Non-Aggression Under Fire

A (somewhat) dated article I came upon at Libertarianism.org, by Matt Zwolinski, entitled “Six Reasons Libertarians Should reject the non-aggression principle,” gave a couple critiques which endeavored to show the problems inherent in the oft-praised libertarian non-aggression principle. I only wish to cover one of these points briefly because it paints a somewhat distorted picture of the non-aggression principle, and there are easy ways to rectify the non-aggression principle with his critiques. From the article:

No Prohibition of Fraud – Libertarians usually say that violence may legitimately be used to prevent either force or fraud. But according to NAP, the only legitimate use of force is to prevent or punish the initiatory use of physical violence by others. And fraud is not physical violence. If I tell you that the painting you want to buy is a genuine Renoir, and it’s not, I have not physically aggressed against you. But if you buy it, find out it’s a fake, and then send the police (or your protective agency) over to my house to get your money back, then you are aggressing against me. So not only does a prohibition on fraud not follow from the NAP, it is not even compatible with it, since the use of force to prohibit fraud itself constitutes the initiation of physical violence.

This post is superficially plausible, however it is unknowingly setting up a straw man with regard to the non-aggression principle. First, the author’s characterization of fraud as non-violent is actually untrue. Fraud can follow from the non-aggression principle. This is because fraud is a theft. It is theft because even though the individual handing over the money for the “Renoir” is doing so seemingly on his own volition, he is handing over more money than he otherwise would have had he known the painting was not a real Renoir. To get a sense of the theft, we must think about the transaction without any fraud. In the fraudulent transaction, A buys alleged Renoir from B for $3 million. If there had been no fraud, and A tried to get $3 million for his painting, the only way he could have got $3 million from B is by coercion. B may have only been willing to pay $100, or maybe he wouldn’t have even been willing to purchase it at all. The theft, then, is the discrepancy between the price he would have paid if he knew it wasn’t a Renoir versus the price he paid when he was defrauded.

Even though we may not see an act of physical force being used, rest assured there is a coercion occurring in the theft as surely as if the thief took the $3 million from his home in the middle of the night. A theft is necessarily an act of aggression because it is, as Murray Rothbard would characterize it, an “implicit theft.” The act of aggression is therefore not an explicit act of aggression but an implicit one.

With the same underlying principle in mind as the Renoir example, Rothbard states:

Fraudulent adulteration is equally implicit theft. If Smith pays $1000 and receives from Jones not a specified make of car but an older and poorer car, this too is implicit theft: once again, someone’s property has been appropriated in a contract, without the other person’s property being turned over to him as agreed.

So, when B pays $3 million for a Renoir and receive back a “Person A” painting instead, it is implicit theft, or appropriation of someone else’s property; there need not be explicit theft to constitute aggression.

Further, we may see the aggression to the extent that A’s possession of my $3 million dollars means that B is no longer able to use the $3 million to whatever purpose B may choose now that A has expropriated my property and is in possession of it. This clearly constitutes aggression as the $3 million is still rightfully B’s since A had to obtain it by fraud.

In this light, the non-aggression principle can still stand.

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