Non-aggression never does any argumentative work at any time

Some libertarians (usually the dimmer internet ones) actually think that the non-aggression principle does argumentative work in favor of a libertarian theory. But it clearly doesn’t. Watch.

Suppose I come on to some piece of ground that you call your land. Suppose I don’t believe people can own land since nobody makes land. So obviously I don’t recognize your claim that this is yours. You then violently attack me and push me off.

What just happened? I say that you just used aggressive violence against me. You say that actually you just used defensive violence against me. So how do we know which kind of violence it is?

You say it is defensive violence because under your theory of entitlement, the land belongs to you. I say it is aggressive violence because under my theory of entitlement, the land does not belong to you. So which is it?

If you have half a brain, you see what is going on. The word “aggression” is just defined as violence used contrary to some theory of entitlement. The word “defense” is just defined as violence used consistent with some theory of entitlement. If there is an underlying dispute about entitlement, talking about aggression versus defense literally tells you nothing.

But instead of realizing that aggression and defense are merely ways of defining violence in relation to a necessarily prior theory of entitlement, many libertarians actually think non-aggression is a theory of entitlement. They think it can tell you who is entitled to what. But clearly it can’t. You can’t figure out what is and isn’t aggression unless you first establish (without any reference to aggression) who is entitled to what.

Let’s use another example. Suppose I go to tax you. My claim is simple. You are not, under my theory of distributive justice, entitled to the amount I am taxing you. It does not belong to you. It belongs to the retired person it is headed to. You then resist. So I use force where necessary to extract the tax.

Now there are two moves you can make here, one makes sense and the other doesn’t. The one that makes sense is to say: this is an unjust tax because the amount being taxed belongs to me, and I am entitled to it. The one that doesn’t make sense and does no argumentative work whatsoever is to say: this is aggression.

The reason it makes no sense is because it does what philosophers call begging the question. Why is taxing you aggression rather than defense? Well it’s aggression because you are entitled to what is being taxed from you (you claim). Fine, I hear that you believe it belongs to you. But I don’t believe it belongs to you. So really when you say it is aggression, you are just assuming as an unstated premise exactly what we are disagreeing about: whether the thing actually belongs to you or not. If I am right about the thing not belonging to you, it’s not aggression. If you are right about it belonging to you, it is.

So calling it aggression when we are disputing whether it belongs to you literally does nothing in the debate. You’ve just restated that you think the thing belongs to you with different words. You didn’t do any argumentative work. You just said the same thing — I am entitled to this thing — again. Non-aggression doesn’t justify any claims regarding entitlement. It’s the reverse: entitlement claims justify your assertions about what is and isn’t non-aggressive.

This means at all times the debate is about who is entitled to what. Aggression and non-aggression literally do nothing for anybody at any time in the debate. But libertarians actually think it is doing stuff for them. It is one of the most obviously failed moves I have ever seen.

Libertarians believe, like basically every other economic justice theory in history, that it is ok to use violence that is consistent with their theory of who is entitled to what (labeled “defense”), but not ok to use violence that is inconsistent with it (labeled “aggression”). But unlike every other theory of economic justice, libertarians are uniquely confused into believing that calling things defense and aggression can give you any insight into who is actually entitled to what in the first place.

To be clear, not all libertarians do this. But a massive chunk of the online, Ron Paul, mouth-breathing crowd does. It’s ridiculous.

  • Richard Gadsden

    That’s precisely the point that Matt Bruenig made. We don’t know until we agree who the kidney belongs to. And once we agree who the kidney belongs to, we don’t need the NAP to know whether the violence is right or wrong.