At the heart of true libertarianism is the non-aggression principle. Throughout the ages mankind has expressed understanding of the idea that we should “live and let live” to the extent that we can do so. Around 300 BC Epicurus told us that “natural justice is a symbol or expression of usefulness, to prevent one person from harming or being harmed by another.”
“No one may threaten or commit violence (‘aggress’) against another man’s person or property. Violence may be employed only against the man who commits such violence; that is, only defensively against the aggressive violence of another. In short, no violence may be employed against a non-aggressor. Here is the fundamental rule from which can be deduced the entire corpus of libertarian theory.” ~Murray N, Rothbard
Walter Block once said that the difference between libertarians and most people who give lip service to the non-aggression axiom is that libertarians really mean it. We’re rabid about it and we make deductions from it. The way to be successful in analyzing a given situation, from a Libertarian perspective, is to keep your eye on the non-aggression axiom; never violate it no matter what. Of course, hand in hand with the non-aggression principle is the idea of property rights. One may not legitimately aggress against an innocent man nor his rightfully owned property. This solid core of libertarianism, the non-aggression principle, is in many respects a kind of political corollary to the Golden Rule.
On Twitter the other day some friends were talking about the non-aggression principle and the question of “what is aggression” came up. After all, it is all well and fine to be against aggression but to be against aggression means you have to know what aggression is in the first place. No?
So what is “aggression”? Aggression is the initiation of violence or the threatening of violence against a person or his legitimately owned property. Specifically, any unsolicited actions of other people that physically affect an individual’s property or person. This includes force, fraud, and intimidation. It does not matter if the result of these actions is damaging to the individual or not, it is still considered aggression when the actions are against the owner’s free will and interfere with his right to self-determination and the principle of self-ownership or violate his property rights. Aggression is harmful behavior that is forceful, hostile, or attacking. I reject the definition used (often in the social sciences) that aggression is a response by an individual that delivers something unpleasant to another person. After all, telling another person the truth is often unpleasant to them but that does not make it aggression! Leave it to the social sciences to undermine the clear meaning of a word.
It is easy to see that if I hold you up with a gun and take all your money that I have committed aggression against you. It is likewise easy to see that if I swindle you out of your money via subterfuge that I have committed aggression against you. Similarly, it is easy to see that if I deface your house in an act of vandalism that I have also committed aggression against your property rights. But what about verbal aggression? The Twitter conversation had Ken tweet that “I don’t mean simply verbal threats because that is obvious, I mean all forms of verbal aggression.” So what is “verbal aggression”?
It is difficult to nail down “verbal aggression” if we use the phrase in the modern usage of the “everyone is a victim” mindset of modern America. For the purposes of the non-aggression principle and libertarian law one must hold that any threat must be a credible one. If I say to you that I am going to blow you up with a bazooka as I stand in front of you unarmed, I have just made a non-credible threat. In terms of libertarian law I have not committed an actionable crime, but I certainly have disturbed the peace and tranquility! On the other hand, if I point a pistol at you I have committed an act of aggression without even saying a word!
One thing aggression is not is when I simply tell you my opinion. If I say that the new hair color you had done at the hair dresser today is not very faltering, or that it is downright horrible, I have not committed aggression. If I tell you that you are a damn idiot, I have not committed aggression. It is not true that every mean utterance by someone is aggression. Don’t get me wrong, I think that being mean is immoral and we should teach our young to be nice to people, but in terms of the Non-Aggression Principle we don’t include statements that are simply mean things to say. If we did we would have to round up everyone in all the middle schools at jail them! Let us keep our eye on the ball and remember that any unsolicited actions of other people that physically effects an individual’s property or person is aggression, and not if that other person says we are a “poopy-head”. (a major insult in the kid world I understand)
Even though one can say mean things without violating the non-aggression principle let us not forget that intimidation is a violation. Intimidation is intentional behavior, physical or verbal, that would cause a normal, reasonable person to fear of injury or harm. I suspect that there are many different opinions of what constitutes intimidation and that will continue to cause some controversy — especially when children and parents are involved. I can only offer the observation that some children love to play the victim so be careful before you believe that every mean comment made to your child is “intimidation”.
As I re-read the above I suspect that I will revisit this topic again when time allows me to post more in-depth on this topic. Perhaps this coming summer should I live that long and WordPress lets me keep publishing these random musings. The idea of that dividing line between verbal intimidation and just being mean is one place that aggression becomes a little fuzzy. Thanks to Ken for bringing up the topic.