Steve G.

None of the Many ZAPs Define Libertarianism

In Libertarian, Libertarian Party-US on November 25, 2008 at 5:44 pm

What ZAP advocates studiously ignore is that there is more than one Zero Aggression Principle, depending on what set of aggressors you have in mind, what constitutes aggression (, whether you think of zero as an implementable rule or an ideal asymptote, and (if the latter) whether you think that asymptote must only be approached monotonically.

Defining “libertarian” as fealty to one’s own interpretation of ZAP is silly and tendentious.  Words have meanings.  The dictionary tells us that, to competent speakers of English, “libertarian” means “one who advocates maximizing individual rights and minimizing the role of the state”.  I accept that definition of libertarianism, even though I think the particular school of libertarianism that I favor is arguably superior to the other schools in terms of maximizing individual rights.  However, I’m not so doubt-stricken about that superiority that I need the LP to officially reassure me of it, or that I need to define other schools as un-libertarian in a desperate attempt to avoid clear-eyed comparisons of them.

“Direction” versus “principle” is a false dichotomy.  The BTP platform is entirely directional, but even it is not unprincipled.  The current LP platform is “directional” only in the sense that it leaves some ambiguity about how much of the state would remain in Libertopia. I heartily agree that directionally defining “more libertarian” as “less government” is not optimally principled. It’s indeed always more libertarian to minimize the role of the state, but not every function has a minimum of zero.

I’ve become steadily more radical during my involvement with the LP.  I began as a Friedmanite consequentialist minarchist, but now I’m a radical geolibertarian (  I reject the quaint idea that radicalness can be measured as the inverse of the size of the bumper sticker that your worldview fits on.  In particular, I think that the anarcholibertarian interpretation of ZAP is insufficiently radical in three distinct ways.  First, it myopically focuses on how much aggression gets committed in your name, rather than how much aggression gets committed.  Second, it institutionalizes the non-policing of certain kinds of aggression — such as aggression involving non-excludable common resources, where negative externalities are too distributed and cumulative to be policed privately.  Third, it completely denies the existence of an entire class of aggression — monopolistic appropriation of ground rent.  Any one of these considerations would lead me to regard Rothbardian ZAPstentionists as insufficiently radical — i.e. as insufficiently opposed to aggression.  However, I’m happy to work with suboptimal libertarians like them, and I don’t need the LP to give me an intellectual security blanket by endorsing my school of libertarianism as better than theirs.  I’ve got a nanny state to destroy, and I’ll take all the help I can get.

  1. Although much could be said here, for sake of brevity I’ll confine my remark to noting that the phrase “maximizing [individual] rights” itself implies what I would characterize as a pernicious misconception — that rights are similar in form to a bestowed privilege, the bounds of which are determined administratively (i.e. arbitrarily).

    I suspect that if one delves into the etymology of “rights” one would find the concept originated as the opposite of “doing someone a wrong”. By extension, any purposeful action could be characterized as either right or wrong based on whether it falls inside or outside of the rightful bounds of one’s natural self-sovereignty.

    In some ways, this complements the Austrian School insight that utility is ordinal rather than cardinal.

  2. Destroy the nanny state? Destroy is a rather strong word and words have meanings, so I hear. Don’t you really mean that you have a nanny state to minimize?

    I think you will find quite a few libertarians willing to help – especially if you include those libertarians who wish to minimize the role of the state by only one tenth of one percent.

    By the way, there is a good reason that I am in denial of the existence of that entire class of aggression being the monopolistic appropriation of ground rent. The reason is because it is just too hard to bear. I wish you hadn’t mentioned it.

  3. Brad, other dictionaries have even more problematic definitions of ‘libertarian’. I take “maximizing individual rights” to mean minimizing the violations of individual rights, rather than maximizing our conception of what individual rights should be recognized.

    I defer to Bryan Caplan on the topic of utility ordinality vs. cardinality.

    Tom, I want zero nanny state — zero state power to protect competent adults from their own informed choices.

    I didn’t understand your comment about monopolistic appropriation of ground rent. I’m still looking for a brief summary of that phenomenon, including why a libertarian should consider it aggression. If I can’t find one, I’ll try to write one. It’s a fascinatingly virulent meme, and I’ve not heard of any libertarian who understands it yet resists it.

  4. Brian, Tom meant paying property tax. And those who understand it don’t pay it directly and resist it rent instead of own.

  5. @Brian,

    The term “minimizing” implies the ability to measure.

    Suppose candidate X were to propose a tax increase, candidate Y proposes a gay marriage ban and candidate Z wants to legalize marijuana while simultaneously advocating a draconian “get tough” approach to several other drugs.

    Exactly who is the “minimum” aggression candidate above?

    Why is this not a “comparing apples and oranges” sort of incoherence?

  6. As with so much that goes on in this movement this discussion hnges on definitions and different people define the same thing differently. For one example. I was taught in econ class that air was a common resource. I disagree. No one can breath the same air that I do. Physically impossible to do. And my air is my air especially if it is in a tank under water. I always had problem with college profs because I wanted to look at things through another lens.

    As for the ZAP. Wasted time.

    However I don’t think you can build a peaceful society by using force. And remember the Libertarian Party should always respect your right to be irresponsible. 🙂


  7. BTW people like to ask if the galss is half full, or half empty. I think libertarians should be asking if we have the right size glass to begin with.

    Just another lame thought.


  8. Brian,

    I usually don’t get the mid-winter crazies until about mid January and by Ground Hog’s day I’m okay and I help others get through it. But I live in a cold area . . .

    What baffles me is that this tact seems to mirror the intellectualism often associated with what has been the burden of the entire movement and Party. I’ve never been a fan of Rand and get flak all the time about her.

    Deconstructing and dismissing Rothbard is fine as a hobby. The Mises cabal has no use for the LP now that it can raise and spend it’s own money. Is this recent tirade a defensive function in light of the election and it’s results ? Is there an assault pending on the Platform ? Is the purpose to win or convince someone specific ? Have you tried Kent McManigal on this ? He’s very ZAPish and defends it often. But alas, he eschews the dirty political side of things so . . .

    I was unaware of the bumper sticker rule, but will check my old Chevy Blazer that has about three dozen on it, including a Bob Barr sticker.

    To clarify my post over on IPR. Your video annoyed me in May (thus a rare emotional pique response on my part – okay. . . I’ve been picking on Knapp a bit lately) and I’m indifferent to it now. I still consider the Matrix garbage.

    I am having trouble with the idea of an ideal asymptote.
    How does ‘ideal’ apply to the Wikipedia citation or the passage ?

    Is a normative descriptor applicable to a math function ?

  9. I’ve got a nanny state to destroy, and I’ll take all the help I can get.

    That pretty much sums up my thoughts regarding working within the LP and the overall libertarian movement. Anyone who wants to pitch in and help, fantastic! I certainly won’t ask for your “more libertarian than thou” credentials first because there is just too damn much to accomplish.

  10. Let’s unpack some stuff here . . .

    First, it myopically focuses on how much aggression gets committed in your name, rather than how much aggression gets committed.

    This is assertion seems strained. By applying myopic to a presumed focus and implying that is insufficient because there is an aggregate amount of aggression being propagated (unjustly perhaps?), immediately places aggression as a utilitarian function. Is there a zero-sum quality to this ? Whereas I think the adherents of ZAP tend to view it as an immutable moral precept.

    Second, it institutionalizes the non-policing of certain kinds of aggression — such as aggression involving non-excludable common resources, where negative externalities are too distributed and cumulative to be policed privately.

    This requires a lot more elucidation in order to be useful. By institutionalizing, do you mean a pledge in a political party ? How is that non-policing ? From what I’ve read from you in the past, does the rest involve your critique of pollution as a personal matter of aggresion so diluted that standard torts can’t apply ? I’ve also seen you employ externalities when approaching Rothbard’s Ethics of Liberty. Is that what you mean by this ? Perhaps a common dictionary meaning isn’t sufficient in this regard and various meanings in a whole array of social sciences are necessary for this to function meaningfully in this context.

    Third, it completely denies the existence of an entire class of aggression — monopolistic appropriation of ground rent.

    Ground rent ? As another commenter mentions, is this property tax ? Does it deny it in effect or conscious omission ? Let’s define this aggression some more and review the principle again, I guess . . .

    Of course once these problematics are sorted and parsed, can we sufficiently conclude (soundly, validly or otherwise) that we have even defined ‘radical’ ? Thus one having more or less claim to another seems to be a prima facie stand off ?

  11. Brad, we don’t need an aggression-ometer calibrated to multiple decimal places to know that we can very often compare two candidates or two pieces of legislation and reach a judgment about which would violate individual rights less. For example, 8 of 12 of California’s recent propositions were slam dunks. It’s a reasonably tractable problem to make comparisons like at It’s pretty clear that Switzerland and Ireland are much more free than North Korea and Zimbabwe. See also

    Michael, as a pollution sink, the atmosphere is a non-excludable good. As a source for bottles of air, the atmosphere is similarly non-excludable. That the air in your lungs or in your air tank is excludable does not make the atmosphere excludable. Other effectively non-excludable goods are bodies and streams of water, aquifers, sunlight, wind, fish, game, seabottom minerals, orbits, and electromagnetic spectrum. I’ve never seen a lens that can make the tragedy of the commons simply vanish. If you’ve got one, then there is a Nobel Prize in Economics waiting for you. 🙂

    I agree you can’t build a peaceful society using force. However, I think you can take a somewhat peaceful society and make it more peaceful if you systematically punish fraud and force initiation, and systematically fine people for the aggression they commit when they monopolize, consume, pollute, or congest a natural commons.

    Eric, I’m not invoking any zero sums, I’m just assuming that we can make certain judgments about aggression. For example, I think we can judge that certain kinds of products (e.g. gasoline) involve a non-zero amount of aggression in their use, and that the contestable default fine on their use should not be zero. I take anarchocapitalism as institutionalizing that default fine at zero. Yes, “externality” here is a technical economic term, but I do see that sense included in some general-purpose dictionaries. I discuss this whole area more at

    For more on my point about ground rent, see

    ‘Radicalness’ in our context can be measured several ways. In the following list, the more common senses of radicalness are included first, while I think the latter measures are more interesting.

    * the amount of one’s hatred for the state
    * the amount of aggression one is willing to risk being committed in one’s name
    * the amount of state power in one’s Libertopia
    * the simplicity of the axioms of one’s political/ethical worldview, and how directly the worldview derives from it
    * the amount of aggression one is willing to risk being committed in one’s Libertopia
    * the breadth of one’s opposition to various forms of aggression e.g. monopolizing, consuming, polluting, or congesting the commons

  12. Brad, to clarify: minimizing doesn’t necessarily require measuring. It just requires comparing. Also, not every pair of elements have to be comparable. You can do minimization on something akin to a partially ordered set.

  13. In other words, an array of dichotomous variables can be transformed into a single scalar variable? If I’m not mistaken, that’s the Austrian take on utility-pricing — that the set of individual ordinal preferences are transformed into a scalar variable called “price” via the market.

    The act of ranking is an act of value assignation — one which, in this case, merely brings the concept of measurement in via the back door (by substituting the subjective judgement of the policy advocate for the aggregated subjective judgements of the market as a whole).

  14. Brad,

    I guess I’m not getting WHY you seem hung up on measurement and Austrian methodology. Austrianism isn’t a predictive model, yet a lot of Austrians make predictions all the time. They often suggest people buy gold, even though the price of gold is subject to an incalculable number of variables.

    The State is awfully big, no matter how you slice it, and measuring the effects of the State on the private aggregate economy or on any one individual WITH PRECISION is impossible.

    It seems inescapable to me that we need to use some metrics in our daily life and in what we advocate politically. Judgment — based on experience and rough measurement — is what we do when we make a left on a road in front of an approaching car.

    That same mechanism of judgment is how we assess what political stands we take, which ones we don’t take, and which ones we have some ambivalence about.

    We are in a time when the State appears to be taking a step-function increase as measured by GDP. It’s been flattish since the early 80s, after a fairly hefty ascent since the 30s. Yes, there are some other factors that don’t fit neatly into the “as a percentage of GDP” measurement, but overall the process of undoing the State’s intrusion is a pretty obvious thing in my judgment. Reduce taxing, spending and regulation.

    Defining a destination for that process may well be interesting theory, but I’d employ a humble Austrian insight to say “we can’t know” with precision whether what some call “zero aggression” is the preferred path. Whether insurance companies will step up their coverage, for ex., to include territorial invasion is not obvious. It’s a fatal conceit to say otherwise, IMO.

  15. While I disagree with a lot of your points I have to give you credit for the argument. Not bad.

    In the meantime I’ll toss my chips in with Gene Trospers and work with whomever wishes to help.


  16. Brad, I smell a false dichotomy here, between the ideas that 1) one can always measure, with arbitrary precision and 2) one can never measure. I don’t need to believe (1) for my argument to work, and (2) is not my only alternative.

    Let’s get more concrete. Pick any of the kinds of pollution I list at In each of our Libertopias, those pollutions will have a schedule of default contestable fines imposed by the legal system. As I understand it, you anarcholibertarians say that the fines should be zero in all cases that haven’t been adjudicated between a plaintiff and a defendant. (If you try to introduce a mechanism for setting the default contestable fine to non-zero for some defendant who hasn’t had his day in court, then you’re doing pretty much the same thing I’m doing, and I can adapt/adopt your mechanism.) I contend that we can measure well enough to know that setting these default contestable fines to zero institutionalizes aggression. I contend that it’s possible in practice to set an admittedly imperfect schedule of non-zero default contestable fines that can have the clearly observable effect of reducing aggregate aggression. The price of this clear decrease in aggression is that some transactor may (for example) be committing aggression that a jury would fine him 10 cents for, but that the schedule fines him 20 cents for. The ZAPstentionist objection, as I understand it, is that it’s a slippery slope between that 10 cent overcharge and marching people into gas chambers, and that we are morally obligated to never risk participating in such institutionalized aggression. I contend that the ZAPstentionist objection is clearly absurd.

  17. @Brian,

    I’m not attacking your argument. I’m attacking the larger framework of assumptions and views your argument rests within because I’m opposed to both LP reformers and LP radicals — since I’m opposed to the LP itself.

    Sorry if I seemed a bit obtuse above, but one of the few advantages I have is the luxury of taking as much time as I want.

    The dichotomy you offer is indeed false and it’s not one I was offering. Widen your scope a bit and you might see that I’m ultimately arguing against the default libertarian theory of “progress” as a reduction of the scope of state policy in favor of an alternative — progress as a process of delegitimization of the state.

    I’m not laying it all out in the comments section of LFV. I’m testing bits and pieces.

  18. Ah. Well, I think if you widen your scope even more you might see that your notion of progress effectively legitimizes the aggression constituted by monopolizing, consuming, polluting, or congesting the commons.

  19. @Brian,

    If you’re indirectly saying you want to debate Rothbardian vs. post-Georgist property theory, I’m game but it’s a very low priority for me at the moment and should probably be moved to another thread or a series of blog posts. Personally, I suspect it’s one of those disputes that will outlive the State.

    Of course, your actual statement — that X legitimizes Y and is therefore a bad thing, even though I personally don’t currently view Y as illegitimate in the first place — is an unconvincing objection from my perspective. I do invite you to elaborate on the link you assert though.

  20. I’m not here to turn libertarians into geolibertarians. I’m just here to defend geolibertarians and other non-anarchist libertarians from the charge that they are not libertarians.

    If you don’t view pollution as illegitimate, then that’s as good a place as any to agree to disagree. When debating anarchists, I reserve the right to get as lazy as TJ and declare it a self-evident truth that to increase the security of their rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. With the percentage of anarchists among the libertarians in the decennial Liberty Magazine survey at 10% and dropping, the exercise is becoming increasingly academic (i.e. fun!). If there were a prediction market on the expected lifetime of the State in North America, I’d invite you to put some cash and specifics behind your “outlive” statement. 🙂

  21. No, it’s specifically the post-Georgist version of “common property” that I disagree with, rather than thwarting pollution.

  22. My argument works the same for the aggressions of polluting and monopolizing the commons. You’ll note that the extended example that you ignored above is about gallons of gasoline, not acres of land title.

  23. Brian, rather than characterizing TJ as “lazy,” perhaps he was using elegant shorthand to state the obvious. Or, perhaps universal truths just can’t REALLY be deduced into a mathemetics formula. I’ve yet to see one produced, lo, these many years.

    People more or less “consent” to a social order based on “rights,” or perhaps something else.

  24. Yes, I was being snarky at TJ’s expense. I agree that you can’t reason from Is to Ought in purely objective terms:

    So I take his “self-evident truths” as shorthand for “propositions that command such nearly-universal assent that in most contexts there’s no need to try to justify them”. In fact, I adopt his shorthand in my Free Earth Manifesto:

  25. Brian, don’t get TOO full of yourself, but my gut reaction is that you’ve improved upon TJ’s self-evident truths. It’s at once clearer and more nuanced. I especially like “in most contexts,” e.g., in most contexts, there is a spoon, but in other contexts, this is no spoon 😉 Most assent to the existence of the spoon, so for all practical purposes, the “spoon” exists because most of us agree to it. But let’s not kid ourselves…it’s shaped metal that we CALL a spoon. :-O

  26. Apropos to this conversation about the absolutist/deontological approach that some employ, I’d recommend Butler Shaffer’s “The Real World Order Is Chaotic” on Here’s a snippet:

    “We humans have long allowed ourselves to be dominated by linear thinking. We have become too attached to structured forms of thinking (e.g., regarding emotional expression as inferior to logic and rational thought; treating the literal as superior to the metaphoric), which has led us to prefer structured organizational forms to the more informal. Linear thinking has also led us to the worship of technology as the principal means by which to improve our quality of life. None of this is to condemn such thinking outright – if I were going in for major surgery, I would want the surgeon to approach the operation in a linear fashion rather than as a “stream of consciousness.” It is, however, to suggest a more balanced relationship between linear and non-linear thinking.”

    Heresy for some. Good stuff, IMO.

  27. Brian, don’t get TOO full of yourself, but my gut reaction is that you’ve improved upon TJ’s self-evident truths.

    Suggest you boys get a room.

  28. Susan,

    I’m more interested in your view of the Shaffer quote… Is this “fellow traveler” material, too?

  29. Brian says anarcholibertarianism myopically focuses on how much aggression gets committed in your name, rather than how much aggression gets committed.

    Holtzoism must therefore be able to hyperopically to see the aggression of all, decide if there is too much (or too little?) or if it is somehow harmful, and tell the globe what to do about it…

    Brian says anarcholibertarianism institutionalizes the non-policing of aggression involving non-excludable common resources where negative externalities are too distributed and cumulative to be policed privately.

    Holtzaism must then somehow be able to decide who should be punished and how much when someone has any complaint over someone else’s use of something that hasn’t actually harmed them in any identifiable way, or said another way, when it is too hard for people to figure it out, the good grace of better government can somehow do it for us.

    Brian says anarcholibertarianism completely denies the existence of monopolistic appropriation of ground rent.

    Holtzists say that they can define monopolistic appropriation of ground rent, save us from the ills that it must create, and use all the money that’s raised in process of plundering it to pay for all that good government discussed above, and still leave a chicken in every pot (so long as the chicken is raised on a zero aggression farm).

    I’m still waiting for my pony…

  30. Holtz can call me grounded in absolutes, but minimizing aggression is way too vague for me. His whole view is exactly the same as when Barr made his oft mentioned statement of “maximizing liberty and minimizing government power”. Then, Barr would go on to say that we need to continue the US government’s influence throughout the world, or that we need to get the US Justice Department involved in prosecuting the “bad guys” at large financial institutions.

    I am not well grounded in “Goergism” but many have failed to convince me that land, as a limited “resource” must be viewed and treated differently from every other “limited resource”.

    If there are other arguments as to why “rents” must be paid on land, I am listening, but I doubt that any such arguments are supportable through any free market analysis, property rights or natural rights theory. I will say, that Holtz, as a self avowed Friedmanite consequentialist minarchist, I am not surprised that he supports “Georgism”. Also, consequentialism bears no resemblance to natural rights, or free market economics grounded in property rights.

    I will say once again, that I hold to absolute principle as the backbone of libertarianism, and the “minimizing government power and maximizing liberty” are part of the strategy to promote and achieve libertarianism.

    As far as my LP platform interpretation of directional and Holtz saying ““Direction” versus “principle” is a false dichotomy.”, I ask, where is the principle? Where is the specific principle of libertarianism as an LP position of calling for the repeal of, say the USA Patriot Act, in the platform now? This was the way the platform was (re)structured, and ultimately discarded for the vague, “more holes than swiss cheese” directional platform the LP has now.

    If direction IS the principle, then my response is that Holtz and others in the LRC have confused principle with strategy, and substituted one for the other.

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