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.


Your rating: None Average: 5 (2 votes)
Glen Allport's picture
Columns on STR: 104

Glen Allport co-authored The User's Guide to OS/2 from Compute! Books and is the author of The Paradise Paradigm: On Creating a World of Compassion, Freedom, and Prosperity. He maintains This is one in a series of columns on the human condition.


wkmac's picture

"if the non-aggression principle were being enforced"

"Enforced" may have been an accidental poor choice of words considering the full context of the article. Regardless, still a very good article and enjoyed how freedom and liberty were connected to the concept of love. I think we in the hardcore-libertarian/anarchist ways of thinking should do more to ponder what we are doing and advocating it as much an action of love towards our fellow man as it is about freedom.

Looking forward to the rest of this series!

Glen Allport's picture

My wife flagged that point also, but I stuck with "enforced" because that's exactly what has to happen and because nothing about the enforcement of non-aggression requires either the State or aggression. As the Wikipedia quote points out, "In contrast to pacifism, the non-aggression principle does not preclude violent self-defense." In fact most of the "enforcement" would be via contracts, mediation, the need to maintain one's reputation (for bonding in many cases and simply so that others would remain willing to do business with you) and so on but any stateless society will have security and protection firms and other tools to protect people against aggression and to repair the damage, compensate the victims, and otherwise deal with the aftermath when aggression DOES occur. This IS "enforcement" although it will clearly rely less on violence and on often useless and always costly incarceration (and never on aggression, as defined in the column) than the State's version.

On your second point, you're quite right that advocating liberty is an expression of love for others (among other things) -- and I have long believed that the artificial and unhealthy rift between freedom and love in the public mind is a deal-breaker for the public at large, and for good reason. People rightly want love and compassion to BE a part of their world-view (well, any reasonably healthy person does) and any philosophy that does not directly address this will fail. Liberty will never prevail until the freedom movement consistently understands and describes liberty as a concept that requires a (non-political, non-State mandated, non-State-provided) widespread sense of connection and compassion to be viable. A society of neurotics and sociopaths will never be free for long.

wkmac's picture

Thanks for the clarification Glen. Point taken.

As for the part on Love, Gary Chartier at the Agora I/O conference gave a talk on Personal Style in Anarchist Activism (see YouTube) and he also took a few moments to address the action of love in what we are doing. I think you both hit on a point that needs discussion and is very timely. Tip of the hat to you for the foresight and courage to do so!

Lawrence M. Ludlow's picture

Glen, thanks for putting together another presentation of the libertarian-love connection. It might be interesting for you to follow in the coming months a new school project that we libertarian/anarchists (not LP) in San Diego are pursuing. It is a form of learner-directed school that emphasizes internal motivation instead of rewards and punishments. On FaceBook until we build the web site, we have a group called Summum Bonum Learning Center ( It is a new kind of alternative school we are planning here, and I believe it is unique in the learning and libertarian communities. It is an alternative school that uses much of the good aspects of the Summerhill and Sudbury schools, but without the coercive democratic voting aspects of both. The principals are all libertarians and trainers and former educators. Like you, we are deeply interested in healthy psychological perceptions and communication -- including the observations of the non-violent communication method of Marshall Rosenberg ( I'm putting together the business plan, which will be revealed at Libertopia in San Diego here in October 2011 ( Like you, we have found the toxic psychological crippling of our society affects libertarians just as much as the coercivists of the left and right, and our group at Cafe Libertalia, which hosts a weekly Mises Mondays discussion, has many members that are hip to nonviolent communication. It's good to see so many people getting hip to this perception.