In the presidential election of 2016, Gary Johnson, Austin Petersen, and Jon McAfee all expressed criticism or skepticism of the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP). This is odd because: a) the NAP is the fundamental principle of libertarian thought, and b) these were the major libertarian candidates in the primary.
Since then, I’ve noticed many individuals expressing criticism of the NAP, much of it coming from a misunderstanding of what the NAP is and what it is meant to do.
The criticisms I’ve noticed fall into two categories. One is the fallacious mistake of coming to a conclusion regardless of a foundation, and then rejection a sound foundation based on preconceived conclusions. The other is the non sequitur that because the NAP does not condemn something as aggression or inherently ethically wrong, then a free society has no way to solve problems beyond what the NAP outlines.
The NAP’s function is not to bring us to certain conclusions. It’s a principle upon which we can derive ethical and political conclusions. Those things it does not answer are outside the scope of ethics and are a matter of aesthetic preference. Poverty is ugly. Letting people die is ugly. Neither of these is inherently unethical.
Suppose I say, “Utilitarianism is stupid because it doesn’t conclude that green is a better color than blue. Any convincing ethical worldview must conclude that green is better than blue.” I would obviously not be providing an argument, but not because it’s absurd on the surface, rather it’s because colors have nothing to do with ethics.
(Utilitarianism has other critical issues other than not concluding that green is better than blue.)
We can’t come to a conclusion about what is and is not an ethical question before we can define the scope of what ethics encompasses. In an elegant fundamental axiom, the NAP both limits the scope of what is ethical and gives us a foundation upon which to conclude answers to ethical questions.
The NAP allows a libertarian to clearly think and assess actions to solve aesthetic problems ethically, i.e. without coercion (and perhaps avoiding violence). The voluntary market is in every case the ethical solution to aesthetic questions, hence the idea that anarchism and capitalism are complements of each other.
Poverty is ugly and problem. Is it ethical to tax the rich to pay for the poor? No. It is not ethical. However, does that mean that a free society would not solve the problems of poverty? Of course, a free society could and would.
First, living standards of the poorest in freer markets are far better off than those in more restricted markets. Second, if enough people think poverty is ugly, they will voluntarily bring the poor up through philanthropy. There is strong evidence that philanthropy outperforms state intervention and welfare, especially in the United States.
The same goes for anything else that is ugly, but not convincingly unethical. If enough people think discrimination, bad wages, expensive health care, letting people die, or anything else is ugly and should be stopped, the ethical solution is not to justify force, but to come about a solution voluntarily. For that to happen, a totally free market is required.