Part I here.

Consider the following hypothetical that takes place under a libertarian (Nozickian/Randian/Rothbardian) state.  A rich person has a pile of money in her house.  A poor person, wanting some money, goes into the house and starts taking it.  When the rich person tells the poor person to stop, the poor person refuses.  The rich person may now call in the force of the state to stop the poor person from taking the money.  The state may, using physical force if necessary, imprison the poor person and take back whatever money the poor person took from the rich person.

Non-aggresion principle endorsing libertarians would say that the state’s forcible protection of the rich person’s money is legitimate.  But for something that is allowed under the non-aggression principle, it sure seems pretty aggressive to me!  What’s going on here?

The two cases (the one from part I and the one above) aren’t the same, the defensive libertarian might claim.  In the first case, the state is coercively seizing property that belongs to the rich person, whereas in the second case, the state is simply protecting the rich person’s property from a would-be thief.

However, this response doesn’t hold up, because it presupposes the institution of property rights, which are a social institution with certain rules about what it means to own something.  Among them are rules about when it is permissible to use physical force against another person.  It’s an assumption about the existence of property rights, not the non-aggression principle, that’s doing the work here.

State-backed redistribution and state-backed property rights are both, in a sense, coercive.  The question obviously becomes, which sort of coercion is justified?  The non-aggression principle, as I have shown, is unable to provide the answer, and it therefore does not necessarily entail libertarianism.

A lot of libertarians endorse the non-aggression principle, which states that the initiation of physical aggression is illegitimate.  Seems like a good principle if you value freedom: we should all be free to do what we want as long as we don’t violate other people’s freedom to do what they want.  This kind of thinking leads to Nozick’s popular (among libertarians) view that “taxation is theft”.

I bring this up because I have been thinking lately about a conversation I had about a year ago with Isaac Morehouse of the Institute for Humane Studies during an IHS seminar.  We were debating the legitimacy of the welfare state (I was arguing that the welfare state is legitimate).  Isaac made an argument that, to the best of my recollection, went like this: if you endorse the legitimacy of the welfare state, then this entails that you think that it’s morally legitimate for an agent of the government to go up to a rich person whose personal stash of wealth is subject to redistribution and demand that he pay his (disproportionately large as a percentage of his income) share of taxes.  If he refuses, then the government agent may call in the coercive mechanisms of the state to physically force him to pay, even if that means imprisoning him and then breaking into his home and taking the money he owes out of the treasure box under his bed (or his bank account, or whatever).

How could any self-respecting liberty lover support such a practice?  At the time of our conversation, I didn’t have a response to this non-aggression argument, but now I think that I do.  In my next post, I’ll explain why I think the argument fails and why libertarians should abandon the “taxation is theft” objection to redistributive policies.