The Libertarian Dogma: Non-Initiation of Force

by George Justin Mallone

Anytime most Libertarians make an argument, there's an implicit appeal to the "universal" principal which L. Neil Smith has held out as the defining principle of our movement: non-initiation of force.

This principle is defended with such verve, is regarded as such a touchstone, that Libertarians like Wendy McElroy have said they would not vote against Hitler if they were to be the deciding vote, because they would give sanction to something which violated the principle.

In Wendy's own words:

"I consider such a bullet to be an act of self-defense in a manner that a ballot could never be. The difference is that a bullet can be narrowly aimed at a deserving target; a ballot attacks innocent third parties who must endure the consequences of the politician I have assisted into a position of unjust power over their lives. Whoever puts a man into a position of unjust power that is, a position of political power must share responsibility for every right he violates thereafter. "

She also bases some of her argument on a challenging of the scenario:

"The question then shifted: 'If there had been no other strategies possible, would you have voted against Hitler?' This postulated a fantasy world which canceled out one of the basic realities of existence: the constant presence of alternatives. In essence, the question became 'if the fabric of reality were rewoven into a different pattern, would you still take the same moral stand'I can only address the reality in which I live and, in a world replete with alternatives, I would not vote for or against Hitler."

L. Neil Smith has condemned any person who disagrees with his understanding of non-initiation of force as an inviolable principle as being

"not a libertarian, nor an individualist. You're just another piece of collectivist trash, attempting to whitewash taking it on yourself to mete out group-punishment to folks as a whole who never did you any harm."

After reading this, and recalling Wendy's forceful and thought-provoking essay, the degree to which the principles they advocated deviated from a path of seriously advancing the cause of liberty seemed astounding.

Reality and Liberty

For at that point I realized that all it takes is a handful of arguments and scenarios to demolish the premises, and that's when the really scary thoughts began. For if what Wendy McElroy and L. Neil Smith were advocating is not consonant with the promotion of liberty, then that means that an entirely new understanding of what constitutes an advocate of liberty (or libertarian if you prefer) is necessitated, and that two people I had regarded as in the radical vanguard of advocating freedom diverged in fundamental ways from a true and coherent advocacy.

But before continuing on, let me backtrack to the line of thought which arrived me at the conclusion that I had to reject the arguments as I understood them. Wendy argues that while a bullet can be narrowly aimed, a ballot affects third parties, and thus induces some sort of moral complicity for what the evil individual does. But the fact is that a bullet can go astray and harm third parties, yet the gun is regarded as a legitimate tool against aggression, while the ballot is not.


She might argue that giving sanction to one evil which injures third parties is different than trying to exterminate another and incidentally injure third parties (though L. Neil Smith might argue moral culpability in either case). But fundamentally, choosing among assassination targets and choosing among which electoral candidates to prevent from being elected carries much the same moral culpability. For if there were a race between Hitler and FDR, and Wendy chose to prioritize Hitler's assassination, and succeeded, she would be assisting FDR into a position of power just as she would if she had put an F.D.R. For President sign in her yard and campaigned decisively for his election as an alternative for Hitler. If Wendy's theory of moral responsibility holds true, we should despise her regardless of her particular course of action. Personally, I'd be thankful for her disposing of Hitler's electoral prospects, regardless of what route she took.

Another flaw in her argument is her focus on the unlikelihood of the scenario. For its extremely easy to construct the scenario whereby Wendy could have full knowledge that her vote would be the deciding one beforehand. For instance, let us imagine a society in which the legislature is randomly selected. Wendy's name comes up and she, in keeping with her principles, refuses to serve. She still has the option of showing up anytime at the Capitol building for voting, however. A horrendous "install government-controlled cameras in every household" bill comes up for a vote, and the decision hangs on Wendy's vote. If she rushes to the Capitol building and acts in a manner consistent with preserving liberty then she has rejected her own principles. If she stays home, then while she is acting consistently with her principles, I believe that at this point her principles have been shown to be inconsistent with a true defense of liberty (and thus, not consonant with being a libertarian, if that term is to have any meaning).

This holds true for L. Neil's assertions as well. The proverbial "tyrants strapping citizens to tanks" dilemma casts aside simple notions about the immorality of collateral damage, for surely no one can argue that preserving the lives of enslaved cannon-fodder necessitates joining their ranks? That the fact that some tyrants can use their captives in cleverly sadistic ways should paralyze us from defending our freedom?

In reality, one cannot always pick and choose the method one prefers to resolve the situation. While it would be nice to put the proverbial bullet into Hitler's skull, or blow up the entire Legislature, or snipe the guy driving the tank, such things are not always practical. Therefore, if one is in a position to preserve liberty through generally disagreeable means, even if the means' existence is wrong, even if innocents will be harmed, their usage in the preservation of greater freedom is not immoral. In fact, if one truly prioritizes freedom as a value, then not using such means is acting against your explicit values, and thus immoral. For presumably, Wendy's principle of non-participation and L. Neil's rejection of collateral damage are based upon a deep and abiding concern for liberty. When such a principle can be demonstrably shown to lead to actions which destroy liberty, however, then from that moment on one is engaging in something of a self-deception for as long as one continues to pass oneself off as an advocate of liberty and yet steadfastly cling to said principles. For either one's principles are based on something other then a valuation of liberty, in which case one should honestly and forthrightly proclaim this fact, or one does indeed continue to value liberty, in which case one's theories are in dire need of a serious overhaul. The fact that this hasn't become overtly realized by many more people much earlier demonstrates a mind-blowing movement-wide evasion of reality.

The heart of the reason why these flawed ideas may have been allowed to prevail within our movement for so long is the fear that their rejection would entail rejection of the defense of liberty as a whole; kind of like Christians who fear that a rejection of Jesus leaves only immorality and nihilism left. And those in our society who advocate aggression do not too much dissuade this theory. One example is someone like Leonard Peikoff, who comes off like a dark twisted mirror image of leftist hippie protesters, with chants of "U.S. into everywhere." We cannot allow a fear of accepting frightening ideas prevent us from improving our own, however. For such fear leads to the development of a dissonance from reality which can cripple our judgment at critical moments (like Wendy's voting dilemma). It is also my position that there is such a thing as a defense of liberty which is neither pseudo-pacifistic nor gleefully militaristic, but for now let me discuss some of the things which may have been preventing our growth of knowledge in this area.

The Libertarian Meme

One of the more useful concepts I've come across is Richard Dawkins' concept of the meme, of idea as virus, with related ideas carried along with the core concept, helping the idea to spread, and making it difficult to think critically about (and thus possibly reject) the theory once accepted. If we think of the commonly accepted libertarian meme, then perhaps we can start to discern what is flawed in our understanding of what constitutes a true defense of liberty. One area that might serve as a useful place for a thought experiment is the issue of foreign policy.

On one side, you have the hardcore non-initiation of force believers, who literally have to have the enemy coming through the gates before they will accept a need to react.

On the other hand you have the aforementioned Peikoffians, who break out the Risk board and start planning D-Day anywhere they spot a less-than-optimal culture. I feel that a great part of my struggling on the appropriateness of state intervention in foreign policy is that I've been searching for a replacement for the non-initiation of force principal, and part of the reason I've been doing that is what I would consider to be a defense mechanism of the libertarian meme. This defense mechanism causes us to regard strategic analysis and general judgment making regarding what actions will best promote liberty as pragmatic, utilitarian, unprincipled, and thus evil for they are not based on some "universal" principle which applies in all situations.

Another reason is the appeal of having a definitive guide by which one can judge all situations. However, it seems to me that treating non-initiation of force as an inviolable principle is demonstrably incompatible with the goal of promoting liberty; and that if there are general principles beyond "do that which promotes freedom", they may not be operative at the level at which you're deciding whether to get involved in some sort of foreign entanglement. The sheer number of factors and considerations may render rules-of-thumb largely useless when deciding whether to undertake an operation on that scale.

Yet another reason is a fear of having to embrace the pro-aggression stance advocated by various members of the movement. But a realization that the non-initiation of force principle is not inviolable need not go hand-in-hand with rejecting skepticism of state action. Realizing that there may be some situations in which a state going to war is the best practical option for defending liberty does not necessitate embracing a U.S.-led invasion force of every non-Western nation, despite claims to the contrary.

Finally, there is a sense that those who more militantly cling to the non-aggression principle tend to be more correct on many issues then the "less principled" crowd, thus lending credence to the principle. In truth, this has to do with the difference in appraisals of the danger of government; disagreements over non-initiation of force are non-primary.

L. Neil Smith, and many other "hardcore" movement members, see our government as an inherently coercive institution, a constant dangerous threat to our liberty (an analysis I agree with); Peikoff and others see it as a tameable beast; occasionally bumbling, sometimes even menacing, but overall good, and absolutely necessary. This critical difference in analysis causes the former to see dangerous red flags where the latter only sees harmless, non-offensive red, white and blue.

Confronting these defenses of the Libertarian Meme head-on has allowed me to think critically and improve my theories, thus strengthening my arguments and making me a more effective advocate of what is right. I can only hope that this article in some way helps the reader to do the same, for we advocates of liberty will need the strongest arsenal of arguments possible in the long struggle ahead towards true freedom.

George Justin Mallone hopes to one day be a novelist, and is currently accepting offers from anyone foolish enough to pay for his prolific ranting.

September 30, 2002

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George Justin Mallone is the President of ASFAR, hopes to one day be a novelist, and is currently accepting offers from anyone foolish enough to pay for his prolific ranting.

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