The Nonaggression Axiom
Extracted from For a New Liberty by Murray Rothbard.
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. This may be called the “nonaggression axiom.” “Aggression” is defined as the initiation of the use or threat of physical violence against the person or property of anyone else. Aggression is therefore synonymous with invasion.
If no man may aggress against another; if, in short, everyone has the absolute right to be “free” from aggression, then this at once implies that the libertarian stands foursquare for what are generally known as “civil liberties”: the freedom to speak, publish, assemble, and to engage in such “victimless crimes” as pornography, sexual deviation, and prostitution (which the libertarian does not regard as “crimes” at all, since he defines a “crime” as violent invasion of someone else’s person or property). Furthermore, he regards conscription as slavery on a massive scale. And since war, especially modern war, entails the mass slaughter of civilians, the libertarian regards such conflicts as mass murder and therefore totally illegitimate.
All of these positions are now considered “leftist” on the contemporary ideological scale. On the other hand, since the libertarian also opposes invasion of the rights of private property, this also means that he just as emphatically opposes government interference with property rights or with the free-market economy through controls, regulations, subsidies, or prohibitions. For if every individual has the right to his own property without having to suffer aggressive depredation, then he also has the right to give away his property (bequest and inheritance) and to exchange it for the property of others (free contract and the free market economy) without interference. The libertarian favors the right to unrestricted private property and free exchange; hence, a system of “laissez-faire capitalism.”
In current terminology again, the libertarian position on property and economics would be called “extreme right wing.” But the libertarian sees no inconsistency in being “leftist” on some issues and “rightist” on others. On the contrary, he sees his own position as virtually the only consistent one, consistent on behalf of the liberty of every individual. For how can the leftist be opposed to the violence of war and conscription while at the same time supporting the violence of taxation and government control? And how can the rightist trumpet his devotion to private property and free enterprise while at the same time favoring war, conscription, and the outlawing of noninvasive activities and practices that he deems immoral? And how can the rightist favor a free market while seeing nothing amiss in the vast subsidies, distortions, and unproductive inefficiencies involved in the military-industrial complex?
While opposing any and all private or group aggression against the rights of person and property, the libertarian sees that throughout history and into the present day, there has been one central, dominant, and overriding aggressor upon all of these rights: the State. In contrast to all other thinkers, left, right, or in-between, the libertarian refuses to give the State the moral sanction to commit actions that almost everyone agrees would be immoral, illegal, and criminal if committed by any person or group in society. The libertarian, in short, insists on applying the general moral law to everyone, and makes no special exemptions for any person or group. But if we look at the State naked, as it were, we see that it is universally allowed, and even encouraged, to commit all the acts which even nonlibertarians concede are reprehensible crimes. The State habitually commits mass murder, which it calls “war,” or sometimes “suppression of subversion”; the State engages in enslavement into its military forces, which it calls “conscription”; and it lives and has its being in the practice of forcible theft, which it calls “taxation.” The libertarian insists that whether or not such practices are supported by the majority of the population is not germane to their nature: that, regardless of popular sanction, War is Mass Murder, Conscription is Slavery, and Taxation is Robbery. The libertarian, in short, is almost completely the child in the fable, pointing out insistently that the emperor has no clothes.
Throughout the ages, the emperor has had a series of pseudo-clothes provided for him by the nation’s intellectual caste. In past centuries, the intellectuals informed the public that the State or its rulers were divine, or at least clothed in divine authority, and therefore what might look to the naive and untutored eye as despotism, mass murder, and theft on a grand scale was only the divine working its benign and mysterious ways in the body politic. In recent decades, as the divine sanction has worn a bit threadbare, the emperor’s “court intellectuals” have spun ever more sophisticated apologia: informing the public that what the government does is for the “common good” and the “public welfare,” that the process of taxation-and-spending works through the mysterious process of the “multiplier” to keep the economy on an even keel, and that, in any case, a wide variety of governmental “services” could not possibly be performed by citizens acting voluntarily on the market or in society. All of this the libertarian denies: he sees the various apologia as fraudulent means of obtaining public support for the State’s rule, and he insists that whatever services the government actually performs could be supplied far more efficiently and far more morally by private and cooperative enterprise.
The libertarian therefore considers one of his prime educational tasks is to spread the demystification and desanctification of the State among its hapless subjects. His task is to demonstrate repeatedly and in depth that not only the emperor but even the “democratic” State has no clothes; that all governments subsist by exploitive rule over the public; and that such rule is the reverse of objective necessity. He strives to show that the very existence of taxation and the State necessarily sets up a class division between the exploiting rulers and the exploited ruled. He seeks to show that the task of the court intellectuals who have always supported the State has ever been to weave mystification in order to induce the public to accept State rule, and that these intellectuals obtain, in return, a share in the power and pelf extracted by the rulers from their deluded subjects.
Take, for example, the institution of taxation, which statists have claimed is in some sense really “voluntary.” Anyone who truly believes in the “voluntary” nature of taxation is invited to refuse to pay taxes and to see what then happens to him. If we analyze taxation, we find that, among all the persons and institutions in society, only the government acquires its revenues through coercive violence. Everyone else in society acquires income either through voluntary gift (lodge, charitable society, chess club) or through the sale of goods or services voluntarily purchased by consumers. If anyone but the government proceeded to “tax,” this would clearly be considered coercion and thinly disguised banditry. Yet the mystical trappings of “sovereignty” have so veiled the process that only libertarians are prepared to call taxation what it is: legalized and organized theft on a grand scale.