I identify as a libertarian. At times I have been at least partially guilty of the misstep I hope to illustrate below. I’m presenting it here in the hope that by clearly identifying it, it’s easier to avoid it and to improve our rhetoric.

In this case I think the problem has to do with overselling libertarianism with attractive anti-violence/anti-aggression catchphrases. There is some truth to these, but at the same time I don’t think they hold up well to scrutiny.

Here’s Scott Alexander’s explanation of what a motte-and-bailey doctrine is:

the motte-and-bailey doctrine is when you make a bold, controversial statement. Then when somebody challenges you, you claim you were just making an obvious, uncontroversial statement, so you are clearly right and they are silly for challenging you. Then when the argument is over you go back to making the bold, controversial statement.

On an internet forum somewhere

Libertarian: Libertarianism means not using threats of violence against peaceful people. [Bailey]

Challenger: But someone in breach of contract might still be peaceful, yet you believe that threats of violence against them might be legitimate. And you believe threats of violence against a trespasser might be okay too, even though they are non-violent.

Libertarian: I mean peaceful in the sense of not violating anyone else’s property rights. By property rights I mean neo-Lockean property rights. I think a determination of whether rights have been violated or not is best arrived at through the operation of a polycentric legal system. Rulings in individual cases are best made in reference to the case law that emerges in this system. If you have the time I could explain why I believe this system would be better than the status quo in all the ways that matter. [Motte]

[Challenger makes talk-to-the-hand sign and leaves.]

Libertarian (softly): Libertarianism means not using threats of violence against peaceful people. [Bailey]


A sophisticated libertarian:
The justness of any human behaviour can be tested by referring to the Non Aggression Principle, or NAP.

A statist rube:
Does that mean it’s unjust to commit acts of aggression against others?

Libertarian: Yes! Who could disagree with that, right? Oh, and by aggression I mean anything that violates property rights.

Statist: Hold on, property rights according to what theory?

Libertarian: I’m thinking of Rothbardian or neo-Lockean property rights specifically.

Statist: Just a minute. On that view isn’t it a rights violation for a starving person to steal an apple from the orchard of a wealthy owner?

Libertarian: Yes, it’s definitely a violation of property rights, and therefore aggression. The apple theft is unjust, but might still be a morally permissible action. You see, the non-aggression …

Statist: Wait. You think that a starving person stealing an apple is aggression. But you think that the angry owner, yelling at the thief and threatening to shoot him, isn’t aggression?

Libertarian: Right, the owner isn’t necessarily violating property rights when he makes that threat.

Statist: The principle you want to sell is called non-aggression. That sounds great to begin with. But it turns out that you have a really weird way of defining aggression. The way you use the word has nothing to do with what it means to me. If this is libertarianism you can keep it.

Libertarian: Enjoy your chains! [scoff]

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