Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

The Right to Self-Defense

Posted by M. C. on May 13, 2022

If there can be no compulsion against jurors or witnesses, then a libertarian legal order will have to eliminate the entire concept of the subpoena power. Witnesses, of course, may be requested to appear. But this voluntarism must also apply to the defendants, since they have not yet been convicted of crime.

Murray N. Rothbard

If every man has the absolute right to his justly-held property it then follows that he has the right to keep that property—to defend it by violence against violent invasion.

Absolute pacifists who also assert their belief in property rights—such as Mr. Robert LeFevre—are caught in an inescapable inner contradiction: for if a man owns property and yet is denied the right to defend it against attack, then it is clear that a very important aspect of that ownership is being denied to him. To say that someone has the absolute right to a certain property but lacks the right to defend it against attack or invasion is also to say that he does not have total right to that property.

Furthermore, if every man has the right to defend his person and property against attack, then he must also have the right to hire or accept the aid of other people to do such defending: he may employ or accept defenders just as he may employ or accept the volunteer services of gardeners on his lawn.

How extensive is a man’s right of self-defense of person and property? The basic answer must be: up to the point at which he begins to infringe on the property rights of someone else. For, in that case, his “defense” would in itself constitute a criminal invasion of the just property of some other man, which the latter could properly defend himself against.

It follows that defensive violence may only be used against an actual or directly threatened invasion of a person’s property—and may not be used against any nonviolent “harm” that may befall a person’s income or property value. Thus, suppose that A, B, C, D … etc. decide, for whatever reason, to boycott the sales of goods from Smith’s factory or store. They picket, distribute leaflets, and make speeches—all in a non-invasive manner—calling on everyone to boycott Smith. Smith may lose considerable income, and they may well be doing this for trivial or even immoral reasons; but the fact remains that organizing such a boycott is perfectly within their rights, and if Smith tried to use violence to break up such boycott activities he would be a criminal invader of their property.

Defensive violence, therefore, must be confined to resisting invasive acts against person or property. But such invasion may include two corollaries to actual physical aggression: intimidation, or a direct threat of physical violence; and fraud, which involves the appropriation of someone else’s property without his consent, and is therefore “implicit theft.”

Thus, suppose someone approaches you on the street, whips out a gun, and demands your wallet. He might not have molested you physically during this encounter, but he has extracted money from you on the basis of a direct, overt threat that he would shoot you if you disobeyed his commands. He has used the threat of invasion to obtain your obedience to his commands, and this is equivalent to the invasion itself.

It is important to insist, however, that the threat of aggression be palpable, immediate, and direct; in short, that it be embodied in the initiation of an overt act. Any remote or indirect criterion—any “risk” or “threat”—is simply an excuse for invasive action by the supposed “defender” against the alleged “threat.” One of the major arguments, for example, for the prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s was that the imbibing of alcohol increased the likelihood of (unspecified) people committing various crimes; therefore, prohibition was held to be a “defensive” act in defense of person and property. In fact, of course, it was brutally invasive of the rights of person and property, of the right to buy, sell, and use alcoholic beverages.

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