Deontology is out, teleology is in. The non-aggression principle (NAP) has been a staple of libertarian theory since its modern iteration with Murray Rothbard, and while it has considerable use in user-user interactions within the system, it’s a fragile bit of political technology when employed in system-user interactions.
I’ve talked a little bit about rights, teleology, and non-aggression before, but I don’t know that I’ve delved deep enough into this particular libertarian hang-up. And it is a hang-up. It’s sometimes bizarre what sort of governance strategies and prohibitions on state action libertarians or anarcho-capitalists will justify to themselves through this device—browsing the endless NAP manuals is an exercise in spelunking, an exploratory journey to see how far down the rabbit hole of absurdity that travel is possible.
Stated succinctly by Rothbard, “The libertarian creed rests upon one central axiom: that no man or group of men may aggress against the person or property of anyone else…“Aggression” is defined as the initiation of the use or threat of physical violence against the person or property of anyone else.”
For anyone interested in further reading, as well as a discussion of the relationship between the NAP and self-ownership based on an atheological conception of natural law, Rothbard’s most informative works include: For a New Liberty, Egalitarianism as a Revolt against Nature and Other Essays, and The Ethics of Liberty. There have been a lot of bad criticisms of the NAP, criticisms which amount to little more than whinging about the unfairness of it all, or complaining about deontology vs. utilitarianism. I’ll bracket out the utilitarianism debate. Too much useless discussion of axe murderers at the door, and so on. I’m subbing in teleology, not utilitarianism.
For those that think the NAP is beside the point and not worth wasting any time over, you’d be surprised how many people spend years and years stuck in the model. The NAP has proven to be very sticky. A non-insignificant number of folks on the right have been dominated by this meme.
I’m A Marxist, And I NAP Better Than You Can.
Probably most striking about the NAP is how it lies unappropriated by others, owing to its cladistic association with libertarianism. In reality, the NAP is putty to be molded in the hands of those who know how to play with property rights. How the NAP is interpreted depends on one’s prior conception of property rights. The ordinary libertarian sees the worker-organized movement to seize the means of production as a form of blatant aggression and property rights violation. But, is it? Well, sure, from a libertarian conception of property rights. The Marxist sees the exact same situation through a different lense. Since the capitalist has unjustly appropriated surplus value from labor belonging exclusively to the laborer, seizing the means of production is no more unjust than taking an apple back from a schoolboy who stole it from you.
Multiply the examples ad infinitum, and mold the NAP to suit any ideology. The NAP turns out to be not as informative as previously thought, although admittedly there is a limit to how far it can be stretched. Not everything can fit under ‘property rights’ via aggression.
“But, you see, in an anarcho-capitalist society, airlines would cooperate together in fast-action committees to determine when to establish quarantines because at the end of the day, it would hurt their profit margins.”
Second is the problem that the NAP is just too microscopic, too provincial. It outlaws macro-technology to handle system-wide problems by decrying it all as aggression. And it can’t handle aggressive entropy very well. Assuming the state out of the way and assuming that all disputes have to be handled between individuals, take careful note that remedies in court are emphatically post-facto remedies to recoup the costs of an action. They don’t prevent that action from occuring in the first place, and inundating the court with risk analyses to guarantee injunctions is beyond the scope of all without advanced degrees in law and a snarling team of corporate lawyers ready to dump truckloads of litigation on your front porch. Post-facto remedies in court assume the possibility of recourse. Where it isn’t superseded by statutory instantiations, tort law provides a strong, private method of dispute resolution, particularly in cases of negligence. But negligence, of course, is a post-facto remedy, and post-facto remedies assume that initial causes aren’t all that grievous. Sure, they’re bad, but they’re not high-octane entropic forces.
Ebola is an example of a high-octane entropic force. There are hundreds and thousands of others. Waiting for market coordination is imprudent. You don’t wait for market forces like airplanes to coordinate and establish some sort of quarantine process. The state should move in, crush any opposition, and quarantine for at least 21 days any passengers coming from West Africa, which is precisely what Canada has gone and done. Deontology out, teleology in, since preventing aggression doesn’t matter if there’s no one around to aggress. If you’re patting yourself on the back for adhering to non-aggression, while everyone else is on the ground suffering from bleeding, puss, blisters, and death, you might wonder if something has gone wrong with the political technology being used.
That’s dramatic, sure. It’s a thought experiment. But it was not a thought experiment for Native Americans.
The libertarian rejoinder is that for every thought experiment a damned statist can think up, the market has thought it up better! To accomodate entropic problem X, society would be like Y, and society would account for problem Z exactly like so in perfect synchronization.
Such an arrangement isn’t at all robust; it’s fragile, and it takes too long when there are shocks to the overall system. Libertarians are more motivated by a normative distaste of aggression than preventing system entropy, since otherwise they’d approach the problem in the exact reverse, that is, let’s prevent entropy first and see how much liberty we can afford. Orthogonality slices through pained market contortions and delays. “There would be X, because of Y, and we hope there would be private coordination with Z, and 1, 2, 3!”
Or, the state could just move in and crush it all.
For every problem cited, if you have to respond with “but society would be like this” to the power of 10, realize that there are simpler mechanisms which achieve the same end. That is what the state is for, after all. It’s about eliminating fragility, fighting entropy, and instilling order. Voluntary relations remain subordinate.
Think of it like strict liability. If you hold a lion on your property, and the lion breaks loose and causes all sorts of havoc, the regular tort of negligence doesn’t apply. Why? Because you had a bloody lion on your property. Fault is irrelevant. Fault doesn’t matter. The lion broke loose. The point of strict liability is to force property owners to take every means of precaution, much more so than would be required if only negligence were to apply. This is because the risks are higher, easily foreseeable, and the costs often cannot be recuperated.
If a lion gnaws your head off, it’s game over.
If post-facto system stability cannot be guaranteed and the risks too great, etc., the state has cause to intervene to keep good order. If you’re first thought is to sue the Ebola-infected aggressor on your property, you’ve been thoroughly pwned by a toxic meme, and so you’ll experience summary death.
The state is the mean, angry version of strict liability, a version that doesn’t take any prisoners. Order supersedes personal liberty. Order is closer to the common good than liberty. Aggressive entropy has to be met with aggressive, direct state action.
By now, it should be clear that whether action X procures forced labor or ‘is theft’ is contingent on one’s conception of property rights. If rights are defeasible, then it seems arbitrary to limit the conditions of defeasibility to the initiation of aggression. There are sometimes very good reasons to consider conditions of defeasibility other than aggression: the good and preservation of a well-functioning community, for example. Maintaining a well-functioning community may require the functions provided by a minarchist state, and those would constitute positive rights, including procedural rights to a trial by jury and habeas corpus, for example, which makes it that much clearer that the positive/negative rights model breaks down in usefulness at some point, too.
Finally, there’s the idea that slavery, drawing inspiration from Fitzhugh, isn’t all that bad. It might even be a positive good. You can either change your prior conceptions of property, so that offensive act X is no longer aggression, or you can just bite the bullet and say that physical coercion is perfectly acceptable coming from superiors, since the ethical principle doesn’t apply carte blanche to those entrusted with banishing entropy—military, police, for instance. And so on. Likes should be treated alike, and unalikes unalike. Not all instances of slavery are the same, anyway. What’s the difference between a lengthy non-compete clause and cotton fields? The difference is a comfortable office environment with air-conditioning as opposed to physical labor. Sure, you could leave the office and not be able to work (unless your state decides to step in and prohibit particularly absurd non-compete clauses) anywhere remotely related to your field, or you can pop down to the local McDonald’s and see if the minimum wage is enough to feed your family. That assumes non-competes will only prohibit work within the same industry. In principle, it could apply to all industries–maybe for a very, very long time.
Philosophical differences between eternal non-competes and forced slavery are boring and irrelevant. It’s all about how it looks and feels—the practicality of it, not endless semantic games about whether it was ‘voluntary’ or not. Slavery comes in degrees, and some need it more than others. And for those who need it especially, it constitutes a civilizing force.
Non-aggression is fragile technology which doesn’t handle aggressive entropy very well. There’s no need to hang on to it as anything more than a good principle that should hold much of the time within the system on a micro-level but is largely inapplicable in the state-citizen macro environment.