Big Head Press

L. Neil Smith's
Number 500, January 4, 2009

"We jump-start the Libertarian Revolution"

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A Message from the Publisher

Attribute to The Libertarian Enterprise

Many of our readers are aware that my daughter Rylla and I are writing a book designed to sort of pat the Libertarian Party, and the broader movement of which it is a part, back into shape after years of abuse it has suffered at the hands of individuals whose interests, apparently, are focused somewhere other than on creating a free society.

Our working title is What Libertarians Believe, and the book will be based, structurally, on the LP's 1980 "Bonaventure" platform, which I had a hand in writing, and other, similar documents from the LP, various state organizations, and whatever wisdom nearly thirty years of subsequent history have imparted to us (or dumped on our heads). It will begin with a chapter on the Zero Aggression Principle, and end with an examination of the Bill of Rights and its relevance to libertarians.

We have both been working for months, gathering sometimes elusive materials, discussing the work with each other and others whose minds we respect, tying up certain loose ends—Phoebus Krumm for Neil, NationalNovelWritingMonth for Rylla—before the real writing could commence.

We have many fond hopes for this book, which I have wanted to write quite literally for decades. Our fondest is that it can help carry us through the next four to eight years, which are likely to be painful for those who love and desire liberty. Here then, presented for you consideration, to paraphrase Rod Serling, is that initial chapter.

Consider it a first draft.

L. Neil Smith
Fort Collins, Colorado
January, 2009

What Libertarians Believe
by L. Neil Smith and Rylla Cathryn Smith

INTRODUCTION: The Zero Aggression Principle

This is not a book about libertarian philosophy (there are plenty of those already) but about the way libertarian philosophy applies to the making of libertarian policy. Libertarians are often accused—by political opponents, and worse, by some within the movement, who would destroy it in a misguided attempt to make it more "palatable" to a general public whom they apparently don't know very well—of being impractical, unpragmatic, unaware of a real world around them, lost to fantasy.

Scott Adams, for example, creator of the famous Dilbert cartoons, proclaims himself "a libertarian minus the crazy stuff" which makes us wonder just what "crazy stuff" he means. Not destroying people's lives because they smoke the wrong vegetable? Not persecuting them for doing ordinary things—like draining a pond on their own land—that were perfectly legal 50 years ago? Not stealing half of everything people work hard for, in order to spend it violating their rights, spying on them, interfering with their lives, or starving millions of children overseas?

Many in government today appear to regard the right of Habeus corpus as "the crazy stuff". And our confidence in Adams' claim that he's a libertarian isn't exactly strengthened by his bizarre support—as reported in Wikipedia—of New York's fascistic mayor, Michael Bloomberg, for President in 2008. Clearly, there is a need for some objective criterion—a definition—regarding what it means to be a libertarian.

Happily, such a definition already exists.

If there is a central tenet, or key belief that all libertarians share, it is that each and every individual is the owner—the "sole proprietor"—of his or her own life and of "all the products of that life".

Historically, people have come to the libertarians movement from many different directions. In any given group of them, you are likely to encounter atheists (many of them readers and students of Ayn Rand), Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, pagans, and Wiccans. The all important concept of self-ownership that they share can be logically derived from more basic principles, or accepted as an axiom—a self-evident truth.

Most libertarians agree that all rights are, in effect, property rights, beginning with this fundamental right to self-ownership and control of one's own life. As owners of their own lives, individuals are completely free to do absolutely anything they wish with them—provided, of course, that it doesn't violate the identical right of others—whether the people around them approve of what they do or not.

Libertarians believe (and in this, they are in agreement with America's Founding Fathers) that all rights are negative and boil down, in the end, to a single right: not to be molested or interfered with. The only way that an individual's rights can truly be violated is through the use of physical force or the threat of physical force. Simple persuasion—nagging, "jaw-boning", or "brow-beating"—doesn't count; the way to deal with that is through the exercise of character.

However since power, political or otherwise, consists of nothing more than the ability to alter the behavior of others in ways they wouldn't otherwise accept, through the use of physical force or the threat of physical force, libertarians embrace one and only one prohibition.

No matter what you may hear to the contrary—generally from those individuals who wish to derive some benefit from being called libertarian, but who can't (or won't) make the cut ethically or politically—the one thing that sets real libertarians apart from other people is their strict adherence to a "Zero Aggression Principle":

A libertarian is a person who believes that no one has the right, under any circumstances, to initiate force against another human being for any reason whatever; nor will a libertarian advocate the initiation of force, or delegate it to anyone else.

Those who act consistently with this principle are libertarians, whether they realize it or not. Those who fail to act consistently with it are not libertarians, regardless of what they may claim.

This has also been called the "Non-Aggression Principle", although I personally find the acronym "ZAP" much more appealing and dynamic than "NAP". In any case, that's all there is to libertarianism, nothing more, and certainly nothing less. Everything that libertarians believe, everything that they propose flows from the Zero Aggression Principle.

Although there seem to be many historical sources, it's unclear who first thought of this extremely simple yet revolutionary formula. Thomas Jefferson got it right—"No man has a natural right to commit aggression on the equal rights of another, and this is all from which the laws ought to restrain him"—consistent with the concept that rights are negative, and making the all-important distinction between initiated and defensive force. I first read about it in an Ayn Rand essay.

The basic notion is deeply embedded in the American value system, in Western Civilization, possibly even in human nature itself. As Will Smith (playing Agent J in Men in Black) put it, "Don't start nothin', won't be nothin'." Whenever we hear about a fight—or a war—the first thing any of us wants to know is who started it. And we are generally inclined to choose sides, if we do, on that basis alone.

If you look the matter up, say, in Wikipedia, what you'll see, for the most part, are a lot of noble-sounding excuses for not living up to the demands this principle places on us. What they all boil down to, in the end, is sophistry, which, according to, is nothing more than "a subtle, tricky, superficially plausible, but generally fallacious method of reasoning", in this case transparently aimed at getting around the principle without appearing to be unprincipled.

The problem—for the sophists, that is—is that, once the Zero Aggression Principle has been brought into the ethical discussion, nothing can ever be the same again. Anyone—including those who may fraudulently call themselves libertarians—who is aware of the Zero Aggression Principle and refuses to live by it, or promise to, gives himself away. He is a badguy, at least potentially, reserving a right that he mistakenly believes he has to beat you up or kill you, should he deem it necessary or convenient sometime in the future. He tells us that he cannot be trusted, as a friend, a neighbor, a colleague, or a comrade.

I have studied this extremely simple yet revolutionary concept all of my adult life, almost half a century, and I still discover aspects and ramifications that I hadn't thought of before. Unlike some other ethical systems, for example, the Zero Aggression Principle does not require us to pacifically turn the other cheek. Once an aggressor has revealed himself—by initiating force—it is up to those against whom he initiated it to decide what must be done with him. At the same time, the Zero Aggression Principle doesn't license any and all acts of violence toward others. The villain must meet highly stringent standards of villainy before anyone is ethically free to act against him.

There is more direct connection between fundamental libertarian philosophy and policy formation than is the case with many another political movement. Conventional politicians almost never think their philosophy through and set it down for everyone to examine. In most cases, they don't dare. Republicans would soon discover that they're actually socialists. Democrats would discover that they're actually fascists.

Socialism is the doctrine that the group is more important, has more rights, than the individual, who may be sacrificed—stolen from, restrained, kidnapped, even killed—to serve the interests of the group. As freedom writer and lecturer Robert Lefevre put it, to any extent that a society has a "public sector", to that extent, it's socialist.

I've never met a Republican who was opposed to taxation in principle or didn't favor military conscription during wartime. "Duty, Honor, Country" are all collectivist—which is to say socialist—preoccupations.

Socialism advertises itself as a system under which government owns the means of production. Fascism, a direct historical outgrowth of the failure of socialism, pretends to respect private property, while the "owners" bear all the liabilities and costs, and government controls the enterprise through regulation, skimming the profit off as taxes.

I've never met a Democrat who wasn't contemptuous of business owners, or who opposed massive increases in business taxation and regulation.

But as usual, I have digressed.

As a result, the policies of conventional politicians are a murky hodge-podge, either of positions randomly selected to win votes (in which case their underlying "philosophy" has to be tinkered with and "adjusted" continuously as political fashions come and go) or of positions that they're stuck with on account of their particular history.

By sorting out what they believe beforehand, and formulating policy one hundred percent congruent with that, libertarians have an advantage. They can demonstrate an honesty, integrity, rationality, and consistency sadly missing from American politics today. When people say that they can tell a politician is lying because his mouth is moving, they will come to make an exception for libertarians, much as many libertarians made an exception for the nominally Republican Ron Paul. Many of them will end up supporting libertarians, not so much because they agree with libertarian policy or principle, but because they know they can count on complete libertarian openness and predictability.

So break out "the crazy stuff" and long may it wave. We are about to enter extremely dangerous times, in which we can allow no place for devious, "clever", and deceptive tactics. History shows that people cannot be tricked into becoming free. If liberty is to survive—if we are to survive—our only chance lies in directness and full disclosure.

And that is what this book is about.


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