The Kuyperian Commentary

Politics, Economics, Culture, and Theology with a Biblical Viewpoint

A Christian Critique of the Non-Aggression Principle

Click for more in this series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

Congressman Ron Paul’s breakout in the public eye during the 2008 and 2012 presidential election cycles has made limited government – or “minarchy” – a popular concept across America, especially with young people. Other politicians such as Rand Paul, Justin Amash and Thomas Massie are carrying the principles of limited government forward, with conservatives rallying behind Rand as a potential nominee for president in 2016. This libertarian stream within the GOP has been known as the tea party, the liberty movement, or simply a return to the Constitution. Call it what you will, there’s no denying its influence in the political sphere.

Riding the coattails of this movement are the anarcho-capitalists. LewRockwell.com, a self-professed anarchist blog, has become a go-to resource for anyone who wishes to see civil government restrained to any degree. The site has a mixed bag of contributors including Ron Paul and theocrat Gary North. Though anarchists and minarchists share opposing worldviews they agree on many issues and are working towards a common goal, at least for the time being. There is no inconsistency for a minarchist to partner with an anarchist to shrink the government. If anarchists want to publish our articles and promote our candidates we certainly won’t reject their assistance. But because of this close relationship, the anarchist movement has converted many to its cause. I say this based on the overwhelming amount of anarchist propaganda you’ll find on Ron Paul fansites, but perhaps I am giving them too much credit. Nevertheless, I think it is important to provide an intelligent response to their arguments, if only for the sake of Christians who are attracted to anarchy.

Anarcho-capitalists are free-market capitalists who want all tax-funded government abolished. They have it half right. Free-market capitalism certainly reflects the Bible’s teaching on economic policy. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are a society of persons who voluntarily exist in relation to one another. As people made in the image of God, we exist in relation to one another and participate in the voluntary exchange of goods and services. This is the basis for free markets and free trade. Civil rulers should only intervene in the marketplace if crimes are being committed. They are never authorized to dictate artificial prices, adjust interest rates or regulate transactions between buyers and sellers. roth2

On the other hand, anarcho-capitalists believe that civil government violates man’s freedom by its very nature and is therefore an immoral, evil institution. Anarchist icon, Murray Rothbard explains:

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.”

“…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.'” – For A New Liberty, chapter two

Rothbard is no pacifist, mind you. He does make an allowance for physical violence in response to aggression. The issue is the initiation of violence. In other words, you are free to defend yourself in a fight – just don’t start the fight. So far, the non-aggression principle (NAP) as defined is not necessarily a bad thing. The Bible certainly teaches peace and non-violence unless acting in self-defense. In this sense, all Christians should adhere to the NAP. But before we can judge if all civil government violates the NAP, we must first look at the foundation of Rothbard’s argument.

The problem is that Rothbard defends the NAP by appealing to “natural law.” Man is supposedly a blank slate who must use his sense perception and mental faculties to decide what his values will be, what his life goals will be, and how to effectively bring those goals to fruition. Man’s freedom is absolute. He is to never be forced to do anything he doesn’t want to do, even if that means freeing himself from obligations and responsibilities.

Trying to be consistent within this premise, Rothbard says that abortion and child-abandonment are valid expressions of man’s freedom. The unborn child is viewed as an aggressor, a parasite. For the mother to have an abortion is an act of self-defense. With abandonment, aggression has not been initiated against the child, the parent has simply walked away from a responsibility he did not want. If the child goes hungry or dies, the parent cannot be held accountable for inaction. In fact, if Rothbard’s view of the NAP were followed to its logical end parents would have no other option but to abort or abandon their children! Raising a child at any stage of life – feeding, cleaning, clothing, teaching, disciplining – would be violating the child’s freedom to make his own choices, his own values and his own goals.

murray-rothbard-enemy-stateI don’t have to explain to my Christian readers that Rothbard is operating from an unbiblical view of the world, man and morality. That much is obvious. What isn’t so clear is that even within his own premise he fails to be consistent. Rothbard places an obligation on man to not initiate aggression, yet man also has the authority to exempt himself from obligations. If man’s freedom is absolute, this surely extends to his thoughts as well as his actions. On what basis can Rothbard expect humanity to accept the NAP or any of his other teachings? Once he has granted man absolute freedom he has destroyed his own argument.

Furthermore, where in “natural law” are we taught that violence is only acceptable in response to aggression? This is an arbitrary claim that is left unproven. Nature alone cannot tell people how they ought to live. Rothbard falls into the same trap atheists do when they try to base morality on societal evolution. What if I don’t care about society? What if I don’t care about nature? Aren’t I supposed to choose my own values and my own way of life? The NAP is utterly self-refuting when postulated from an unbiblical, naturalistic foundation.

Christian minarchists base their views on man being created in God’s image. We are not autonomous beings with absolute freedom. We do possess true freedom, but it is a freedom defined by the absolute authority of God. The three persons of the Trinity continually seek to glorify one another in mutual authority and submission. Since humans mirror God, each person exercises authority and submission in their own respective contexts. Parenting, for example, is a legitimate expression of authority; obedience to your parents is an expression of submission.roth1

Likewise, God reserves the authority to execute justice upon those who violate him and therefore we have the authority to seek justice on those who violate us. But just as God has mercy upon those whom he chooses, we may also choose to be merciful to our offenders. God tells us what sins and crimes are and he gives us the proper guidelines for justice. This is rooted in a personal and loving Triune God, not some ambiguous, impersonal law of nature. The Christian faith is the only worldview that reconciles authority, submission, peace and violence without contradiction. It is only from that foundation that we may speak of the NAP coherently.

I admire Rothbard and appreciate much of his work. He has done a great job of showing the failures of statism and how  society can function without a leviathan government. But do all civil governments inherently violate the non-aggression principle? Ones that are rooted in the Christian faith certainly will not.

continue to part three

Adam McIntosh lives with his wife and daughter in Southern Illinois where he is fulfilling a pastoral internship at a local church. You may write to him here.

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13 thoughts on “A Christian Critique of the Non-Aggression Principle

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  3. Xon Hostetter on said:

    Adam,

    Where does Rothbard say that people must be free to “exempt themselves from (moral) obligations”? The question is not “can we exempt ourselves from obligations,” but “is there an obligation in the first place?” The NAP implies (negative) obligations not to initiate violence against others. Rothbard’s arguments that abortion and infant abandonment are legitimate are not examples of him putting aside these obligations, but rather are arguments that those activities DON’T constitute initiated violence. With that, we can disagree, but he isn’t undermining the NAP by somehow allowing that it’s not really a morally binding obligation.

    • Xon, thanks for the question. My critique is essentially on the foundations of Rothbard’s thought and its logical outworking (an ad absurdum, if you will). I understand that he is not consciously putting aside the NAP when it comes to abortion and abandonment, though in reality he is. Whether or not Rothbard has specifically said that man is to “never be forced to do anything he doesn’t want to do, even if that means freeing himself from obligations and responsibilities,” I do believe that it is a logical deduction of his worldview. If coercion itself is illegitimate, then inaction can only be considered immoral if you break a voluntary, legal contract. This is why he says abortion and abandonment are moral options, because you aren’t breaking any type of contract with the parties involved.

      • Xon Hostetter on said:

        Adam,

        But parsing out the different critiques of Rothbard that can be made (many with justification), the one I am directly questioning is the “he contradicts his own premise” one. I still don’t think you are showing that, as when you along these lines:

        “even within his own premise he fails to be consistent. Rothbard places an obligation on man to not initiate aggression, yet man also has the authority to exempt himself from obligations.”

        Man, according to Rothbard, has no authority, absolutely none, zero, to “exempt himself from (actual, moral) obligations.” Your disagreement with him is that you think people have certain kinds of obligations that Rothbard doesn’t think they have. (e.g., the obligation to provide for their children) Fair enough. But the fact that Rothbard doesn’t agree with you on that point doesn’t meant that he’s taken away his own ability to argue that there are such things as binding obligations. You both agree in binding obligations; you disagree about what they are.

        The fact that Rothbard thinks that there should be no LEGALLY-enforced obligation to care for one’s children does not act as an acid that corrodes the very idea that there are legally-enforceable obligations. Nor is he putting aside the NAP. The NAP says that you may not initiate force against others. Abandoning a child is not an initiation of force. So it comports with Rothbard’s NAP. It may be wrong for other reasons, and Rothbard may be wrong for wanting it to be legally acceptable, but he isn’t contradicting his own NAP by doing so.

        I just think you’ve gone too far in trying to bury Rothbard here. Point out his anti-Christian moral or political positions. But there is no need to add the extra layer of “worldview judo” on top of him, accusing him of violating his own premises, like every presuppositionalist-oriented Reformed apologist has done in every argument for decades. Let Bahnsen rest in peace. :)

      • Xon, your point is well taken. I think I misunderstood your critique from the get-go, so I apologizing for confusing things even more. Also, I have no aspirations of being the next Bahnsen. I’ve never even found a critique of anarcho-capitalism from a Christian point of view. If you know of any, please shoot them my way.

        You are correct that Rothbard and I both believe that man has moral obligations, we simply disagree on what those obligations are. To Rothbard, the only obligation man has is to acknowledge and follow the NAP. But in For A New Liberty, chapter two, he justifies the NAP with a more fundamental assumption that man possesses “no automatic instincts,” and he must “learn about himself and the world, use his mind to select values, learn about cause and effect, and act purposively to maintain himself and advance his life.” It’s from that foundation that he claims the NAP. This is what I was trying to summarize in paragraph six of my article.

        What I’m arguing is that his starting point (man’s nature) does not lead to his conclusion (that all men are morally obligated to follow the NAP). How is the NAP instinctively deduced from the fact that we have no automatic instincts? If I’m supposed to use my mind to select my own values and way of life, why am I morally obligated to select the values and way of life in Rothbard’s mind? It’s ironic that the one who defends my natural freedom so eloquently places a moral obligation on me to believe a certain theory and abide by it. If I do not, I am a criminal and face the threat of punishment. (Isn’t that coercion, BTW?)

        If the NAP was his ultimate foundation, then I could agree that he was arguing in a logical circle. Otherwise, all I see is question begging.

  4. Steve Orr on said:

    Regarding your question, “do all civil governments inherently violate the non-aggression principle?” The answer is yes!

    You say that governments “rooted in the Christian faith certainly will not.”

    Wrong! The flesh is weak. Though some governments may have philosophical underpinnings which echo Godly precepts, the rule is from fallible humans. Imperfect men are inherently incapable of righteous government. This failure even permeates the Body of Christ. Let’s be brutally honest, the denominational divisions amongst Christianity evidences the complete failure of self-government even amongst those with the best of intentions.

    Hosea 8:4: “They set up kings, but not by Me; They made princes, but I did not acknowledge them.”

    If God does not recognize these other “masters,” then why should we?

    Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters.” For Christians there is only One Master deserving of our allegiance.

    Mark 10:42-43a: But Jesus called them to Himself and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you…”

    Revelation 11:15b “The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever!”

    1 Corinthians 15:24 “Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power.”

    Without doubt, in it’s ultimate fulfillment Christianity is subversive to the government of man.

    • Steve, while I certainly agree that man is fallible and prone to unrighteousness, that does not mean that God condemns all human authorities. In the midst of our sin, he gives legitimate authority to parents, to ecclesiastical rulers, to property owners and to civil rulers. Specifically, Romans 13 calls civil rulers “God’s ministers.” That’s not an easily dismissed title. Paul is making a clear parallel between leaders of the Church and leaders of civil government. While the Bible condemns tyrannical governments, this does not mean that all governments will be tyrannical by necessity. It just takes godly men and women to faithfully obey his Word. That is my basic assumption when I say that Christian governments will not violate the NAP. Thanks for the interaction, stop by any time!

      • Steve Orr on said:

        Regarding, “Romans 13 calls civil rulers ‘God’s ministers.’ That’s not an easily dismissed title.”

        Respectfully, I think that’s a rather naive reading easily dismissed when approached with discernment for a given situation. In the same context Paul says to give honor to whom honor is due. That’s a significant qualifier. Obviously we should not give honor to those civil ministers who are completely reprobate and dishonorable. If civil “authorities” are the outright enemies of God and dishonor His ways then they are not “God’s ministers.” Hitler the “minister” co-opted Christian churches and I believe Dietrich Bonhoeffer had a few issues with that. :) When their “rule” is supportive, or at least not contrary or openly hostile to the Christian ethic, then and only then can civil rulers be counted as God’s ministers. The “God’s ministers” phrase must be weighed in the immediate context, and in the expanded context of all Paul’s writings and the life witness of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels.

        In an attempt to look at this from all angles I’d suggest a serious study the below link. It’s lengthy and very much over-the-top on some rhetoric but it nevertheless makes some good points worthy of serious consideration, IMHO.

        http://www.anti-state.com/redford/redford4.html

        For a little more mind bending, have a look at this:

        http://www.patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson/2011/09/jesus-was-guilty/

        Since you previously referenced LRC, you may have seen this:

        http://lewrockwell.com/green-p/green-p20.1.html

        Peace, Love, Joy, Righteous Fun.

  5. Xon Hostetter on said:

    (it doesn’t let me reply directly to your comments once we get so many levels deep, so I had to make a new top-level one here)

    Adam,

    Put in this way your criticisms of Rothbard are also better taken. The only three wrinkles I would add are

    1) a better way to put things is not about moral obligations per se, but about legal obligations. Rothbard indicates in his later-in-life writings that various moral obligations might exist, but that only the NAP should be legally enforced. (Private organizations like churches should be free to enforce sexual morals, etc., and Rothbard endorses a ocial conservatism regarding sexual promiscuity, etc.) Like most Christians, Rothbard recognizes that not all sins should be crimes.

    2) For Rothbard (and libertarians in general), “coercion” per se is not the problem. Nor is violence per se. It is initiated violence or coercion that is the problem. But if A tries to strong-arm B and B uses force to repel A, that is perfectly justifiable behavior by B even though it is “coercive” and “violent.”

    3) Rothbard’s most philosophical presentation of his views is in The Ethics of Liberty, written about ten years after For A New Liberty. I think he does a much clearer job there of trying to ground NAP in nature (though I really think the best worked-out version of this argument is done later by Hans Herman-Hoppe, Rothbard’s most famous (and much more conservative-but-also-anarchist) student).

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