The initiation of force, and forcing things

Libertarianism as a political movement pushes for less government. Libertarianism as political philosophy holds individual liberty as the highest end of politics. Many (not all) who adhere to the libertarian political philosophy also adhere to a moral principle known as the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP, which I previously alluded to) or the Zero Aggression Principle (ZAP).

People articulate the principle differently, but with the same intention. One version of NAP says: “Aggression is inherently illegitimate.” A version of ZAP says: “Don’t threaten or initiate force.”

However it’s written (and I’ll use ZAP hereon), it is fairly easy to grasp. We know force against others is wrong in our day-to-day activities. We don’t use force to get things we want, that’s robbery. We don’t use force against people we’re angry with, that’s battery or murder. We don’t use force when we want sex, that’s rape.

But what’s “radical” about ZAP is that, as a principle, it is applicable to all individuals, regardless of rank or station. If it is wrong for me to draw a weapon in a situation, it would be wrong for a police officer to draw it in a similar situation. If it is wrong for me to break into my neighbor’s home, it is wrong for a police officer to break into a neighbor’s home.

If it is wrong for my boss to tell me to extort money from my neighbors through threats, it is also wrong for legislation passed by politicians to give tax collectors that power. If it is wrong for my boss to order me to forcibly prevent my neighbor from taking a certain pill, it is also wrong for legislation to authorize law enforcement officers to do so.

Another way to view it is that just ends can never be produced by unjust means, or, the ends are the means. If we want government to provide peace, justice, and liberty, it must be peaceful, just, and tolerant. Its agents must not sow conflict. They must not inflict injury to persons. They must not take or damage property. They must not coerce or punish peaceful people. Their use of violence must only be in defense of themselves or others, as it would be for an individual.

I wonder if behind this moral principle is a life principle: don’t force things. Unjustified violence is the evil that results when governments violate the ZAP, but behind it is the error of the very idea of force.

Governments use force to force outcomes: a democratic Iraq, a drug-free America, affordable housing, affordable health care, good schools, etc. And almost always, it forces square pegs into round holes: more death, larger prisons, perverse incentives, poorly-written regulations, misallocated resources; on the whole, a lot more chaos than would have existed if government didn’t force its policies on us.

In a way, government mirrors the people it governs. I’m not saying it mirrors our policy preferences, but rather our personalities. For instance, government says we must prefer safety over liberty, and many of us protest and quote Benjamin Franklin (unknowingly) out of context. But then how many of us choose a career that promises financial security over the freedom of following our passion? We force ourselves into doing what we don’t want to do in order to achieve some theoretical greater, eventual good, but then the financial system collapses and we spent a life with neither financial security nor a fulfilling life.

How often do we pour more money into a failing business because too much work had been put into it? Or put more effort into a broken relationship because another divorce would be embarrassing?

In short, how often do we “initiate force” on ourselves — using fear, guilt, and self-doubt — to do the “right thing” as society has defined it, instead of doing the right thing for us as individuals?

Just as the government’s initiation of force leads to chaos instead of peace, so it is that the individual who forces outcomes in his own life will lose peace of mind.


James Leroy Wilson writes from Nebraska. He is the author of Ron Paul is a Nut (And So am I). Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Support through Paypal is greatly appreciated.