"Nip the shoots of arbitrary power in the bud, is the only maxim which can ever preserve the liberties of any people. When the people give way, their deceivers, betrayers, and destroyers press upon them so fast, that there is no resisting afterwards. The nature of the encroachment upon the American constitution is such, as to grow every day more and more encroaching. Like a cancer, it eats faster and faster every hour. The revenue creates pensioners, and the pensioners urge for more revenue. The people grow less steady, spirited, and virtuous, the seekers more numerous and more corrupt, and every day increases the circles of their dependents and expectants, until virtue, integrity, public spirit, simplicity, and frugality, become the objects of ridicule and scorn, and vanity, luxury, foppery, selfishness, meanness, and downright venality swallow up the whole society." ~ John Adams
Could the Non-Aggression Principle Stop the Sixth Great Extinction?
Column by Glen Allport.
Exclusive to STR
[A five-part series]
Part 1: Civil Society Requires Non-Aggression (and one thing more)
Unless you're a hard-core libertarian, you probably haven't heard much about the non-aggression principle, or NAP. That's a shame, because the NAP is what would have saved the world from the Fukushima nuclear disaster, from the BP Gulf of Mexico spill (and worse, the toxic response that followed), from the depleted-uranium-spewing wars and corrupt occupations the United States has been bankrupting itself with in the Middle East, and from other major disasters and systemic risks as well – had it only been widely understood and enforced.
How could the non-aggression principle have prevented such horrors? In many ways, but perhaps the most underappreciated is this: By making it impossible to raise the necessary funding. Only aggression can pull enough money from people to fund the major evils we see in the world, including endless war, massive police state agencies, multi-billion dollar corporate give-aways, pro-corporate "regulation" that favors profits over human and environmental health and which raises consumer costs into the stratosphere, and trillions of dollars in other wasteful, harmful programs. Neither you nor your neighbors would pay for such things if you had a choice in the matter, and it is no overstatement to say that those evils would literally not exist if the non-aggression principle were being enforced. Without this simple truth, politics and the state of the world generally cannot be understood. More on that, and on other ways in which the NAP restrains and prevents evil, later in this series of essays.
The non-aggression principle is the "libertarian half" of the Golden Rule ("Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"). Non-aggression is also a good operational definition of freedom: A society that reliably prevents aggression is free; a society that does not reliably prevent aggression is not free. Wikipedia on the subject:
"The non-aggression principle . . . is an ethical stance which asserts that 'aggression' is inherently illegitimate. 'Aggression' is defined as the 'initiation' of physical force against persons or property, the threat of such, or fraud upon persons or their property. In contrast to pacifism, the non-aggression principle does not preclude violent self-defense."
If non-aggression is the libertarian half of the Golden Rule, compassion is what might be termed the Golden Rule's emotional half. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" suggests positive, compassionate action as well as non-aggression – and yes, that combination would be love and freedom in a nutshell. A society characterized by both non-aggression and compassion would be a truly civil society. These two characteristics are both necessary because each supports and requires the other:
· Freedom involves respecting each person and allowing them to express their unique desires, talents, and so on – whereas unfreedom is, literally, the disrespect of every individual aggressed against. A police state (or any form of tyranny) is a difficult environment for love and also short-circuits the natural, decentralized mechanisms of the market – not only in commerce but in ideas, initiatives, problem-solving, charity, and many other things.
· Love includes a compassionate sense of connection with others, without which no society functions well for long. Love supports fair and honest behavior in the market and encourages positive actions (such as charity and small, healthy human interactions that go beyond mere non-aggression) that the market would otherwise do poorly or not at all. A healthy sense of connection extends to all life, including animals and the environment generally. Love and the sense of connection are natural results of a healthy early life; widespread emotional health thus requires compassionate, and respectful treatment of children, infants, and pregnant mothers, including gentle birth practices whenever possible.
Love and freedom form a duality in human life; love is yin to freedom's yang. Lack of either quality, for an individual or a society, is unhealthy and eventually catastrophic. Classical liberals* of the 1700s and 1800s understood the connected nature of love and freedom (but vaguely, without much science or detail) – they knew that reducing or eliminating the coercive State was necessary in large part because government coercion (aggression) involves cruelty. This cruelty is both directly applied and indirectly caused in many ways – for example, by market disruption, including severe poverty and famine at the extreme – and by the many other knock-on effects of disrespecting and restraining entire populations.
* There are other branches or versions of classical liberalism; like "anarchism" the term is vague and used in different ways by different groups. I use "classical liberalism" to describe a compassionately pro-freedom mindset common during and for some time after the American revolutionary period.
Love is hard to measure and impossible to enforce – love and compassion are inner states, outside the realm of politics or enforcement (which makes government-run or government-funded "compassion" a dangerous contradiction in terms) – but non-aggression is defined by human actions. Non-aggression can and must be enforced; use of coercion (or substitutes for coercion such as fraud or theft) is criminal action and must be widely seen as unacceptable and corrected when it occurs. Anything less than non-aggression is uncivilized. For obvious reasons, aggression is a crime and is categorized in the criminal code as assault, rape, theft, fraud, coercion, and so on.
Again, classical liberals knew well that aggression was a crime and sensed, if less clearly, that love was every bit as important as non-aggression. But widespread emotional damage in the United States (as in most other places) and the shockingly-strong remains of institutionalized aggression, within and without government, constantly worked against the healthier trend expressed in the Declaration of Independence and in the words and actions of so many people of the time. The eventual result was the dissipation of the classical liberal paradigm, with its focus on liberty and compassion, and the rise of opposing forces.
Widely and reliably enforced non-aggression would have prevented most of the major human-caused evils we see in the world, including some that may be pushing the Earth to a Great Extinction event (more on that in a later essay in this series).
Non-aggression and compassion are a mutually-supportive duality; no society can have either for long without healthy levels of the other. A society characterized by both non-aggression (i.e., freedom or liberty) and compassion is a civil society.
The Golden Rule, found in various forms in nearly all major religions, encourages both non-aggression and compassion – an indication of the fundamental nature of this duality in human life.
Non-aggression is defined by human actions, and so must be enforced, while compassion and love are inner states and thus cannot be enforced.
Compassion and the sense of connection with (and respect for) others are fostered by compassionate and respectful treatment early in life; by love and freedom, in other words. Humans are sensitively dependent on early experience, not only throughout childhood but also in infancy, during birth, and while in the womb. Much scientific evidence supports this.
Next in this series: How the Idea of Civil Society was Destroyed