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Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats. –H.L. Mencken

Is The Non-Aggression Principle Enough For Libertarians?


I’ve been meaning to write a follow-up post to our “Thin vs. Thick Libertarianism” podcast episode.  I was going to title it, “I Am A Libertarian Brutalist”, but got distracted over the past month and didn’t get to it.

Then the other day I saw Tom Woods’s post on Facebook and heard him rant at the end of his podcast.  For those of you not familiar, here is his FB post:

I am completely on Tom’s and his wife’s side on this.  My wife and I would never tolerate our children acting that way either.  But the more interesting part about this, and what got me back to thinking about the thin vs. thick debate, is the response he got to his post.

A significant number of people, self-proclaimed libertarians no less, commented that the teenager’s behavior was no big deal since they weren’t violating the non-aggression principle and that we should expect teenagers to act like obnoxious buffoons.  I’m paraphrasing a bit.  One person defended the teens on grounds that there are no signs in hotels telling people not to act like animals and disturb everyone else.

As an aside, Tom handily defeated this argument in the comments, reminding the commenter that hotels are private property and they probably don’t want all of their best, repeat customers irritated by this type of behavior.  He also permanently disinvited from his house anyone who thinks the teens’ behavior is OK, saying that he’s afraid they would urinate all over his furniture and then tell Tom it’s fine because there’s no sign saying they can’t.  Classic.

Also, while discussing this topic, Aaron graciously offered to write a post on strategies for dealing with non-violent yet offensive actions by others.  🙂

But back to the main point…

One thing I find strange and interesting at the same time is that the thin/thick libertarianism debate has divided everyone into two camps, just like the current American political system does.  The phrase “you’re either with us or against us” comes to mind.

Thick libertarians think that there are additional “obligations” in libertarianism other than the non-aggression principle and accuse those of us who disagree as being uncaring, libertarian “brutalists”.  Proponents of this “thick” libertarianism tell us that in addition to not aggressing against others, we are obliged to support the causes of various “classes” of people whom they deem to be in need, because libertarianism demands it.

This in and of itself should be alarming to libertarians, the idea of grouping people by characteristic into large groups, rather than treating them as individuals.  It almost seems like a contradiction if what the “thicks” want is to eliminate things like, say racism, which is poor treatment of people who happen to fall into a particular class.

Other libertarians, the so-called “thins” like the ones commenting on Tom’s post, think that all that is required of anyone, ever, is just not to violate the NAP, and that anything else is fine and can never be questioned.  Case in point is a group of obnoxious teenagers raising hell in the middle of the night at your hotel.

The former is an adulteration of libertarianism, taking the NAP, a statement which basically just says “mind your own business”, and adding to it a list of positive obligations.

The latter is a diminishment of what it means to be a human.  To be clear, I believe the “thins” are correct when it comes to their definition of libertarianism.  All that is required to be a libertarian is adherence to the NAP.  Their mistake is not in requiring too little of libertarianism, but rather too little of themselves and others from a moral perspective.

This is Woods’s point above.  Who would want to associate with others who think it’s fine to act however they want provided they just don’t beat you up or steal your stuff?  I propose that not even a thin libertarian really wants to live in such a reality.

I believe that some of these thin libertarians go too far the other direction by making the erroneous leap from ‘no positive legal obligations’ to ‘no positive moral obligations’.

They seem to commit this fallacy by incorrectly inferring that because the NAP is not a complete worldview, and only, in their minds, a legal framework, it therefore has no moral quality.  But this is patently wrong.

Any statement of positive or negative obligation has an inherent moral stance or presupposition.  This is a big topic deserving of an entire blog post, perhaps even a whole book, but it’s pertinent to this train of thought, so I need to expand on it a bit further.

Both libertarianism and statism make moral claims.  Libertarianism claims that it’s immoral to initiate aggressive violence against others.  Statism claims that it’s not immoral to do so, provided it’s voted on, written on a piece of paper, or sanctioned through some other civil-religious ceremony which makes it moral.

What proponents of libertarianism really mean is that libertarianism does not place any additional moral obligations on people beyond not initiating violence against others.  In essence, all libertarianism is dealing with is the negative use of coercion and not positive moral obligations towards others.

This is sufficient from a legal perspective, if all we are interested in is living in a society where no one is permitted to aggress against others, but insufficient for a society in which anyone would actually interact with others or want to live.  There are positive moral obligations placed on us, just not by libertarianism.

I believe the thin vs. thick debate is a false dichotomy.  The two are not mutually exclusive.  There is, at the risk of borrowing a liberal and conservative term, a “third way”.

This third way takes the perfectly moral statement of the non-aggression principle, and marries it with the idea (though not necessarily the actual specifics) of the “thicks”, namely that there are positive moral obligations to those around us.

The distinction I would make is that these obligations are not put on us by, or somehow inherently linked to, libertarianism as a philosophy, but come from the obligation we have to obey God as His creatures and to treat others as having dignity because we are all made in His image.

Thick libertarians who try to foist these obligations on others based on somehow linking the libertarian philosophy to them are just as mistaken as the thins who dismiss them as unnecessary for life at all.

I am a libertarian brutalist…who thinks we have moral obligations to others.

One comment on “Is The Non-Aggression Principle Enough For Libertarians?

  1. Pingback: Everything is awesome – except when your neighbor is a jerk. | Curmudgeons.net

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