Security taxes, the money is no longer yours. Deal with it." We blogged about this TWO YEARS AGO, and the world greeted it, some with anger, most with yawns. But we keep plugging away at it...

A Prophetic Vision of Wall Street on a Dollar Collapse?

[caption id="attachment_1385" align="aligncenter" width="233"]Big Bag of OPM Big Bag of OPM[/caption]Rarely happens, but a reading in church today seems very relevant to our late state of economy; "Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments have become moth-eaten. Your gold and your silver have rusted; and their rust will be a witness against you and will consume your flesh like fire. It is in the last days that you have stored up your treasure! Behold, the pay of the laborers who mowed your fields, and which has been withheld by you, cries out against you; and the outcry of those who did the harvesting has reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. You have lived luxuriously on the earth and led a life of wanton pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and put to death the righteous man; he does not resist you." James 5: 1-6

Government VS. The People

Government tends toward centralizing decision making farthest from those affected, for the benefit of the central authority and its connected interests. Completely asymmetrical. Freedom, on the other hand, fosters granular decision making. That is, under freedom, decisions are made closest to those affected, by those affected most. Perfectly symmetrical.

On that Chick-Fill-A Thing...

Most people are 'big talkers'. They swagger and rank on people when they think they aren't around that they would never say to their faces, and moreover most of them would be HORRIFIED if the person being insulted ever found out. 99.9999% of 'racists' would never harm a person of another race in any way, and the same is true for people who say shit about teh gays. I don't know how that translates into a 300-odd-million homophobic lynch mob, maybe I'm missing something...

Grinding a Personal Axe - Whirlpool Appliances

I purchased a Whirlpool Cabrio washing machine on 5/13/11 (delivered on 5/15), and it failed utterly on 5/31/12, with the estimated cost of repair exceeding the cost of replacement. The supervisor I talked to at the "Whirlpool Customer Experience Center" told me in no uncertain terms that they would not honor the warranty, despite the machine being loosely within the terms of their "12-month warranty". I will NEVER purchase a washing machine, or any other appliance from Whirlpool, ever again.

The Descent into Police-State Hell

[caption id="attachment_1371" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="No Words For This, Just Pain"]Kelly Thomas[/caption]I know that it is impossible, but for a second try to put the hideousness of the gleeful maceration of Kelly Thomas' body by these animals out of your mind, and look simply at the proportionality of the incident. A mentally-ill man "disrespected" the sub-human Manuel Ramos (and his partner Jay Cicinelli), and for that offense against His Radiant Personage, he was pounded, literally, into hamburger, in such an extended effort that they had to tag-team the helpless, dying man to finish the job;

So Long, Space Shuttle, and Good Riddance

Sounds about right Much hoopla is being expended over the retirement of Discovery, the last Space Shuttle, with reporters waxing poetic, and senior officials crying over the carcass of the blasted thing, ostensibly because of the heroism and audacity of the world's most expensive commuter conveyance, but in all likelihood over the loss of a gravy train such an end represents.

Here, as an antidote to all the maudlin, weepy statism, are the real facts. The Space Shuttle was a hideous waste of money. Its technology was obsolete before it ever launched. Its cost per payload pound skyrocketed from $120 to $24,000, and the two disasters killed 14 astronauts entirely needlessly. NASA is nothing more than a covert missile development program coupled to a jingoistic propaganda program. Good bye, Socialist Space Antique, and good riddance.