Libertarians certainly like to debate the merits of the non‐​aggression principle. Matt Zwolinksi attempts to figure out what libertarians really think.

Matt Zwolinski is Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego and director of USD’s Center for Ethics, Economics, and Public Policy. He is the editor of Arguing About Political Philosophy and, with Benjamin Ferguson, The Routledge Companion to Libertarianism and Exploitation: Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (both in progress). He is currently writing a book on the history of libertarian thought with John Tomasi, and a book on the idea of a Universal Basic Income with Miranda Perry Fleischer.

There has, of late, been much debate about the philosophical merit of the Non‐​Aggression Principle (NAP). See here for a partial summary. Personally, I have been deeply gratified by the quality of argument that debate has elicited–on both sides–and I look forward to watching it continue to unfold. No doubt I will have more to contribute to it myself before long.

But, for now, I want to put to the side the philosophical question of the NAP’s defensibility, and ask instead some questions of a more sociological nature. Just how many libertarians really believe in the NAP, anyway? And for those who do, how does it inform their analysis of practical moral and political questions?

As far as I know, there hasn’t been much empirical work done on the moral and political beliefs of self‐​identified libertarians. But one always‐​fascinating source is Liberty’s decennial readers’ survey (No, not that Liberty, and not that one either. This one). First in 1988, then again in 1999, and finally in 2008 (before the magazine’s demise as a print periodical in 2010), Liberty published the results of an extensive survey of their readers and other libertarians. In each of these surveys, respondents were asked to provide demographic information, name their intellectual influences, say whether they agreed or disagreed with various moral, political, and religious beliefs, and analyze a handful of applied moral problems.

The results are fascinating along a number of different dimensions. But one item on the survey is of particular interest for my purposes:

“No person has the right to initiate physical force against another human being.”

Respondents were asked to say whether they agreed or disagreed with this statement – essentially an unlabeled formulation of the NAP. In 1988, a full 90% of respondents said that they agreed. By 1999, however, the percentage expressing agreement had dropped by almost half to 50%. And by 2008, it was down to 39.7%.

It is possible that some of the drop was due to a change of wording in the question between 1988 and 1999–more on this below. But on its face, this is a pretty radical shift away from support of the NAP.

Interestingly, though, there doesn’t seem to have been much of a corresponding change in respondents’ answers to the kind of practical moral questions that would seem to involve the application of the NAP.

For instance, in 1988, the survey asked a pair of questions about a scenario labeled, “How much is that baby in the window?”

Suppose that a parent of a new‐​born baby places it in front of a picture window and sells tickets to anyone wishing to observe the child starve to death. He makes it clear that the child is free to leave at any time, but that anyone crossing his lawn will be viewed as trespassing.

The questions asked were, 1) Would you cross the lawn and help the child? And 2) Would helping the child violate the parents’ rights?

In 1988, 89% of respondents said they would cross the lawn. 26% said that doing so would violate the parents’ rights. In 1999 those numbers were 87% and 31%, respectively. And in 2008 they were 90.9% and 24.1%. In other words, despite the radical change in the professed belief in the NAP, and despite the fact that crossing the lawn in this case certainly looks like a violation of the owner’s property rights, there was almost no change at all in professed belief about either the question of whether respondents would themselves cross the lawn against the owner’s wishes, or in the question of whether doing so would violate the owner’s rights.

The same is true of another scenario, “Trespass or Die!”

Suppose that you are on a friend’s balcony on the 50th floor of a condominium complex. You trip, stumble and fall over the edge. You catch a flagpole on the next floor down. The owner opens his window and demands you stop trespassing.

In 1988, 84% of respondents said they believed that in such circumstances they should enter the owner’s residence against the owner’s wishes. 2% (one respondent) said that they should let go and fall to their death, and 15% said they should hang on and wait for somebody to throw them a rope. In 1999, the numbers were 86%, 1%, and 13%. In 2008, they were 89.2%, 0.9%, and 9.9%. Once again, change in professed belief about the NAP appears to have had virtually no effect on change in professed belief about the right thing to do in a situation that seems to involve aggression against an innocent person.

A few thoughts:

1. In 1988, respondents were asked whether they believed that “no person has the right” to initiate physical force against another human being. In 1999, the wording was changed, and respondents were asked whether they believed that “it is always wrong” to do so. The 1999 wording was kept in 2008.

Strictly speaking, these questions are asking about two different things. And it is possible to believe that no one has the right to initiate force, while nevertheless believing that in some extreme circumstances it would not be morally wrong to do so. Indeed, this seems to be the position Rothbard himself took in his chapter on “Lifeboat Situations.” It is possible, then, that respondents’ belief in the NAP didn’t really change at all between 1988 and 1999, and that the change in response simply reflected a philosophically sophisticated reaction to the changed wording of the question.

Bill Bradford, the founder and editor of Liberty, writing under the name of Ethan O. Waters, saw things somewhat differently.

To me, the most salient finding of the Poll is that libertarian moral thinking is not very rigorous … Although nearly all libertarians (89%) agree with the non‐​aggression axiom, a great many are willing to dispense with it when convenient: 89% will trespass to prevent a parent from starving his child for the fun of it; 98% would rather trespass than die in the flagpole question, including 14% who would restrict their trespassing to his flagpole and 84% who would go so far as to enter another’s residence .… It is apparent that many of those willing to dispense with the nonaggression axiom have no clear or consistent criterion for deciding when to dispense with it.

It’s hard to adjudicate between these two interpretations without more information. But one datum of interest is the fact that most respondents did not view crossing the lawn to feed the starving child as a violation of the parents’ rights. This suggests, at least, that respondents were not in this case making the distinction between the moral permissibility of an act and the question of whether that act violated someone else’s rights. And this, in turn, casts at least a bit of doubt on the idea that seeming discrepancies in their answers were undergirded by a sophisticated Rothbardian analysis of the ethics of emergencies.

2. How well do the results of these surveys represent the beliefs of libertarians in general? In each case, the respondents were drawn from attendees at the Libertarian Party National Convention and readers of Liberty magazine. Liberty was a magazine for “movement” libertarians–people who were very clear in their self‐​identification as libertarians, and enjoyed reading articles about the possibility of privatized roads, gossip about Ayn Rand’s inner circle, and the like. A very different kind of reader than you might expect from an “outreach” publication like Reason, for instance. And, of course, the kind of people who hang out at LP conventions (filling out surveys, no less!) are, well, a “different” breed as well. (As Ed Crane quipped about his experience at the 1971 founding convention in Denver, “As a libertarian, I always knew it was important to be tolerant of alternative lifestyles, but … until I went into that convention hall, I had no idea how many alternatives there were.”)

The respondents, then, were probably significantly more “hard core” than the median libertarian. And it’s probably reasonable to assume that hard core libertarians are generally more likely to agree with the NAP than the less hard core ones. If so, then the survey results probably overstate the extent of agreement with the NAP among libertarians as a whole.

3. I wonder what’s happened since 2008? My sense from conservations online and at various libertarian conferences is that the NAP might be making a comeback. Is this accurate? And, if so, what might explain it? Well, 2008 was the year of Ron Paul’s first campaign for the presidency, and his rise to stardom among libertarian youth. Paul has a long connection to the Ludwig von Mises Institute via Lew Rockwell, and my sense is that the LvMI has used this connection and its incredible web presence to draw a lot of young Ron Paul supporters into its fold. And the NAP is, of course, a central part of the “plumb line” libertarianism that LvMI seeks to defend and spread.

At the same time, 2008 was also the year in which Students for Liberty was created, and it too has enjoyed tremendous growth and success in the last few years. And, compared at least to LvMI, SFL is less closely wedded to the Rothbardian vision of libertarianism, including the NAP.

Both LvMI and SFL are diverse organizations, of course, and there are plenty of individuals in each of them for whom my generalizations will not hold. I’m painting with a broad brush here simply in order to speculate about possible large‐​scale trends in the libertarian movement. But, in the end, it’s just one guy’s speculation.

Perhaps it’s time for another survey?