Being Wrong About Being Wrong About the Non-Aggression Principle

Updated on August 8, 2017
Garry Reed profile image

Garry Reed combined a professional technical writing career and a passion for all things libertarian to become The Libertarian Opinionizer.

The Modern American Libertarian Movement

There is no single God-given canonical stone tablet sacred definition of libertarianism. Get used to it.
There is no single God-given canonical stone tablet sacred definition of libertarianism. Get used to it.

Commentary From Your Libertarian Opinionizer

(NOTE: This being a family-friendly article all unfriendly words from the book’s author have been replaced by friendlier {euphemisms}.

A writer named Ezekiel VanDerStein posted a little-known un-reviewed 19-page Kindle … book? pamphlet? brochure? rant? … on Amazon called How Libertarians Can Stop Being Wrong About the NAP and in the process gets much of it wrong himself.

NAP, for those not in the know, is an abbreviation for the libertarian world’s Non-Aggression Principle. While there are varying definitions the NAP acknowledges the reality that all individuals own their own bodies and therefore reject coercion, intimidation and fraud by some against others.

VanDerStein begins by getting things right, which encourages anyone who stumbles across this very obscure work to think, “It’s about time a libertarian explained the Non-Aggression Principle to libertarians who don’t get it and therefore can’t explain it properly to non-libertarians.”

Unfortunately, the explainer himself has some explaining to do. Especially when he warns right in the introduction that “The problem with the bigger names in libertarian philosophy is that they are all a bunch of {shagging} windbags” and then assures us “I ain't trying to read that {uncastrated male bovine bowel movement}.”

And just so everyone gets where he isn’t coming from he quotes Murray Rothbard: “No man or group of men may aggress against the person or property of anyone else.” and then leaves his own quote just outside the back porch for us to step in: “There was probably some context around that quote, but I for one can only stand Murray Rothbard for a half sentence at a time anyhow.”

Remember as you shovel your way into this screed that VanDerStein isn’t saying that libertarians are being wrong about libertarianism but specifically that they’re being wrong about the NAP. What he never seems to contemplate is that the particular libertarian philosophical hook on which people hang their hats necessarily determines how they shape the NAP to conform to their own heads.

Learning Libertarianism

Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know
Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know
YOUR LIBERTARIAN OPINIONIZER’S PICK: For those who want to understand the full panoply of American libertarianism – including the Non-Aggression Principle – Question 5 in Brennan’s chapter on The Basics of Libertarianism, “Are There Different Kinds of Libertarians?” is alone worth the price of admission. Throughout the book he attempts to cover them all, from classical liberals to anarchists to minarchists to Objectivists to free marketeers and how they respond to major concepts like Values, Ethics, Government, Economics, Social Justice and more. It’s a great starting point for open-minded libertarians and non-libertarians alike.

Coercive, Defensive and Zero Force

“Some people seem to think it amounts to pacifism, where libertarians are not allowed to engage in any violent action” he says. “Others have this idea that it is a pass to commit violence once another person has ‘infringed upon their rights.’”

He begins by getting the NAP right in the first chapter, acknowledging that it isn’t a pacifist principle since libertarians retain the right to use defensive force against coercion, and that the NAP is not, as so many attempt to make it out to be, the moral foundation for everything libertarian. The Nap, as others have shown, is the result of, not the basis for, morality.

But he gets completely wrapped around the axel about restitution. If a person hospitalizes you by beating the crap out of you that’s clearly against the NAP, but if “a person's rightful possessions are taken in order to make restitution for some past damage or loss, the person taking those possessions is choosing to enter an involuntary interaction.” In other words the author doesn’t believe in restitution. So, based on his logic, there’s no downside for an aggressor being an aggressor since the act of demanding restitution would be just as wrong as the original aggression. NAP libertarians would call restitution an act of retaliatory or self-defensive force which VanDerStein agreed with earlier but now suddenly doesn’t.

While he writes repeatedly about “property” he never mentions “private property” or “property rights” which he seems to implicitly but never quite explicitly reject.

“Then you have people who believe that libertarianism is a philosophy completely based around the Non-Aggression Principle. They judge social interaction based upon whether or not it gels with the NAP. The concept of property is based on the NAP, according to them. A person can be a total piece of {manure} in life, according to them, and still be a libertarian in good standing so long as they don't violate the NAP.”

There he goes around that axel again. First:

“The right to life is the source of all rights—and the right to property is their only implementation. Without property rights, no other rights are possible. Since man has to sustain his life by his own effort, the man who has no right to the product of his effort has no means to sustain his life. The man who produces while others dispose of his product, is a slave.” – The Ayn Rand Lexicon.

Considering the author’s curled-lip attitude toward reading Rothbard it’s unlikely he has any regard for Ayn Rand; he never mentions her or Objectivism in his work even though she explicitly champions the NAP.

Second: A person is a libertarian or not based on what a person does, not what a person thinks, imagines, believes, or feels. The NAP very specifically refers to the initiation of physical force, threats of physical force, or the actual real-world commission of fraud. A person’s mental state, as opposed to his or her physical actions, is irrelevant to NAP and irrelevant to being a libertarian.

So now VanDerStein’s concept of “libertarianism” is beginning to sound more and more like authoritarian-imposed collectivist socialism than individualist self-ownership. Note to VanDerStein: “Libertarian is an antonym of authoritarian.” – (More on this later.)

But he persists with his touchy-feely progressivist social justice rendition by conflating social issues with NAP issues:

“Social interactions are not to be graded based solely on the NAP. If a person voluntarily gives you something that is extremely valuable in exchange for something that is worth nothing, it makes you a piece of {fecal matter} and it doesn't even make you a libertarian. If you employ a person and pay them a meager wage to do something that will make you wealthy and cost you very little labor, you're not a {shagging} libertarian.”

Clearly this guy is confusing “egalitarianism” with “libertarianism.” If a person voluntarily knowingly choses to give up something “that is extremely valuable in exchange for something that is worth nothing” that is nobody else’s business. First, who decides what is or isn’t “extremely valuable,” the writer or the two people mutually entering into the agreement? “Value” is an individual, subjective call. Clearly the writer thinks he is the final arbiter of all things “extremely valuable.”

Rothbard for Pezident!

How much would a Murray Rothbard Pez Dispenser be to a hardcore Anarcho-Capitalist memorabilia collector?
How much would a Murray Rothbard Pez Dispenser be to a hardcore Anarcho-Capitalist memorabilia collector? | Source

Who Determines Value?

He’s wrong. Suppose a person has a Murray Rothbard Pez dispenser. Say it’s worth hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars. But if he just doesn’t care about it, and already has plenty of money, and a collector desperately wants the little Pez prize, the person might sell it to him for ten bucks. Or just give it to him. If both parties are satisfied with the exchange then they’re both satisfied with the exchange. Period. The writer can go suck porcupine eggs.

Another note to the author: Real people in the real world don’t engage in exchanges to suit your personal value judgements about egalitarianism. When the NAP is defined as being against coercion, intimidation and fraud and no coercion, intimidation or fraud was involved in the exchange then the NAP wasn’t violated.

The same is true about wages. If a worker agrees with an employer to perform a certain job for an agreed-upon salary or hourly rate and is happy with his paycheck it is utterly irrelevant what the employer gets out of it. It has nothing to do with the NAP or with being a libertarian or an egalitarian or anything else. If it’s a mutually-satisfying interaction then that is all it is. Again, period. Getting all pretzel-bent over arguments about “my dipstick is bigger than yours" is both infantile and irrelevant.

Yet another note to the writer: Libertarianism is not egalitarianism. They are not synonyms. There are specific, distinctive differences between them. If you could bring yourself to read more than just a half sentence on the subject you’re writing about you might have learned that libertarianism, like so many other ideologies including Marxism, socialism, communism, liberalism, fascism, etc., has developed into so many different branches, divisions and schools of thought that there is now no single definitive “libertarian” theory. And that tends to blow a blowhole in your definition of the NAP.

Philosophy 101

No further captioning required.
No further captioning required.

Egalitarianism Keeps Raising its Ugly Head

Which circles back around to that again. In some 4600 words it attempts to get all comprehensive about the many breeds of libertarianism. It mentions egalitarianism only twice.

The first time says, “Libertarians are egalitarians and believe all people are created equal.” But wait. This definition resides in the context of politically-oriented “minimal government” libertarians – minarchists as opposed to anarchists – typically found in the Libertarian Party and in the Libertarian Wing of the Republican Party. These folks maintain that a territorial state ruled by a tax-collecting government is necessary to protect rights but should be strictly limited to police, courts and military.

Remember the point of VanDerStein’s book is specifically written to “stop being wrong about the NAP,” not to stop being wrong about libertarianism in general. Since minarchist libertarians believe in coercively collecting some taxes they necessarily reject the NAP – Non-Aggression Principle – and unavoidably, perhaps even unknowingly, embrace LAP – Limited-Aggression Principle.

So claiming that some “libertarians are egalitarians” is all about LAP, having nothing to do with the book’s primary topic, the NAP.

The second and only other mention of egalitarianism says “Right-libertarians like Robert Nozick hold that self-ownership and property acquisition need not meet egalitarian standards, they must merely follow the Lockean idea of not worsening the situation of others.” Which is completely in line with the Non-Aggression Principle.

(As a theatrical stage whisper, to libertarians who have rejected the whole left-right political spectrum in favor of the Nolan Chart the idea of “left” and “right” libertarianism seems quaint. The only important division is libertarianism versus authoritarianism. Different breeds of libertarianism are acceptable as long as they’re not authoritarian.)

Because he’s obviously convinced that there is only one unanimously agreed-upon definition of libertarianism and one universal application of the NAP – His One True Politically Correct Libertarian Dogma – VanDerStein keeps having these embarrassing philosophical fender-benders and bumper-thumpers as he speeds down Libertarian Lane in his apparently driverless vehicle.

Even near the end he is still saying things like, “Remember, the NAP never grants us the right to wield force. It is rather an acknowledgment that there may be a time when a person is left with no other choice but to use force.”

And yet if you use your Kindle search icon to see if he’s okay with you wielding defensive force in response to an aggressor’s force initiated against you or someone else you’ll never find the words “defense,” “defensive” or “defensive force” anywhere in his book. If you attempt to fight back, punish, or pursue restitution or even if you attempt to take back something that was stolen from you even five seconds after it was stolen from you, that instantly makes you the aggressor.

VanDerStein’s Logic on coercion: If John punches Bob in the face and immediately stops then John was certainly the aggressor violating the NAP. But Bob can’t punch back claiming self-defense because John has already stopped, meaning that Bob would then be the aggressor violating the NAP. Even compelling restitution would be an act of coercion, making Bob, the original victim, the aggressor. VanDerStein’s Logic has effectively neutered self-defense and rendered the NAP a joke.

With no downside to it this version of NRP (Non-Restitution Principle) becomes a clone of pacifism, a principle that both encourages and rewards coercion.

Me Right, You Wrong

How Libertarians Can Stop Being Wrong About the NAP
How Libertarians Can Stop Being Wrong About the NAP
NOT YOUR LIBERTARIAN OPINIONIZER’S PICK: This isn’t about how libertarians can stop being wrong about NAP, it’s merely one person showing off his own One True Politically Correct Libertarian Dogma. But who knows, maybe you’ll agree with him.

The Many Flavors of Libertarianism

Ultimately, what VanDerStein gets “wrong” is the same thing that many hardheaded libertarians continually get wrong, that his own personal version of libertarianism is the One True God of libertarianism. It just ain’t so.

Wikipedia opens its page on Libertarianism with “Libertarianism (Latin: liber, "free") is a collection of political philosophies…”

The Institute for Humane Studies asks “What is Libertarian?” and begins its answer with “Libertarian is not a single viewpoint, but includes a wide variety of perspectives. Libertarians can range from market anarchists to advocates of a limited welfare state…”

The Advocates for Self-Government notes on its definition page, “There are many ways of saying the same thing, and libertarians often have unique ways of answering the question ‘What is libertarianism?’” They quote 28 different definitions of libertarianism, including one from the IRS.

Other sources list 2, 3, 5, 8, ten, even (sarcastically) 24 types of libertarians. And these don’t even include the European definition of libertarian that essentially acts as a synonym for “anarchist” so that we get libertarian socialism, libertarian communism, libertarian Marxism and other forms of more obscure libertarian collectivism.

VanDerStein’s definition of libertarianism is simply his opinion. As he himself might put it if he was being honest: Opinions are like {alimentary canal apertures} – everyone has one.

The Center of the Humane Universe

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.


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