Fake Libertarianism Revisited

A significant portion of my work consists of critiquing arguments, decisions, and statements made by other people. But sometimes, the lens of examination is best turned inward to correct one’s own missteps. Such is the case for an article I wrote three years ago about the nature of fake libertarianism. In retrospect, I failed to accurately present the structure of libertarian philosophy, and thus erroneously defined what it means to be a fake libertarian. Let us see what is wrong with my former case and make the necessary corrections.

Just as before, we must first have proper definitions for “libertarianism” and “fake” in order to consider the issue of fake libertarianism. Libertarianism is the philosophical position that the proper use of force is always defensive in nature. Initiating the use of force is never justifiable, while using force to defend against someone who initiates the use of force is always justifiable. A fake adherent of a position is either a person who claims to believe in that position while explicitly rejecting the premises of that position or their logical conclusions, or a person who misrepresents the premises of that position. Note that this does not compel action; a person is free to choose not to respond to initiated force with defensive force. Nor does this constrain one’s entire ideology to a single position; one may believe in additional premises beyond a certain position which are not in contradiction with that position without being a fake adherent, but to falsely represent such premises as being contained within that position does make one a fake adherent.

In my previous attempt, I argued that a fake libertarian is a person who claims to be a libertarian but does one or more of the following:

  1. Supports initiating the use of force for any reason;
  2. Rejects a logical conclusion of the non-aggression principle;
  3. Claims that another principle can trump the non-aggression principle;
  4. Claims that libertarianism contains something that it does not contain, or vice versa.

Points (1) and (4) are sound, but points (2) and (3) require some revision. The non-aggression principle is neither an axiom nor the basis of libertarian theory, as my previous attempt would suggest. The starting point for all of libertarian ethics is self-ownership; that each person has a right to exclusive control of one’s physical body and full responsibility for actions committed with said control. Note that in order to argue against self-ownership, one must exercise exclusive control of one’s physical body for the purpose of communication. This results in a performative contradiction because the content of the argument is at odds with the act of making the argument. By the laws of excluded middle and non-contradiction, self-ownership must be true because it must be either true or false, and any argument that self-ownership is false is false by contradiction.

Because each person has a right to exclusive control over one’s own body, it is wrong for one person to initiate interference with another person’s exclusive control over their body without that person’s consent. It is clear that self-ownership trumps the non-aggression principle on the grounds that the independent principle overrules the dependent principle. One may also reject a logical conclusion of the non-aggression principle if doing so is necessary in order to accept a logical conclusion of self-ownership.

The above would be true but trivial if there were no cases in which the non-aggression principle came into conflict with principles of higher rank, so let us consider three such cases.

Innocent Shields

Strict adherence to the non-aggression principle would suggest that innocent shields held captive by an aggressor are non-aggressors and that harming them is immoral. But if this is true, then anyone who is being more harmfully victimized by the aggressor is doomed. Additionally, considering an aggressor who hides behind innocent shields to be an illegitimate target would provide a means for an aggressor to escape punishment and restitution. Another means of dealing with such a situation is provided by Walter Block’s concept of negative homesteading. To quote Block,

“A grabs B to use as a shield; A forces B to stand in front of him, and compels him to walk wherever A wishes. A then hunts C in order to murder the latter by shooting him. C also has a gun. Is it legally permissible for C to shoot at A in self defense under libertarian law?

[…]

In ordinary homesteading, or what we must now call positive homesteading to distinguish it from this newly introduced variety, it is the first person upon the scene who mixes his labor with the land or natural resource who comes away with the property rights in question. It is the first man who farms a plot of land, who becomes the rightful owner. A similar procedure applies to negative homesteading, only here what gets to be ‘owned’ is a negative, not a positive. This concept refers to some sort of unhappiness, not a benefit such as owning land. The ownership of misery, as it were, must stay with its first victim, according to this principle. He cannot legitimately pass it onto anyone else without the latter’s permission.”

The homesteading principle is a direct corollary of self-ownership, just like the non-aggression principle. This gives them equal standing in libertarian philosophy, meaning that a conflict between the two must not give the non-aggression principle supremacy over the homesteading principle or vice versa.

To use the theory of negative homesteading, we must identify the first homesteader of the misery. In Block’s example, this is B. It is impermissible for B to transfer this misery to C. Thus, the theory of negative homesteading permits C to shoot A and risk hitting B even though a strict view of the non-aggression principle would not. None of this is to say that concern for the innocent shield should be disregarded; only that if an aggressor is too dangerous to ignore and it is impossible to subdue the aggressor without harming innocent shields, then the innocent shields are expendable in order to reduce the overall amount of aggression committed.

Reecean Proviso

The theoretical basis for private property rights in libertarian theory also starts with self-ownership. Because one is responsible for one’s actions, one gains an ownership claim over one’s improvements upon natural resources. It is impossible to own the improvements without owning the resources themselves, so property rights over external objects in a state of nature are established through mixing one’s labor with them. As property rights are established and maintained by exercising self-ownership, they are dependent upon self-ownership. As with non-aggression, self-ownership overrules private property in external objects because that which is dependent is subordinate to that upon which it is dependent.

Next, let us note that all sentient beings are equal in their self-ownership, in that all sentient beings have property in their own physical bodies through exclusive direct control over them. Although the nature of their bodies and minds will almost certainly result in different beings appropriating different quantities of external resources and in different beings having more or less capability to defend those resources from challengers in practice, the theoretical strength of a particular property right over an external object by one sentient being is equivalent to the strength of another particular property right over another external object by another sentient being. Applying this to the fact that self-ownership stands above private property in external objects, we get the result that the self-ownership of one sentient being stands above the private property rights in external objects of another sentient being.

A strict view of the non-aggression principle would not allow any appropriation of another person’s private property without their permission, but a case in which self-ownership is in conflict with private property could allow for this. Although this is subject to so many caveats in practice that the appropriate lifeboat scenario may never arise, the theoretical possibility for a situation in which a person is justified to appropriate a small amount of resources from someone else’s property in order to stay alive does exist.

Unrepentant Aggressors and Agency

Because libertarian theory is a logical construct, it is subject to logic in the form of rationality and consistency. For private property rights, the non-aggression principle, or indeed even self-ownership, to apply to a person who has violated another person’s rights of the same kind is inconsistent. As such, a thief has no standing to claim property rights, an aggressor has no standing to claim non-aggression, and a murderer has no standing to claim self-ownership until restitution is made for their crimes. In the latter case, restitution is impossible because a murder victim cannot be made whole. An unrepentant aggressor may be attacked in ways which would violate the non-aggression principle if done to a non-aggressor because the aggressor’s actions demonstrate a rejection of the non-aggression principle.

One might protest that a bystander lacks agency in a matter between an aggressor and a victim, but the concept of agency has been shaped in a world dominated by states. Thus, private citizens are discouraged (and sometimes prohibited) not to interfere in certain matters between other people because the state claims sole authority to resolve such matters. In a society organized in accordance with libertarian theory, there is no such monopoly on the creation and enforcement of laws, or on the final arbitration of disputes. The concept of agency in a libertarian social order would likely impose fewer limits on an individual’s conduct, thus leaving one free to use force against unrepentant aggressors even if not in an immediate self-defense situation. The possibility of becoming an outlaw subject to the every whim of anyone who cares to attack an unrepentant aggressor presents a strong deterrent against committing acts of aggression.

Strategic Thinking

A separate but related problem is that of libertarian purists denying the context of a situation and refusing to consider less than perfect alternatives. There are situations in which an option which adheres to libertarian principles is not politically viable and libertarians are not willing to do what would be necessary to make such an option viable. In such cases, there will be several options and all of them will involve acts of aggression. Navigating these situations requires us to figure out either which option is most likely to result in the least amount of aggression or which option is most likely to move society closer to a libertarian social order. Advocating for one such option over the others, or ranking them from best to worst, does not constitute an endorsement of aggression because one is not choosing an aggressive option as an ideal or because one wants to, but as a least evil and because there is no good option.

Parts Unchanged

The definition of what constitutes a fake libertarian was in need of correction, but the when, where, and why remain as they were. Fake libertarianism is still a widespread and growing problem. As before, the reasons for being a fake libertarian are to gain recognition in a smaller field of competitors instead of trying to compete directly with more powerful establishment commentators, to destroy the libertarian movement from within by being an entryist, and to gain capital through false representation of something valuable.

Taking a slightly softer tone with some of those identified instead of calling them fakes and running them off may be sound strategical advice in some cases, especially with respect to the anarchist-minarchist debate. But any movement that wishes to take political power for any purpose, including the destruction of said power, must beware of holiness spirals. Libertarian groups have a twofold problem in this regard; that of strictest adherence to libertarian principles and that of leftist infiltration. Those who reduce their circle of allies to only the most ardent libertarians will lack the numbers to accomplish anything. Meanwhile, leftists who infiltrate libertarian circles and fill them with progressive nonsense can manage to run off real libertarians, which helps to explain the growth of the alt-right movement. Both of these problems are dangerous to the goal of liberty and must be countered whenever they present themselves.

Conclusion

There is no better way to conclude than by restating the closing paragraph from the original piece:

“Just as counterfeiters do not make copies of worthless banknotes and forgers do not falsify meaningless signatures, political charlatans do not pretend to hold a position if doing so has no potential benefit. Thus, true libertarians should take heart. The very fact that there are fake libertarians means that true libertarianism is worth something, and that defending it against those who would falsely assume it and attempt to destroy it is worth doing.”