On April 8, 2013, Matt Zwolinski published an article called “Six Reasons Libertarians Should Reject the Non-Aggression Principle” in which he argues that the non-aggression principle is not suitable as a universal moral code. In this rebuttal, I will show on a point-by-point basis that he has made an erroneous case, committed numerous logical fallacies, and actually made a case against libertarianism.

Many libertarians believe that the whole of their political philosophy can be summed up in a single, simple principle. This principle—the “non-aggression principle” or “non-aggression axiom” (hereafter “NAP”)—holds that aggression against the person or property of others is always wrong, where aggression is defined narrowly in terms of the use or threat of physical violence.

Many, but not all libertarians believe this. Some libertarians regard the non-aggression principle as a logical consequence of self-ownership, and allow logical consistency, moral consistency, and other direct logical consequences of self-ownership (such as the homesteading principle) to temper the non-aggression principle. This is the view which will be defended here, and an example of this tempering may be found here.

From this principle, many libertarians believe, the rest of libertarianism can be deduced as a matter of mere logic. What is the proper libertarian stance on minimum wage laws? Aggression, and therefore wrong. What about anti-discrimination laws? Aggression, and therefore wrong. Public schools? Same answer. Public roads? Same answer.

It is not from the non-aggression principle, but from self-ownership that the rest of libertarian theory may be deduced from logic. Zwolinski writes as though rationalism, logical consistency, and apriorism are contemptuous things, and this is important for understanding the worldview of people like him.

The libertarian armed with the NAP has little need for the close study of history, sociology, or empirical economics.

A priori theory stands above such experience, forming the hard boundaries within which human events occur, but it cannot account for the subjectivity of human action and preference. Thus, the libertarian armed with self-ownership and its corollaries must still study history and sociology in order to learn from past mistakes and estimate how an idea might play out in practice. Economics, on the other hand, is not properly understood as an empirical discipline because the scientific method cannot be used in a field where controlled experiments cannot be performed and cannot be applied to unquantifiable variables (e.g. personal preferences).

With a little logic and a lot of faith in this basic axiom of morality, virtually any political problem can be neatly solved from the armchair.

Self-ownership and its corollaries are not a matter of faith, but of proof. Self-ownership is the right to exclusive control over one’s physical body. To argue that self-ownership is invalid, one must exercise exclusive control over one’s physical body in an act of communication. The content of such an argument is in opposition to the act of communicating the argument, so it is false by performative contradiction. By the three laws of thought, self-ownership must be true if any argument against it must be false. Self-ownership is thus an axiom, and the non-aggression principle is a theorem that results from respecting each person’s self-ownership in interactions between people. Not all political problems may be neatly solved from the armchair by extrapolating from this point, but most can.

On its face, the NAP’s prohibition of aggression falls nicely in line with common sense. After all, who doesn’t think it’s wrong to steal someone else’s property, to club some innocent person over the head, or to force others to labor for one’s own private benefit? And if it’s wrong for us to do these things as individuals, why would it be any less wrong for us to do it as a group – as a club, a gang, or…a state?

A great many people throughout history have thought it acceptable to engage in such behaviors. This, along with the erroneous belief that the problems of theft, assault, and slavery (among others) may be solved by limiting them to agents of the state and calling them taxation, war, and conscription, is what led people to create states.

But the NAP’s plausibility is superficial. It is, of course, common sense to think that aggression is a bad thing. But it is far from common sense to think that its badness is absolute, such that the wrongness of aggression always trumps any other possible consideration of justice or political morality. There is a vast difference between a strong but defeasible presumption against the justice of aggression, and an absolute, universal prohibition. As Bryan Caplan has said, if you can’t think of counterexamples to the latter, you’re not trying hard enough. But I’m here to help.

It is not the case that the non-aggression trumps any other possible consideration of justice or political morality, but these considerations must be limited to logical consistency, moral consistency, and other direct logical consequences of self-ownership, as discussed above. Caplan’s example of breathing on someone amounting to a violation of self-ownership is rather silly, as there is no context for the situation. Whose property are the two people on? Did the person consent to being breathed on? Was the content of the exhalation capable of damaging the person in some way? Without answers to these questions (and perhaps others), the example is unilluminating.

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.

Read the entire article at ZerothPosition.com