Some non-libertarians, and even some libertarians, claim that the non-aggression principle is useless. So let us see how one can argue without it.
The non-aggression principle – the principle that it is unjust to initiate force against other people or their property – has long been considered a basic principle of libertarian political theory. John Locke, for example, founded his theory on the principle that, “Being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.” Herbert Spencer took, as his fundamental principle, that: “Every man is free to do that which he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man.” (stress added). Many contemporary libertarians rely on the principle as well. Ron Paul, for example, claims that:
The core of libertarianism is respect for the life, liberty and property rights of each individual. This means that no one may initiate force against another, as that violates those natural rights. While many claim adherence to this principle, only libertarians apply the non-aggression axiom to the state.
Given the prominence of the non-aggression principle (NAP) in libertarian argument, it is not surprising that anti-libertarians reject it. However, nowadays it is common to find even libertarians who reject the principle, as well.
Not surprisingly, few if any directly reject NAP, by arguing that aggression is not wrong. “For most individuals believe, and fervently so,” as Walter Block notes, “that it is wrong to invade other people or their property. Who, after all, favors theft, murder or rape?” What one encounters instead are attempts to deny that NAP is meaningful; that it actually says anything substantive.
For example, anti-libertarian Matt Bruenig, a well-known internet troll, has dismissed NAP as simply useless in resolving any dispute. According to him, “Non-aggression never does any argumentative work at any time”.
Breunig illustrates his point with the following example (quoted at length, lest there be no misunderstanding):
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.
If Breunig’s point were simply that the non-aggression principle is not sufficient by itself to resolve all disputes, because one also has to know who is entitled to what, then he would have a point; but he would be attacking a strawman. Block, in the article already cited, made the very same point:
If the non-aggression axiom is the basic building block of libertarianism, private property rights based on (Lockean and Rothbardian) homesteading principles are the foundation. For if A reaches into B’s pocket, pulls out his wallet and runs away with it, we cannot know that A is the aggressor and B the victim. It may be that A is merely repossessing his own wallet, the one B stole from him yesterday. But given a correct grounding in property rights, the non-aggression axiom is a very powerful tool in the war of ideas.
As Block says, there is no way to know whether A or B is the aggressor without knowing which of them owns the wallet. Block’s example shows that Bruenig is correct on that point; in which case Breunig has rebutted the idea that “believing that calling things defense and aggression can give you any insight into who is actually entitled to what in the first place.”
Yet, as Block’s example also shows, Breunig’s contention that “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” is also wrong. In refuting a belief which he has simply stipulated, Breunig has not shown any libertarian to be wrong; because he has not shown that any libertarian, much less “libertarians” in general, hold any such belief. Breunig has done nothing but refute a strawman of his own creation.
Even more destructive to Breunig’s point, though, is the fact that his argument, even if successful, does nothing to show that “Non-aggression never does any argumentative work at any time.” To show that, he would have to show that NAP plays no force in determining which of his people – the trespasser, or the putative property owner – is right or wrong; that, if they only agreed on a theory of “entitlement”, they could agree on who is right, and who is wrong, without any reliance on the NAP.
Which brings us to libertarian scholar Matt Zwolinski; for the idea that people can so agree without relying on the NAP, simply by agreeing on a theory of entitlement, is exactly what Zwolinski argues. Here, once again, is the argument, stated in full so that there is no possibility of misstating it:
Even if the NAP is correct, it cannot serve as a fundamental principle of libertarian ethics, because its meaning and normative force are entirely parasitic on an underlying theory of property. Suppose A is walking across an empty field, when B jumps out of the bushes and clubs A on the head. It certainly looks like B is aggressing against A in this case. But on the libertarian view, whether this is so depends entirely on the relevant property rights – specifically, who owns the field. If it’s B’s field, and A was crossing it without B’s consent, then A was the one who was actually aggressing against B. Thus, “aggression,” on the libertarian view, doesn’t really mean physical violence at all. It means “violation of property rights.” But if this is true, then the NAP’s focus on “aggression” and “violence” is at best superfluous, and at worst misleading. It is the enforcement of property rights, not the prohibition of aggression, that is fundamental to libertarianism.
To say that NAP is “parasitic” is to say that it is completely useless in resolving the moral question. On Zwolinski’s account, one can say who is in the right simply by referring to “an underlying theory of property;” the question of whether B was right to club A on the head, or not, “depends entirely on the relevant property rights – specifically, whose field it is.”
But that is wrong; just knowing that B owns the field is not sufficient to prove that he has a right to club A on the head. Zwolinski knows that himself; the evidence being that he smuggles another condition: “If it’s B’s field, and A was crossing it without B’s consent, then A was the one who was actually aggressing against B.” (stress added)
However, if B has a right to club A simply because B owns the field, then why should it matter whether A had B’s consent or not? If “the relevant property rights” are all that matter, then: what can possibly be wrong with B inviting A onto his field, and then clubbing him on the head?
An advocate of NAP can easily come up with other scenarios in which it is wrong for B to club someone on his own field. Take an example similar to Block’s: Suppose B stole a car, and parked it in his field, and A is coming onto B’s field to retrieve the car. It does not even have to be A’s car; let us stipulate that A is merely a policeman investigating the theft. (There is no assumption that the police are tax-funded, or even that they work for the government.) In that case, is B still justified in clubbing A over the head?
I cannot imagine Zwolinski arguing that B is so justified in either of those cases. However, in order to argue that B is not justified, Zwolinski would have to argue that A is not an aggressor; that A’s invasion of B’s field did not violate B’s rights, either because it was not force (because A had B’s consent) or because it was retaliatory force (justified by B’s prior theft). In either case, Zwolinski would not be arguing without NAP, but assuming NAP implicitly.
In order to make this point clear, let us address Zwolinski’s argument without any assumption of NAP. In other words: Let us stipulate, purely for the sake of argument, that it is not wrong to initiate force against other people or their property. Then let us see if we can resolve the question of right or wrong in his example.
A is walking on a field, when B jumps out from behind a bush and clubs A on the head. Suppose that no one owns the field. Is B right or wrong to club A? Assuming that it is wrong to club people on the head, then B would be wrong; but why would someone assume that? Both A and B are just doing their thing: A is walking in the field, and B is clubbing people on the head. If A has liberty to do what he wants (walk) in an unowned field, then why shouldn’t B have liberty to do what he wants (club people on the head) in the same unowned field?
It does no good to appeal to “self-ownership” – to argue that it is wrong for B to club A on the head, because A’s head is A’s property. Stipulating that A’s head is A’s property tells us that A can use his head – for example, A can use his eyes to see where he is going – but it tells us absolutely nothing about what B can or must do. B is similarly using his property – his arm – to wield the club; why is A’s use of his body right, and B’s use of his body wrong? B is wrong if we assume that B is initiating force, and that it is wrong to initiate force on other people; but remember that, for the sake of the argument, we are assuming that it is not wrong.
Now assume that it is A’s field. Then A is certainly entitled to walk on it. But why is B not similarly entitled to hide on it, and club A on the head? A believer in NAP would say that B is wrong, provided A has not previously aggressed on B; in which case, B is initiating force against A, and it is wrong to do so. But, again, we are making no such assumption.
Now assume that it is B’s field, and that A is a trespasser. Then a believer in NAP would say that A is the aggressor, and that B is entitled to do something in retaliation (though maybe not to club A on the head). But, again, we are making no such assumption.
Perhaps we can decide, per Zwolinski, that the question can be decided “entirely on the relevant property rights – specifically, who owns the field”. In which case: B has a right to club A in the third case, because B has a right to do what he wants on his own field; but only A has a right to do what he wants on his field (including clubbing B in the head) in the second case. But that again looks like smuggling in an assumption that it is wrong do what one wants on someone else’s property (which again looks suspiciously like the NAP). Nor does it do anything to resolve the first case, or the next case:
Once again, assume that B invited A onto B’s field. A believer in NAP would say that in that case A’s walking on the field would not be wrong; and, therefore, B would be clearly wrong to club A over the head. But, again, we are not assuming NAP but its contradictory. Without NAP, though, there would be no reason to say that B is right in the previous case and wrong in this one; if he has a right to club people over the head on his own field, then how can it possibly be wrong for him to do so?
The same objection can be made to Breunig’s argument. Remember, that argument was that “Non-aggression never does any argumentative work at any time;” that questions like the above can be resolved solely by appealing to questions of entitlement. In order to see if that is true, that means once again assuming the contradictory of NAP – that it is not wrong to initiate force against other people and their property – and revisiting Breunig’s argument:
A walks onto a field that B claims to own; B pushes A off. B says that he is justified, because A is wrong to walk on his field. To which A can reply, “So what? Just because it’s your field, that does not mean it’s wrong for me to walk on it.”
Or, conversely, A argues that B’s pushing him off the field was wrong, because B does not own it; to which B can reply, “So what? If it’s all right for you to do what you want on a field you do not own, what is wrong with me doing what I want on a field you say I don’t own? I wanted to push you off.”
If A and B have different theories of “entitlement,” then they can argue about their respective theories. But their different theories would have no argumentative force whatsoever. All A’s theory can establish is that it is permissible for him to walk on the field; it does nothing to show that B was wrong to push him off of it. All B’s argument can show is that it is permissible for him to push A off a field if B is entitled; it does not show that A was wrong to walk on the field, or (for that matter) to push back.
Even if A and B argue about entitlement theory all day long, and finally agree on a theory of “entitlement,” that agreement puts them in no position to say anything about right or wrong. Maybe A was wrong to walk on the field; maybe B was wrong to push A off; maybe they were both wrong; maybe neither of them were. That remains true no matter who owns the field.
Nor can they resolve that issue by talking about something else, such as “violence.” Suppose A tries that gambit, and says that B was wrong because he used violence. B can simply reply, “That makes no sense. If you think it is wrong to use violence on other people, then obviously you cannot use violence on me; but on what grounds do you object to my using violence on you?”
The only way that A and B can peacefully resolve their dispute, by agreeing that one of them is right and one is wrong, is to agree that either (1) it is wrong to walk on property which one is not entitled to walk on, or (2) it is wrong to push other people when one is not entitled to push them. But neither of those conclusions can be reached if one rejects NAP in its entirety.
Breunig and Zwolinski are certainly correct that the words “aggression” and “defence” are not magic; just using them does not give anyone the power to decide questions of right or wrong. But neither do the terms “entitlement” and “property rights”: without loading those terms by smuggling in a moral principle (which looks suspiciously like the very one they are explicitly rejecting), one cannot use those terms to reach any moral conclusions.
 “Non-Aggression Principle,” Wikipedia, April 29, 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-aggression_principle
 “What is Libertarianism?”, Advocates for Self-Government. https://www.theadvocates.org/libertarianism-101/definitions-of-libertarianism/
 Walter Block, “The Non-Aggression Axiom of Libertarianism.” Lew Rockwell.com, February 17, 2003. https://archive.lewrockwell.com/block/block26.html
 Sady Day, “Beware of the Angry White Male Public Intellectual,” Quartz, February 16, 2016.
 Matt Breunig, “Non-aggression never does any argumentative work at any time,” MattBreunig.com, October 3, 2013. http://mattbruenig.com/2013/10/03/non-aggression-never-does-any-argumentative-work-at-any-time/
 Matt Zwolinski, “Six Reasons Libertarians Should Reject the Non-Aggression Principle,” Libertarianism.org., April 8, 2013. https://www.libertarianism.org/blog/six-reasons-libertarians-should-reject-non-aggression-principleTweet
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