January 26, 2015

Regarding the Non-Aggression Principle

By In Blogs, C.Jay Engel

The Non-Aggression Principle (NAP) has been said to be the “one rule of libertarianism.”  It can best be described as follows: “no one shall ‘initiate or threaten to initiate physical force against others and their property.’”  There are some thoughts I would like to share in regards to the nature of this principle.

First, NAP is not an holistic ethical standard.  It is not a standard of righteousness and morality.  God does not judge the sinner based on whether he lined up to this principle.  Rather, it is a logical category from within the greater ethical standard (eternal Moral Law), that addresses those issues involving private property.  By definition, it is the category of wrongful action (defined by moral law) which strictly regards property.  Wherever moral law exists that does not relate to property (honor your father and mother), NAP is excluded.

Second, NAP is intended to answer the question: “what wrongful deeds in society can be confronted with legitimate aggression?”  If a person fails to love the Lord his God with all his heart, mind, and strength, as we ought, should that person be prosecuted under the law?  How about a person who makes it a habit of killing people?  Both of these are the result of a sinful heart and deserve the wrath of God, but since only the latter action constitutes a breach of the Principle, it is this action that can be confronted or addressed with force.  Everything else should be confronted with other means. As I wrote when discussing the New England Reformed Baptists:

The rubric by which we determine the legitimacy of punishment against the criminal is the criminal’s transgression against the person and property of another individual.  Beyond that, in our estimation, the Christian ought to use all sorts of “spiritual weaponry;” that is, we must use persuasion and instruction to speak truth into the life of those around us, especially those in sin.  To use [Isaac] Backus’ vocabulary, “The question between us is not whether it be the duty” to act ethically and obey God’s commands, but rather, the question is “whether that duty ought to be enforced by the sword.”

Third, NAP applies to all people, including those who are members of society’s government, regardless of the form that government takes.  Whether judges and police forces are part of the governance structure similar to the Hoppean/Rothbardian vision, or the Statist governance structure in Mussolini’s Italy, they are not exempt from the rule that no person shall initiate or threaten to initiate physical force against others and their property.  It does so happen, however, that one of the two mentioned forms of government is inherently self-contradictory.  That is, the nature of Mussolini’s Fascist state, by its very essence and existence breaches the Non-Aggression principle. All other government structures in history are on a spectrum as to how well they line up with this rule (on one side is liberty, on the other is totalitarianism).  Among the worst violators are Mao, Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin (which mainstream academia wants us to believe are on various ends of the political spectrum).  Among the best examples of governance systems that were in many ways consistent with NAP can include Ancient Ireland, parts of pre-monarchical Europe, and the “not so wild west.”

Fourth, NAP is a logical category whose political relevance is legal, not moral.  Although all breaches of the person and property are forbidden in the moral law and thus have chiefly a moral aspect, the role of prosecution and restitution based on these breaches in civil society is not moral.  In other words, God is the judge of disobedience against the standard (which is the meaning of sin) that he has set, and the role of the prosecutor in civil society is not a substitute for God’s wrath.  It may be that the prosecutor in civil society provides a glimpse or reflection of God’s wrath, but the punishment initiated against the criminal is primarily civil in nature; lest God engage in double jeopardy at the Final Judgement.  Civil punishment is not intended to satisfy the wrath of God that is owed the sinner. While the authority to punish the crime may be sourced in God’s wrath, justice is being rendered between criminal and victim, not criminal and God.“Vengeance is mine, I will repay” (Romans 12:19).

Lastly, NAP is considered the “one rule of libertarianism” because libertarianism is a political theory that sees all criminals as being defined in terms of their aggression against the property of another person.  In civil society, insofar as civil law is concerned, criminals are criminals if and only if they have breached the one rule.  But there are many implications of, and deductions from, the one rule. To be brief, breach of contract, fraud, counterfeiting, and common battery and assault can all be included as a breach of the non-aggression principle.  NAP tells us whether a given action has been committed which can be addressed by the means of force (if necessary).

We shouldn’t think more of NAP than is needed. It is a legal and rational category, nothing else.

Written by C.Jay Engel

Editor and creator of The Reformed Libertarian. Living in Northern California with his wife, he writes on everything from politics to theology and from culture to economic theory. You can send an email to reformedlibertarian@gmail.com