The Misunderstood NAP, and Why It Matters
Libertarians tend to believe in what they call the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP) – the concept that no individual, community, or government has the right to initiate force against others. What makes the NAP different from pacifism is that the NAP makes allowances for self-defense. Believers in non-aggression will admit that not everybody believes the same way. There are people whose belief systems allow for aggression against non-believers – “Convert or die!” – for instance, and peaceful people have the right to defend themselves against those who have effectively declared war against them.
Frodo vs the NAP
A member of the Christian Libertarians Facebook group presented interesting (if fictional) scenario involving the NAP involved the Lord of the Rings protagonist Frodo Baggins: Did Frodo violate the NAP by intruding into Mordor to destroy the One Ring? The telling point was Frodo’s motivation for effectively trespassing on someone else’s property to destroy something that rightly belonged to someone else.
Someone who misunderstands what the Non-Aggression Principle means would say that Sauron hadn’t done anything to Frodo personally, so Frodo did violate the NAP. This, however, ignores the fact that Sauron had effectively declared war on the whole of Middle Earth and his not-so-trustworthy ally, Saruman, already had plans to occupy the Shire by the time Frodo actually decided to take the ring to Mordor. So one could argue that Frodo was not only defending himself, but also defending the entire world against aggression by the forces of evil.
So the NAP is actually more complicated than simple pacifism. The NAP says that people do not have the right to initiate aggression, but it also says that people should have the right to defend themselves and others that they care about against aggression. If you see someone being assaulted on the street, pacifism says that you should just keep walking because it’s none of your business, but the NAP says that it’s acceptable to assist an obvious victim of aggression.
In terms of national governments, they shouldn’t start wars, but they also aren’t the bad guy if they have to defend themselves against an aggressor. Poland was not the aggressor when Germany started WWII by invading this little country. Neither was England the aggressor when Germany carried out the London Blitz. The United States might have been the larger country, but it was not the aggressor when Japan dragged it into World War II by attacking Pearl Harbor. (And, no, you don’t automatically lose the right to defend yourself if you are bigger and stronger than the aggressor. This common attitude explains how some women can get away with abusing a bigger and stronger man.)
The Fault with Outsourcing Aggression
Another little-understood (or at least ignored) aspect of the NAP is that no one should have the right to effectively outsource their aggression to other parties, including the government. If you ask the federal government to seize your neighbor’s assets and then give you a kickback, you are as guilty of aggression as you would have been if you committed armed robbery against your neighbor or hired a band of mercenaries to do the same job.
For this and similar reasons, the NAP would also forbid the government to charge excessive taxes or legislate morality. The concept of toll roads as a competitor to Amtrak and Greyhound could be a question of: “Without taxes, who would pay for the roads?” The fact that toll roads already exist gives Libertarians something to point at: Roads can be paid for by the people who actually use them. The people who actually use certain roads wouldn’t be forcing everybody else to pay for “their” roads because their tolls theoretically produce enough funds to pay for those roads without the need to levy taxes.
As far as legislating morality goes, this gets back to the, “Convert or die!” threat that many violent religious radicals use (and, before someone starts screaming about Islamophobia, this problem is not exclusive to Islam). Governments usually have an effective monopoly on force, simply because you don’t see too many gun-toting rednecks who also own a tank and a fighter jet. If a government gets so out of control that it can dictate how people live their lives – assuming, of course, that an individual’s decisions harm no one else – what recourse would people have if they strongly disagree with the government’s decisions?
The problem with allowing government to dictate morality is that governments, like people, do not necessarily know all the right answers, plus their monopoly on force makes it difficult to fight back against aggression against its own citizens. If the government calls for the execution of LGBT individuals, should Christians cheer the government on, or attempt to help vulnerable members of the LGBT community who are suddenly slated for execution? Some Christians would try to help purely because that they believe that Christ’s command to, “Love thy neighbor,” is the most important commandment in the Bible. Others miss the point I tried to make in the last article I wrote because they can’t read past my acknowledgment that homosexuals exist and wouldn’t lift a finger to help homosexuals no matter what the circumstances are. Who is right, and should the government be allowed to legislate morality when Christians can’t even agree on the right and proper thing to do when an innocent person is suddenly targeted by the law through no fault of his or her own?
So one’s individual morality is not a good enough reason to violate the non-aggression principle or make another party an agent for one’s desire to violate the NAP. No one should ever trust a conversion to their viewpoint made at gunpoint because you can be sure that the one being converted will not only revert back to type, but also have reason to hold a serious grudge when the threat is removed. As Dan Carnegie wrote in How To Win Friends and Influence People, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.”
Still not clear no the NAP? Here’s another in depth breakdown
In a world where it can be difficult to know the right answers and aggression can cause more problems than it solves, the Non-Aggression Principle provides an answer to the question of whether we have the right to dictate what other people do with their own lives and property. The short answer is that we shouldn’t commit assault, armed robbery, or any other violent act against our neighbor purely because we disagree with their lifestyle choices or believe that their assets could be put to better use. If their poor choices harm other, innocent people, however, it is perfectly acceptable to defend and help the vulnerable parties who have become victims if it is at all possible to do so. So it’s reasonable to say that the Non-Aggression Principle is a relative of pacifism that acknowledges that not everybody is a pacifist and, thus, it becomes acceptable to defend against aggression when “the other guy” started it.