The non-aggression principle (NAP) is the cornerstone of libertarianism. Roughly speaking, the NAP states that it is illicit to initiate violence against person or property. In this post, I will argue that the NAP should be understood as a legal principle rather than as a general moral principle. The second part of this series will contend that the NAP should be seen as a conclusion, rather than an axiom, and in the last part I will defend the NAP from libertarian critics.
One of the standard objections to the non-aggression-principle goes something like this: Suppose you’re a single parent in a libertarian society. You’ve been fired from your job because you stayed home to take care of your sick child. Between being unemployed and having high medical bills, you’ve consumed all your savings and you can no longer afford food or medicine for your child. This being a libertarian society, there is no social safety net and we further assume that in this scenario, you also don’t have any family or friends willing to help you and there aren’t any charitable organisations or individuals ready to lend a hand. Seeing no other option to keep your child’s life, you steal some money from a very rich person to buy food and medicince. Subsequently, your child gets better, you find a new job, and eventually save enough money that you are able to anonymously return the money you stole, plus interest.
You have clearly violated the NAP by infringing on an innocent person’s property rights, but have you acted immorally? I would say no. I think that under such circumstances, theft is indeed morally justifiable. Framing the NAP as a general and absolute moral principle would run counter to this very strong moral intuition. If we instead conceive of it as a legal principle, this problem disappears.
It’s perfectly reasonable for the legal system to punish theft even in cases where the thief had very good reasons for stealing. After all, what is the alternative? If we allow needy people to steal, every thief who is caught will claim to be in need. It would mean that you couldn’t ever trust poor people because they might steal from you with impunity. Creating exceptions for cases like the scenario described above would create far more problems than it solves.
Libertarianism is a political philosophy, i.e. a philosophy about the proper use of violence in society. As such it is appropriate that a founding principle like the NAP does not concern itself with morality in general but merely with how the legal system should work. The NAP should be seen as a legal principle alongside other principles such as the presumption of innocence, the right to due process, and the prohibition against ex post facto law.
Defenders of the presumption of innocence are not called upon to show that this legal principle always leads to the best outcome. Sometimes murderers, rapists, and other vile criminals get to go free who would have been convicted under a legal system that presumes the defendant’s guilt. However, we regard the evil of false convictions as greater than the evil of false acquittals, so presumption of innocence is a sensible principle.
Likewise, libertarians should not be expected to show that adopting the NAP would lead to the optimal outcome in every scenario, but merely that it usually leads to better outcomes. I don’t think the former can be done, but the latter is much more manageable. Framing the NAP in this way takes some of the unjust burden of proof from the shoulders of libertarians and thus makes it easier to defend libertarianism.