Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Aggression: The opiate of the masses and the cornerstone of libertarianism

Murray N. Rothbard notes that the libertarianism or the libertarian creed, “rests upon one central axiom: that no man or group of men may aggress against the person or property of anyone else.” If no man can aggress against any other, then all violence, all devolution of rights and liberties ceases to exist. This ideal creates a perfect world in which all violence, physical or mental, fades into the socially unacceptable act. 

Just because one believes that aggression or violence (for the sake of simplicity and brevity these terms will often be interchangeable in this context) may not be okay, or may not be accepted does not mean that it will not happen. Violence in inherent to all of mankind; it is a tenant of our predisposed position, a law of nature if you will. Abraham Maslow hypothesized that all humankind followed a sort of hierarchy in which basic needs have to be fulfilled before more complex desires can be met. Let us look at man in nature or in the wild to see that his or her physiological needs will be met by the self with an inherent inclination towards aggression. Seeking shelter, the man or woman will destroy a tree or evict an animal from a cave. Then they will need to satisfy their need for food by slaughtering an animal of destroying another plant.  Violence is going to be the central tendency for humans. 

If “no man or group of man may aggress against the person or property of anyone else” and yet man is inclined towards aggression as a tool then there is an ideological and pragmatic impasse. Thus another solution exists. All people may aggress against any other person and their property. This violent sounding ideology immediately conjures a world in which violence rules and the strong dominate the weak, a world in which the only rule is the rule of violence and aggression. However, just because people may aggress against one another does not mean that they should or they will. Rothbard’s first principle of non-aggression is, in his eyes, the only way to justify the rest of libertarianism and the tenants on which it lies. The aggression principle also allows the other tenants to stand, albeit with a different logical progression. 

Because all people are aggressive and may aggress against one another, all people are essentially equal. Thomas Hobbes said that all men were equal because all men had the same susceptibility and fear of painful death. While the brute may be physically superior, the mentally inclined will create a weapon or work in social group to counteract the brute’s aggression with their own. It is that the fear and that equality which has lead humankind to its current state. Aggression is acceptable and people may aggress against other people, but in turn will be aggressed upon. This deterrence has lead humankind to its current state. Libertarianism (in its simplest form) is the idea that the government should be severely restricted in its ability to interfere with the individual’s rights and liberties. A person or group of people may be able to aggress even though they shouldn’t.

Why shouldn’t’ they? For fear of more aggression. If the individual is left alone and given safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self actualization they tend to not aggress others. Aggression begets aggression and the fear of it can lead to a libertarian society in which aggression between people is minimalized to the greatest possible extent.

2 comments:

Austin Frindt said...

Your argument, if I understand it correctly, is that the non-aggression axiom is false, because, as you have shown, people are aggressive by nature. But just because this axiom is false, libertarianism can still be achieved.

Have you thought that the non-aggression axiom is simply a progression from our aggressive roots? I think you are almost saying this in your last paragraph. In the beginning, man was aggressive. As more and more of our needs were met, the level of aggression declined until, eventually, we reached a point where aggression was no longer acceptable, ala, the non-aggression axiom.

Alexander DeVore said...

"If no man can aggress against any other, then all violence, all devolution of rights and
liberties ceases to exist. This ideal creates a perfect world in which all violence, physical
or mental, fades into the socially unacceptable act. "

Tristan, I'll be gentle because I can tell you are still learning. If you re-read Rothbard you
will notice he defines aggression as the initiation of force against another, not the retaliation or defense. In otherwords, aggression (as the English word even implies) is different from
violence. Rothbard does not think violence is a "socially unaceptable act."

"Just because one believes that aggression or violence (for the sake of simplicity and brevity
these terms will often be interchangeable in this context)"

Again, Rothbard makes clear that aggression and violence are not the same thing and that the
former will always be wrong while the latter's standing depends on if it was aggressive (think
initiative).

"may not be okay, or may not be accepted does not mean that it will not happen. Violence in
inherent to all of mankind; it is a tenant of our predisposed position, a law of nature if you
will. Abraham Maslow hypothesized that all humankind followed a sort of hierarchy in which
basic needs have to be fulfilled before more complex desires can be met."

I'm sure everyone that has taken a survey psy course can appreciate the name-drop; however,
irrelevant it may be. The Non-Aggression Axiom does not say that aggression or violence will not
occur. One must understand that Rothbard is writing this because he is aware of a
class of people that rather than engage in voluntary transaction would rather attempt initiate
force against another man. The Non-Agresion Axiom is not descriptive, it is prescriptive;
describing what ought be not what is.

"Let us look at man in nature or in the wild to see that his or her physiological needs will
be met by the self with an inherent inclination towards aggression. Seeking shelter, the man
or woman will destroy a tree or evict an animal from a cave. Then they will need to satisfy
their need for food by slaughtering an animal of destroying another plant. Violence is going
to be the central tendency for humans."

Tristan, it seems if you were a bad boy and skipped some of your reading. Rothbard predicates
the Non-Agression Axiom on a theory of natural rights. You will notice, these are natural
rights of humans, not trees, caves, or animals. However, the irony of your argument is that
it is somewhat similar to the one Rothbard makes on natural rights. I'd suggest reading it.

"If “no man or group of man may aggress against the person or property of anyone else” and yet
man is inclined towards aggression as a tool then there is an ideological and pragmatic
impasse. Thus another solution exists. All people may aggress against any other person and
their property. This violent sounding ideology immediately conjures a world in which violence
rules and the strong dominate the weak, a world in which the only rule is the rule of violence
and aggression. However, just because people may aggress against one another does not mean
that they should or they will. Rothbard’s first principle of non-aggression is, in his eyes,
the only way to justify the rest of libertarianism and the tenants on which it lies. The
aggression principle also allows the other tenants to stand, albeit with a different logical
progression."

Unfortunately this logical coup de grâce of jumped-conclusions and misrepresentation seems
a bit silly, for the reasons listed above. I'll add some salt though.

No such impasse exists and even if it did Rothbard would say that a choice between a
pragmatic solution and the Non-Aggression Axiom would result in him choosing the Non-Aggression
Axiom. Rothbard notes that this principle of non-aggression is the fundamental moral foundation
for those interested in liberty and that it is only a fortunate coincidence that such a
foundation is also the foundation for the most prosperous individuals. If the Non-Aggression
Axiom was not a means to a wealthy person he argued that it still wouldn't matter and that on
ethical grounds it should be followed. In short, Rothbard chooses the Non-Aggression Axiom
because of its moral foundation, not for its pragmatism; so no, there is no such "ergo" that
leads one to conclude what you have.