An introduction to the permissibility and preferability of violence


Libertarianism is often rejected because the concepts behind it are misunderstood. One main points of contention is the delivery of justice and how individuals are entitled to see it through. Many people mistakenly view libertarianism as a system whereby interpersonal violence is always justified and preferable as the means to punish and demand restitution on those who violate persons and/or property. While it may be the case that violence is sometimes permissible, it is important to note that what is the permissible action is not always the preferable action.

First, the situations where violence can be justified need to be established. Strict pacifists, who reject the use of violence altogether, are not included in the following generalization since one need not worry about them using violence if a stateless society were to exist. Using broad criteria, it can be accepted by nearly everyone that an individual has the right to use violence to defend himself against an unprovoked violent attack. This example, however, is rather obvious and unsatisfying.

Take a different example: theft. Let’s say someone steals $50 from you. It would be permissible for you to pursue restitution from the thief. This could involve going to their home, breaking in, and taking $50 or delegating to someone else to do that for you. The money is your property and since it was stolen from you, the thief has no legitimate claim to it and so this violent response is justified.

While some violence is warranted, it is certainly not true that any level of violence in this situation would be justified. It is preposterous to say that the thief should be executed for stealing $50. If you did respond by killing the thief, you would be viewed and treated as a murderer by the community around you. To drive this point even more, imagine your neighbor, who does have the authority to make rules on how is property is to be used by others, puts up a sign on his lawn that said, “Anyone who walks on my lawn will be shot—no questions asked.” And imagine that he carried that threat out one day and killed someone simply for walking on his lawn. Even though the person violated the rules (i.e. laws) of your neighbor, no one would accept his actions as being just. He would correctly be treated as a murderous sociopath.

So what is the best course of action to take against people who wrong you? What if you could respond non-violently and effectively achieve the same goal as the violent response? Would that not be better?

How would a restaurant respond to someone eating a meal and not paying for it? One method (we see this in movies and television shows) would be to have the customer work to pay for his meal. If the customer refuses to do that and leaves without paying, the restaurant owner could chase him down and recover restitution by using force, but a better way might be to never serve that person again. They could also alert other restaurants and businesses in the area to make sure they also refuse service to this person.

This may not appear to an effective solution at first glance, because people would need to actually work together fairly well to make this a reality, but reputation does already play a huge role in life today. The Griffin Book is shared by various casinos and contains a list of people who have been found by one casino to be cheaters. This prevents known cheaters from being able to gamble. Reputation is also taken very seriously at eBay. People work very hard to ensure they receive positive reviews since that it what others have to go by in order to know they are dealing with a trustworthy user. Without their reputation system, eBay could not function, so they work very hard to ensure the integrity of it. There are numerous other examples where reputation is important for both consumers and businesses.

This is the reason why freedom of association is so important to libertarians. Those who engage in unsavory activities or violate property rights can be effectively dealt with by shunning, shaming, and terminating business with them. And in a society where disassociation is viewed as the more preferable option to deal with such things, it is perfectly reasonable to believe that systems that act as the mechanism for this would be fairly well-developed and well-known.

Contrast this idea with that of the state. Think about what happens if you break any law of the state. If the punishment isn’t a prison sentence, it is likely a fine. However, if you don’t pay the fine (or the subsequent additional fines), you will find yourself being placed under arrest in order to be put in prison. If you resist being put in prison, they will resort to killing you. Killing someone for breaking a minor law is rare, but it is because, for one reason or another, people are willing to deal with the initial punishments rather than the escalating consequences of ignoring those initial threats.

Think back to the person who ate their meal at a restaurant without paying. If the restaurant owner gets the police involved and they catch the thief, the threat of death is now in play. Nothing else has changed in the scenario except that the forceful hand of the state was added. What is it about the state that properly allows it to make such threats? Does such authority actually exist? If this behavior by individuals acting on their own is said would lead to unrest and a breakdown in society, why is it assumed that the same behavior by the state would bring order and peace?