If you arent a libertarian, chances are that you have never heard of the non-aggression principle (also referred to as the non-aggression axiom). Most libertarians base their views about morality and the role of government around the non-aggression principle.
The non-aggression principle is the idea that no matter how disgusting, immoral, or improper you believe an act to be, you have no right to use force to stop someone from committing that act, unless that act itself involves the initiation of force against another person (or person’s property).
The principle is simple and straight forward; it is wrong to initiate force against another person or group of people. This is by no means a passive or pacifist doctrine; it is absolutely permissible to use force in response to force, in order to protect or defend one’s person or property, to enforce a contract, or punish someone for failure to adhere to the terms of a contract.
However, it is not permissible to use force to attack your neighbor, steal another person’s property, or stop someone from using their justly acquired property in a manner that does not aggress upon another individual.
The non-aggression principle has been stated and restated from ancient times to John Locke ["Being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions"] to Ben Harper ["My choice is what I choose to do, and if I'm causing no harm, it shouldnt bother you. Your choice is who you choose to be and if you're causing no harm, then youre all right with me"].
By applying the non-aggression principle to all aspects of life, a just and coherent philosophy of non-interventionism becomes clear: if no one is being harmed besides those people voluntarily engaged in the act, leave it alone. It is that simple. You dont have to like or respect or engage in prostitution, homosexual relations, religion, or the use of drugs, alcohol, tobacco, etc, but you do not have the right to stop any adult from engaging in any of these acts.
The non-aggression principle is a very important part of the natural rights philosophy.
Every person is the owner of their own body and has the right to do with their body as the see fit. People can also acquire property by using one of three different methods: homesteading, voluntary exchange, and theft. Homesteading involves taking unowned resources and improving them, while voluntary exchange involves the unforced transfer of resources from a person (or persons) to another person (or persons). Both of these two methods are fully consistent with the non-aggression principle–by definition, neither homesteading or voluntary exchange involves the initiation of force.
When the non-aggression principle is violated, property is acquired in the third method: theft. Physical acts of violence or threats of violence against others are violations of a person’s right to self ownership.
Even if one rejects the doctrine of natural rights in favor of a utilitarian (ie, the common good) view, the non-aggression principle is still important.
Man is a social animal. For the most part, we seek to engage in activities which promote the social benefit. Activities which violate the non-aggression principle tend to disrupt the peace by inviting violent retaliation. For example, if I kill or harm a member of your family (or attempt to do so), you are likely to respond by seeking revenge on me. These types of feuds can spiral out of control and disrupt the peaceful cooperation on which society depends. The best way to keep the peace that is essential to the existence of society, is to adhere to the non-aggression principle.
Thus, whether you subscribe to natural rights theories or whether you support some sort of utilitarian view, it is in the best interests of both individuals and society that people adhere to the non-aggression principle.
As we have seen, violations of the non-aggression principle which are committed by individuals can disrupt the peace. However, violations of the non-aggression principle committed by the government are infinitely more eggregious. This is because the government grants itself the power to do things that no individual could ever be permitted to do.
Only the government (or those under the protection of the government) can confiscate money from people without their permission and give it to other people and call it “public policy.” Government redistribution of wealth and granting of special privileges is aggression because it prevents people from using their own property in a peaceful manner of their choosing.
Only the government can commit mass murder against civilians and call it a “defensive war.” A bombing campaign in a densely populated civilian area which results in civilian deaths is murder; it doesnt matter if the bombing was done by a rogue terrorist or by an Air Force member acting under order from the President. Murder is murder. It doesnt matter who does it.
Only the government can throw human beings in cages which are kept in horrible conditions for the “crime” of recreationally smoking a plant in their own home. Smoking marijuana on your couch does not violate the non-aggression principle; raiding someone’s house and confiscating their marijuana does.
It is essentially impossible for government to act without violating the non-aggression principle. This is because mandatory taxation is coercion, theft, and extortion. All of these acts violate the non-aggression principle. Taking people’s money without their permission is theft. Any business regulation, permit requirement, governmental zoning restriction, anti-drug law, restriction of consensual acts deemed to be “immoral,” etc. are violations of the non-aggression principle because they prevent people from using their justly acquired resources in a peaceful manner of their choosing.
Every government act involves a violation of the non-aggression principle. For, even when government is acting to stop one person from aggressing against another, it is doing so using resources that have been obtained via theft. When you violate the non-aggression principle, your actions may be devastating and cause harm, but they are limited by the amount of damage that one person can cause with whatever resources that you have available to use. However, when the government violates the non-aggression principle, it does so with other people’s money subject only to how much damage it can inflict before enough people get angry enough to either withdraw support or threaten revolution. It also does so under the guise of legality. But intelligent people know that an unjust law is no law at all.
Thus, the only way for government to act without aggressing on the rights of its citizens by violating the non-aggression principle would be for the government to set the exact policies that each individual would choose on their own and rely on truly voluntary donations to do so. In other words, the government’s best option is to do nothing at all.
In the words of the French economist, Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot:
“The policy to pursue, therefore, is to follow the course of nature, without pretending to direct it. For, in order to direct trade and commerce it would be necessary to be able to have knowledge of all of the variations of needs, interests, and human industry in such detail as is physically impossible to obtain even by the most able, active, and circumstantial government. And even if a government did possess such a multitude of detailed knowledge, the result would be to let things go precisely as they do of themselves, by the sole action of the interests of men prompted by free competition.”
This isnt just the stuff of libertarian philosophers. The rapper Lil’ Jon famously uttered the phrase “Don’t start no shit, it won’t be no shit!”
This concept is remarkably simple: do not initiate the use of force against another person. Respect their right to engage in peaceful activities on their own property in any manner that they see fit.
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