Is the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP) Dead?

Recently, the NAP has been the subject of a number of blogs posted by people who question its ethical basis, practicality, and universality.  As someone who has written extensively on this subject for over two decades, I thought I’d weigh in.

Basically, the NAP has two parts. First of all, we don’t threaten others with first-strike force, fraud or theft. If we do, we make things right again with the person we’ve harmed, usually through restitution. For example, if we put a baseball through our neighbor’s window, we buy a new one.  The NAP, or as I like to call it, the Good Neighbor Policy, is what most of us were taught as children.  In relating to each other on an individual basis, most of us still adhere to it.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise.  The NAP has been “discovered” and “rediscovered” by tribes/civilizations since before the written word and passed down as oral tradition. The Ten Commandments has language reminiscent of the NAP as well:  thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not commit adultery (break contracts), thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not bear false witness (commit fraud), thou shalt not covet … anything that is thy neighbor’s.

The NAP is not pacificism. If someone threatens first-strike force against us, we don’t violate the NAP by defending ourselves with enough force to stop the aggressor. If I come after you with a knife or gun, and you knock me unconscious with a baseball bat, that’s perfectly appropriate.

If, as I lie unmoving, you continue to beat me with the baseball bat, that would likely be use of excessive force. While you are entitled to restitution for any trauma I’ve caused, you risk becoming an aggressor yourself by exacting vengeance instead of giving me a chance to apologize and make things right with you once I’ve been stopped.

Restitution is both a deterrent and rehabilitation. Japan, which encourages a restitution settlement between victims and aggressors before the trial, boasts a low crime rate. In the U.S. and other western nations, cases resolved, in whole or part by restitution, have greater victim satisfaction.

Restitution is an integral part of the NAP; it re-balances the scales after first-strike force, fraud, or theft.  Since most of us will violate the NAP at some point, it’s important to understand how restitution works.

For example, let’s say you are standing at street corner waiting for the light to change.  You notice a man talking on his cell, oblivious to the fact he’s about to step off the curb right into the path of an oncoming car.  Just as he’s about to be hit, you grab the back of his jacket and pull him to safety.  You’ve initiated force against him, not to harm him, but to help him.

Do you feel like you’ve done something wrong?  No!  You’ve just saved the man’s life; he’s going to be thanking you, not suing for restitution.  You haven’t harmed him or his property, so there is nothing for you to restore.

Let’s take another example.  You are hiking in the woods with your ten-year-old child and lose your way.  Your child screams; he has been bitten by a rather large rattlesnake, which is now making a hasty exit.

Your son needs immediate attention. As you look frantically around, you see a house—finally! It looks lived in, but is vacant at the moment.  You see a landline telephone as you look through the kitchen window, which could be life-saving. You are too far out in the wilderness for your cell to work and you need first-aid instruction.  You see car keys in the kitchen and a car in the garage.  If you had directions to the nearest hospital, your son would have a chance.

Do you violate the NAP by breaking into the house, using the phone, and taking the car? The answer is almost certainly “Yes!”  You’re quite willing to pay restitution to the homeowner at some later date.  In most instances, the homeowner will just want the broken entryway replaced and maybe a full tank of gas. Helping is so instinctual that we usually take great pride in being able to render it.

Of course, the homeowner might not be “usual.” Maybe he’ll demand $100,000 as restitution for the day-use of his car.  The man whose life you saved might trip as you pull him from the curb, break his leg, and expect you to pay his hospital bills.  For times when people can’t agree, a third party, such as a judge or arbitrator, can be called upon for resolution.  Gray areas will exist in any system we choose to adopt when interacting with our neighbors.

How does government fit into all this?  Maybe government is just trying to protect us, by pulling us back from a figurative curb or taking what belongs to one person to help another.  How is this different from the violations of the NAP described above?

The difference is that government usually claims “sovereign immunity” to limit the restitution it must pay.  Most of the time, it pays no restitution at all.  Even when it does, the individual bureaucrats who harmed others with their decisions are rarely held personally liable, as you or I would be if we committed the same acts. They have little or no incentive to do things differently next time. Their violation of the NAP, and harm that they do, usually escalates as a consequence.

The libertarian philosophy, which has the NAP as its foundation, is primarily a political movement only because this ethic is missing in politics. In our individual interactions, most of us are libertarians. Maybe the reason that politics feels dirty is because harming others without making it right again feels like a criminal act, even when done by bureaucrats and politicians with the best of intentions.

Dr. Mary J. Ruwart is a research scientist, ethicist, and a libertarian author/activist. You can read her Q&A about restitution in the Free Library at or Chapter 13 of her award-winning book, “Healing Our World.”  


  1. Mike Lorrey says

    Another way that governments fail is that while individual litigants use civil court, the state gives priority in seizing assets of aggressors to the state, so if someone harms you, the state may charge them with criminal offenses, and seize their assets for fines or civil forfeiture programs that help fund the state, leaving the real crime victim with nothing left to recover from the attacker. This is really no different from a mafia taking from a non-mafia criminal who victimized someone in the neighborhoods the mafia extorts “protection” money from. The real victims never see any of their property, it goes to the mafia.

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