For those who are not familiar with it, the non-agression principle (NAP) is the idea that acts of aggression are inherently illegitimate and should be opposed. Most interpretations define aggression as an initiation or threat of violence against another person or their justly acquired possessions. Most, if not all interpretations allow for the use of force in self-defense, if one is on the receiving end of such an act of aggression. It is widely recognized as having an important role in libertarianism as well as various forms of anarchist thought I certainly see the appeal of the appeal of this principle, and think it is on the right track, but have a few issues with it and some of the ways it is often applied.
First is the often menitoned issue of what one does, if they are starving in a wilderness area and come across a cabin with a store of food, whose, owner is not present. Most (NAP) advocates would probably have little problem with breaking into the cabin and taking enough food to feed one’s self, however they would probably favor compensating the cabin’s owner if possible. Indeed, many advocates of the NAP including Murray Rothbard have argued that it does not apply not apply in these sort of life or death “life-boat” situations. The problem is that much of life on earth is composed of life or death situations for the millions of starving or impoverished people. At what point is it admissible to take from your rich neighbor, to feed a starving person who cannot acquire food herself?
Additionally, what constitutes an act of aggression often ill-defined. For example there is the issue of environmental pollution that has no point source. It clearly harms others but, it is not does not readily lend itself to enforcement of the NAP. Another example is the fact that somewhere between shining a flashlight on my yard, and shining a powerful laser on my yard, one has to find an arbitrary line between what is or is not an act of aggression.
Also, It seems to me, that there are countless conceivable possible systems of property rights, that could be consistent with the (NAP) and what is defined as an act of aggression in each one is different. As what noted by Kevin Carson (who is paraphrasing an older Argument from Bill Orton):
“Orton argued that the basic principles of self-ownership and nonaggression were compatible with any number of different property rules systems. Those principles had to be applied to a particular property rights template to determine who the “aggressor” and “victim” were in any instance. In a mutualist, occupancy-and-use system, a self-styled landlord attempting to collect rent would be the aggressor, invading the property rights of the occupant-user. But in an identical instance, in a non-Proviso Lockean system, the occupant – or squatter – might well be considered the agressor.
Since no particular set of land property rules can be deduced from fundamental moral axioms, they must be evaluated on utilitarian or practical grounds: i.e., the extent to which they maximize other, fundamental moral principles.”
With this in mind, it appears that forcing a person or population to adhere to a system of property rights they otherwise did not agree to can be seen as an act of aggression in itself. I suspect this has occurred many times throughout history. Then again this problem may be mitigated somewhat if people who object to the existing property system, can acquire their own land and practice whatever system of processory rights they want on it.
My biggest issue with the NAP, is more in the way that it is applied, in the current context than, an inherent flaw in it. Simply put mainstream libertarians tend to use the NAP to oppose anything that may challenge the current distribution of wealth/property. In doing this they seem to selectively ignore all the past initiations of violence that created the current distribution of wealth and power. The current system of wealth has been so heavily shaped by centuries, of government land grants, wars of aggression, slavery, a massive military state, tariffs, government subsidies to business, a massive regulatory state, an intellectual property system that is itself a violation of the NAP and countless other aggressions that enriched the wealthy and well connected at the expense of the rest of us. In many ways the current use of the NAP, is reminiscent of telling a roomful of people who have been robbed at gun point, that they must now only interact peacefully, with beneficiaries of the initial theft. It is clear that if we are to take, free market ideas seriously, than many if not most of the country’s richest households are greatly in-debt to the American tax-payers and consumers, whom they have used the state to rip-off. I do not know the best way to correct this situation, but I reject the notion that the NAP should be used say they should never have to give what they have taken back.
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