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What Is Aggression?

Summary:
Murray Rothbard stated the nonaggression principle (NAP) in this way: No one may threaten or commit violence (“aggress”) against another man's person or property. Violence may be employed only against the man who commits such violence; that is, only defensively against the aggressive violence of another. In short, no violence may be employed against a ...

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Murray Rothbard stated the nonaggression principle (NAP) in this way:

No one may threaten or commit violence (“aggress”) against another man's person or property. Violence may be employed only against the man who commits such violence; that is, only defensively against the aggressive violence of another. In short, no violence may be employed against a nonaggressor.

Why is the threat of violence a NAP violation? Why not confine NAP violations to the use of violence? Rothbard answered in this way:

Suppose someone approaches you on the street, whips out a gun, and demands your wallet. He might not have molested you physically during this encounter, but he has extracted money from you on the basis of a direct, overt threat that he would shoot you if you disobeyed his commands. He has used the threat of invasion to obtain your obedience to his commands, and this is equivalent to the invasion itself.

In other words, in Rothbard’s view, if someone obeys a command we ask, “Why did he do so?” If his belief that you would use violence if he disobeyed is the explanation for his compliance, there is a NAP violation.

This position raises gives rise to some problem cases. Suppose A offers B $10,000 to mow A’s lawn and threatens to break his leg if he refuses. B complies in part because he wants the money and in part because he fears you will break his leg if he refuses. Here, the fear of violence is only part of the explanation for B’s compliance. Is this a NAP violation? What if B complies only because he wants the money? He doesn’t take the threat seriously and disregards it. The threat isn’t even part of the explanation for his compliance. Further, a threat need not make you worse off than you would have been without the threat. Suppose B is ecstatic about getting $10,000 for a job he would have done for five dollars. Is this case a NAP violation? In this post, I won’t pursue these questions, but I just offer them, without a threat, for your consideration.

What I want to discuss today is a different position, one brought to my attention by a correspondent who is one of Walter Block’s students. My correspondent did not intend his comment for publication, so I will paraphrase rather than quote his remarks.

My correspondent agrees with Rothbard that initiating a threat of violence, as well as the use of violence itself, counts as a NAP violation. He would not include helping NAP violations in various ways as themselves NAP violations. For instance, suppose someone drives the getaway car in a robbery or drives a car to the scene of a crime, intending in doing so that the aggressor initiate a NAP violation. We assume also that the helper isn’t himself coerced into helping. My correspondent would not include these drivers as NAP violators on the ground that driving a car is not intrinsically an aggressive activity. In a similar way, urging someone to violate the NAP or offering him money to do so are not NAP violations. Again, there is nothing intrinsically aggressive in urging someone to so something or in offering someone money. In contrast, initiating a threat of violence is inherently aggressive.

This position is ingenious, but I don’t find it convincing. Two or more people can commit a crime together. Suppose A and B decide to shoot C. They both start shooting at C and a bullet from one of their guns hits C and kills him. Both have aggressed against C, not just the one whose bullet killed him. The case is no different if A drives B to the site where B shoots C, so long as A and B have together decided to kill C, and neither is coerced.

It is true, as my correspondent notes, that under the description “driving a car” the activity isn’t a NAP violation. But as Elizabeth Anscombe long ago pointed out in her classic book Intention, actions are intentional under a description, and the same action can be intentional under one description and not under others. The same action can be intended as aggression under the description “participating in a plan to rob a store” and not intended as aggression under the description “driving a car.” The identical point applies, with the necessary changes, to the examples of persuading someone to commit a crime and offering someone a bribe. These actions are not intended as aggression under the descriptions “speaking freely” and “offering someone money,” respectively, but they are NAP violations under the description “participating in a planned aggression.” So long as an action under consideration is intentionally aggressive under a description, it suffices for a NAP violation.

But what of my correspondent’s point that threatening force is intrinsically aggressive? Again, Anscombe’s principle applies. Threatening force is aggressive under the description “threatening force” but not under the description “uttering certain words.” I am unable to find a difference in principle between the cases my correspondent counts as aggressive and those he does not.

Rothbard's discussion of bribery complicates things. He considers the case of someone who bribes a worker to violate his contract with his employer. Here we have to distinguish two types of rights violation. Some rights arise only from a contract. For example, if I hire you to work for me and contract to pay you money, then if you do the work but I don't pay you I have violated your rights. Without a contract, I have no such obligation. If you hand me some oranges that you purchased when I didn't ask you for them, you can't demand that I pay you for them, even if you can use the oranges. Some rights, though, are not based on contract. You have a right not to be killed or assaulted by me. These rights don't depend on a contract.

Now for the complication that results from Rothbard's position on bribery. A contract binds only those who are parties to it. The briber in Rothbard's case hasn't made a contract with the owner of the company, so, according to Rothbard, his offering a bribe doesn't violate the owner's rights. He is participating in a plan to violate the owner's rights, but his doing this does not violate the owner's rights, because he has no obligation to respect the owner's contractual rights that arise from his arrangement with the person bribed. If you accept Rothbard's view—I’m not now considering whether you should accept it—then there are some cases in which participating in a rights violation isn't aggression. But there are other cases, the ones where the participation is not a matter of contractual rights, that are aggression. Once more trying to find intrinsic descriptions of aggressive acts is not the correct path to take. Or at least, so it seems to me.

David Gordon
David Gordon (born 1948) is an American libertarian philosopher and intellectual historian influenced by Rothbardian views of economics. Peter J. Boettke, in his Reason Foundation "Reason Papers," Issue No. 19, Fall 1994, describes Gordon as "a philosopher and intellectual historian who is deeply influenced by the Rothbardian strand of economics." He is a senior fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute and editor of The Mises Review.

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