Some Reasons for Libertarians to NOT Reject the Non-Aggression Principle


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!

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Paul Bonneau's picture
Columns on STR: 106


BrianDrake's picture

Fraud is theft through deception. It is not just chocked up to caveat emptor. If you give your consent to an exchange when the other person has purposely misrepresented what they are exchanging, then the fraudulent party obtained your property without your consent (i.e., you consented to trade X for Y, not X for Z. If Z is provided instead of Y through deception, then the other party did not fulfill their side of the agreement and thus have obtained X without consent). Obtaining the property of others without their consent is just another way of saying "theft".

Defining aggression purely in terms of initiated force is common, but not immediately accurate in describing the violations the NAP condemns (it can be ultimately reconciled as accurate, but requires a more complex discussion). The actual issue is that of consent. The NAP is simplified, less confusing, and more rigorous if you consider aggression as any action involving non-consensual interaction with the property of another person; i.e., aggression is violating the consent of others. This definition clearly includes violent actions (e.g., assault, rape, murder, kidnapping) and non-violent actions (e.g., various forms of theft including fraud, trespassing, refusal to make restitution for accidental damage).

Determining if consent has been given of course requires determining who has the authority to give or deny consent for that which is contested (a human body in the case of violence, external resources in other cases). This is where an understanding of ownership is required. The libertarian case for self-ownership (i.e., the ownership of your own body) and ownership of resources through first-appropriation and consensual exchange is the most coherent and capable of being followed (unlike, for example, universal ownership which effectively requires inaction and thus death).

Paul's picture

"If Z is provided instead of Y through deception, then the other party did not fulfill their side of the agreement..."

This assumes there IS an agreement which covers the point at issue; usually agreements are much less formal than that.

I like to use examples. Here's two:

A) You are buying a car from an individual. He knows something is wrong but you are eager and buy it anyway. The instant you drive off the lot the engine seizes, sending the car's value to zero.

B) Someone steals your car and goes on a joy ride. It is recovered but so damaged that the value has gone to zero.

In both cases the car's value is zero, but do you honestly see no difference between them? Don't you have an incentive, in case A, to get the car checked out first before buying? Or at least to get some kind of warranty? When you buy, it is well known that the seller can range anywhere between perfectly honest to thoroughly dishonest. Have you no responsibility to look after your own interests?

In a free society, you will get little to no recompense - unlike case B. People, judging your case, will say, "He just learned a lesson; leave it at that." They won't be inclined to make up for your shortcomings or your carelessness.

What's that old saying, "You can't swindle an honest man?"

BrianDrake's picture

Neither A or B (as written) describe fraud. Nor does the value of something going "to zero" have anything to do with anything.

As I described, and you did not address, fraud is when you misrepresent what you're exchanging and thus acquire the property of others without their consent. I assumed nothing. If there is not an agreement that covers the point at issue (i.e., no false information provided), then it's not fraud. I was addressing a case of fraud.

There's a fundamental difference between not providing information and providing false information. If I say "car for sale" and you never ask me anything about its condition, nor do I volunteer any information other than "it's a car", and you buy it and then the engine seizes, that's not fraud. It was a car, I didn't misrepresent it. If I say "the engine just passed an inspection" when that's not true, and you buy the car, that's fraud because I misrepresented the car as being inspected when it wasn't.

Caveat emptor comes into play when dealing with tight-lipped people offering exchange. If I don't offer any information and/or refuse to answer your questions, then yes, that'd be stupid to buy from me and if you suffer the consequences of a seized up car because you assumed I'd mention a faulty engine, or neglected to ask, that's too bad for you.

It's a non-sequitur to go from "fraud is theft" to "you have no responsibility to look after your own interests". To start, in a free society, no one is forced to pay for recovery of your property so in paying for any of your own protection/arbitration/property recovery needs, you ARE looking after your own interests. Nor does correctly identifying fraud as theft have anything to do with creating moral hazard anymore than identifying any other form of crime. Walking down a dark alley in an area known for muggings is just plain stupid, but being reckless with your personal safety doesn't change the mugging into a non-criminal act. Likewise, being defrauded may be the result of being stupid in who you trust, but being stupid doesn't entitle others to defraud you.

What does being honest have to do with ability to be defrauded? What about being too trusting because you're honest? You could just take someone's word for it (e.g., "no need to call the inspection agency, he said the car was inspected, that's good enough for me") and get taken by a crook. The only context I've ever heard that saying in was in fictional entertainment describing con-men and how they rely on the greed and willingness to come by gains dishonestly of the mark in order to cheat them. That's not what we're talking about. Buying a car and being lied to by the seller doesn't require you to be greedy or looking to bend the rules.

Paul's picture

Sorry, in my example I did not explicitly say that the seller responded negatively to the question, "Do you know of any problem with it?" But that's what I had in mind.

Your description of fraud boils down to a theft accomplished through lying, ignoring any contribution of gullibility. The bulk of my point remains, though. Even if the guy lied, that does not relieve one of the responsibility to take care. Particularly in such a case where the lie would be very hard to prove, and where lying about the condition of a vehicle is known to be rampant. Third party observers would have less sympathy for you than with a direct theft.

"Walking down a dark alley in an area known for muggings is just plain stupid, but being reckless with your personal safety doesn't change the mugging into a non-criminal act."

In Libertopia people will still be expected to take reasonable care. If they are careless they will surely recover less than if they were careful. I don't think there will be much sympathy for the notion that people deserve to be made whole no matter how much their own actions enabled the crime. Perhaps I am misreading people, but I believe that is the way it will go.

BrianDrake's picture

I'll add that your A and B examples not being cases of fraud (and thus relevant why?) reminds me of a common anti-market strategy that I recently saw called out in a brilliant way (I don't remember by who). Frequently when anti-market (i.e., pro-state) people attack the market, the historical examples they provide, or the hypothetical scare-scenarios they imagine are actually descriptions of non-market actions, usually by states. This brilliant person's rebuttal in one of these cases was "so you're telling me the problem with the market, is not the market?"

Glock27's picture

, BrianDrake: Are you implying in paragraph 2 that some form of concise definition of aggression, violence, etc needs to be forged so when the term is being used everyone will be speaking the same language, or do you hold to common language usage as your guideline for defining the terms. I note that in line 3 of paragraph 2 that you seem to be attempting to refine the term to get it into a more precise meaning?

BrianDrake's picture

Yes, I am refining the definition. Language is subjective, and as long as you clearly define your terms and are consistent in those definitions (i.e., you don't equivocate), you can use any words you want.

My refinement is not an attempt to redefine per se, but mainly to distill the fundamental concept being discussed. Having read much literature on the NAP, I've come to the the conclusion that we're really talking about the issue of consent and the NAP is basically a prohibition on violating consent.

I think you can use the standard definition/understanding of aggression (initiation of force; though even that is only one definition of several) without my refinement and still make use of the NAP, but I think it requires a much more involved/complex discussion (involving, among other things, a careful consideration of just escalation and proportionality in response to conflict). For simplicity and clarity, declaring that what you mean by the NAP is that you may not violate the consent of another is more of a simplified conclusion than an attempt at outright redefinition.

One reason I find this useful is that if someone, like Zwolinski, is going to glibly reject the NAP for its alleged shortcomings (such as not addressing fraud) then they're less likely to be receptive to a complex response and will likely accuse such complexity as an ad hoc attempt at salvage, thus "proving" their point. Instead, pointing out that they've missed the essence of what the NAP means, through a simplified clarification of its conclusion, engages successfully (I think) at the level of discourse being offered (mainly beneficial to the "audience", not necessarily the detractor). If a more rigorous discussion is pursued, then more complex explanations still exist.

Samarami's picture

This is a good review of Zwolinski’s article, Paul. I always enjoy your "hands-off" approach, which is where I stand. You linked to your MYOB article, from which on another thread I recently commented, "...if I practice MYOB I won't need to crusade for NAP -- it's included with the purchase..."

My oft-repeated lament: none of us has ever experienced freedom from monopoly state, so any projection I might have of LATEOS ("life-after-the-end-of-state") is purely speculation. Your guess is as good as mine as to how various situations might play out in total anarchy (<==pdf, defined as "absence of central political authority"). I observe the tendency of so many of us to get caught up in intellectual/bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo due to that lack of first hand experience: "libertarian theory".

My guess is that there is a latent desire on the part of most to " the right thing..." -- which is probably the closest and most succinct definition of what libertarianism -- as well as NAP -- is all about. Of course "doin' the right thing" is up for grabs when you're caught up in "legal" definitions -- which is why I try to refrain from bureaucracy.

It is also my hunch that we will be surprised at how extensive neighborhoods will become in joining together to protect the properties and safety of residents from aggression by the bad-asses who will remain after LATEOS. My little Des Moines neighborhood -- located in "the hood" -- is a current example. I needn't worry about prowlers when I'm out with the truck. We look out for one another.


Paul's picture

We're on the same wavelength, Sam. Some people seem to imagine a free society will have even more lawyers than we have now, but I think it's the reverse.

Kent McManigal's picture

As I've said in the past, the NAP/ZAP is essential, but not sufficient.

Jim Davies's picture

Hi there, Kent!
Why do you think theft, for example, does not involve aggression? I'd have thought it certainly does, and if so then NAP/ZAP is both essential and sufficient.
In any case, we might pause and ask, sufficient for what? Sufficient for a good, reliable, practical way to live an ethical life, perhaps you'd agree. So is the Golden Rule. But where do they come from; what is the source or premise - for these, and for the equally fine MYOB?
I suggest it's the Self Ownership Axiom, SOA. Each human is a self-owner, he alone has the right to own and operate his own life and property. Undeniable. Therefore agression is wrong, therefore only one's own business should be minded, therefore things should be done to someone only if they would be welcomed by the doer.
Without that basis, these or any other ethical principles have the status of a religious dogma; live this way because an hypothesized deity says so - or because it feels right. Too flimsy, by far.

mhstahl's picture

I sincerely believe that this is a part of the problem with holding "non-aggression" up as the cornerstone of the philosophy.
"Aggression" has a specific definition which includes only overt acts of violence or hostility, not simple property violations. Look at what you have done above, you have redefined the term to make it fit what you want it to mean. Indeed, you have taken the "person" totally out of the equation and exchanged it for a blanket "property" right where actual people can only be victims of "aggression" because they "own" themselves.
I understand what you mean, and why, but think of how this appears to an outsider? At first blush, you seem to be talking about a simple philosophy with a premise that is virtually uncontroversial. Yet, once one scratches away at the surface a bit, the entire meaning shifts to a stalwart defense of "property."
In sales there is a tactic known as a "bait and switch" and it is the bailiwick of scoundrels. It occurs when, for instance, one is presented with a very low price on a Chevy, only to find that-once the buyer has invested in the deal-that either the vehicle advertised is not available, or the deal comes with a string of conditions a mile long. This invariably leads to justified mistrust. Most people, including myself, will simply walk away from a deal when it is presented in such a way. In fact, a smart salesperson will go to great lengths to avoid even the appearance of a "bait and switch."
Now, I don't think "non-aggression" is truly a "bait and switch", I think it is rather an attempt to radically simplify an extraordinarily complex philosophical position. Unfortunately, it does tend to appear that way, and for that reason alone it is a poor choice in explaining the nuances of a philosophical position. I think it would be better left out, or used as an illustration of the destructiveness of the state.
As far as theft goes, it seems to me that the impetus for securing and defending things that might be "stolen" ought to reside with the "owner" alone. If that were done, then "theft" would always involve true aggression, and the issue would not be the taking of stuff, but the violence required to do so. Laws about theft and "real" property are some of the oldest promulgated by government-as opposed to the earlier customary "laws" that were mainly concerned with restitution for personal injury(and were NOT mandatory, but rather offered something similar to arbitration to avoid more bloodshed)-in the "English" system.
Such laws effectively socialize the cost of defending "property" and from the very beginning facilitated patronage (I believe it was Cnut who first enacted laws against theft, in part to ingratiate himself to wealthy cattle owners...increasing dramatically their wealth by defending their property through taxation rather than from their own pockets.) It is no coincidence that these laws coincide with the development of a true government in pre-Norman England, since they helped to create a beholden wealthy class that truly did not exist before. A wealthy class that happily contributed to the growing state-they got a hell of a deal.
More to the point, simple theft need not involve aggression. If you leave something un-defended and unsecured, why is it wrong for someone else to take it and use it? How is it that one can make a claim to something that everyone else must abide with no more effort than a proclamation? Government, that's how.
This is one of the reasons that I think we would see far less disparity in wealth without government, the cost of securing and defending vast property would be insurmountable beyond a certain point. As things stand, the government, through taxation, foots the bill for investigating, and prosecuting, anyone who might abscond with a penny of Bill Gates money-this makes banks feasible as storage facilities, and lets him park his expensive vehicles without very highly paid armed guards....what would such security and defense cost him without such a subsidy? And, considering this, can his wealth even rightly be considered "private" in a true libertarian sense?
Please understand, I'm not advocating theft in any way, but rather suggesting that it is not a "societal" issue, or a moral one, but an individual one. I think most "right" libertarians want their cake and to eat it as well on this issue, and it leads to an unnecessary overcomplication of the philosophy. This need not preclude utilitarian arguments, either-let us not forget, the "dark ages", when there was generally no effective government and thereby no "theft" laws, also saw remarkable innovation (the three field system, horse-collars, moldboard plow, etc..) and coincided with Europeans having heights comparable to the modern day-because they had enough to eat.
People are not property, they are people.

Jim Davies's picture

Here's a reply, Mike, from the "bailiwick of scoundrels." :-)
As I see it, property is a subset of the person. Someone damages my car, he damages me.
Why? - because the only morally valid way to acquire property is to exchange labor for it (or to receive it as a gift, because someone else likes one so much as to donate it.) Now, labor is integral to a person. He lives if he eats, and he eats if he works. Existence and labor are inseparable, and so therefore are the fruits or products of labor. Those products, I call "property." To repair the car damage, I have to expend labor, to divest myself of part of myself.
So there's no bait and switch. Am I still a scoundrel?

mhstahl's picture

Now, Jim, I never called you a least not in this thread...;) My point was about how this appears to someone unfamiliar to the philosophy. In the case of NAP, I think that it is an oversimplification, NOT a true attempt to mislead. Simplifications are fine, so long as everyone is on the same page, but the fact is most people have less than a clue what "Nap" means at all, and if you explain your philosophy starting simply with, " I believe in 'non-aggression'" invariably any deeper discussion will require intense qualification and explanation that ultimately results in "I believe in strict property rights and no government." Why not just say that in the first place? Especially, since that is only one of several interpretations of "non-aggression?"
Even if the argument flows logically, that's a hell of a step to take. And it requires an acceptance of far more assumptions than does simple "non-aggression." Why put people's radar up? That's the only point I was making, and it's a practical one rather than a philosophical.
As an example; Noam Chomsky also believes in "non-aggression" yet his views are are diametrically opposed to yours on matters like "property"...doesn't that present needless confusion to the newcomer? Especially when he and others of his ilk consider the "an-cap" definition of "non-aggression" as "property rights" as  truly a "bait and switch" and are both earnest and noisy about it? Why play into their hands? Isn't it a cleaner arguement to point out the inherent violence of the state and it's pointlessness?
So, while you may indeed be a's not because of this. :)

Jim Davies's picture

Much relieved, Mike, that my status in your eyes is higher than I feared.
Each to his own when presenting our view, of course. I generally like to start with the SOA from which the NAP, ZAP, GR etc are in any case derived. The SOA is undeniable, and it places people where I'd like them to be: acknowledging that nobody else has any business running their lives.
Then if we get on to property it's a simple step, as above, labor being inextricably bound up with the person.

Paul's picture

This is actually going farther than I did in the article; I wrote fraud out of aggression, but you are writing all theft out of it. Interesting points, but possibly "a bridge too far". :-)

One needn't have government to be able to deal with theft. Informal non-state court cases will handle it. My guess is that they will come down somewhere in the middle: if they think you took reasonable measures to protect your stuff, and that it really was legitimately yours (e.g. you earned it) they may take action against the thief; if they don't think that, they may say to you, "Tough shit!" or "If you want it back, go get it yourself."

"How is it that one can make a claim to something that everyone else must abide with no more effort than a proclamation?"

This is one example where most people will not have so much sympathy for the supposed property-holder. Rothbard noted that many large estates in colonial New York were simply given to the king's cronies, and he obviously had more sympathy for the squatters on that property. It takes government to maintain large disparities in wealth.

My somewhat schizophrenic views on "property" are found here:

mhstahl's picture

Who is "they", and why would "they" care?
I don't know about you, but I'm not a fan of "they"'s deciding what "I" get to do...
Non-governmental courts have, can, and do exist, BUT their function is radically different than that of state run courts. The power structure is turned on its head-the "judge" has no power to compel or bring force to bear, force rests with the parties....otherwise, "they" are a "government." From what I've read of these sorts of courts historically and anthropologically they wind up analogous to arbitration, or diplomacy between nations. Both sides must agree to both the court AND the decision or it goes away. It's a negotiation entered into in order to forstall violence not to find "justice." If the negotiation fails, there will be blood-which nobody in these sorts of societies wants-because there is no protection from escalation. This actually brings up another point-retaliation. Is retaliation justified? I think it is, and is also crucial..I know Walter Block at least agrees with retaliation. I don't know if you do?
Of course, before there can be a negotiation or retaliation, there is the practical problem of figuring out who took your shit? Thieves are difficult for the state to catch with an army of occupation and virtually unlimited resources, they would doubtless be often impossible to identify for an individual (unless caught in the act)...which makes the issue moot from a practical standpoint. It also reinforces the essential duty to protect your shit (and your ass) if you wish to keep it.
Your "property" article is one of your best, along with this one.  I've read it several times.

Paul's picture

I have read various descriptions of non-state courts and arbitrations as well. Who knows what the things would actually look like. But even in arbitrations you are talking about making a case to others - the arbitrators. Again my perception is that the case is easier to make if the victim is not careless.

Glen Allport's picture

Terrific column, Paul -- a sensible and human view of things. I was reminded of Summerhill School and its founder, A. S. Neill. Humans are not mecha, and trying to run society as if they were does not work well. 

Glock27's picture

I would like to say this is "Much ado about nothing" but the tragedy of this play is that it is clearly a serious issue. Clearly, concise defined terms are deadly serious. Everyone here can define terms on their own grounds, but do the actually apply to anyone else in the program. I cannot see how clean solutions can ever arrive out of messy terms. Who shall be responsible in clarifying the essential terms, or who's set of terms will be used?

mhstahl's picture

I don't think that you will find the clarity that you want, or the "clean solution."
Instead of thinking of catchphrases like "non-aggression" as true exact definitions, perhaps it would help to look at them as general classifications, with mutiple, and varied, sub-catagories-some of which might be strongly opposed to one another...but you likely won't find a discussion about, say, "dog breeding." It's the specific arguements that have meaning, not the general catagory. As in a library: first, non-fiction, then philosophy, then non-aggression, and finally something substantive and specific to be considered and discussed.
As far as a "clean" solution, it seems to me that freedom is messy, and that it has to be messy in order to be freedom-so there is no one clean solution.
I hope that helps.

Glock27's picture

Thanks for your kindly reply mhstahl. I deeply appreciate that. Your response tells me I am getting a little better at explaining myself, or at least I think I am. I recognize there is and will be no clean solution, but there is a solution and I believe that solution is involvement in more than words. I keep thinking that now has to be the messiest time in history, but I seriously doubt that it is. I am trying to get my truck back so I can build a sign regarding government fraud, corruption, coercion, violence against its people, but the hell of it is, is that I believe most everyone really knows this, they just don't know how to make the change. Action is more powerful than words and I am trying to convert my words into an action of some type.
Again. Thanks for your kindness.