Since groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center and Mother Jones are seeking to tarnish the entire freedom movement with the recent attack on two police officers in Las Vegas, I thought it was important that I reiterate my long-held belief that violence is a faulty tool for improving society. On both principled and pragmatic grounds, persuasion is the only path to lasting liberty. This may not sound exciting and adventurous to some, but it has the benefit of being the truth.
Before I get into the heart of the article, let me make a major disclaimer: For the sake of argument, I am going to accept the reports about the couple at face value. So there’s no need to email me and explain that this whole thing was a “false flag” designed to discredit the liberty movement; I am aware of such possibilities. Yet for the record, I want to walk through why it would be both ethically unjustified and stupid strategically for any real libertarians to behave in this way.
First let’s cover the matter of justice. Most people believe you are justified in using deadly force in self-defense. Some might go so far as to say that you can use deadly force to prevent a theft, especially if you are experiencing a robbery-in-progress and are not sure whether the robber plans on harming your physical person as well.
However, most codes of justice that I know—certainly the one developed by libertarian thinkers like Murray Rothbard—do not allow you to mete out the death penalty after the fact, to somebody who merely stole some of your property. Rothbard famously advanced a “two teeth for a tooth” principle in his book Ethics for Liberty. For example, if somebody steals your TV, then you can (a) go get your TV back and (b) do “the equivalent” rights violation to the thief, namely by stealing his TV. Thus, you get to take the monetary equivalent of two TVs from someone who stole your TV. But under no circumstances would Rothbard agree that you can, say, chop the thief’s hand off “to teach him a lesson,” let alone to actually kill him. That would be a punishment far in excess of the crime.
Lest readers unfamiliar with Rothbard recoil in horror at this apparent retrogression in Western civilization—after all, Jesus famously told His followers not even to insist on “an eye for an eye,” let alone two eyes for an eye—let me clarify that Rothbard was simply spinning out the implications of libertarian property rights theory. So his “two teeth for a tooth” was a maximum on how much punishment one could legally inflict on a criminal who had initiated aggression; Rothbard wasn’t arguing that in terms of one’s personal moral code, vengeance was the answer. Let me quote Rothbard in his own words:
Thus, it should be quite clear that, under libertarian law, capital punishment would have to be confined strictly to the crime of murder. For a criminal would only lose his right to life if he had first deprived some victim of that same right. It would not be permissible, then, for a merchant whose bubble gum had been stolen, to execute the convicted bubble gum thief. If he did so, then he, the merchant, would be an unjustifiable murderer, who could be brought to the bar of justice by the heirs or assigns of the bubble gum thief.
But, in libertarian law, there would be no compulsion on the plaintiff, or his heirs, to exact this maximum penalty. If the plaintiff or his heir, for example, did not believe in capital punishment, for whatever reason, he could voluntarily forgive the victim of part or all of his penalty. If he were a Tolstoyan, and was opposed to punishment altogether, he could simply forgive the criminal, and that would be that. Or—and this has a long and honorable tradition in older Western law—the victim or his heir could allow the criminal to buy his way out of part or all of his punishment. Thus, if proportionality allowed the victim to send the criminal to jail for ten years, the criminal could, if the victim wished, pay the victim to reduce or eliminate this sentence. The proportionality theory only supplies the upper bound to punishment—since it tells us how much punishment a victim may rightfully impose. [Rothbard, Ethics of Liberty, emphasis original.]
Thus we see that if the SPLC and others try to pin such violence on “anti-government rhetoric” then they have failed to carefully digest what the principled libertarian worldview actually is (surprise, surprise). Yes, it’s true that in his fiery writings Rothbard would refer to the State as a “gang of thieves writ large.” Yet from that worldview it does not follow that an individual is justified in attacking agents of the State. Libertarian theory certainly offers no defense for walking up to two random police officers eating pizza and opening fire, as allegedly happened in this case.
Even if a mob boss has systematically shaken you down, taking money from you over the years, in standard libertarian theory you’re not allowed to walk up to him point-blank and shoot him. That would be punishment in excess of the crime. So even for libertarians who take “the State is a big gang” as a genuine statement of fact, rather than a metaphor, it still doesn’t follow that one is justified in shooting at agents of the State, merely because they are working for a group that has stolen money from your paychecks.
Now let’s move on to the pragmatic considerations. Suppose there are readers who are not persuaded by my above appeals to justice and morality. Perhaps they’ll say, “This is war!” (which is always a sign that awful things are about to happen). Perhaps they’ll draw analogies with the American Revolution.
Yet hang on a second. It would be weird to look with pride upon the American colonists for their violent uprising against Great Britain, when what modern liberty lovers hate is the State that grew out of the American Revolution. The Confederate states tried to use violence to get the people in DC to back down. That didn’t work out very well. Not only did hundreds of thousands of people die, but the US empire emerged even stronger from the carnage of the 1860s.
Whatever method one thinks is the best avenue for achieving liberty, the liberty side needs more numbers. That means that in the short run, people who oppose the US State need to engage in education and persuasion, to get more of our neighbors to understand why we are so horrified at the activities carried out on a daily basis, and to show them that a truly voluntary society is not a pipe dream, but could actually be a wonderful reality if only more of us would give it a chance.
Yet notice something intriguing: Over time, as more and more people become persuaded that aggression is an unsuitable means for organizing social life, the power of the State would correspondingly shrink. Even at the point where a violent insurrection could physically succeed, there would be no reason to activate it. The people in the liberty movement at that time could simply engage in the same process of peaceful persuasion to shift the balance even more in favor of non-aggression.
Violence and fear are the tools of the State and its minions. People who love liberty should never embrace the weapons of their enemies, or else they will strengthen the very thing they despise. Just about every libertarian today would agree that persuading more people to voluntarily embrace liberty is necessary to achieve a free society, but I go further and claim that it is also sufficient. There’s no “last mile” that needs to be won through military conquest.
If the people seeking liberty have the truth on their side, they don’t need to kill a bunch of people to win the argument.