By Jonathan David Morris
A short time ago—okay, okay, way back in January—I began a discussion on the definition of libertarianism, which I’ve been meaning to continue ever since. The January column focused on two things: (1) the average libertarian’s dislike for government; and (2) the average libertarian’s dislike for average libertarians. While it’s certainly true that most libertarians see the government as the mafia’s mildly retarded big brother, this really only scratches the surface of their intense dislike for it. (Yours truly excluded. Like I said, I love the government. It’s my source of material.) You see, libertarians dislike the government for reasons beyond inefficiency. For them, the very idea of it is immoral.
That’s because libertarians abide by the Non-Aggression Principle.
The Non-Aggression Principle, also called the Zero Aggression Principle, is the principle that states that human beings don’t have the right to initiate force against each other. (Early Christians called this “Christianity.") Libertarians are so serious about this principle that the ones who call it the NAP and the ones who call it the ZAP won’t even fight each other over their differences. (Though they have been known to dance around in circles, wielding knives, like the Sharks and the Jets in West Side Story.)
For all intents and purposes, the NAP—or ZAP, or whatever you want to call it—is the same golden rule they drill into your head every year of school, starting with kindergarten. That is, that children should keep their hands to themselves. The simplicity of this premise is so fundamental to libertarianism that the NAP was originally called the Grade School Principle, but its name was changed because students kept confusing it with the Grade School Principal—who was merely the guy they hired to enforce it. This confusion raised all sorts of ethical questions on the nature of totalitarianism, which kept libertarians up late, which is why they forgot their math homework, they swear. So in order to avoid future confusion, they simply gave it two new names.
Now, as I said, the NAP states that human beings shouldn’t “initiate” force against each other. “Initiate” is the keyword here. While many libertarians believe self-defense is justified, it’s the initiation of force they have a problem with. That’s where the grade school analogy ends. In grade school, you get in trouble for fighting back. In libertarianism, self-defense is usually held as an inalienable right. (Though not always. As the Iraq war shows us, self-defense can be used to justify anything—even a “preemptive” strike.)
Of course, technically speaking, the grade school analogy ends before it begins, because libertarians view the taxes that pay for grade schools as an example of force. This brings us to the heart of the NAP matter. For most people, government is a given the same way earth, wind, fire, and water are. It’s simply a natural element. But the truth is that government—and not just our government, but every government—is, by definition, the perpetual use of force. You may think it’s a rational use of force, and that’s fine. You’re entitled to your opinion. But the fact that it’s force cannot be denied.
So how is it force? Well, let’s put it this way: At the other end of every single public policy issue—from speed limits and seatbelt laws to national IDs and steroids—there exists the barrel of a gun. And not just one gun, usually, but many guns. Whole police departments. Even armies. Or in America’s case, the most lethal arsenal ever assembled by mere human hands. So theoretically speaking, if the U.S. passes a law against smoking pot, then any American who rolls a joint risks facing the wrath of every weapon at the country’s disposal—including nukes. Granted, it’s farfetched. But the threat is there, and the punishment’s just as arbitrary as the law that it’s linked to.
And in case you haven’t heard, marijuana now accounts for half of all drug busts.
Now, obviously, no government’s perfect. And some, no doubt, are better than others. But libertarians would complain that that’s not good enough. Governments roam the planet like dogs marking territory. And the problem is, there’s no territory left. Folks who want better have nowhere left to go.
“Democratizing” the world isn’t the answer, either. Libertarians aren’t giddy about Middle Eastern democracy, for instance, because while they’re fond of liberty, they realize liberty and democracy aren’t always one and the same. Terrible things can happen in democracies. All it takes is 51 people out of 100 to force 49 into slavery. At that point, the government’s role is simply to uphold the popular will.
Which isn’t to say libertarians are utopians. They aren’t. Not all of them anyway. They understand bad things happen; it’s just that they don’t believe government should use force to monopolize the profits.
That’s why I believe government would scarcely exist—if at all—in an ideal libertarian society. Lawmakers would work part-time and laws would be optional. Businesses would cater to customer satisfaction rather than government contracts (see: Halliburton, Verizon, et al). And the only crimes would be those using force against person and property. People wouldn’t be free to steal, or rape, or pillage and plunder, in an ideal libertarian society. Nor would they be free to murder, as non-libertarians claim. Indeed, in an ideal libertarian society, cats and dogs would live together. Blacks and whites would respect their differences. NAPS and ZAPS would converge over mutual interests. And even the Sharks and Jets would dance like angels on puffy white clouds.
Maybe the ideal libertarian society would be all of these things. Or maybe there’s no such thing as an ideal libertarian society. I don’t know. But in a way, this uncertainty is the libertarian ideal. That, in a nutshell, is the Non-Aggression Principle.
Jonathan David Morris is a political writer -- and sometimes satirist -- based in Pennsylvania. A strong believer in small government, JDM often takes aim at oppressive taxes, entitlements, and laws, writing about incompetence at the highest levels of culture and government. Catch his weekly ramblings at readjdm.com.