Don’t hurt people: Matt Kibbe on why the non-aggression principle is essential to liberty

Screen Shot 2014-04-10 at 1.37.39 PMFreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe speaks at the 2014 International Students for Liberty Conference. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

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Don’t hurt people.

This rule seems simple enough, and no decent person would hurt another unless the action was provoked or in some way justified. Free people just want to be left alone, not hassled or harmed by someone else with an agenda or designs over their life and property. We would certainly strike back if and when our physical well‑being is threatened—if our family, our community, or our country were attacked.

But we shouldn’t hurt other people unless it is in self‑defense or in the defense of another against unchecked aggression.

Libertarian philosophers call this the Non‑Aggression Principle (NAP). Don’t start a fight, but always be prepared, if absolutely necessary, to finish a fight unjustly instigated by someone else. Here’s how Murray Rothbard put it:

The fundamental axiom of libertarian theory is that 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 corpusof libertarian theory.

Justice, says Adam Smith, is based on a fundamental respect for individual life. “Death is the greatest evil which one man can inflict upon another, and excites the highest degree of resentment in those who are immediately connected with the slain,” he writes. “Murder, therefore, is the most atrocious of all crimes which affect individuals only, in the sight both of mankind, and of the person who has committed it.”

We all agree that the first legitimate role of government force is to protect the lives of individual citizens. But things get more complicated when it comes to defending against “enemies foreign and domestic.”

In his 1796 Farewell Address, George Washington warned Americans not to “entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils” of foreign ambitions, interests, and rivalries. “It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.”

Our first president was hardly an isolationist, and his foreign policy views were guided, in large part, by common sense and pragmatism. One of his key considerations was the budgetary implications of overly ambitious foreign entanglements. “As a very important source of strength and security, cherish public credit,” Washington counseled. “One method of preserving it is to use it as sparingly as possible, avoiding occasions of expense by cultivating peace.”

You might interpret Washington’s skepticism, in a modern context, as warning against open‑ended nation‑building quagmires. Can we really establish a constitutional democracy in Iraq? Can we successfully mediate the violent disputes of warring factions in civil wars like the one going on today in Syria? Better yet, should we?

The principle of nonaggression means that we should only declare war on nations demonstrably seeking to do us harm. The men and women who volunteer for our military should not be put in harm’s way by their commander‑in‑chief without a clear and just purpose, without a plan or without an endgame. This is just common sense.

In an era in which our enemies are no longer just confined to nations, the other key question is the balance between security at home and the protection of our civil liberties, particularly our right to privacy and our right to due process. Massive expansions of the government’s surveillance authorities under the Patriot Act and recent amendments to the Foreign intelligence Surveillance Act have civil libertarians of all ideological stripes worried that the government has crossed essential constitutional lines.

Defending America against the unchecked aggression of our enemies is a first responsibility of the federal government, but respecting the rights of individual citizens and checking the power of unelected employees at the National Security Agency is an equally important responsibility.

I stand with Ben Franklin on this question. He said: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

We should always be skeptical of too much concentrated power in the hands of government agents. They will naturally abuse it. Outside government, an unnatural concentration of power—such as the extraordinary leverage wielded by mega‑investment banks or government employees unions—is always in partnership with government power monopolists.


Excerpt from Matt Kibbe’s latest book, “Don’t Hurt People and Don’t Take Their Stuff.

Matt Kibbe is the president of FreedomWorks and author of the “Hostile Takeover: Resisting Centralized Government’s Stranglehold on America” (William Morrow 2012) Follow him on Twitter at @MKibbe

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