I was initially worried about tackling this one for fear of being attacked or shunned for not being a “real” libertarian for daring to question the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP). Then I realized that happens whenever I go after bad arguments used by fellow libertarians so I feel it’s about time I tackle this one, for better or worse. As with all of the articles I do in this series I will be focusing on the argumentation side more than anything. While I’m sure we can all agree on the general principle of not being aggressive towards one another, the forms and shapes that argument most commonly takes are where we run into trouble.
To start, let us define what the NAP is for those non or new libertarians that might be reading this. The NAP is the principle, while it’s specific definition has shifted over the years, that the initiation or threatening of violence or forcible interference towards an individual or their property is morally wrong. Under the notion of the NAP, the only acceptable use of such threats of violence would be either defensively or to rectify the initial aggression (such as forcibly taking back stolen property).
So far, so good. The issues begin when we start seeing how this is used in argumentation. Many libertarians will attempt to use the NAP to explain how an anarchist society will work, how it will decide right and wrong, and to set the basis for community interactions. While we can see the positives in said principle, if one were to make this argument they would be getting one of two things false:
A) That anarchy will take the exact form they envision.
B) That their moral principle would act or function as a universal law.
If we ever did achieve a true form of anarchy there would be no central body to enforce morality (especially considering that would defeat the point). So while there are those anarcho-capitalists that support a form of objective morality, there is no enforcement mechanism if actual anarchy were to be achieved. Sure, one could finger wag at those morally inferior individuals that ignore this wisdom supported by Locke, Mills, & Rothbard, but that isn’t going to change their actions or ideals. As far different flavors of anarchist are concerned ancaps and related or similar ideologies are only but a handful versus the dozens upon dozens of other, generally more leftward, forms.
Minarchists and classical liberals don’t encounter this issue as they are fully in support of the state acting and utilizing power to enforce their laws. They do, however, encounter the issues that always arise when legislating morality such as the forcing of belief on to the population (as a belief in the NAP would be required to keep the peace and avoid a police state depending on degrees of enforcement), and opening up the political system to abuse (as we’ve seen with the evolution of American laws often done in the name of a greater moral good).
There’s also the grey areas of the NAP that need to be considered. The principle could be and has been used both for and against abortion for example. Even deciding which actions ought to be considered aggression, and when, and to what degree is up in the air even amongst those that believe in it. Driving could be a violation because it pollutes the air and thus negatively affects individuals. What about the hoarding of property to the detriment of the community? There is too much left ambiguous and undefined in this principle to try to make a definitive law out of it, or to use it as an ironclad guide.
I think David Friedman had one of the better approaches. His view on the NAP was to treat it as a relative principle rather than anything absolute. As a guiding moral principle there are going to be ambiguous aspects to it and, in most cases, it will be and will stay loosely defined. Choosing to take it on as a part of one’s personal moral code is, I will agree, a positive choice. Making any assumptions about it beyond the individuals that choose to believe in and follow it is when it turns into a bad argument.
You can read more from Killian Hobbs on Think Liberty here.