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Libertarianism 2: Understanding the Non-Aggression Principle

This is a guest post by Dr. Vic McCracken, who is a Professor of Ethics and Theology at Abilene Christian University. Prior to his faculty appointment at ACU, Dr. McCracken served as Minister of Adult Discipleship at the Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, TX. His primary areas of interest include social ethics, Christian perspectives on peace and war, and political liberalism. In 2014 he co-authored and edited the book Christian Faith and Social Justice: Five Views.

For this week’s blog post I’m going to offer up a working definition of a key term that is critical to understanding libertarianism. At its heart, libertarianism is a moral theory founded on a commitment to a single maxim: the Nonaggression Principle (NAP).  In his 1963 essay, “War, Peace, & the State,” Murray Rothbard offers a succinct definition of this moral norm:

“No one may threaten or commit violence (‘aggress’) against another man’s person or property. Violence may be employed only against the man who commits such violence; that is, only defensively against the aggressive violence of another. In short, no violence may be employed against a nonaggressor. Here is the fundamental rule from which can be deduced the entire corpus of libertarian theory.”

To get at the meaning of the NAP, let’s consider once again the Society for the Care of Cute and Furry Homeless Creatures (hereafter known as SCCFHC).  Recall from my previous post the details of the scenario: the Society has accosted you outside of your workplace and threatened you with a gun. You feel compelled to give the Society members the $75 they request, money that they will use to fund a homeless shelter for cute and furry homeless creatures. According to the NAP, in threatening to act violently against you the SCCFHC has aggressed against you; the Society has violated the NAP. Your decision to give the Society your money was not voluntary. Your money was stolen from you under threat of potentially lethal violence. According to the NAP it would be within your rights to resist this group’s unjust aggression, even to the point of using violence against the Society’s members for the sake of self-defense.

That the SCCFHC is violating the NAP should be clear enough, but the more interesting point–the real import of all of this for understanding libertarianism–is that libertarians believe that modern states regularly violate the NAP too in ways that are just as difficult to justify as the acts of the SCCFHC.  Consider just a few examples:

  • From 1940 to 1973, the United States enacted a system of conscription mandating that all male citizens between the ages of 21 and 35 register for potential mandatory service in the U.S. military. While the United States does not currently conscript individuals into military service, male citizens between the ages of 18 and 25 today are still legally required to register for selective service in the event that the federal government decides to reinstate a draft.
  • Since 1964, the U.S. federal government has funded the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program(SNAP) that use taxpayer funds to subsidize the food budgets of lower income Americans.
  • In 2010, President Obama signed into law the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”).  Among the numerous changes wrought by Obamacare, the law prohibits insurance companies from denying coverage to persons suffering from preexisting conditions and mandates that all citizens be enrolled in an insurance plan.  Individuals whose income falls below an income threshold may qualify for taxpayer-funded subsidies that reduce the cost of their insurance premiums.

As outlandish as the SCCFHC illustration is, these three examples are not extraordinary in the least.  These are things that our state has done and is doing.  In each of these cases, libertarians argue that the State is violating the NAP. Imagine that you are citizen X of the United States, and consider each of the examples above as an actual exchange between parties:

Conscription

State representative: “Citizen X, we are requiring you to register for selective service.  Our country is at war, and there may come a time when our volunteer system does not provide enough persons to satisfy our need to successfully prosecute this war. If this occurs the law will require you to serve. This may mean that you will end up facing the threat of grave bodily injury, even death.  If you do not register for selective service you will be subject to felony prosecution and face imprisonment and/or a financial fine.”

Citizen X: “I have other things that I want to do with my life than participate in a war that you want me to fight, a war that I myself find morally dubious.  I don’t object to risking my body or my life for the sake of a cause I believe in, but that cause is not what you are asking me to fight for. If you cannot find enough volunteers to fight this war, perhaps this should give you reason to reflect on the merits of the war you are telling me I am required to fight.  It is unjust for you to threaten me with imprisonment simply because I am asserting my right to choose for myself how I live my life. I reject your attempt to force me to risk my life for a cause that I do not consent to uphold.”

SNAP

State Representative: “Citizen X, your yearly income is such that you are legally obligated to pay a portion of that income to fund services provided by the federal government.  One of these services is a program that subsidizes the food budget of Americans not as fortunate as you.  The annual tax revenue provided by you and other taxpayers will help ease the financial burden experienced by these poorer families. Should you refuse to pay your legal share of taxes, the State will confiscate money from your paycheck and will add a financial penalty to your tax bill as long as you fail to pay.  You may also be subject to imprisonment.”

Citizen X: “I have nothing against families that are struggling to get by.  In fact, I donate regularly to a local aid organization that is working to help lift families out of poverty. However, I do not consent to give you, the State, my money for this purpose.  I believe that programs like SNAP breed dependency, and I fear that the bureaucracy of this system is inefficient and wasteful.  Even if cared nothing for poor families, what of it?  My money is my own, isn’t it?  What right have you to force me to help these families by threatening me with financial ruin and imprisonment should I decline your request?”

Obamacare

State Representative: “Citizen X, we have good news for you.  because of a new law that we have passed, Aetna, Blue Cross, and every other insurance provider that services your local market is now required to provide healthcare coverage to you. And here is some more good news: in order to make the cost of health insurance more affordable for you, you may be eligible for a tax subsidy that will reduce your monthly premium. Here is the website where you will need to go to select your healthcare plan for the year.”

Citizen X: “I’ve looked at the plans available on the website, and I’m not really interested in purchasing coverage.  I don’t drink or smoke.  I’m young and physically very active, so I don’t think I’m going to need health insurance this year.  I appreciate the offer, but I decline.”

State Representative: “No, you can’t decline coverage.  Or technically, you could, but then you are going to be subject to a financial penalty that is only slightly less than the cost of the insurance.  The law requires that you purchase a healthcare plan unless you have health coverage through an employer. Our system needs young, healthy people like you to pay for insurance.  This is how insurance systems work; when healthy people pay into the system, you subsidize the coverage of sicker individuals in the system.  You do this knowing that in the future when you are the one who is sick and in need there will be other healthy people paying into the system so that you can get the care that you need.”

Citizen X: “Wait, you are telling me that I must purchase a product from a private insurance company because the rest of you need to me to pay money into the insurance system?  Why should that matter? My money is my own, and it is immoral for you to force me to purchase insurance when I do not consent to this exchange.”

I hope the examples illustrate the crucial point.  According to libertarians, states almost by definition are in the business of acting aggressively. The fact that it is an IRS bureaucrat threatening you instead of a masked gunmen does not make the threat less aggressive, nor does it make the violation of the NAP justifiable. The fact that our politicians insist that a war is just and necessary, or that poor families will benefit greatly from the SNAP program, or that other sicker people need you to pay for insurance to keep their healthcare costs down does not make the aggression of the state justifiable, any more than SCCFHC’s insistence that wellbeing of cute and furry homeless creatures justifies their aggression.  The NAP renders in philosophical form a principle that most of us find intuitively compelling, at least when we think about our interactions with other individuals.  Libertarians argue that these intuitions should apply equally to those institutions that are part of our life together.

If the NAP is valid, and if libertarians are correct that states regularly violate the NAP, it begs us to ask a question: is there an alternative to the State?  What would it look like to live in a community committed to upholding the NAP?  Is it possible to live without a state?  Or if this seems utopian, could we perhaps realize a community that minimizes the role of the state in our lives?  That’s the focus of my next blog post.

 

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