I could not discuss libertarian foundations without first talking about the non-aggression principle (hereafter referred to as NAP). Simply put, the NAP is one of the cornerstones of libertarian belief. It is one of those things that bind us but at the same time the discussion of what NAP is and how it should be applied often divides libertarians and I think if there is a long-standing discussion in libertarianism it is how this principle should be applied. It should also be noted that because of this there are a number different versions of the NAP.
Before I get into my particular definition of the NAP, I want to point out something that is fairly obvious about the NAP and that it is a ‘principle’. It is not a law, rule or something arbitrary. It is an overarching philosophical framework not necessarily something that libertarians get draconian about in its applications. In fact applying the NAP can lead to a lot of different results. In applying the NAP one can discover that the principle may nor apply in certain circumstances. One can also find oneself on both sides of an issue because one see that he NAP applies to both sides or opposes both sides in certain areas. One can also find that by applying the NAP, that multiple solutions can present themselves requiring a different debate altogether on which one of these solutions is the best course.
I want this understood because too many libertarians themselves drop criticisms against other libertarians saying they are not following the NAP, but in truth they may be from a certain point of view. The real trick of the NAP is that you must be able to see all points of view before it can truly be applied effectively. It really has that aspect of ‘practice’ like you find in doctors practicing medicine or lawyers practicing law. Libertarians practice the NAP, they don’t really enforce a particular definition of it as it is more about principle than rule or law.
The NAP has been defined many different ways. Ayn Rand gets credit for putting it in more formal terms first:
“The precondition of a civilized society is the barring of physical force from social relationships. … In a civilized society, force may be used only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use.”
Murray Rothbard put it this way:
“No one may threaten or commit violence (‘aggress’) against another man’s person or property. Violence may be employed only against the man who commits such violence; that is, only defensively against the aggressive violence of another. In short, no violence may be employed against a nonaggressor. Here is the fundamental rule from which can be deduced the entire corpus of libertarian theory.”
He rightly notes that this is the cornerstone principle of the foundation of libertarianism. That said I think as a Christian there is one other person’s words that might have described the essence of the NAP in different but similar terms:
“In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 7:12
Yes, I feel Jesus was hinting at this principle in a lot of what he taught and it is most noticeable in this verse that he teaches his disciples. It is primarily this connection between the teachings of Christ and the NAP that lead me to being a libertarian.
Now for my definition of the NAP:
No one can commit violence or threaten violence against another man’s person, rights or property. The only proper use of violence or the threat of violence is against such people who commit such violence or threaten violence in defense of one’s own person, rights or property or in the defense of someone else’s person, rights or property. Violence or threat of violence can only be used against an aggressor and should not be used against a nonaggressor.
In this particular case, I do borrow heavily from Rothbard but I think my definition is clearer in some ways at least to me. That said we do have to define a few things further.
One is that violence or the threat of violence can have many forms. It might be conceded that fraud is a form of violence in that is seeks to deprive people of their property by use of the rules and laws of a land to gain an advantage in stealing people’s property. There is more to violence that just overt acts such as rape or murder. It is about forms of aggression not just physical violence. There is a broader context to consider when it comes to what violence or threat of violence entails.
Secondly, this is not about pacifism and violence and threats of violence can be used in response to the aggressor. That is what some libertarians like myself get a little frustrated when people accuse us not lifting a finger to help someone under attack. The NAP does justify violence or threat in the case of defense of either self or others. A woman who pulls a gun on her would be rapist and shoots him is not violating the NAP. A man who sees a woman being raped and pulls his gun and shoots the rapist is also not violating the NAP. A rebel who is fighting for his human rights against an aggressive and tyrannical government is also not violating the NAP. The NAP does not outlaw force, it simple states there is very few justified uses for it.
Finally, this also explains why libertarians dislike government or at minimum work hard to shrink government. In large part it is that they recognize that the government has the legal monopoly on the use of force but they also realize that this monopoly must have restrictions on it so it does not violate the NAP. Like I said earlier this can get quite complicated but the thing that is being given the most effort is to not use any form of violence or the threat of violence in the violation of someone’s person, rights or property. Given that the government can and often does this is why libertarians prefer a government that has its right to use its monopoly of force severely restricted to very specific things and also works hard to defend and define rights that should not be subject of government force.
Blessings and Cheers!!!