November 4, 2014

The Nature of Libertarianism’s Core

By In Blogs, C.Jay Engel

A highly technical essay on the nature of Libertarianism and what it seeks to address.

If libertarianism as a political philosophy can best be understood by the statement (or principle) that no one shall “initiate or threaten to intiate physical force against others and their property” (Hans Hoppe), then it per se does not address social norms, aesthetics, religious doctrines, cultural concerns, moral theories, and epistemological considerations.  This is what is meant by “thin libertarianism.” This is not to say, however, that these six things (and many more) are completely irrelevant for the libertarian proponent, for in many ways they can be used to defend libertarianism.  Libertarianism as summarized above does not exist in a vacuum because it is not axiomatic: it needs intellectual justification.

A libertarian is one who subscribes to the quoted statement and his justification for believing it, while important, does not make him more or less a libertarian.  There are utilitarian libertarians (Mises, though not to the same logical degree as Rothbard/Hoppe), Natural Law libertarians (Rothbard), Kantian libertarians (Hoppe), and Reformed libertarians (cheers).  There are others as well.  But what libertarians have in common is not their worldview, not their justification of knowledge, and not their personal lifestyle preferences.  Rather, they have in common their agreement with the quoted statement above.

Perhaps Hoppe would venture outside of libertarian political theory to challenge Rothbard on his adherence to Thomist philosophy.  The purpose of the challenge might be to show that only a Kantian philosophy can adequately justify libertarianism at a philosophical level.  Their disagreement in this area is irrelevant to their status as libertarians.  Not all routes to the libertarian conclusion are philosophically justifiable for not all epistemologies are equally defensible (I would say that only one philosophy is intellectually justifiable).  But if the conclusion is the same, their status as libertarians is the same.

My present argument is that “social norms, aesthetics, religious doctrines, cultural concerns, moral theories, and epistemological considerations” do not flow from the summary statement of libertarianism.  Rather, those categories of things (not necessarily all of them) flow into the summary statement.  People are libertarians for a large variety of different reasons.  It is because of this that I try not to refer to the so-called Non-Aggression Principle as the “Non-Aggression Axiom.”  NAP is a principle from which libertarian political implications flow, but it is not a proposition that is the starting point for all philosophical inquiry.  Rather, it is the conclusion of previous philosophical argument.  It presupposes laws of logic, metaphysics, ethics, and teleology.  This makes it specifically not an axiom.

(When people (Rothbard/Hoppe) do refer to it as an axiom, I know what they mean, even if the phrase isn’t particularly satisfactory. And I probably won’t cause a fuss if someone insists on using “axiom.”)

The above discussion makes it plain that libertarians actually do have a variety of different socio-economic backgrounds, cultural and aesthetic preferences, goals and ends for their libertarianism, and even overall moral guidelines.  Again, this in no way suggests that all variations in these matters are equally defensible philosophically.  It merely shows that libertarianism does not require uniformity outside of the agreement to the quotation above.  It is my contention that the great failure of a mass adoption of libertarianism will be the assumption that its meaning has primarily to do with lifestyle relativism, moral antinomianism, and ethical libertinism.

Libertarians can most certainly argue amongst themselves about epistemology and ethics, religion and sociology, culture and lifestyle (As for myself, I take a strictly Confessional view of these things).  And none of the opinions on these matters stem from libertarianism for libertarianism does not seek to, indeed cannot, address those issues.  Libertarianism has one role as a political theory: to make a statement on the “proper role of violence in social life” (Rothbard).  For when discussing what should be made legal and what should be illegal, we are attempting to determine what deeds should be punished with physical force and which deeds should not be punished with physical force.

The very nature of the State is institutionalized physical force.

Written by C.Jay Engel

Editor and creator of The Reformed Libertarian. Living in Northern California with his wife, he writes on everything from politics to theology and from culture to economic theory. You can send an email to
  • MikeD


    May I ask, when you say, “no one shall ‘initiate or threaten to intiate physical force against others and their property'”, do you limit the “no one” to the civil magistrate, namely, this is only a political philosophy? What I’m getting at is that it seems that that nice-and-tidy proposition dies the death of a thousand qualifications if not. (Even then it seems troublesome but I guess that depends on how the terms are defined) For example, if I as a parent tell my children that I’ll spank them if they touch something that I said not to or even if they overtly express rebellion of heart at one of my determinations, am I violating the NAP?


    • reformedlibertarian

      No, I don’t limit it to the civil magistrate. I am not allowed to threaten force against you either. It is only a political philosophy though:

      The issue of spanking and children come up once in a while. But it should be reiterated that we are talking about the realm of those not under the authority of their parents. Those who have “left their father and mother.” Parents should be able to spank their children; that is, the State should not criminalize spanking.

      • MikeD

        Strictly speaking, I suppose you’d allow for the “threat of force” but not the “threat to initiate force”. Anyhow, good to hear about spanking but lots of work to be done for sure. Spanking is ok and not punishable by the state (that is, it shouldn’t be), but killing your child is not ok and ispunishable by the state. Certainly different but I’m not sure the NAP could suffice to make the necessary distinctions.

        I read the link. Thank you. How is it that the mere words that contain a threat of initiated force is rightly punishable (even if no action is taken or damage is done) but mere words, such as viscious libel that results in, perhaps, lost income and total social alienation, isn’t? If one tells lie about me that I threatened to initiate force and it makes its way to the authorities, are they punishable? I guess I’m still feeling the NAP is too narrow at times and too vague at others.

        • reformedlibertarian

          Paragraph 1: Yeah, that’s why the children’s rights issue is so tough. But the good news is that it’s not a uniquely libertarian problem. Even the non-libertarian conservative needs an answer about the line between murder or abuse and spanking. It’s immensely difficult.

          Paragraph 2: What is meant by the inclusion of “threat” is this: If I tell you to hand me your wallet or I will punch you in the face, and you hand me your wallet, that was a violation of NAP even though I did not actually punch you. Simply because I altered your actions by a threat of violence.

          I’ll have to write a separate post about your second concern about libel and all the rest.

          • MikeD

            Thanks. As you may be able to tell, I think that in some way the second table needs to dealt with by the civil magistrate. Libel would fall under bearing false witness, which is not only garden-variety lying. Likewise, blackmail, while not threatening physical violence, is initiating the threat to livelihood and, to me, essentially the same category. A person’s actions would be altered by the threat. I know I disagree with Block on that too.

      • MikeD

        By the way, I know how difficult these matters are and am sensitive how hard it is to elaborate a positive construction. I’m not trying to peck away with cheap shots, but better understand how “thin Libertarianism” is fleshed out given a submission to the Scriptures. Thanks again.

        • reformedlibertarian

          I understand:) Ask away. That’s how our positions are strengthened.