The non-aggression principle seems to be the starting point for many libertarians in their arguments against aggression. I disagree with this approach.
Libertarians agree that individuals have a right against aggression from others. Aggression is defined as the initiation of physical force against persons or property, the threat of such, or fraud upon persons or their property. As such, aggression against persons or the property of others is always illegitimate. To put it succinctly, one is free to act as long as it does not infringe on the rights of others.
It is only because of property rights that we can identify an act of aggression against victims. If Crusoe takes several of Friday’s fish, and runs away with them, at face value we cannot know if Crusoe is the aggressor and Friday the victim. It may be that Crusoe is merely repossessing his own fish, the ones that Friday stole from him yesterday. Therefore, the correct application of property rights will allow us to apply the use of aggression appropriately.
Non-aggression alone can never be the starting point in justifying moral behavior or serving as a fundamental principle of ethics. There must be a justification of the non-aggression principle before such a case can be made. The very implication of the term “principle” implies that non-aggression serves as the foundation for a system of ethics, which it cannot be. It is certainly not an axiom since it is not a self-evident truth.
In any case, property rights are the foundation necessary to explain the role of non-aggression. In other words, the non-aggression principle is simply another of
The fundamental fact that scarcity gives rise to conflict, and thus a need for property rights must not be forgotten. Moreover, the term can be misleading to some that may believe it precludes the use of force in self-defense. Property rights alone is enough to oppose aggression against others, and does not require an additional principle.
There are several implications that can be drawn from property rights. Suppose a large ship has marooned on the island. This has left a group of 1,000 people stranded with Crusoe and Friday. In such a case, the implications of scarcity and social order become even more apparent. Friday, knowing that Crusoe has a large stockpile of fish, makes an arrangement with another castaway from the ship. Together they believe that taking Crusoe’s fish will be much easier than fishing on their own. Instead of stealing the fish, Friday and the castaway simply threaten Crusoe. However, Crusoe refuses and is able to fend them off with a fishing spear he has fashioned.
In such a scenario, Crusoe is still justified in preventing Friday and the castaway from infringing on his rights. Yet, Friday is still determined to get a hold of Crusoe’s fish. Friday gathers several more hungry castaways together, now numbering 20, and returns to threaten Crusoe. Amazingly Crusoe is still able to fend them off with his spear. Even against 20 aggressors, Crusoe still has the right against aggression.
The hungry Friday, is ever more determined to take Crusoe’s fish. He convinces a majority of the castaways that it is in their best interest that Crusoe share the fish with everyone. They agree to send a force of 200 men to get the fish on everyone’s behalf. Crusoe is now faced with a looming threat, knowing he will not be able to fend off the large group of aggressors. As a result, Crusoe hires a small group of 50 castaways to help protect his fish. Armed with spears they are able to defend Crusoe’s fish from the aggressors.
In such a scenario we can see that it does not matter if it is one aggressor or hundreds of aggressors, they are still infringing on Crusoe’s rights. This holds true even when Friday recruits others to do his bidding for him. Since Friday does not have the right to aggress against Crusoe, he cannot designate others to use force on his behalf. On the other hand, Crusoe does have a right to protect his fish against aggressors. As a result, Crusoe is justified in enlisting the help of others in order to protect his rights.
As demonstrated in the example, we can see several implications that can be derived from property rights:
- You have the right to protect your own body, and its justly acquired property.
- You may rightfully ask or hire others to help protect your own body, and its justly acquired property.
- You do not have a right to initiate force against the bodies or property of others regardless of the number of initiators.
- You do not have a right to designate other persons to initiate force against the bodies or property of others on your behalf.
These implications are very apparent when examining the function of property rights in a social order. Importantly, the non-aggression principle becomes an irrelevant notion that can be discarded.
This essay is adapted from my book, Private Property, Law, and the State, which provides a concise and rigorous presentation of property rights theory and the roots of morality.