I wrote about the non-aggression principle at Demos today. I explained that the principle that you should not initiate force against other people generates the conclusion that we must create the grab-what-you-can world. In this world, people are free to do whatever they want so long as they do not literally bring force against another person. Grabbing up non-human pieces of the world does not bring force against another person. But preventing someone from grabbing up non-human pieces of the world does. So, the grab-what-you-can world is the only world that follows the non-aggression principle.
Some of the libertarians on twitter could not handle this. Jason Kuznicki got so turned around that he actually argued that applying the non-aggression principle generates extreme absurdity and that therefore I am wrong. I thought I would use this event as a learning opportunity to help people understand how the reductio ad absurdum works.
A reductio is a type of argument in which you accept a premise and use it to generate a conclusion that strikes people as absurd. If the premise is X and the conclusion is Y, then it looks like this:
- If X, then Y.
- Y is totally absurd.
- Therefore X is not true.
In the instant case, the premise was “justice requires that we follow the non-aggression principle” and the conclusion was “people can come into the house you live in and grab up the stuff and you cannot use force to prevent that.” So we plug it in.
- If justice requires that we follow the non-aggression principle, then people can come into the house you live in and grab up the stuff and you cannot use force to prevent that.
- It is totally absurd to say that “people can come into the house you live in and grab up the stuff and you cannot use force to prevent that.”
- Therefore it is not true that justice requires that we follow the non-aggression principle
This is the reductio Kuznicki had in mind, but he clearly does not understand that doing this reduction does not defeat my argument. I am not arguing that we should have the grab-what-you-can world. I am merely arguing that this is what the non-aggression principle requires. But this is a complicated argumentative move. Many people cannot understand the difference between me saying the NAP requires the grab-what-you-can world and me saying we should have the grab-what-you-can world. This is probably because in day-to-day arguments, people just advocate the conclusions they want directly. They don’t play around with utilizing frameworks to generate goofy outcomes.
But in any event, the conclusion of this reductio is that the non-aggression principle is totally absurd! That is the conclusion Kuznicki drew when he thought he was showing how absurd I was being. What a hilarious outcome!
Phrases Matter to People
The correct way to deal with the above reductio is to abandon the non-aggression principle. Libertarianism violates the NAP, as does every other theory that does not advocate the grab-what-you-can world. So you just have to find some other justification for your worldview. It’s quite clear that no libertarians actually believe in the NAP anyways. They believe in a particular positive theory of entitlement and property rights and are willing to use aggressive force to impose it on people. So, a sensible libertarian would just provide arguments for that particular theory of entitlement (e.g. just deserts or something).
I suspect they shy away from doing this for three reasons. First, many libertarians know nothing else. You cut the NAP out from underneath some libertarians, and you basically see their life flash before their eyes. They can’t deal with it. Their minds touch the nihilistic void. There is nothing else. Second, the libertarians’ positive theory of entitlement (divorced from incoherent appeals to the NAP) is wildly unappealing and unpersuasive. If you get into a theory of entitlement debate, they are utterly sunk. Finally, and somewhat related to the first one, certain phrases just mean a lot to people, and “non-aggression” is one of them.
They are entirely convinced that the phrase “non-aggression” must attach to whatever the just world is. That’s why Kuznicki cannot handle it when it is made clear that basically every system violates the NAP. To him, that must mean everything is evil and all hope is lost.
One way they deal with the uncomfortable reality that everything violates the NAP except the grab-what-you-can world is to just define the term in some vacuous and pointless manner. The easiest way to do that is to say that aggression doesn’t just mean initiating force against people; it also refers to anything that violates their property rights. This is a totally vacuous redefinition because what constitutes just property rights (i.e. a theory of what belongs to who, i.e. a theory of entitlement) is exactly what people are disagreeing about!
So this definitional move, used to protect the dear love for the phrase “non-aggression,” ends up making the NAP something all theories subscribe to. All theories think you should not initiate force against others or violate their theory of what belongs to whom. They just have differing theories of what belongs to whom. By packing a reference to your theory of entitlement into the definition of “non-aggression,” you render any attempts to justify your theory of entitlement by appealing to non-aggression hopelessly circular.
The non-aggression stuff is the most hilarious stuff I have ever dealt with in all of philosophy. Defined neutrally to mean initiating force against other people, it generates the conclusion that basically no theories of economic justice satisfy the NAP. Defined with reference to a theory of entitlement (i.e. to include not violating “property rights”), it generates the conclusion that all theories of economic justice satisfy the NAP, at least internally.
It’s a comical absurd mess. I can’t believe libertarians still pretend it does anything.