by Gene Callahan
Having discussed in a previous post the libertarian contention that following the non-aggression principle implies holding libertarian policy views, I wanted to follow up here with an example from The Republic.
Now, let us begin by noting that Socrates, towards the beginning of the work, states a non-aggression principle (NAP) even stronger than the one usually framed by libertarians. It is not merely wrong, he claims, to do injury to one who has not injured you, it is even wrong to do injury to someone who has injured you. The details of the argument need not concern us here; the relevant point is that Socrates endorses a strong version of the NAP.
But then, of course, Socrates (or Plato, if you wish to consider “Socrates” here as a sock puppet) goes on to paint a vision of the just State in many ways far more extensive than anything we even have today in the US, including things like tight State control over art. How can this be?
A key passage in this regard is, I think, when Socrates asks Cephalus to “Consider an example: a friend who is sound in mind and body lends you his weapons. Then, when he returns to claim them, you see he has gone mad. Would it not be wrong to give them back to him? Would that not be an injustice?” And Cephalus agrees it would be unjust to give the weapons back.
Here, we see the crux of the difference between Plato’s view and a typical libertarian take on this matter. Many libertarians, I imagine, would consider it just to give the weapons back, no matter the fellow’s state of mind, because you would be violating his property rights otherwise. But Plato takes the opposite view: it is returning the weapons that would be an act of aggression, and hanging on to them is the just response.
Now, many libertarians probably don’t like Plato’s understanding of justice in this case. But it should be clear why, for instance, when Plato would ban the works of Hesiod, he is not “in favor of aggression”; instead, he has a different understanding of what constitutes aggression.
The non-aggression principle alone does not really get libertarians anywhere; Hobbes, for instance, would probably also sign on to it, and assert that his Leviathan is compatible with it. It is only the non-aggression principle in combination with certain views of duty, obligation, rights, the nature of the individual, and the nature of society, that result in the particular libertarian take on what constitutes aggression and what it means to follow the NAP.