This is the first of what will be a series of posts criticizing libertarian ideology as not up to the claims its advocates claim for it. Perhaps some will even seek to enter into dialogue on this or other issues to come.
Libertarians talk endlessly about the “nonaggression principle,” the view that all acts of aggression against peaceful people is wrong. They say this as if it is something that sets them aside from the rest of us who supposedly to a greater or lesser degree have no problem with aggressing against peaceful people.
But this is hooey. The real issue is determining what constitutes aggression. No normal person supports aggression against peaceful people, but many normal people will disagree among themselves as to what constitutes aggression. Except for libertarians, I know of no one who draws the line between aggression and non aggression at the point where physical force or its threat enters in.
Let us take a concrete and not at all fanciful example. I play my music late at night. I live in an apartment with thin walls. My neighbor is a light sleeper whom I do not like. I keep him up and enjoy doing so. Am I aggressing against him?
What if I do not play my music loud to annoy him, but regard him as too sensitive and so interfering with my enjoyment of my property?
Libertarians define aggression as crossing boundaries without permission. My music crosses his boundaries and invades his hearing. Am I aggressing against my disliked neighbor? Is my neighbor too sensitive? Or not? Most places have noise ordinances to take care of this problem, but of course that is an act of government and so from a strong libertarian position is itself aggression. My music can cross his boundaries but I cannot be told to turn it down or suffer legal consequences without being ‘aggressed’ against.
Let us say the libertarian says well, that is aggression. Then how much music constitutes aggression? Is it a matter of decibels or of length or of both? Does the time of day matter or whether it is a week day or a week end? Who decides and on what grounds?
Let us say I have a house and again do not like my neighbor. I shine bright lights on my property outside his bedroom window late at night. Am I aggressing with photons, which are certainly more physical than sound waves. Let us say a libertarian grants that is aggression, a crossing of his boundaries by my photons. Then at what point do unwanted photons crossing from my property to yours constitute aggression? If our dislike is mutual, just seeing me constitutes photons going from me onto his property. But most people including all normal ones would find that is not aggression.
If photons do not constitute aggression, why? After all, they definitely cross boundaries and can cause suffering when they do. They even can lower property values, especially if I paint obscene images on my fence facing your yard, or simply make my property look garish from the street.
The point is pretty clear: aggression exists on a continuum and different people will decide at different points where it should be stopped. But virtually everyone will say at some point it crosses the line from acceptable behavior to aggression. Most all of us will say that line arrives before physical force or its threat is employed.
Sexual aggression on the job
A boss tells an employee that she must provide him sexual favors if she is to keep her job. Libertarians generally say she can quit, so the boss might be a cad, but he is not committing aggression that should be punished by the law. But what if unemployment is high and quitting will cost her a letter of recommendation? What if she is a single mom who supports two kids? What if one is sick and she needs to pay medical bills? What if she needs to provide not only sex, but kinds of sex she finds particularly distasteful such as bondage, even though in some formal sense no aggression took place because the boss never threatened her with physical violence?
Civilized countries realize that aggression takes many forms beyond the physical.
Just where to draw the line is a judgment call.
Civilized countries attempt to provide fair means by which a community can draw the line.
Libertarians use the ‘nonaggression principle’ as a sound bite to claim the moral high ground and put those who disagree with them at a rhetorical disadvantage. But in fact they often defend actions many of us would regard as aggression.