This article by club founder Casey Given was originally published at StudentsForLiberty.org.
“Taxation is theft.” “War is murder.” “Citizenship is slavery.” If you’re a frequenter of libertarian circles like myself, then you’ve likely encountered some of these oversimplified statements before. They can be overheard at countless conferences and socials, usually overconfidently declared by some schmuck wearing a bow tie, as if his words were the divine dictates of the God he doesn’t believe in. While these statements may fly by unfettered in the libertarian echo chamber where everyone agrees with our bow-tied buffoon, I believe such claims of universal truth are detrimental to use in conversations aiming to convert non-libertarians.
These oversimplified statements are most often inspired by the deontological strand of libertarianism led by late, great thinkers like Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard. Deontological libertarians believe that political ethics should be boiled down to protecting our natural rights of life, liberty, and property — the “non-aggression principle,” as Rothbard called it. Returning to my initial examples, deontological libertarians would say that governments initiates force in laying taxes, waging war, and setting citizenship requirements, and therefore all three are categorically immoral.
While the non-aggression principle is certainly admirable in its philosophical concision, what it has in simplicity it lacks in substance. What, after all, is the role of government in a society that categorically rejects the initiation of force? The only logical answer would be that the government has no role since its existence would necessarily require the initiation of force through taxation. While this conclusion may please anarcho-capitalists, the reality is that most people are not so quick to “smash the state,” rather having a deep-seated belief in a role for government.
Indeed, most people would find the conclusions of the non-aggression calculus to be outright absurd. To them, taxation is not categorically theft, but rather can be appropriate to provide for some necessary functions of government like the criminal justice system. To them, war is not categorically murder, but rather can be appropriate to defend against existential enemies. Certainly the government’s monopoly of force can be scary at times, such non-libertarians may think, but abandoning this monopoly for the state of nature is even scarier. Any attempt to force anarchism down such their throats will only cause them to vomit it right out. Thus, it would be futile to try to convert non-libertarians with the non-aggression principle, since it will only give them an anarchist answer that they are fundamentally uncomfortable with.
Granted, many deontological libertarians have advocated a role for government while maintaining a natural rights framework, like Ayn Rand and John Locke. To these thinkers, a limited government is a “necessary evil,” to borrow Thomas Paine’s famous phrase. It’s necessary in that it provides services such as police, courts, and the military that protect against the initiation of force; however, it’s evil in that these services paradoxically requires the initiation of force to exist. Unfortunately, this contradictory acceptance of the initiation of force in the name of ending the initiation of force raises an uncomfortable question that leaves any libertarian evangelizer susceptible to argumentative attack. Namely, if the government’s initiation of force is acceptable for “the greater good” in providing limited services like police, courts, and the military, why couldn’t it have a larger role for the benefit of “the greater good” in providing even more services?
So, I suggest to you libertarian evangelizers out there to avoid the nebulous non-aggression principle for the graspable facts of government inefficiency. Economics and public choice theory are much more powerful persuaders than some imperceptible axiom that contains a fundamental contradiction.