The Non-Aggression Principle (NAP) is one of the main tenets of Libertarians, libertarians, anarchists, and many more in unnamed and unclassified political philosophies. The most direct statement of its meaning is this one:
"A libertarian is a person who believes that no one has the right, under any circumstances, to initiate force against another human being, or to advocate or delegate its initiation. Those who act consistently with this principle are libertarians, whether they realize it or not. Those who fail to act consistently with it are not libertarians, regardless of what they may claim."
The strict adherence to this statement of principles (the NAP) is the central test of a person's commitment to liberty according to L. Neil Smith, a Libertarian Party activist and writer.
The concept was derived from the writings of Objectivist founding mother and novelist Ayn Rand who Smith readily acknowledges as the originator of the concept.
Rand's novel and showcase for Objectivism is Atlas Shrugged. I read it in 1986 while in high school. I re-read it in 2002 and I remember that when John Galt was captured and tortured by the Leader and Cuffy Meigs he not only didn't resist but he helped them torture him! And yet another character Ragnar Danneskjold was operating as a pirate and bandit leader and was robbing and sabotaging people and businesses that were using government expropriated wealth. Danneskjold was sinking ships by bombardment to undermine the government and the national economy.
Danneskjold was one of a triumvirate of Objectivist heroes in Atlas Shrugged who I believe were intended to serve as models for her philosophy in action. I don't recall how Rand ever reconciled this character's actions with her belief in the NAP.
In theory the NAP is uncomplicated. A moral person will not start, begin, or initiate any kind of violent action against another person other than in self-defense. The NAP is not meant to be pacifism. It isn't passive resistance as Mohandas K. Gandhi or Martin Luther King used to achieve social change. Neither is it civil disobedience as used by Henry David Thoreau.
It is a seeming contradiction that implies that while a moral person can use violence for self-defense, you don't have to, as John Galt did not. From my understanding of her writing Rand intends to show that while either alternative is acceptable, her view of Galt's reluctant acceptance of victimization rather than fight back against his captors is morally superior. While a moral person has a right to use violence to defend themself you don't have to. To my mind it is a de facto pacifism in practical application if not in theory.
If one accepts the NAP as a guiding principle in life, then daily living can be very morally complex indeed. In philosophy there is a concept called infinite regress. What it refers to is similar to arguing with a child. With infinite regress every statement or fact is challenged as to its correctness or validity in a reverse progression that go back further and further ultimately unto infinity. So nothing is ever settled with this version of deconstruction.
A leading libertarian philosopher, who admits to being heavily influenced by Rand's philosophy and work, Wolf DeVoon suggests that taken to its ultimate application, NAP seems to be impossible. He wrote an iconoclastic essay explaining what he thinks is wrong with the NAP entitled NAP This.
"What's wrong with it is that you're born into this world as an indentured serf, never to earn or enjoy much autonomous liberty, according to NAP. Every mouthful of food you eat is one that was arguably taken wrongly from or denied to someone else, unless it was grown and harvested personally. Even then, you're on thin moral ice, because we received far more from our ancestors and forebears than we could ever possibly repay. The first 20 years of life are a gift, a free ride courtesy of parents, neighbors, extant industrial plants and processes, centuries of science, pooled savings, and the omnipresent cloak of tradition, embodied in governments, communities, and the very language we speak.'Anarchy' means bloodshed, we are scolded. 'Instability' is the evil that spooks markets and discourages investment."
And so a peaceful, non-authority kind of society is impossible. English philosopher Thomas Hobbes says in his seminal work on social philosophy Leviathan, that humans must have a powerful state to hold miscreants and bullies "in fear and awe" or our lives will be "nasty, brutish and short". And so this is why anarchists, libertarians, and those so inclined toward such a society are unrealistic? Apparently so, say Hobbes, Rand, and Smith.
"The so-called Non-Aggression Principle," says DeVoon, "is Randian, Kantian, and Mosaic, as old as written history. For thousands of years 'Thou shall not kill, steal, covet, or trespass' was held to be universally binding on all men, either as a moral principle or the express will of God."
Can we dispense with force? When this question is clearly put, the case for a no-authority social arrangement of any sort seems extremely weak. It is true that the experiment of an entirely forceless society has never been made. But such evidence as we have does not indicate that ill intentions will cease to exist if repressive force disappears, and it is clear enough that one ill-intentioned person can upset a large part of society.
This conclusion is false says DeVoon. The actual condition of human reality is Liberty.
"Liberty", says DeVoon, "means actual, substantive moral freedom, equal to one's powers. It is impossible to abuse power which you do not possess."
And so there it is. By insisting on the NAP you short-circuit any attempt to be a free and autonomous human being that is endowed with free will and liberty from birth. And that is why I am not a pacifist, or a NAP believer, just as DeVoon isn't. I will do what I must to defend my family, my fellows, and myself and our property and rights. I will be responsible for the actions taken, and I will accept the consequences that accrue from those actions.
The NAP will not bind me from initiating any defensive actions that I deem
necessary and I will accept full responsibility for them. Here is an excerpt
from an internet forum discussion I participated in on this topic in November
2004. A NAP believer asked me under what circumstances could force be initiated
without it being immoral. Here is the exchange.
Give some examples of situations where you would initiate aggression. We've already talked about someone walking into your home uninvited.
I am trapped in hostile nation and I want to escape from it. As I approach the border crossing the guard picks up a ringing phone. Do I pull out my revolver and hold him at gunpoint to make good my escape? Yep. Kill or injure him if he resists? Yep. Or ten more just like him? Yep. I go to a bank the previous day to withdraw my saved funds. The bank manager says no wait until tomorrow, bank policy you see. Nope out comes my pistol. Give me my money now. Fully justified in my view. My child is very ill. The only drugs available are on the black market. I arrange to buy them, but when I get there the price is higher. I pay it.
What if he doesn't give you the money? Do you shoot him and whoever else gets in the way of the safe?
The example was predicated on the presumption that he had my money but wouldn't give it up for policy reasons. If he didn't have it or have it all, or didn't have the key or whatever then no I wouldn't hurt him. But that is irrelevant. I already initiated force.
I wouldn't use force for the medicine because I'm not taking back my own property or defending myself.
* * *
When I was trained for leadership in the US Army we were taught that to be able to give orders you must be able to take them as well. I am willing to die or accept injury or loss to protect my family, my property, my rights, and myself. The reverse is true as well. I will initiate violence or force if I need to do so in order to protect myself and what is mine.
I say this fully aware that I am personally and morally responsible for what I do toward that end. I make this declaration with a full clear-eyed realization of the consequences. I am not tired, or confused about this matter. I don't need a NAP.