A great many in the libertarian movement have become enamored by deontological, mostly anarchist rationales for their political philosophy. As the title of this blog post suggests, some of the most common rhetoric among libertarians includes justifications such as the “Non-Aggression Principle,” which is the idea that it is illegitimate to initiate force against others.
These libertarians believe that the coercive nature of taxation renders it fundamentally immoral, and that all human interactions should be based upon voluntary association. For this reason, they and their philosophy are often referred to as “voluntaryists” and “voluntaryism,” respectively.
In this blog post, I do not intend to weigh in directly on the merits of deontology vs. consequentialism, anarcho-capitalism vs. minarchism, or any other intra-libertarian dichotomy of this sort. Instead, I want to simply comment on frequent libertarian slogans like the NAP and address how the semantics may be obfuscating the real core of libertarian philosophy.
It is not uncommon for libertarians to reference notions of force, coercion, and voluntaryism in an attempt to describe the motivations for their political beliefs. For instance, they might say:
“The basis for my moral system is the Non-Aggression Principle.”
“I believe that all human association should be voluntary.”
“I want to live in a society that is free from coercion.”
While I do believe that these terms and phrases can be useful depending on the context, they fall short when it comes to capturing the actual essence of what libertarians believe in.
To illustrate this, we must place such concepts as “voluntary” and “force/coercion/aggression” in a different context in order to recognize that they are not the intrinsic root of even the most deontological form of libertarianism.
If, for example, someone were trespassing onto your property uninvited, you could feel justified in garnishing a shotgun in order to “force” him to leave. From the trespasser’s perspective, he might view you as acting aggressively and using “coercion” in order to make him leave your property. He may even note that he is not being given a “voluntary” choice in the matter of whether or not he is allowed to wander upon this land.
What would be your answer to these accusations? Well, it’s your property and he is violating it. Therefore, you are allowed to use force and coerce him to leave. The fact that it’s your property means that your trespasser does not get a voluntary choice in the matter.
The point I am trying to demonstrate is that notions of voluntaryism and aggression are subjective, as they are necessarily conditional upon the framework of rights that are assumed to exist in the first place. One can only argue that an action is unjustly coercive or involuntary insofar as it contradicts a certain set of rights that are presumed to exist for whatever logical reason.
Understanding this is fundamental to understanding what the NAP really means. It is not enough to simply express opposition to the use of force; in fact, doing so would be quite silly. Coercion will exist in society so long as people have claims that need to be enforced. The real question is: Who gets the right to what, and what is the rational basis for vesting this authority?
What libertarians are actually arguing is that individuals have a right to control their own person, as well as those resources obtained through their own productive efforts (which do not violate the similarly processed claims of others). The use of force is appropriate if it is to protect morally justified claims; the use of force is inappropriate if it is to violate said claims.
Do I mean to suggest that the words “force” and “voluntary” should never be used when critiquing government actions? Of course not. In many cases, it is helpful to invoke these terms descriptively, provided that the underlying framework of rights is implied in the given context.
But it is wrong to assume that libertarian philosophy originates from “voluntaryism,” or from an opposition to force and coercion. It does not. Deontological libertarianism really stems from the morality of private property rights; all such NAP notions are secondarily derived only after this premise is established.