In the second part of this series on the pillars of libertarianism, we’re going to focus on the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP). Along with strong private property rights, the NAP makes up the foundation of libertarianism. At its core, the NAP answers the most fundamental political question: when is it justified to use force?
In For a New Liberty, Rothbard strongly makes the case. “The Libertarian creed rests upon one central axiom: that no man or group of men may aggress against the person or property of anyone else.” Included in this definition of aggression are direct threats of violence with intent to follow through. Don’t hurt people and don’t take their stuff. It’s a pretty simple idea, really. It’s an idea that most would agree with as a matter of course. But when the principle is applied to interactions with the state, problems instantly arise.
The most obvious example of this is taxation. Libertarians all love to share memes on social media that emphasize that taxation is theft, but the fact remains: taxes are not voluntary donations. If you don’t believe me, stop paying them and see what happens. Nor are taxes the price you pay for living in a civilized society. That logic is absurd. Is war is the price we pay for peace? Are economic crashes the price we pay for prosperity?
Another example is war. Again we return to Rothbard, “And since war, especially modern war, entails the mass slaughter of civilians, the libertarian regards such conflicts as mass murder and therefore totally illegitimate.” Related to war is conscription, or the draft, which is when young men and women are involuntarily enlisted into the service of the State, which almost always means fighting and dying as a part of the armed forces. If that young person decides not to join they are thrown in jail. What is conscription other than slavery on a national level?
What these examples show in stunning clarity is twofold. First, there is no organization in the whole of human history that has oppressed, marginalized, abused, tortured or downright murdered more people than the State. The body count in the twentieth century alone is over a quarter billion. Second, most people seem perfectly willing to give to the State the moral license to do things that any private group or individual would never be allowed to do. This is why the statist apologist mentality is so dangerous; once you’re able to comfortably make excuses for the worst excesses of the government, you can use it to justify all sorts of atrocities.
A libertarian makes no such distinctions. Likewise, libertarians make no apologies for the moral bankruptcy of the State. If it is illegal or immoral for a group to steal the property of an individual, the fact that the group calls itself a government matters little. Same goes for
One common argument against the non-aggression principle is that it is a pacifistic doctrine. Nothing could be further from the truth. The fundamentally libertarian private property norm states that you own your own body first and foremost. This includes an irrevocable right to self-defense. The same is true at the global level. There are legitimate reasons to go to war. The real problem is that the usual reasons politicians give to their constituents never rise to that level.
To clarify this point, imagine this scenario: you are walking down the street and see Mr. A approach Mr. B. After a brief argument, Mr. A physically takes the watch off the wrist of Mr. B and walks away. Surely Mr. A has violated the NAP with regard to Mr. B and his personal property. But this is not necessarily the case. It very well could be the case that Mr. A is aggressing against Mr. B by stealing his watch, but perhaps the watch belongs to Mr. A and he was simply taking it back from Mr. B who stole it the day before, which is well within his rights under established private property norms.
Another common argument against the NAP is that it is an inflexible doctrine that fails to adequately deal with real world situations. There are of course many incredibly complex private property disputes in our society and no system, including libertarian anarchism, will solve every situation perfectly. Anarchists don’t claim their system is a utopia, only that it establishes the most equitable way to resolve the inevitable clashes that occur over scarce resources.
Pollution disputes are a good example of this argument. Rothbard effectively argued that pollution, in the forms of water, air, and even noise, are of a type of trespass and thus a clear violation of the NAP. Matt Zwolinski argues that then means that any amount of smoke from a chimney that passes over the property of another is aggression and subject to retaliatory self-defense. What he fails to recognize is that the NAP doesn’t apply in a vacuum. The NAP is an ethical guideline used to justify the use of force within the established legal framework of that society. If Mr. A’s chimney blows smoke over Mr. B’s property, it is highly unlikely that would justify Mr. B in blowing up Mr. A’s house. Mr. B would instead have to show real damage to property and any restitution would be proportionally awarded. Zwolinski’s argument ends up being a bit of a straw man.
The non-aggression principle and strong private property rights work hand in hand to establish and protect an individual’s right to life, liberty and property. They also provide the most equitable determination of when force is justified when disputes over resources do occur. And all of this is done voluntarily and without coercion. That alone makes it an upgrade over our current system.