Sorting Out the Libertarian Hawks and Doves

UPDATED TWICE, BELOW

Paleolibertarians adhere to something they call the non-aggression principle. According to Walter Block, writing at LewRockwell.com (a paleo site):

The non-aggression axiom is the lynchpin of the philosophy of libertarianism. It states, simply, that it shall be legal for anyone to do anything he wants, provided only that he not initiate (or threaten) violence against the person or legitimately owned property of another.

In another post, Block writes:

The libertarian non-aggression axiom is the essence of libertarianism. Take away this axiom, and libertarianism might as well be libraryism, or vegetarianism. Thus, if a person is to be a libertarian, he must, he absolutely must, in my opinion, be able to distinguish aggression from defense.

Here’s a joke. Do you know the difference between a bathroom and a living room? No? Well, don’t come to my house. In this spirit I ask, do you know the difference between offense and defense? Between aggression and defense against aggression? No? Well, then, don’t call yourself a libertarian.

I can’t read anyone out of the libertarian movement. No one appointed me guardian of this honorific. I am just giving my humble opinion. In like manner, if you couldn’t tell the difference between a hammer and a chisel, I wouldn’t consider you a carpenter. If you couldn’t distinguish between a brush and paint, I wouldn’t consider you a painter. In much the same way, if you can’t tell offense and defense apart, that is, if you believe in pre-emptive strikes against those who are not attacking you, then I can’t consider you a libertarian even if you favor free enterprise and oppose criminalizing voluntary adult conduct.

There are areas in which well meaning and knowledgeable libertarians disagree: minarchism vs. anarchism; immigration; abortion; inalienability; punishment theory. Although I have strong views on all of these, I recognize libertarian arguments on the other side. But not on this issue.

You don’t have to wait until I actually punch you in the nose to take violent action against me. You don’t even have to wait until my fist is within a yard of you, moving in your direction. However, if you haul off and punch me in the nose in a preemptive strike, on the ground that I might punch you in the future, then you are an aggressor.

But what about the in-between case, where you haven’t started your swing but I have good reason to believe that you’re about to do so? Consider the following comment that I posted today at Catallarchy:

I know that life’s not black & white, but a black & white case may help us to clarify the principles that we’re trying to apply to rather messy “real world” situations. Consider this hypothetical:

1. In Country A (just as in Country B), the armed forces are controlled by the state. (I don’t want to get off onto the tangent of whether war is more or less likely if defense is provided by private agencies.)

2. The only restriction on the liberty of Country A’s citizens is that they must pay taxes to support their armed forces. Country B’s citizens own no property; their jobs are dictated by the state; their income is dictated by the state; and all aspects of their lives are regimented by state decrees.

3. Though Country A’s armed forces are underwritten by taxes, the members of the armed forces are volunteers. The members of Country B’s armed forces are conscripts, and Country B’s armed forces are, in effect, supplied and equipped by slave labor.

4. Country A would liberate Country B’s citizens, if it could. Country B would subjugate or kill Country A’s citizens, if it could.

What say you, then, to these questions:

1. If Country B attacks Country A, what limits (if any) would you place on the measures Country A might take in its defense? Specifically:

a. Are civilian casualties in Country B acceptable at all?

b. Are civilian casualties in Country B acceptable if they’re the result of mistakes on Country A’s part or the unavoidable result of Country A’s attacks on Country B’s armed forces and infrastructure?

c. Is the deliberate infliction by Country A of civilian casualties in Country B acceptable as long as Country A’s leaders reasonably believe that the infliction of those casualties — and nothing else — will bring about the defeat of Country B? (Assume, here, that Country A’s leaders try to inflict only the number of casualties deemed necessary to the objective.)

(Assume, for purposes of the next 2 questions, that Country A inflicts casualties on Country B’s civilians only to the extent that those casualties are the result of mistakes or unavoidable collateral damage.)

2. Should Country A attack Country B if Country A concludes (rightly or wrongly, but in good faith) that Country B is about to attack, and if Country B strikes first it is likely to:

a. win a quick victory and subjugate Country A?

b. inflict heavy casualties on Country A’s citizens?

3. Should Country A attack Country B if Country A concludes (rightly or wrongly, but in good faith) that Country B is developing the wherewithal to attack, and if Country B strikes first it is likely to

a. win a quick victory and subjugate Country A?

b. inflict heavy casualties on Country A’s citizens?

What I’m trying to get at is whether we should value non-aggression (which I take to be a means to liberty that’s favored by certain libertarians) over liberty itself (the end upon which all libertarians agree). In light of that distinction, my answers are:

1. a. Yes
1. b. Yes
1. c Yes
2. a. Yes
2. b. Yes
3. a. Yes
3. b. Yes

Over to you.

Let me emphasize the essential question: Should libertarians favor non-aggression — which is really a means to liberty — over liberty itself? Paleos like Block have latched onto non-aggression (which Block, at least, cannot define very well), as if non-aggression were the same thing as liberty. They have mixed up ends and means. Aggression may be necessary to the pursuit of liberty; non-aggression may be inimical to liberty.

Of course, the paleos can always argue that my answers are within the (vague) bounds of non-aggression. And that’s okay with me, as long as they also stop harping about American imperialism.

UPDATE (7:26 pm CT): Joe Miller (not a paleo, in my book) has posted a thorough and thoughtful reply to my comment. I will think it through and respond to him here and at Catallarchy.

UPDATE 2 (4:02 pm CT, 07/28/05): I have continued this post at Liberty Corner II.

Technorati tag: