Can the Non-Aggression Principle prevent…


I try to keep track of the various themes and arguments I come across when debating and discussing libertarianism with others.  When I notice a pattern, I like to discuss them here.  It’s good for the reader who might be new to libertarianism since it answers a question that he probably has too.  For myself and those who are deeper in libertarianism, it’s good because these posts provide rebuttals that can be quickly sent out instead of trying to type out the reply in, say, 140 characters.

I have noticed that people who reject libertarianism and people who call themselves libertarians but reject statelessness sometimes argue against the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP) this way: without the state, how does the NAP prevent X from happening?  

X can be any number of bad things, such as an invasion from some malicious outside group or your neighbor harrassing you and your property.  If libertarians appeal to the NAP as one of its fundamental ideas, surely it should have an answer for dealing with any problem that the state currently claims to handle.



This is a straw man of the NAP.  The usual response to anything you say is “But what if the person doesn’t agree with or follow the NAP?  Good luck with that.”

It’s like asking “How does goodness prevent violence?”  

The NAP states that it is wrong to use violence or the threat of violence against peaceful individuals.  It is a tool that is used to determine if an action is ethical.  It is not, however, a tool that can be used to modify the behavior of others.  The NAP also says nothing about how much force should be used against violations of the NAP.

The NAP would say that it is wrong to steal $5 from someone and that it would not be a violation to use force to prevent someone from stealing that $5.  But how much force is permissible to prevent the theft?  Is it okay to grab their wrist?  Punch them in the face?  Kill them?  We have to use some other principle to figure out what the correct course would be.  In this case, the use of force in defense should be in proportion to the attack.  Therefore, maiming or killing the attacker in order to only prevent the theft of $5 would be wrong.

So we can see that it is not correct to say that the NAP itself can prevent someone who does not believe in the NAP from stealing $5; what prevents the theft is the understanding that potential victim of the theft would be permitted to use force to not only protect himself and his property but to also recover stolen property or seek restitution for it.  As such, no libertarian believes that society requires an en masse explicit acceptance of the NAP where it would be enough to simply state that some action is a violation of the NAP in order to stop it from occurring.

In other words, no libertarian argues that the NAP is a replacement for things like police, courts, and even a military.  No libertarian argues that a stateless society would be free from people who do bad things.  What the NAP would do is be a guide to help determine how a private police force or private court should function.  The NAP would not prevent a foreign invasion, but it certainly permits some military structures to be used to turn one back.  

So if you’re interested in asking how a libertarian society would develop the institutions and services generally provided by the state, go ahead and ask that.  But do not claim to understand the NAP and then ask how the NAP would do it.  It doesn’t make any sense.


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