Clarification about the NAP

There seems to be a lot of confusion within the party, and the broader Liberty Movement, about the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP), the Statement Of Principles (SOP), the LP Pledge, “pragmatism,” “purity,” and even libertarianism. Lets try to clear it up, shall we? First of all, it is unreservedly false that the NAP is the “core principle,” of Libertarianism, or even that it’s a defining feature. Libertarianism is a political philosophy, defined by an easily identifiable set of policies. One is a libertarian, or not, on the basis of the policies that you support or oppose, not on the basis of your justification for those policies. The NAP is an ethical philosophy, defined by holding the categorical opposition to the initiation of force as the highest good (or, in many cases, the only good).

Does being opposed to the initiation of force make me an NAPer? Not necessarily, or even in most cases. The NAP is about fiat justitia ruat caelum (justice, though the heavens may fall), and defines justice as the absence of coercion. You’re only an NAPer if you don’t think it would be moral to coerce people under any circumstances. For instance, if you knew for a fact that the world is in imminent danger of cataclysm by way of asteroid, and everyone refuses to fund an asteroid diversion program because it’s non-rival, would you support coercive measures? It doesn’t matter if you don’t think that it’s practical. Opposing the initiation of force because it’s counterproductive, or because the costs exceed the benefits, doesn’t make you an NAPer. If you think that we shouldn’t initiate force because it violates people’s Natural or Individual Rights, you’re not an NAPer. If you think that we shouldn’t allow people, including the government, to initiate force because people can’t be trusted not to abuse their power, you’re not an NAPer. Unless you believe that we shouldn’t initiate force even in a hypothetical situation where the best outcome is one in which we do initiate force, you’re not an NAPer.

The NAP sounds circular. We shouldn’t initiate force because we shouldn’t initiate force? Yes, but that’s not as unusual as it sounds. The idea that we should give one arbitrary value absolute moral primacy is very common in ethics. It’s called “deontology,” and there are many examples. Kant’s Categorical Imperative is deontological, and so is religious morality (Divine Command Theory). Some people have a deontological preference for equality. In a survey of 931 philosophers from 2009, some 25.9% are deontologists of some stripe, compared to 23.6% who are consequentialists, 18.2% who are virtue ethicists, and the remainder (32.3%) some combination, none, or “other.”

Some libertarians would argue that libertarianism on the grounds of the NAP is “more pure” than libertarianism on consequentialist grounds. Those people are clearly confused about what the word “libertarian” means. You can be an anarchist on the basis of consequences, like David Friedman. You can be an incrementalist in the pursuit of the NAP. The justification for a person’s political philosophy has nothing at all to do with how radical they are, either in their ideology, or in terms of their approach.

What is the SOP, and does it contain, or is it synonymous with, the NAP? The Statement of Principles is ultimately the mission statement for the Libertarian Party. It lays out, very clearly, what the Libertarian position is on the appropriate role of government, and how libertarians believe society should be organized. What it doesn’t do, is choose a particular ethical philosophy to support these principles (one particular justification is used throughout, but not the NAP). So why do people think the SOP contains the NAP? I have asked a number of NAP advocates this exact question, but none of them have been willing to answer. Since a different justification is used throughout, it seems unlikely that those responsible for drafting the SOP were NAPers at all. I suspect the confusion comes from the fact that the SOP contains the clause “we support the prohibition of the initiation of physical force against others.” We do, but that is a statement of policy, not of ethics. The NAP is the justification for the prohibition of the initiation of physical force against others, and therefore the justification for opposing certain actions (such as taxation). It is not descriptive of policies supported on other grounds--the word for that is libertarian. If the SOP provided no independent justification for opposing the initiation of physical force, it would still not be an endorsement of the NAP--any justification would be equally acceptable. In fact, the SOP provides an explicit ethical justification for opposition to the initiation of force throughout--not categorical non-aggression, but Natural Rights. In fact, the word “rights,” or some form thereof, appears 13 times in the SOP. Does that mean that people who have other justifications are not welcome in the LP, or are somehow less Libertarian? Of course not--you can be an NAPer and a Libertarian at the same time. It simply means that the framers of the SOP were influenced by some brand of Natural Rights Theory.

Ok, so you don’t have to believe in the NAP to be a Libertarian, but you do have to agree with the rejection of the initiation of the use of force in all cases, right? Not necessarily. It’s true, the libertarian policy in any particular case is generally to reject the initiation of the use of force. But you don’t have to agree with the libertarian position on every issue to be a libertarian. In fact, some people are libertarians because of the outcomes they think libertarian policies can provide. That means that where the evidence indicates that outcomes would be better because of a certain non-libertarian policy, we should support that non-libertarian policy. In fact, if the evidence convinces us that libertarianism isn’t the best political ideology, we should change our ideology. In my experience, there is not compelling evidence that we should stop being libertarian, even on any one issue. Your position isn’t stronger for saying that it’s not responsive to evidence.

What about pragmatism? Isn’t there a gap between Libertarians who want to be effective and Libertarians who want to be principled? There is, but only between the most confused people on both sides. We don’t have to be one or the other. In fact, it’s impossible to only be one or the other. Pragmatism has to be a principle, or the rest of your principles are so much hot air. You can’t win if you’re not pragmatic. That means that you have to vote, even if voting is a bad way to organize society and an initiation of force (it is a bad way to organize society (consequential), and it is an initiation of force unless you’re voting libertarian, in which case it’s self defense (deontological)). It means that you have to take matching funds if they’re available, even if matching funds are bad policy, a massive violation of freedom of speech, and are funded through unjustified theft (they are, they are, and they are). We must drive on government roads, collect Social Security, exploit tax exemptions and subsidies. As long as we’re fighting against the continued existence of these policies, we can’t let the people who are fighting for them reap benefits at our expense. If we do, how will we ever get these programs eliminated?

Does this mean that we need to “moderate” our views, especially by pandering to Republicans, and conservatives? First of all, there is no natural alliance between libertarians and conservatives. There’s no reason to think that we’re closer to them on policy than we are to socialists. Socialists might want to interfere slightly more in the economy (though not necessarily), but here in America, they’re not usually the ones pushing to ban immigration, gay marriage, and drugs, and they’re not usually the ones that want to rush off to war. What good does it do us to adopting a bunch of conservative positions? Are we going to out-conservative the conservatives? If not, the conservatives are going to support the conservative candidate, not the libertarian candidate. If we do out-conservative them, what’s the point? Rand Paul proved that pandering to social conservatives leads to spectacular failure.

Surely you’re not saying that we should campaign as anarchists, are you? Of course not, silly (not yet, in any case). We don’t have to reverse ourselves on anything by adopting the right-wing or left-wing positions, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have to be moderates. We can tell people what our end goal is, even for those of us whose end goal is anarchy (although it’s very difficult to do that responsibly, and usually does not involve use of the word “anarchy”). But we should support an incremental approach to that end goal. Democrats and Republicans were able to craft a government like the one we have now not by selling a system of cronyism and control, but by selling it incrementally. We don’t have to pretend that we support any of the things government does. We don’t have to say “I’m a libertarian, but a free market would never figure out roads,” but we should say “we’ll start by eliminating the policies that are the most harmful or counterproductive, and as long as things keep getting better, we’ll keep going.”

That’s it? The difference between a pragmatist and a “purist” isn’t policy, it’s taking an incremental approach? Well, that helps, but our biggest problem isn’t messaging at all! Yes, I support an incremental approach, and yes, I want our candidates and advocates to make consequential arguments instead of deontological ones. Most people are consequentialists (up to 90%), and the others are nearly as unlikely to become NAPers. It’s easier to convince people that they’re wrong about their imagined results of a policy than it is to convince people that the things they value are wrong. But we have bigger problems. We’re all libertarians. We all support basically the same policies, if for different reasons. If we’re going to get any message out--deontological, consequentialist, or otherwise, we need a more professional, more strategic, more visible Party, with better candidates, trained staff, media access, and fundraising. The message doesn’t matter if no one can hear it.