Tag Archives: Non-aggression principle

Responding to Stefan Molyneux: "Theft of time", NAP, and common sense

So, apparently one of my articles has drawn the attention of Stefan Molyneux of the Freedomain radio, I’m guessing after it was crossposted and discussed in this forum thread. You might remember Stefan from the time I tried to call his online station after he asked for input from Anarcho-Communists and I wasn’t particularly impressed back then. This time Stefan made a video responding to my criticism of the Non-Aggression principle which I felt compelled to respond to.

 

After a few introductory words which addressed minor things (Note:  saying that something is “not half bad” is a figure of speech. Not to be taken literally), Stefan presented his first argument basically arguing that “You cannot say that the initiation of force is virtuous. Thus Non-Aggression is virtuous”.

My contention is not whether the initiation of force is virtuous. The contention is on what exactly constitutes intiation of force, or more explicitly – violence or threat of violence. Yes, of course aggression is not virtuous, but this does not mean that the Non-Aggression Principle becomes suddenly useful as a moral guideline. Yes, aggression is bad and not aggressing is good. Murder is also bad. Not murdering is also good. But we do not create a basis for our entire ethical system out of “Thou shalt not murder”. Not only does one need to first define “murder”, but it is just far too limited a guideline to base one’s entire sociopolitical system on.

The reductio ad absurdum that Stefan attempts, might prove that you cannot have Aggression as a moral guideline, but it does not logically follow from that, that Non-Aggression is a useful moral guideline instead.

Further to that, Stefan makes a huge logical leap: From arguing that Aggression cannot be a virtue, to concluding that “Property Rights are the only thing that can work”. This is not at all evident from the arguments put forth and is blatantly begging the question.

Stefan then goes on a tangent, explaining how Self Ownership leads to property rights. I understand that this is what right-libertarians tend to accept, but it is largely irrelevant to the subject at hand, especially given that I reject “Self Onwership” as an internally contradictory concept. Nevertheless, the reason this is brought up, is to show that one is responsible for one’s actions, and therefore that “theft is theft, is because you’re stealing someone’s time”.

This is the main thrust of the argument here I believe, but “Self-Ownership” was not required to make this point, so I’m unsure why it was brought up. Nevertheless, I’ll take the time to address this argument from “theft of time”.

The idea presented is as such: When someone puts forth labour to create something, and someone comes around and takes that thing away, then that person can be assumed to have stolen all the time required for creator to make it, which is similar to slavery.

This argument looks solid at first glance, but unfortunately, when one challenges the premises behind it, it shows that it is on very shaky ground based on assumptions of specific property rights.

The most basic counter-argument I would make against this concept of “theft of time” is: Who says that whatever you put labour into creating, belongs to you automatically? Ownership is a split gradient1 which can take many forms based around social agreement on what constitutes a valid claim or disposal. It is not a universal law. What happens here, is that the type of ownership that Stefan prefers, is assumed into the argument. But as soon as one challenges the premise of what you can own and how you come about owning it, things become much less solid.

Do you own something you created out of the commons? Stefan would say yes, I would say yes as well, with stipulations. My stipulations of course being that you only own whatever you created as long as you keep using it. As long as you do not, it goes back into the commons for anyone else to use. Stefan would have no such stipulation however. Whatever you create, no matter if it came from the commons or not, belong to you forever.

So if Stefan makes something out of the commons and doesn’t use it anymore, and I come and use it in the meantime, for Stefan that amounts to slavery for I have “stolen his time”. Were that to be enforced however, Stefan would have in effect enclosed the commons. An immediate split forms on what is ethical in this case. I do not recognise Stefan’s right to enclose the commons and he does not recognise my right to steal his time. Who is rights is an argument for another day, but suffice to say that “theft of time” only works if you look at it from a propertarian perspective, which is not something everyone will or should do.

Furthermore, Stefan’s argument ends up with some telling conclusions when in mind of his larger worldview as well. The larger worldview of course being Capitalism which is naturally permeated by wage slavery. In this world, taking someone’s labour is just fine as long as it’s voluntary. A wage slave toils all week but does not get to own the product of his labour at all. Rather, they end up with a price for the creation that is lower than the market value of such a creation. In Stefan’s worldview this is a clear “theft of time”, but it’s OK because as it’s voluntary. That is, as long as the wage slave agreed to be one. This naturally leads us to the conclusion that Slavery is OK as long as it’s voluntary.

I’m sure the argument will be put forth that working for a wage is nothing like being a slave so this is not an apt comparison, to which I will counter that in a similar vein, “theft of time” is nothing like slavery either. You can’t have it both ways and I won’t even bother to argue on whether voluntary slavery is AOK either.

Finally, I’ll just make the most obvious counter to this argument. Stefan says verbatim:  “The reason that theft is theft, is because you’re stealing someone’s time”. But this is just a tautology and doesn’t really tells us anything. Theft is theft because you’re stealing? Yes, of course. Perhaps he meant to say that “Theft is wrong because you’re stealing someone’s time” which only makes marginally more sense as it ends up telling us that “theft is wrong because it’s theft”. Circular reasoning.

The argument only “works” at first glance, because Stefan is basing himself on intuitive assumptions and biases from the audience, which is expected to already believe that theft is bad within a specific framework of ownership rights. As soon as those premises are missing, as soon as the audience does not share Stefan’s conclusions, this conclusion becomes baseless. Theft of time is wrong *why* exactly? This needs to be argued, not simply asserted. And it is in the process of arguing “Why is Theft of Time bad?”, where all the nuances and exceptions and outright mistakes will be pointed out and addressed.

After this brief overview of the “theft of time” argument, Stefan concludes that it’s not arbitrary to not-aggress, or respect private property. This, again, does not follow. Those two are still subjective.  The non-aggression principle remains a moral guideline, all of which are subjective (and there’s nothing wrong with that), but as I explained before it is comparatively useless on its own. The stateless propertarian framework is normative as well as it’s put forth as a superior socioeconomic organization (And there’s nothing wrong with that either). It is not a science like physics as Stefan likes to imagine. Defining “aggression” within the stateless propertarian framework, which not everyone accepts, is what is arbitrary and that is wrong.

Next Stefan addresses the difficulty of figuring out what constitutes initiation of force within a propertarian framework, admitting that shooting trespassers is not acceptable and so on. However he misses my point. He ends up discussing how “degree” (degree of what? violence?) is not as important as morality. I.e. it’s not as important to figure out how to deal with something bad, as it is in defining that something is bad in the first place. And I agree with that. Societies of the future will find their own ways to deal with aggressors. But the reason I pointed out the impossibility of intuitively defending against violation of private property rights is to point out that given differing expectations of ownership, the non-aggression principle coupled with private property ends up excusing actual violence against non-violent people. The degree is not important either. The fact is that if I start working on land you are not using, you will have to aggress against me (likely with literal violence) in order to stop me.

To give you a contrast within a possessive ownership framework, If you started using land I am already using for myself, you can have either of two purposes: Co-operate or Violate. If you co-operate with me, then we can share the fruits of our labour, thus benefiting us both. If you violate my work, then you are being visibly destructive and threatening to my livelihood. You are aggressing against me and thus literal violence is then justified to stop such destruction.

The point thus, is that the “Non-Aggression principle” does not help us understand or resolve the former case in the slightest. The point is that both parties can have differing understanding of what constitutes “aggression”. The problem is in declaring that it’s the owner of the private property that decides what is aggression.

Finally Stefan makes the argument that all these issues on attempting to see how the NAP can be useful in the real world, are inconsequential because people work these things out intuitively and organically. And here’s the funny part, I absolutely agree. The difference is that Stefan assumes that people would work out things in such a way as to allow private property to flourish, and this is not just untrue, it’s ahistoric. The example of “tailgate parties” that he brings up is a perfect example of this. I doubt in any of those parties you see people taking up more space than they can personally use. If anything, the temporary ownership setup in those parties is possessive, i.e. claims based on occupancy and use.

It is precisely because societies naturally organize themselves according to possessive and communal ownership, that capitalism requires a state to support it. Because private property is not common sense and it is not an acceptable arrangement by the dispossessed. A society “working these things out naturally” and ending up with some people owning vast tracts of land and factories, while others own just the clothes on their back and live day to day on subsistence is unrealistic in the extreme. The people on the lower scale would absolutely take the first opportunity to use the unused land, reclaim and re-institute the commons and expropriate their productive means. Or do you think that someone working on subsistence on a mega-farm is going to “work it out” with the landowner who owns it? No, the farmers would expropriate the land the first chance they got, while the landowner would declare aggression and bring in their private state defence company to restore order.

To think that such arrangements will be upheld naturally is wishful thinking. There has never been a single society or community where anything remotely like this wasn’t upheld by force. Not one.

So yes. Aggression is likely to be absent from a free society, but not because people morally adhere to a stale moral guidelines such as the NAP, but rather because people absent oppression tend to work out things via possessive rights, making “aggression” primarily about violence, which is dealt with intuitively.

And if people can work things out intuitively even in a propertarian framework, it seems to me the NAP remains unnecessary. It seems to me, that the only purpose of the NAP is to give an ideological excuse to private defence companies to…”reform” individuals who somehow just can’t seem to work out Capitalism naturally with the capitalists and landowners . Those silly people.

  1. By which I mean that the various types of ownership differ by a degree, but there is a hard split in the middle, between possessive ownership and “sticky” ownership” systems because those two are incompatible []

Why the Non-Aggression Principle is useless as a moral guideline

Liberty in need of a light
Image Unrelated by Henrique Vicente via Flickr

Right-Libertarians, “Anarcho”-Capitalists, and assorted propertarians very frequently cite the Non-Aggression principle or Zero Aggression principle (Commonly called NAP or ZAP) as a core tenet of their ideology. It is brought up as the building block of voluntaryism on which free markets can be built and proudly displayed to show how morally superior such a society would be compared to anything else which, by the absence of the NAP, is defined to have an involuntary aspect.

But what exactly is the NAP? The specific details might differ depending on the encompassing ideology, but the central point generally seems to be that no human should aggress over another human. This is meant to mean the initial use of coercive force as well as the threat of such.

Now, if left to this end, this is not a half-bad principle, basically saying that people shouldn’t attack or threaten to attack others. However at this stage, it is also pretty much unnecessary to be given an explicit existence as a “principle” as the generic principle of freedom already encompasses this (i.e. attacking another person would violate their freedom). Other moral theories, particularly the utilitarian variants already encompass such rules (with stipulation) as a natural consequence of their suggestions. In the end, this basic form of non-aggression ends up sounding like a shallow “Thou shalt not kill” which, while pretty clear, when strictly adhered to can lead to worse results (such as foregoing killing in self-defence) or requires a more advanced moral framework above it which clarifies when it is, in fact, acceptable to kill.

But propertarians do not generally leave it at just that but rather try to sneakily expand it by linking it with private property rights. You see, the NAP is frequently derived directly from the Self-Ownership “axiom” and thus the wrongly derived property rights are treated as an extension of the self. Therefore one can then treat violation of private property rights as an act of “initated force”, even though no actual violence or threat of violence has been perpetuated. This is turn is used as a cause to use actual violence or threat of violence on the violator of property rights.

It thus becomes that the NAP, when combined with Self-Ownership conveniently becomes an excuse for someone to initiate real, literal violence against someone else. The right to freedom or utilitarian moral rules reserve the right for people to defend themselves against aggression, that is, to take only as much action as needed to stop the aggression against their person. This is pretty self-evident when achieved, both to the one being attacked and to any observers (i.e. it’s obvious when two people have stopped exchanging blows and threats). When extended to private property however, things get far far more complex.

While it’s easy to understand that someone “aggresses” when they steal something from another person (which is why most other moral systems do not require a NAP to label theft as wrong), things get pretty murky when one goes beyond that. Do I “initiate force” when I use a productive machine without paying rent? How about if I pay only enough rent to cover the cost of the machine? Do I “initiate force” when I toil the unused land that is owned by someone else? How about when I trespass?

This is further complicated by the claims of the NAP proponents that the NAP does not excuse any and all acts of self-defence but is rather limited by the level of aggression. We’re informed that it does not in fact, grant the right of shooting trespassers. But this again does not really clarify the matter. Whereas in literal aggression, one is always aware of the level the initiator is using (threats, shoving, punching, lethal weapons etc) and can respond in kind, in this extended field of aggression you’re left to comparing apples with oranges. What is the correct response to someone trespassing your property? Trespassing on their property? Forcibly taking them out? Threatening to shoot them and then follow through if they don’t comply? The truth of the matter is that unlike literal aggression, you cannot discover how you can respond in kind intuitively.

Thus we see that unlike actual aggression where equal reaction can cancel the aggression (i.e. shoving can defend against shoving, punching can defend against punches etc), in “aggression” on property via the NAP, the self-defence enacted is and must always be different and stronger than the act of “aggression”. A trespasser cannot be removed by counter-trespassing. They must be forcibly removed and this is very likely to require (threats of) lethal force if they do not comply. This get even more complicated if that person does not accept the NAP and considers the literal acts of aggression against them as the initiation of force it is and defends in kind.

There is no solution to this issue. The NAP, as a moral rule is incapable of making any suggestions or providing any solutions as it does not say anything substantial other than the vacuous “Thou shalt not initiate violence”. Rather we are told that an extensive legal system will be required which will either interpret some kind of “natural law” or be somehow employ objective judges which make the perfect decisions. Something like the system of wealthy libertarian judges that Murray Rothbard proposed, which would follow some kind of “libertarian law”. In short, nothing more than a subjective legal system built around the principles that people like Rothbard prefer.

And all these issues occur before we even consider that extrapolating private property rights from the “axiom” of Self-Ownership is a non sequitur as it’s impossible to deride a particular set of ownership rights out of it (which is why you can see how much and how many libertarians disagree on what specific ownership rights to use). Due to this, a NAP that ideologically protects a particular set of ownership rights is nothing more than a subjective argument against the things a particular person does not like. That one does not like people trespassing on his property so he calls that “an initiation of force”. That other one does not consider trespassing to be such, but it’s certainly an “initiation of force” when workers don’t pay him rent for a factory’s costs he’s already recovered.

The NAP is shown to be pretty much a shallow principle. When limited to actual physical force, it’s superseded and made obsolete by moral systems which can explain when force is justified or not. When extended to concepts which are not immediately intuitive, its subjective nature quickly devolves it to shouting matches which can only be settled by a homogeneous system of courts and enforcement agencies. A de-facto state.

To me, when someone explains that according to the NAP, this or that is wrong, they mostly sound like “This or that is wrong, because I say so.”

Does private property facilitate sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment
Image via Wikipedia

It seems that the Walter Block quote on sexual harassment I posted a while back has been rediscovered by various libertarians online and  lots of criticism, analysis and defenses (of PP not Block) have been written about it. It appears as even Walter Block himself appeared on the scene to distance himself from his own words.

However, the issue here is not as simple as merely saying that Block made a flawed logical reasoning, or that it was all a mistake or anything as simple as that. The quote above is simply a pointed example of the intellectual dead-end one reaches when his whole ethical framework resolves around respect for Private Property and fetishism of  voluntarism.

The issue here is that what Block wrote, unfortunately is a logical conclusion of suggesting voluntarism and the non-aggression principle within a propertarian environment as the core of ethics. It is, unfortunately consistent with “Anarcho”-Capitalist principles.

Most defenses of Private property I’ve seen (for an example, see the No Third Solution argument) orbit around the concept that harassment is prevented by the Non-Aggression principle and the lack of an explicit contract to allow it to happen. In short they consider the problem to be simply one of a contractual nature. They miss the elephant in the room by looking at the murals.

You see, there’s basically two arguments put forth here. So lets look at them in turn

“The Problem is not that the boss is harassing the secretary, but that he is harassing her without having an explicit clause in their employment contract allowing him to do so.”

This argument in short suggests that there is nothing wrong with a boss who only hires secretaries as a personal semi-harem, as long as he makes that known from the start. It assumes then that any secretary which agrees to this contract cannot then consider the sexual advances she agreed to, to be harassment.

This argument, while on the surface seems legit, is not in fact any more different than Block’s. It simply moves the agreement of the secretary from the implicit to the explicit. Whereas block asserted that the secretary’s continuous acceptance of the sexual harassment (i.e. not quitting her job over it) was an implicit agreement to it and thus not “harassment”, the contractual argument simply desires to take the same exact situation and legitimize it via the legal stamp.

However this argument misses the point that in both cases, the implicit or explicit acceptance of the harassment from the secretary is not caused because she wants it but because of the lack of alternatives. Because the other choices that remain to her if she does not accept the harassment or sign the contract are worse (ex starvation of her and her family.) The same secretary which “volunteered” to be harassed without a contract in Block’s example will also “volunteer” to sign the contract. Does the nature of her harassment change because she signed a piece of paper? Does the moral condemnation the boss deserves for abusing his position disappear?

Of course not, because the moral condemnation does not spring from the “aggression” the boss performs against the secretary but from the fact that he is using his position of power, which stems from inequality of wealth, to passively coerce the secretary to accept behaviour she would not otherwise accept if she was on equal standing.

The second problem which logically follows from the propertarian system is this:

“The boss can initiate a sexual advance towards the secretary who is at all liberty to refuse. However the boss then is at all liberty to fire her and there is nothing at all wrong with this.”

I believe that this is even more tricky for propertarians to defend. If we assume that the boss would not go straight to pinching (which the right-“libertarians” can then jump to label as “aggression”) but would initially “test the waters” so to speak by starting with subtle advancement and then growing bolder the more such advancements are accepted we end up exactly in the original Blockean argument once more.

Let’s say that this Boss does a subtle sexual advancement which the Secretary refuses. The Boss then fires her (terminating their “voluntary contract”). Next secretary? Same thing. And so on until he finds one secretary which is in a desperate enough situation that she tolerates his initial advances. He then becomes bolder and bolder until we reach the phase of pinching. Can we call that “aggression”? No since the secretary did not show outright refusal to such an advance and for the boss it can look like a normal progression of human relationship (or some other similar phrasing of his excuse). After all, the secretary is free at any point to make it clear that she does not appreciate his advances…and get fired.

In fact, the prudent “libertarian” boss, would not offer a sexual contract upfront to his potential secretaries but would rather follow the above actions until he’s determined that she’s desperate enough, and before moving on to actual physical contact, he would simply request that his secretary sign a new job contract volunteering to his sexual advances so as to legally cover his arse…just in case, you know.

Is there any way for Voluntarism and the NAP to morally condemn the actions of the boss? I fear not. And this again points out the intellectual bankruptcy of this ideology which cannot be covered by shallow “I was wrong to say that” excuses. The problem is that Block was not inconsistent with his ideology. He simply took it to his natural conclusion as he’s done with his acceptance of slave contracts. It just so happened that his argument struck a chord in the feminist movement who saw through the bankruptcy of voluntarism and forced him to backtrack hurriedly, even if he can’t explain the reasoning behind this.

Unlike vulgar-libertarians, a boss firing a secretary because she would not accept such a debasement is immediately a cause for moral condemnation by egalitarians1 as we condemn all situations which passively coerce people to “volunteer” to such humiliation. It is the same reason why we condemn wage-slavery just as much as we condemn sexual harassment. The only difference between those two is that the latter has been taken out of the status of “normal” by the brave actions of the feminist movement while the former is still seen as something natural. But the underlying causes for one to “volunteer” to sexual harassment are exactly the same as what causes one to “volunteer” to wage slavery: Private Property.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]
  1. Of course I maintain that one cannot be a consistent libertarian without being egalitarian as well but that’s beside the point []