Sunday, June 23, 2013

Debunking the Conundrums of the Non-Aggression Principle

Bruce Lindsey of the Cato Institute wrote:

In other cases, there is no escape hatch of ambiguity to rescue the NAP from absurd or repugnant implications. It seems quite clear that there could no legal enforcement of contracts in the way we are familiar with: restitution could be ordered when actual money has changed hands, but in a mere exchange of promises there could be no NAP-consistent remedy in the event of a breach. Harboring a fugitive would not be a crime. Neither would blackmail. Neither would even the most heinous cruelty to animals. There could be no bankruptcy law that extinguishes debts. Tort liability for corporations would either be unlimited or nonexistent (in which case only the individual employees responsible would be liable). There could be no compulsory vaccines during epidemics. And of course, the NAP proscribes taxation as well as any government spending to alleviate poverty, promote education, or do anything else besides protecting persons and property.

Really, Mr. Lindsey?  People who call themselves "libertarians" support compulsory vaccination, and government spending to "alleviate poverty" or "promote education"?  These labels are getting confusing.  I thought people who supported things like violent taxation for wealth distribution and collective, violent control over healthcare called themselves "progressives" or "socialists."   So are you advocating that progressives and socialists start calling themselves libertarians?  Or are you calling for libertarians to abandon the NAP in favor of  "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need?"  Or are you just disparaging the NAP as "absurd and repugnant," without any rational analysis?

Sadly Mr. Lindsey rejects the NAP as a foundational principle, and merely advocates for the statist status quo. In view of his statements on compulsory vaccination (violence) and taxation (theft), he favors the initiation of force against others so long as some notion of "collective good" is used to excuse the aggression.  In his own words: "NAP fundamentalism is utterly unworkable as a basis for libertarian thought."  If justifying theft and violence based on politically determined notions of the collective good is what his brand of "libertarianism" entails, count me out.  The NAP remains a very useful and fundamental ethical principle for informing libertarian thought.
So what is the NAP, exactly?  The Ludwig von Mises Institute provides a useful and precise definition:
The non-aggression principle (also called the non-aggression axiom, or the anti-coercion or zero aggression principle or non-initiation of force) is an ethical stance which asserts that "aggression" is inherently illegitimate. "Aggression" is defined as the "initiation" of physical force against persons or property, the threat of such, or fraud upon persons or their property. In contrast to pacifism, the non-aggression principle does not preclude violent self-defense. The principle is a deontological (or rule-based) ethical stance.
Http:// (June 22, 2013).

Let's examine this ethical principle in view of the alleged "absurd or repugnant implications" of the NAP listed by Mr. Lindsay.

"In a mere exchange of promises there could be no NAP-consistent remedy in the event of a breach."  Even statist courts generally do not enforce mere exchanges of promises if unsupported by consideration or not memorialized in writing.  If all mere exchanges of promises were legally enforceable, it's not hard to imagine all sorts of absurd or repugnant outcomes.  So let us suppose Mr. Lindsey is referring to commercial contracts, such as those in which one party promises to delivers a product or service by some future date, and the other party promises to pay after receiving the product or service.  Assuming the parties have memorialized their exchange of promises in writing, a contract has been formed in which the terms of enforcement are either expressly written out or implied by the legal system under which the contract is made.  Such terms of enforcement may (but do not necessarily) include permitting the initiation of force against a party breaching the contract.  Thus, if force is properly initiated against a breaching party to a contract, there is no violation of the NAP, because the breaching party has already agreed to the initiation of force by executing the contract.  That's the essence of contracts, which are absolutely not forbidden by the NAP.  Whether or not the contract is based on an exchange of promises is utterly irrelevant to application of the NAP.  Causing someone to execute a contract by coercion or fraud is forbidden by the NAP, but it is not otherwise concerned with how contracts are formed.

 "Harboring a fugitive would not be a crime."  Helping a murderer or other such criminal evade justice would certainly be actionable without violating the NAP, even if the harboring is done only after the crime is committed.  A violent criminal, thief or fraudster owes recompense to his victim for the harm cause and possibly also punitive damages; hence the victim or the victim's delegate have a personal property interest in bringing the criminal to justice.  A person knowingly and intentionally interfering with that property interest has initiated an improper act of aggression, and thus may be held liable for the harboring.  On the other hand, if there is no victim, there is no crime, and harboring is by definition impossible.

"Neither would blackmail."  It depends what is meant by "blackmail" and the circumstances under which it occurs.  A threat to reveal a true fact about someone unless some compensation or behavior is forthcoming may, or may not implicate the NAP.  If proof of the unsavory fact has been obtained by entrapment (i.e., fraud) or coercion (including the theft of confidential information), then the fraud or coercion is actionable under the NAP.  If the unsavory fact is provable merely because a bad actor has been caught in the act, why should it be repugnant for the NAP to fail to protect the bad actor?  On the other hand, if a criminal is caught in the act by somebody other than the victim (for example, if Rubie blackmails Bob, who she caught stealing Jose's chickens), then the blackmailer is aggressing on the victim's property interest by offering to cover up the evidence of the crime in exchange for some payment.  In such circumstances, it would not violate the NAP to hold both the criminal responsible for his crimes, and the blackmailer responsible for her interference with the victim's property interest.

"Neither would even the most heinous cruelty to animals."  Libertarians, when will you stop beating your animals???  All the libertarians I know are compassionate, gentle people who, if they keep animals, are as kind if not kinder to their animals than the general population.  And I've never met or heard of a libertarian who embraced the NAP yet advocated for the repeal of all laws against cruelty to animals.  The NAP is flexible enough to be expanded beyond the purely human sphere to include things such as animal rights; for example liability for cruelty to animals is perfectly consistent with the NAP when applied in a social context that recognizes animals as something more than unthinking and unfeeling objects.  Put another way, while the NAP is concerned with force against persons or property, it does not define what a "person" or "property" is.  In a social context where animals have certain rights, animals might enjoy an intermediate sort of protection in which the NAP could not be used as a shield to protect those who violate the recognized rights of animals from the legal consequences of their contemptible cruelties.  This has nothing to do with the NAP itself; animal rights arise out of the social context in which the NAP is applied. Similarly, many ethical rules are silent on animal cruelty - for example the Golden Rule ("Do unto others as you would have them do unto you") says nothing about cruelty to animals.  Hardly a reason to reject the Golden Rule as a fundamental ethical principle.

"There could be no bankruptcy law that extinguishes debts." This statement assumes that the NAP defines all debts as absolute property rights that cannot be taken away under any circumstance. But as with animal rights, it fails to recognize that the NAP does not define what "property" is.  Thus, in a social context that recognizes the virtues and legality of a discharge of debt under certain limited circumstance, it would not violate the NAP to refuse to allow a creditor to enforce a debt when those limited circumstances applied.

"Tort liability for corporations would either be unlimited or nonexistent (in which case only the individual employees responsible would be liable)." If any influential libertarians advocate excusing corporations from tort liability, on the basis of the NAP or otherwise, I have never run across them.  Some libertarians believe that limited corporate liability creates economic moral hazard and thus, should not be tolerated.  On that basis, many libertarians support extending corporate liability to the persons individually responsible for corporate harms, in limited circumstances or more generally.  Mr. Lindsey's statement is just another baseless disparagement of what libertarians supposedly believe, and is entirely unrelated to the NAP besides.  The NAP says nothing about corporate tort liability, and certainly would not forbid it.

"There could be no compulsory vaccines during epidemics."  After a parade of false horribles, at last we arrive at the first true statement in Mr. Lindsey's list.  However, it is neither absurd nor repugnant for the NAP to forbid the compulsory injection of substances into a competent adult who objects to such invasions of her body.  Nor is there any reason why this should be a problem.  If there ever occurs a deathly epidemic at a time when an effective and risk-free vaccine is widely available, those very few people suffering from irrational fears of all vaccines will suffer the gravest consequences, for which they will be solely and individually responsible.  And so be it.  Meanwhile, since the vaccine is so effective, those who receive it will be placed at no risk at all by the refusal of the irrational minority.  So why is this a problem?

"The NAP proscribes taxation as well as any government spending to alleviate poverty, promote education, or do anything else besides protecting persons and property."  The second true statement in Mr. Lindsey's list.  Yes, libertarians, after allegedly beating their animals, harboring fugitives, spreading disease, casting debtors in prison, breaking contracts without penalties, shielding evil corporations from tort liability, and blackmailing with glee, believe in limited government.  Many even believe that the existence of government -- defined as a monopoly on the initiation of aggression in a defined jurisdiction -- is a moral evil.  Long may it ever be so.

The NAP is a fundamental touchstone for libertarian thought, but is not the only principle informing libertarian thinking on sociopolitical matters. Definitions of property, trespass, harm, conditions necessary for voluntary consent or guardianship, what constitutes creation of unreasonable risk of harm and many other principles are also clearly important. The NAP can't work in a vacuum; its essence is a balancing of the freedom of action of the individual against the right of others to enjoy equivalent freedoms. Other principles are needed to define what freedom of action and curtailment of freedom consist of in different circumstances.  Libertarians will probably always have some differences amongst themselves about exactly how the NAP should be applied in different circumstances, but those who advocate abandoning the NAP as a fundamental touchstone should be ashamed to call themselves libertarians.