The “Non Aggression Principle” (or NAP) is an ethical doctrine that states that aggression is wrong, aggression being defined as the initiation of physical force or fraud against persons or property, or the threat of the same. In order to join the national Libertarian Party, you must affirm that you “oppose the initiation of force to achieve political or social goals.”
In a letter to Francis Gilmer in 1816, Thomas Jefferson stated it like this: “Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add ‘within the limits of the law,’ because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual.” He went on to say, “No man has a natural right to commit aggression on the equal rights of another, and this is all from which the laws ought to restrain him.” (emphasis mine)
We all understand that to practice the NAP we can never initiate force against individuals or against their rightly-acquired property. As I have come to understand this concept, I equate force with violence, whether physical (actually touching another person) or non-physical (fraud). This ethical stance does not include self defense, for in that case we are responding to an initiation of force against ourselves or our property. I am no pacifist. As R. Lee Wrights put it during a speech at one of our State conventions, “Break into my house and you’ll see how much of a pacifist I am.” This is the easy part of the NAP, and I think most people get that, heck, it was stuff we were taught in preschool. “Don’t take other kids toys, don’t hit other kids, etc.”
Taking this to a higher plane, how does this apply to our system of government? Most of us understand that codifying morality is in direct opposition to the NAP. For example, I may believe that prostitution is immoral, but it should not be illegal. To a sharper point, I believe that the “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation” part of the Fifth Amendment is in direct violation of the NAP. If the owner of the rightly-acquired property doesn’t want to sell, no one, not even the government, should be able to take that property from the owner, regardless of the price offered. Again, those are things that I, at least, see as fairly easy concepts. But what about those things that we find both morally and ethically reprehensible? Wouldn’t it be one of the tenants of good government to correct societal wrongs?
In my opinion, the answer is a resounding NO. To back that up, I will go back to what Thomas Jefferson said above: “law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual.” Individuals, even those that are what society deems to be “outside the norm,” have rights, too. Even when their actions are reprehensible, as long as they do not initiate force, either violently or by fraud, against another individual or their property, they have every right to be as disgustingly repugnant as they want to be. To paraphrase a famous quote attributed to Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you do, but I will defend to the death your right to do it as long as you don’t initiate force against another individual.”
I do not believe that it is provided anywhere within the Constitution for our government to become the arbiter of societal wrongs. The “general welfare” clause has been brought up during discussions of this nature, but James Madison said this of the “general welfare” clause, in a letter to Edmund Pendleton in 1792:
If Congress can do whatever in their discretion can be done by money, and will promote the General Welfare, the Government is no longer a limited one, possessing enumerated powers, but an indefinite one, subject to particular exceptions.
If the “general welfare” clause allows the government to be the “righter of wrongs” (also becoming the arbiter of what is right and wrong), it would, in my opinion, completely invalidate the Ninth and Tenth Amendments to the Constitution.
The real problem with having government make laws that make certain aspects of human nature illegal hinges upon the “or else” clause that is inherent in all laws. These laws have, as part of their inevitable conclusion, the barrel of a gun pointed at a person’s head. Let’s take anti-discrimination laws as an example. First, these laws provide that the government is the sole arbiter of what is, or is not, discrimination. Is that something we really want the government to decide for us? Next, if a business, as that is where most anti-discrimination law is directed, is found to be in noncompliance with this law, what happens? A government official will visit that business, point out the noncompliance, and probably extract a bribe (aka: fine). The government will then monitor the business for any further noncompliance. If the business continues this practice, it will be shut down and the owner arrested. What if the owner doesn’t want to be arrested? Well, here is where the “or else” clause kicks in. Now the owner is in defiance of the will of the government, so other government officials, with guns, will show up to arrest the owner, who will then either be incarcerated or killed—all because he or she was in violation of government approved behavior. Am I saying that I approve of discrimination? No. But there are much better, non-physical, ways to cure this “societal” ill, provided by a free market.
In conclusion, the Non Aggression Principle should be the guiding principle for all we do in life, not just in the political sphere. Realizing that violating the rights of the individual (even those individuals whose actions are morally repugnant) violates the NAP is essential to understanding this ethical principle. Laws that define appropriate human behavior violate the NAP. Even if they are intended to “do good” by correcting inappropriate behavior, violation of these laws ultimately leads to the initiation of force against a person or their property. To that point, I will leave you with one more quote:
I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent. —Mahatma Gandhi
—Mark M. Young