Shortly after I first learned of the non-aggression principle (NAP) and how it was supposed to justify libertarian property rights, it occurred to me that it was hopelessly circular. This was around 6-7 years ago. It baffled me why so many libertarians I knew used this principle in argument and why they could not understand, even after careful and patient explanation, why the NAP was doomed by fatal circularity.
When I started blogging, I thought surely some of these “smart” libertarians who are paid to be “smart” libertarian thinkers would admit that the NAP is a question-begging mess. Those who have followed my ongoing debate with Cato’s Jason Kuznicki realizes how much difficulty I have had getting any of them to concede this obviously correct point.
For that reason, I am delighted to see this piece by Cato’s Julian Sanchez from last April, which was brought to my attention by a commenter. The title of the piece, “The Non-Aggression Principle Can’t Be Salvaged—and Isn’t Even a Principle”, probably tells you all you need to know, but here is the critical paragraph in which Sanchez makes the exact same argument I have been making on this blog for nearly 3 years and elsewhere many years before:
You can’t resolve a philosophical debate between a classical liberal and a socialist by appealing to the NAP, because each can claim their view is consistent with that principle given their theories of property: The state is not “aggressing” on an individual “property owner” if in fact The People ultimately own (or have some kind of share right in) all property, given the normatively loaded way “aggression” is used here. The appeal of the NAP lies in its apparent simplicity and intuitive plausibility (tautologies tend to be intuitively plausible), but it’s typically deployed in a way that amounts to a kind of shell game: I argue that socialism must be rejected on the grounds that it violates this one simple moral principle, and hope my interlocutor doesn’t notice that I’ve essentially begged the question by baking a theory of strong property rights incompatible with socialism into my conception of “aggression,” when of course libertarian property rights are ultimately backed by the threat of (individual or state) violence as well.
All along I have emphasized that my point about the NAP being question-begging is stupidly obvious and has been made by others before. It is its stupid obviousness that makes me so shocked that libertarians pretend not to understand it (or maybe they actually don’t understand it, which is even more shocking).
Maybe pointing out that Julian Sanchez also sees the obvious question-begging going on in these NAP arguments will help other libertarians see it as well. Political belief-formation is nothing if not tribal, and here is someone within the tribe admitting that the NAP is circular, question-begging, tautological, and does no work to resolve disputes between normative economic theories that have divergent views on entitlement.