The median libertarian out there on the internet (especially in the sad pits of Reddit) seriously thinks the non-aggression principle does work in favor of their preferred economic institutions. Even notable people like Jason Kuznicki of Cato can get sucked into this stupidity, though from what I recall of our last run in, he has now abandoned it.
As he must. The non-aggression principle, if actually followed, renders ownership of non-bodily things totally impermissible. When it is employed in argument, it is done in a transparently circular, question-begging, and tautological way.
The sad thing is that even though the mouth-breathing libertarians continue to press non-aggression as if it isn’t a total train wreck, smarter libertarians have already abandoned it for precisely the reasons I have given above.
Even if the NAP is correct, it cannot serve as a fundamental principle of libertarian ethics, because its meaning and normative force are entirely parasitic on an underlying theory of property. Suppose A is walking across an empty field, when B jumps out of the bushes and clubs A on the head. It certainly looks like B is aggressing against A in this case. But on the libertarian view, whether this is so depends entirely on the relevant property rights – specifically, who owns the field. If it’s B’s field, and A was crossing it without B’s consent, then A was the one who was actually aggressing against B. Thus, “aggression,” on the libertarian view, doesn’t really mean physical violence at all. It means “violation of property rights.” But if this is true, then the NAP’s focus on “aggression” and “violence” is at best superfluous, and at worst misleading. It is the enforcement of property rights, not the prohibition of aggression, that is fundamental to libertarianism.
Another reason is that it’s not clear that “non-aggression” is really the most fundamental libertarian principle. In fact, I think it’s not. I think the libertarian conception of property rights is more fundamental than aggression. If I use force to take an apple from your hand, is it aggression? Is it trespass? Well, that depends on who owns the apple. If it is my apple, and you have just stolen it from me, then it is not trespass. If it is your apple, then it is trespass, or aggression. Classifying an action as aggression or not requires knowing who owns what.
You can’t resolve a philosophical debate between a classical liberal and a socialist by appealing to the NAP, because each can claim their view is consistent with that principle given their theories of property: The state is not “aggressing” on an individual “property owner” if in fact The People ultimately own (or have some kind of share right in) all property, given the normatively loaded way “aggression” is used here. The appeal of the NAP lies in its apparent simplicity and intuitive plausibility (tautologies tend to be intuitively plausible), but it’s typically deployed in a way that amounts to a kind of shell game: I argue that socialism must be rejected on the grounds that it violates this one simple moral principle, and hope my interlocutor doesn’t notice that I’ve essentially begged the question by baking a theory of strong property rights incompatible with socialism into my conception of “aggression,” when of course libertarian property rights are ultimately backed by the threat of (individual or state) violence as well.
Libertarians who go on about the non-aggression principle just assume in the background of their argument their theories of ownership even when those are precisely what their opponents are disagreeing about. They assume they are correct about entitlement as a premise in their argument for why they are correct about entitlement.
What’s so pathetic about this is that, when you talk to these fedora-wearing libertarian sorts, they actually think they are super-rational logical beings. They behave as if other theories aren’t nearly as crisp and straightforward as theirs are. But the non-aggression principle is one of the most failed arguments in the history of philosophy (followed closely by Hoppe’s argumentation ethics). Lots of arguments in philosophy fail, but usually they do so in subtle ways, and their imprecision and vagueness allows their proponents ways out. However, the non-aggression principle fails in the cleanest, most obvious way imaginable: it is a straight up circular argument and anyone can see its circularity if they are remotely intelligent.
I could understand the popularity of the non-aggression principle among young conservatives if it had some kind of intuitive appeal. But it doesn’t even have that. I mean look at the picture at the top. You might think the person shouldn’t run out on the field, but would you really describe him as having initiated force and aggression against someone? Would you say he was the initiator of aggressive violence or the dude who tackled him? Only a mind utterly captured by pure ideology would say that their intuition is that the guy who has done nothing but run about is the violent aggressor here. The intuitions should run in the other direction.
So you end up having in the non-aggression principle a notion that is utterly bankrupt philosophically (something smart libertarians concede) and totally implausible and non-intuitive just on its face. Yet it remains the dominant rhetorical device of slow-witted young conservatives too embarrassed to call themselves Republicans.