Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

December 11, 2012

History, Moral Philosophy, and Libertarianism

by Chris Byrne

I’ve written fairly extensively about the philosophy behind my particularly type of libertarianism… and how there are a LOT of different schools of libertarian thought… and a lot of pointless, anal, wonky, yet often completely epically vicious… argument and disagreement between them.

A selective overview of these pieces can be found here: A Refresher on Philosophy

Being a libertarian, I do love to argue philosophy… and I do so on several other blogs, and libertarian subforums of various other web sites not dedicated to politics or libertarianism (most actual libertarian forums are… impossible to tolerate… unless you ENJOY drinking bilious idiocy from a firehose ).

In a “neverending thread that will not die”™  about the oxymoronic concept of “libertarian socialism” (in actuality a deliberate socialist linguistic distortion to further a fraudulent concept), a commenter asserted:

Libertarianism is the belief in the non-aggression principle. That’s it. Everything else follows from that. 
–IgnorantCommenter

Now, I disagree entirely with such a blanket statement… It’s simply untrue, and in fact ignorant.

I mean that literally by the way, not as a characterizing statement. Someone who believes such a thing must be ignorant of the much larger sphere of libertarian history and philosophy.

My response:

Actually the non-agression principle is only one school (actually several related schools) of libertarianism. There are others that are not based on non-agression/non-initiation. 
–AnarchAngel

Our correspondent countered with:

If there were a form of libertarianism not based on the non-aggression principle, wouldn’t you have been able to name it? 
In fact, since the founding of the Libertarian Party in the 1970s–which was the start of the modern libertarian movement– until recently they required all members to sign a pledge promising to uphold the non-aggression principle. 
In my experience, those who say they are libertarians but don’t support the NAP, are usually not libertarians at all, and are simply trying to coopt the word… but hey, please feel free to show me some examples of genuine libertarians who don’t support the NAP. 
–IgnorantCommenter

Well now…

Again, I have to say that this viewpoint, while not uncommon, is incorrect; and in some very significant ways, ignorant of history and philosophy.

While the Libertarian Party was founded as a non-aggressionist organization; non-aggression is neither necessary, nor sufficient, for a libertarian philosophy.

I’m not saying it’s a bad idea; it’s not… in fact it’s generally a very good idea. But the concept that libertarian philosophies MUST, ALL, ALWAYS, be predicated on non-aggression; and that anything which isn’t, is not actually libertarian…

…That’s just plain wrong.

…As for that matter, is the suggestion that the Libertarian Party is the authority, or even a reasonable exemplar, of what libertarianism is.

The LP is simply a collective of theoretically libertarian individuals who have been able to agree sufficiently on goals and process to form an organization (sometimes… barely… ).

Again, I don’t think the libertarian party is a bad idea, or that they aren’t actually libertarian; just that they are not an organization encompassing all libertarian philosophy, or systematology.

…or that there even COULD be such an organization…

Now…

The reason I didn’t name specifics in my initial response to our correspondent, was because to do so would require a HUGE, long, detailed, and wonky explanation of the history and moral philosophy of libertarianism, and the nature of rights.

Several thousand words worth, and several hours writing, at a minimum

I wasn’t going to bother… and then I decided that if I didn’t the pointless tangenital arguments and arguing around each other would just go on and on…

Basically, it would become more irritating to me, than actually writing this damn piece.

So I wrote the damn piece… all… 3000 or so words I guess?

note: I’ve expanded and clarified somewhat here from the reply I posted in the other thread

Let’s start with the historical question

since the founding of the Libertarian Party in the 1970s–which was the start of the modern libertarian movement– until recently they required all members to sign a pledge promising to uphold the non-aggression principle. 
–IgnorantCommenter

Libertarianism, *including the modern libertarian movement*, has been around a lot longer than either the libertarian party (1971), or the formal codification of the non-aggression/non-initiation principle as a foundational libertarian principle by Murray Rothbard (1963).

There is no clear date for the modern libertarian movements “founding”, but it was clearly in existence by the time of Nock’s “Our Enemy, the State” (1935), Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom” (1943), Von Mises “Omnipotent Government” (1944) and “Human Action” (1949), etc…

Hayek and Von Mises were clearly libertarian in their philosophy, though primarily (but not entirely) of the consequentialist/utilitarian school (as is typical of economic philosophers).

Then there’s the objectivists, both pre and post Randian; including both those that self identify as libertarian objectivists, and those who claim to be opposed to libertarianism (but who mostly are opposed to Rothbardianism, and strict non-aggressionism; as reducing maximum utility).

There was a pre-Rand objectivist/utilitiarian movement, primarily based in the rule utilitiarianism school, proceeding from John Stuart Mills book “Utilitarianism” (1861), Henry Sidgwicks “The Methods of Ethics” (1876), and the various works of David Hume (published 1734-1779). This movement was well established in moral philosophy by the interwar period.

Randian objectivism (which you may or may not call libertarian) has existed in an organized way since the late 1950s.

There was a reasonably coherent self identified libertarian movement by the time of Rothbard, Tullock, Block et al (the late ’50s and early ’60s)

Clearly, the “Modern Libertarian Movement” is neither bounded, nor defined, by the Libertarian Party.

Now, the question of moral and political philosophy

Libertarianism is the believe in the non-aggression principle. That’s it. Everything else follows from that. 
…snip… 
In my experience, those who say they are libertarians but don’t support the NAP, are usually not libertarians at all, and are simply trying to coopt the word… but hey, please feel free to show me some examples of genuine libertarians who don’t support the NAP. 
–IgnorantCommenter

This comes down to the question, what exactly IS libertarianism?

That is, what would be a single, entirely inclusive definition of all things which may be reasonably and properly considered libertarianism?

Frankly, I don’t believe that there IS such a single definition; nor CAN there be.

There are schools of libertarian thought that have conflicting… in fact mutually exclusive… core principles, which cannot be reconciled philosophically (though they may be reconcilable practically or pragmatically; focusing on outcome not rationale for example).

Using the non-aggression principle as a sole determinator… Libertarianism’s John 3:16, or Shibboleth as it were…

… It’s simply insufficient.

The non-aggression principle is neither necessary, nor sufficient, for libertarianism.

Libertarianism is a set of moral, political, and ethical philosophies intended to preserve, promote, and expand, human liberty (under whatever rationale). The non-aggression principle is a moral concept that is generally associated with those philosophies.

In fact, simply declaring it as the “non-aggression” principle is incorrect. There are five closely related principles, which serve the same essential function but which are different in detail (which differences can have important consequences):

  • Non-Aggression
  • Non-Initiation
  • Non-Intervention
  • Non-Interference
  • Anti-Coercion

Going into the differences between those principles can (and has) take its own book(s), never mind a (comparatively) short piece here. Even within the specifics of each term, there are disagreements as to their definition and meaning (both semantic and philosophical).

For convenience and a (nearly futile) attempt at clarity, I will refer to these various principles as “non-agression” for the remainder of this piece

Normally I don’t like using wikipedia as an authoritative source, but I don’t happen to have a copy of the “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy” handy, and wikipedia cites it directly:

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines libertarianism as the moral view that agents initially fully own themselves and have certain moral powers to acquire property rights in external things. 
–Wikipedia

That isn’t actually an inclusive definition of libertarian philosophies, because it  describes the root of propertarian principles; and there are schools of liberty which do not include the propertarian principle as a first principle (for example, “endowed rights” based philosophies).

That said, in general, much of the wikpedia page on libertarianism is decent. For example, it includes discussion of propertarian vs. non-propertarian, and consequentialism vs. natural rights.

These are all fundamental or primary principles on which a libertarian philosophy may be based.

So, “the” fundamental principle of libertarianism is NOT non-aggression.

The non-aggression principle IS fundamental to many schools of libertarianism; but not to all of them.

What our correspondent is declaring to be the only “true” libertarian philosophy (arguing from both a “no true scotsman” fallacy, and an “appeal to authority” fallacy in the process) is essentially Rothbardian libertarianism.

Rothbard and Block argue textually, that non-aggression/non-initiation/non-coercion is an irreducible first principle; but contextually (even in their own writings) it is clearly a derived principle (it is reducible). Essentially, they declare it irreducible as a fundamental moral precept a priori. Therefore it should be taken as a primary principle (for those schools of libertarianism which subscribe to it), but not a first principle (which are irreducible).

I am not a Rothbardian, but I am very definitely a libertarian.

I am a propertarian, natural rights, minarchist, libertarian (and to an extent non-aggressionist, but not strictly so… depending on definitions).

This is a combination of moral and ethical philosophies, and a school of government (though not a specific system of government).

Rothbardian libertarianism is itself a propertarian, natural rights (depending on your definitions), essentially minarchist (depending on your definitions), non-aggressionist, libertarian school; and in part a specific system of government…

..It’s just a slightly different one from that which I subscribe to.

Minarchism is a pragmatic, utilititarian, and consequentialist school of government (NOT a political or moral philosophy) with a few basic principles (all of which are derived principles, proceeding both from political and moral philosophy, AND from the practical and pragmatic reality of human society):

  • The only legitimate purpose and function of government, is to provide for organized collective action to maximize human liberty; by resolving disputes between individuals as a disinterested arbiter, and by protecting the rights, liberties, and physical persons and property, of a polity
  • Government, by its nature, must have a monopoly of initiation of legitimate collective coercive force. All else is tyranny or anarchy.
  • Therefore all government must engage in the coercive restraint of human liberty as part of its function.
  • Therefore, all government is an evil (greater or lesser)
  • Anarchy however is not a stable order respecting of liberty. All anarchy will eventually result in the tyranny of the strong over the weak, and the many over the few.
  • Therefore, although all government is an evil; government is necessary to protect the rights of the few and the weak against the will of the many and the strong, and must exist
  • Given that government must exist, but is an evil; human liberty must be protected from that evil to the greatest extent that is practical
  • Given that liberty must be protected from the inherent evil of government; the optimal government, is the smallest, least intrusive, least pervasive, most limited government; that is practical, functional, effective’ and can protect the rights, principles, and physical persons and property, of a polity.

In propertarian/natural rights libertarianism, the first principles are that of private property and of natural rights (both of which are irreducible); the synthesis of which is the principle of self ownership.

The natural rights principle is that sentient beings have certain rights, which are not contingent on any other individual or collective (except where they are limited by conflict with the natural rights of others); and which are those principles or components of the state of being, which cannot be limited or abrogated but by force, fraud, or willing consent (exact lists and definitions thereof vary and conflict widely)

The propertarian principle is that the right to private property exists, and that you have the rights of exclusion, protection, determination, and product; for your own legitimately held private property.

The intersection of these principles is the principle of Self Ownership. You own yourself, in the entirety, including all rights of property.

Essentially, the first principle of this moral philosophy, is that the right of private property is the ultimate fundamental right, from which all other rights are derived; and beginning with the ownership of self.

This is also called the principle of “the sovereign man” (though technically, there are multiple interpretations of what that means as well).

In this interpretation of moral and ethical philosophy, non-aggression isn’t even a first principle; it is one of a set of derived principles, which are internally justified and consistent (without endowment, appeal to authority, or a priori assertion of second order principle).

This set of principles can be described thusly:

  • You own your entire self (body, mind, and soul).
  • Because you own yourself in the entire, you have the absolute right to:
  1.  Self determination
  2.  Freedom of conscience
  3.  Your own property legitimately acquired and held (which includes your entire self)
  4.  The efforts, products, outputs, and rights inherent to or proceeding from all the above
  • You have the absolute right to defend those things, and the product or output of them; up to and including lethal force (except where limited by conflict with the rights of others).
  • There are no other rights. All other privileges, powers, and immunities, are less than rights; and are either derived from, or in opposition to them.
  • You may not initiate force or fraud against any other to abrogate their rights; or for any reason other than the defense of those rights; but including defending those rights for others who either cannot defend themselves, or those who delegate that defense to you.
  • None may initiate force or fraud against you to abrogate those rights, or for any reason other than the defense of those rights; including defending others rights from you.
  • There are no rights, privileges, powers, or immunities which are not derived from the rights of the individual.
  • A collective cannot arrogate rights, privileges, powers, or immunities on itself which are not delegated to it by individuals; therefore no collective may exercise more or different rights, privileges, powers, or immunities than any individual, nor may it exercise those things which have not been explicitly delegated to it.
  • You have absolute responsibility for all of the above. All consequences are yours, good or bad.

Only ONE of those core principles (expressed as two entries in this list, describing the principle and its reciprocal) is non-aggression.

There are many other schools of libertarian moral and political philosophy, some of which don’t include the non-aggression principle at all (or do so in a significantly different, or  nearly unrecognizable form).

I make no judgement here as to what the “best” form of libertarian moral, ethical, or political philosophy, or school of government, might be.

I have a system which is internally consistent, and works for me. You may disagree with it; in fact, your beliefs may directly conflict with or contradict mine. They may even be mutually exclusive.

So long as I don’t attempt to use coercive force on you to make you believe in or follow my system, and you don’t attempt use coercive force on me likewise; we may both be “true” libertarians (or maybe not, depending on what else we may believe).

On first glance, you might say “well, that’s just the non-aggression principle again”… but if you think about it for a minute you should realize that it isnt.

The statement is not exclusionary or deterministic. In either of our belief systems, there may be circumstances under which the initiation of coercive force on another is acceptable, or even required. Or, both of our belief systems may allow for a disinterested arbiter to resolve disputes (mine certainly does).

So… Non-aggression is a generally good principle… but it isn’t absolute, it isn’t deterministic, and it isn’t universal.

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  • http://aynrkey.blogspot.com Ayn R. Key

    If you want to sum up libertarianism into one phrase, how does this sound:

    “The political philosophy that seeks to maximize the rights of the individual.”

    I believe it can encompass many, perhaps all, schools of libertarian thought, and even unify the anarchists and minarchists.

  • http://www.thelibertypapers.org/ Stephen Littau

    Chris:

    First off, great essay!

    I’m a little curious about the last line in your post about the NAP not being absolute. Can you think of an instance where initiating force would be justified? (i.e. consistent with your principles) The only example I can think of at the moment is a nation declaring war against yours (or otherwise making it clear that the nation in question will initiate force in the immediate future). Even in this example, however; I would argue that any such declaration would be a threat and constitute their initiation of force.

    Agree/disagree?

  • http://anarchangel.blogspot.com Chris

    The simplest example is pre-emptive force.

    I believe that pre-emption is justified to defend ones rights, and the rights of others.

    Strict non-aggressionists don’t

    Remember, a lot of philosophical differentiation comes down to definitions.

    This of course goes to the core of the differences between those five slightly differentiated versions I mention above as well (non-aggression, non-initiation, anti-coercion etc…)

    Some people consider themselves non-aggressionists but they support pre-emption, because they consider a credible threat of force (whether explicitly declared or not) to be a force initiation.

    Some do not consider a threat to be initiation of force at all, or that it is only justifiable to respond proportionally (i.e. threaten them back). Some believe that it is only legitimate to respond to an explicitly declared threat, or actions that can ONLY be considered such (if they have another possible explanation, then it isn’t equivalent to a declared threat).

    My thought on the matter is, simple: I don’t care if it’s force initiation or not, and I don’t give a damn about proportionality. If you give me what I judge to be credible threat, declared or not, I’m going to utterly destroy you before you have any chance of carrying it out.

    I personally find that to be entirely consistent with my interpretation of non-initiation of coercive force. Others do not.

    Of course, then you get into the question of what exactly is a credible threat, and how are you qualified to judge when you are clearly going to be biased etc… etc…

    Which is how the anti-preemptionists justify their argument that it is better to wait for the hit rather than initiate force.

    And then there’s the complication I include above “or the defense of the rights of others”. Some believe that is a legitimate justification of force, some believe it is not; that force can only be initiated or responded to on ones own behalf.

  • http://anarchangel.blogspot.com Chris

    Then there’s the differentiation of forces, and of classes of force application,

    For example, I believe it can be legitimate to initiate coercive economic or social force; where the initiation of physical force would not be.

    Also, a differentiation can sometimes be made between individual actors initiation of force, voluntary collective initiation of force, and initiation of force by government against an individual or voluntary collective.

    It is not ALWAYS necessary to make such a differentiation, but can be circumstantially.

    For example, a boycott, or a union picket line (so long as no-one is physically restrained, injured, or threatened), are entirely legitimate initiations of social and economic force by voluntary collectives (leaving aside the question of whether union membership is voluntary). However, the government organizing and initiating a boycott or strike against a private organization, that was engaging in lawful activity and not otherwise abrogating or trespassing on the rights of others, would not be; because the ALL government action is involuntary collective action, conducted under the threat of coercive physical force.

  • http://anarchangel.blogspot.com Chris

    Essentially what I’m saying, is that those who seek to use the NAP (or some variation of it) as a bright line absolute test, either need to twist definitions to fit the reality we live in, or carve out exceptions all over the the place…

    because reality is not philosophically ideal…

    …at which point it isn’t REALLY a bright line absolute test anymore

  • http://thepriceofliberty.org Nathan

    How can you maximize something that is supposed to be complete, like the rights of the individual? Is it not more about seeking to minimize the limits on the rights of the individual?

  • http://anarchangel.blogspot.com Chris

    Actually, it’s neither.

    If anything, it’s to maximize human liberty; not either maximizing rights, or minimizing limitations on those rights.

    From an application standpoint, those may be effective methodologies (or not… depending on how they are implemented); but they are not a philosophical foundation.

  • tkc

    I consider myself to be somewhere between anarcho-capitalist and libertarian. There is a large amount of overlap between the two but the non-aggression part, I think, clearly falls in the anarcho-capitalist side.
    The libertarian side sees the need for the ‘night watchmen’ and that would discredit the idea that libertarians are absolutely for non-aggression. If the night watchman, as an agent of government, sees something wrong then he can take aggressive action to stop it. The anarcho-capitalist says ‘no’ to this as there would be no agents for government.
    For some reason the anarcho-capitalists get thrown in with the libertarians. It is a mistake to do this.
    Is Taran still around? It’d be nice to see what he has to say.

  • http://thepriceofliberty.org Nathan

    To me, there are two (major) types of libertarian: the anarcho-capitalist (or free-market anarchist) and the minarchist. What TKC seems to do is calling a minarchist a libertarian and pushing us free-market anarchists out the side door. As I understand minarchists (having been one, once upon a time): they believe that human government can exist AND can abide by the non-aggression principle. I have seen that human government is by its very nature unable to avoid aggression, and not just “preemptive” force. While the “night watchman” may theoretically be able to operate in a realm of non-aggression, in most of history the night-watchman has turned into the jack-booted law enforcement thug very, very quickly.

  • tkc

    Actually, I was trying to point out that anarcho-capitalists technically aren’t libertarians. There is a lot of overlap but it is wrong to freely exchange the two. They’re not the same and I’d put strict non aggression up as an example of their differences.
    I’m not trying to push anyone out the door. I just think there is a mistake being made.

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