Non-Territorial Government and the Non-Aggression Principle

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If the freedom to choose one’s non-territorial government is central to libertarianism, what is its relation to the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP)?

Choosing a non-territorial government is a narrower and more definite concept than non-aggression. It’s easier to get people to agree on what it means to choose a government voluntarily than it is to get them to agree on what constitutes aggression. The rather large disagreements over aggression can be seen by the different concepts of aggression, injury, justice and remedies across different countries, cultures, times and within the same country. For example, libertarians think that taxes are theft but many Americans and vast numbers of people across the globe think that the government can legitimately redistribute wealth. But while ideas of aggression, property rights and justice vary widely, choosing a government has a fairly well-defined meaning. One phrase that suggests this choice is “consent of the governed.” This “is synonymous with a political theory wherein a government’s legitimacy and moral right to use state power is only justified and legal when derived from the people or society over which that political power is exercised.” If this idea is understood as applying at the level of every individual person, and not through majority rule, then consent of the governed is close to the concept of choosing one’s non-territorial government. But it of course needs the very important qualification that government shed its territorial monopoly.

The freedom for each person to choose his or her own non-territorial government bears an if and only if relation to the freedom to opt out of a territorial government. If one is free to choose a non-territorial government, that implies that one has the freedom to opt out of a territorial government. Conversely, if one has the freedom to opt out of a territorial government, it implies that one has the freedom to choose one’s non-territorial government.

If a given set of people agree that imposing a government on someone who doesn’t consent to it is an aggression and agree that they will not commit this aggression, these two agreements suffice to enable the freedom to opt out of their government. This logic, however, doesn’t invoke the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP) in all its generality. It refers only to one well-defined imposition, which is imposing a government against a person’s consent. The NAP is much broader. Referring to wikipedia, the NAP “is a moral stance which asserts that aggression is inherently illegitimate. NAP and property rights are closely linked, since what aggression is depends on what a person’s rights are.” This general statement, as suggested above, meets with differences when it comes to implementation.

If a set of people want the freedom to opt out of a government, it may be because they have different ideas about what aggression and justice are than the dominant ideas implemented by that government. If they can gain the option to choose their own non-territorial government, then they can define aggression and property rights as they will. (Their capacity to do so won’t be completely unconstrained, it should be noted, because they may well have differences with their neighbors and they will have to take into account the costs of conflicts or devise ways to lower these costs.) The fact that choice of (non-territorial) government coincides with or precedes notions of property rights, aggression and justice suggests that choice of government is the fundamental idea of libertarianism and not the NAP in all its generality.

If the central objective of libertarianism is to have the freedom to choose one’s non-territorial government (the choice of no government always being included therein), then although the NAP suffices to achieve this objective, it is not a necessary condition. It is unnecessarily broad to produce this result, and, because different people understand aggression in different ways, this undue generality fogs and confuses the central issue, giving rise to unnecessary resistance from those who do not agree on the meanings and implications of the NAP. All that is required to give choice in government is a narrower application of the NAP, namely, the idea that people at the individual level should have the freedom to choose their governing system on a non-territorial basis, because to be forced to live under a government one does not consent to is an aggression. A key slogan might be “consent of the governed”, but only if it is understood that this means that any persons can associate to form a non-territorial government. “Choice of non-territorial government” is a more accurate slogan that crystallizes the idea.

9:40 am on May 19, 2014