Bryan Caplan  

Rights: A License to Kill?

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I am a libertarian and a pacifist.  Contrary to many, the two are not merely compatible; given the ugly realities of the world, the former implies the latter.  As I've put it before:
I'm a pacifist not because I oppose self-defense, but because it's virtually impossible to fight a war of self-defense.  Even if militaries don't deliberately target innocent bystanders, they almost always wind up recklessly endangering their lives.  If a policeman fought crime the way that "civilized" armies wage war, we'd put him in jail.
Many libertarians respond to my position in a curious way.  For all other purposes, they view individual rights as sacrosanct.  But when I point out the hard truth that wars of "self-defense" are nigh impossible, they suddenly discover the wonder of pragmatism.  I've repeatedly heard them opine that "Rights are not a suicide pact."  On reflection, this is a strange argument indeed; are they really claiming that both sides would be safer if everyone recklessly endangered the lives of bystanders?  If not, where's the suicide pact?

If pro-war libertarians merely became consequentialists, though, the moral danger would be minimal.  As long as you remember to count all the collateral damage of war on all sides, and appropriately adjust for the uncertainty that war will actually yield the long-run benefits its advocates promise, you'll be a pacifist, more or less. 

But surprisingly few pro-war libertarians actually adopt this sanely moderate position.  Many instead look upon their rights as a license to kill.  If their rights are in danger, they consider it morally permissible to do whatever necessary to defend them.  When pressed with hypotheticals, some admittedly retreat to a lop-sided consequentialism, where their rights simply count far more than the rights of innocent bystanders on the other side.  But plenty of pro-war libertarians bite the bullet, and affirm that they could in good conscience kill any number of strangers to protect the most trivial of their rights.

It's hard to argue with a position so outrageous, but I'll try.  If there are no moral limits upon your defense of your own rights, why would you imagine that there are any moral limits upon your pursuit of your own interests, either?  If you'll kill a million strangers to defend your right to burn the Quran, why not kill a million strangers to rob them of their possessions?  If you bite that bullet, too, there's no reason to keep calling yourself a libertarian.  Just say you believe that might makes right, and leave it at that.
 

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TrackBack URL: http://econlog.econlib.org/mt/mt-tb.cgi/4906
The author at Eli Dourado in a related article titled Peace through Political Assassination? writes:
    Bryan Caplan writes three compelling posts on the common-sense case for pacifism. The short version of his argument is that it’s wrong to kill innocent foreigners (“collateral damage”), especially when the gain in doing so is not clea... [Tracked on April 25, 2011 4:55 PM]
COMMENTS (30 to date)
MikeDC writes:

I find this sort of argument wholly inadequate to describing the problems at hand. I don't think there's any way to limit the rights a "pro-war libertarian" would fight for to the "trivial" ones.

Suppose some jerk burns a Koran, and devout Muslims respond with by killing every American they come across. Should I, and other Americans not organize for our collective defense?

Whether we agree with Koran burning or not would be irrelevant once people that violently oppose Koran burning (but support all sorts of other violence against me) decide to target me.

Steve_0 writes:

You make the common move of lumping all violence into one bucket. I believe a common objectivist / libertarian / defensibilist(?) position is to clarify the difference between initiation of violence and response to violence initiated.

This seems clearly to parse the two examples you give in your concluding paragraph. I don't know that this answer will satisfy you, but it's something you don't clearly address- which makes me wonder if you're unaware or avoiding.

Pacifism for its own sake seems a Kantian fallacy to me. I don't believe in categorical goods. Actions or positions are only good for a purpose. One's own rights aren't abstract, they are the real possibility of acting in one's own interest. Allowing someone to initiate force upon you without response is to give up any pretense of rights before you even get started.

Conversely, a defensibilist libertarian would recognize that initiating violence on another would not create any goods, services, or value; would not be a fruitful investment of his own time; and would violate his own basic principle of non-initiation of violence.

You're normally an excellent philosopher, but here you seem too close to straw-man arguments, unjustified equivocation, and the fallacy of the excluded middle. The right to defense in the face of initiated violence does not mean unleashing WWIII. But the answer doesn't have to mean pacifism to the extent of losing ones own right to life.

There's an enormous middle ground between those two. Exactly how each individual should play the situation out in each given context is certainly a larger task than I'm willing to claim ability to discern. But expecting to derive a perfect philosophy for every conflict-interaction seems like a "man of system" move. No emergent economic system has a perfect outcome, but we don't just pitch it out the window and give in to statism. Imperfect outcomes are not a positive argument for the opposite position.

Defensive response may be messy, and I agree with the urge to minimize the collateral damage. But we don't become pacifist martyrs simply because the outcome isn't perfect. It seems to me you haven't made the positive case for pacifism as a universal goal, or excused saving the life of the aggressor as somehow system optimal (for fear of the risk of any innocent life).

Life is not inherently valuable.

Lester Hunt writes:

Bryan, I am almost a pacifist in your sense (it sounds like you are not against individual self-defense, as the lunatic Tolstoy was). The reason for the "not quite" is the doctrine of Double Effect. I see a difference between and evil effect which is intentionally brought about and a evil effect that is brought about as a foreseen but unavoidable side effect of pursuing a legitimate goal. Of course, this requires a rule that specifies when the goal is "legitimate" enough to justify bringing about the evil side effect. My rule takes the phrase "the horrors of war" seriously. It is that war is only justified when the alternative is at least as horrible as what you are about to do. This almost never happens, I believe. Hence the "almost" in the self-description above.

Kevin writes:

(I threw this out on Facebook, but so many comments flooded that link that I thought I'd mention it here as well.)

"...it's virtually impossible to fight a war of self-defense."

Would you say that the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto were morally in the wrong? That wasn't literally a *war* of self defense - it would be more accurately classified as a *battle* of self defense, but does that create a substantial moral distinction?

OneEyedMan writes:

"But plenty of pro-war libertarians bite the bullet, and affirm that they could in good conscience kill any number of strangers to protect the most trivial of their rights."

Recognizing that you have the right to something is very different from saying such conduct is obligatory or desirable. It might be morally permissible to kill thieves but still better to avoid doing so when possible.

K.V. writes:

What would you say about a Doctrine of Double Effect defense of self-defense?

hsearles writes:

And what would a pacifist do when there is an army storming through one's homeland? Is it wrong to unite and join an army to oust the invaders? Is he just going to hope for the best and believe that the invaders have no ill will against him? Is the only just response to invite the invaders into our homes and treat them as guests? What if the invaders have dark plans in store for their new territory, ought the population defend themselves? If pacifism is true, then life in this land is forfeit to the invaders and I consider that a ridiculous conclusion that betrays the ridiculousness of pacifism.

It is very easy to consider pacifism in an age where there is no threat of invasion, but one ought not forget that wars have had to be fought to reach this peace.

george writes:

So, in what way are there any good wars? And if no good wars exist, then aren't you susceptible to an aggressor and thus like telling your kids to never hit back? I'm generally against war(as are most people), but I think you are dismissing all legitimate exceptions.

War is pretty difficult to sell in modern times so luckily much less popular, but coercion via prison is not and is based on a similar idea, and I think US would be worse off if imprisonment rates were lower.

Lester Hunt writes:

George, Unless I have misunderstood it, Bryan's argument is not about individuals defending themselves against other individuals, it is about governments fighting other governments.

Bob Murphy writes:

(it sounds like you are not against individual self-defense, as the lunatic Tolstoy was).

Count me as a lunatic then, Lester. I think violence is overrated, even in personal self-defense.

Aeon J. Skoble writes:

The problem with this position is it that it cedes to bad guys the power to set the level of evil. I'm going to make up an example so as to avoid arguments about how to interpret history - say Argentina decides to declare war on the US. Now it won't do to note that we're all individuals, that governments are coercive and nonrepresentative, that borders are fictions, that all men are brothers, etc. Because the people dropping bombs on your head don't believe any of that. So option 1 is to say "well, we can't deploy our military to counterattack because innocent people will get killed." Option 2 is fight back. Note that, in a complete reversal from your title, it's the denial of rights (here by the Argentines) that becomes a license to kill, and if we go with option 1, a lot more of us get killed. The sad moral compromise we're forced into when we choose option 2 is both the lesser of two evils, and an evil the responsibility for which lies with the aggressor.

Aeon J. Skoble writes:

My argument for why libertarianism, even radical libertarianism, doesn't entail pacifism:
http://www.reasonpapers.com/pdf/28/rp_28_4.pdf

Steve_0 writes:

Aeon J. Skoble, that is a very well articulated position you made above.

I consider this post one of Bryan's weakest. It's not up to his own standards. He would easily have picked this essay to pieces if it were offered by an opponent.

Mark Brady writes:

Bryan caplan writes,

"I'm a pacifist not because I oppose self-defense, but because it's virtually impossible to fight a war of self-defense. Even if militaries don't deliberately target innocent bystanders, they almost always wind up recklessly endangering their lives. If a policeman fought crime the way that "civilized" armies wage war, we'd put him in jail."

This is akin to bait and switch. Although all the examples you have in mind concern states fighting states, you are a libertarian anarchist and as such reject statism in all its forms. What then is the relevance of these examples for your own political philosophy?

mtraven writes:

As a frequent critic of all things libertarian, let me say that I find your stance much more admirable than that of the (much more common) militarist libertarians who were happy to cheer on any sort of military venture, including things like the Iraq war which could not in any way be construed as self-defense. So kudos. "War is the health of the state".

But I'd wish you'd answer the comments I made at an earlier post on the subject. #1: it is somewhat vacuous to be "against war" without discussing the economic motives of individuals that lead them to support war, and #2: you are misusing the term "pacifist".

This post repeats the same two mistakes. For a libertarian, it is very curious to demand that people "count all the collateral damage on all sides". Aren't libertarians and economists all about the rational pursuit of individual self-interest? If I stand to profit from war, why should I give a damn about the cost to the other side, or even the cost to people on my side who aren't me?

ajb writes:

Bryan's post is useful in that it will help to marginally deter people from supporting libertarians.

rmv writes:
"Aren't libertarians and economists all about the rational pursuit of individual self-interest?"

No

Facile understanding of libertarianism and economics = lame

Lester Hunt writes:

Bob, So if the only way to prevent someone from from killing you or a loved one were to shoot him, you would just let him do it? (... a thing that does happen in this world, believe me...) If so, I hope to God my life and those of my loved ones never depends on you.

Michael Keenan writes:

I'd like to see you apply Paul Graham's Disagreement Hierarchy and find someone to quote and rebut (someone worth arguing with, of course, not just some easy target).

I am antiwar which I see as being distinct from pacifism. I believe in a robust defense against invasion or violence by foreign governments. I do not believe in interventionist wars like Iraq.

The Cold War is the best example of what I am arguing about. It almost turned hot under the Cuban Missile Crisis, but it goes to show that weakness provokes hostility more than strength. Pacifism is weakness. Mutual Assured Destruction worked.

I think Switzerland has the right idea. They arm themselves but also mind their own business. They give every incentive for people to not start a war with them.

Pacifism as pure commitment to non-violence seems nonsensical to me. Or as someone pointed out to me, Gandhi would have failed in Nazi Germany.

Randy writes:

Bryan,

It seems to me that we're debating something that most of us learned in the schoolyard, i.e., it is possible for large numbers of semi-rational human beings to coexist in a limited space, but bullies do exist. And because a bully recognizes no limits, he or she must be taken out, by any means necessary.

On the side, a couple of military terms you might be interested in are "strategic defensive" and "tactical offensive". And yes, it can get muddy, especially when politicians are involved, and politicians are always involved...

Doug MacKenzie writes:

Randy,

its worse than that. To send a signal that one wont fight back against agression does more than allow thugs to walk all over others. Cowards who would normally remain at bay will take advantage of those who play the Amish strategy of pacifism. Individual rights have no practical meaning in such a context.

Matt writes:

You sound to me like a consequentialist with a really low tolerance for collateral damage. I think that if I were about to be attacked in an alley and I pulled out a handgun, in self-defense, and started shooting, there is a small chance that a stray bullet will kill an innocent bystander. I want to minimize that chance, but it won't prevent me from pulling the trigger.

Aeon J. Skoble writes:

Thanks, Steve. I think a lot of libertarians who are (correctly) opposed to the sorts of wars we've seen recently such as Vietnam or Iraq end up saying what Bryan says, but it's throwing out the baby with the bathwater. As I note in my longer piece that I linked to, one problem with talking about "just war" is that the label suggests an overall assessment, as in "that was a good game." But it doesn't work like that - if the Argentines started attacking us, that would (in my example) be unjust, but our using military force defensively would be just. I think traditional just-war theory needs tweaking in a more individual-rights direction, but pacifism is not where you end up.

Evan writes:

@mtraven

But I'd wish you'd answer the comments I made at an earlier post on the subject. #1: it is somewhat vacuous to be "against war" without discussing the economic motives of individuals that lead them to support war, and #2: you are misusing the term "pacifist".

I agree with you entirely that Bryan is misusing the phrase "pacifist," at least in the sense that most people use the word. When I think of that word I think of someone who never uses violence ever, not someone who believes collateral damage is a fundamental rights violation, which is what Bryan really is.

Aside from the name though, Bryan's position isn't indefensible. Most of the people opposing it in the comments have used hypothetical examples designed specifically to avoid discussion of collateral damage. Examples from Aeon, hserles, and Lester:

The problem with this position is it that it cedes to bad guys the power to set the level of evil. I'm going to make up an example so as to avoid arguments about how to interpret history - say Argentina decides to declare war on the US. Now it won't do to note that we're all individuals, that governments are coercive and nonrepresentative, that borders are fictions, that all men are brothers, etc. Because the people dropping bombs on your head don't believe any of that. So option 1 is to say "well, we can't deploy our military to counterattack because innocent people will get killed." Option 2 is fight back. Note that, in a complete reversal from your title, it's the denial of rights (here by the Argentines) that becomes a license to kill, and if we go with option 1, a lot more of us get killed. The sad moral compromise we're forced into when we choose option 2 is both the lesser of two evils, and an evil the responsibility for which lies with the aggressor.
And what would a pacifist do when there is an army storming through one's homeland? Is it wrong to unite and join an army to oust the invaders? Is he just going to hope for the best and believe that the invaders have no ill will against him? Is the only just response to invite the invaders into our homes and treat them as guests? What if the invaders have dark plans in store for their new territory, ought the population defend themselves? If pacifism is true, then life in this land is forfeit to the invaders and I consider that a ridiculous conclusion that betrays the ridiculousness of pacifism.
Bob, So if the only way to prevent someone from from killing you or a loved one were to shoot him, you would just let him do it? (... a thing that does happen in this world, believe me...) If so, I hope to God my life and those of my loved ones never depends on you.

Clear-cut examples like that rarely occur in real life. Most of the time the situation is far muddier. The wars in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iraq again, and Libya certainly don't fit that pure and simple description. WWII might, although I still think we went overboard with civilian casualties there. The first phase of the Korean war, when the coalition troops drove the NK army out of SK might have (at least for the Koreans), but the second phase where they invaded NK and fought China certainly didn't.

Now, I think Bryan's response to these hypotheticals would be that it would be okay to bomb an invasion fleet from Argentina, or to resist the invasion when it lands. When fighting back though, he'd probably oppose bombing Argentinean civilians, or attacking an Argentine troop concentration occupying an American town in a fashion that would kill a lot of American civilians.

Lester Hunt, the situation you describe doesn't accurately convey how war usually works. A better examples would be something like "Some guy is trying to shoot you and your family, and the only weapon you have to stop him is a grenade launcher full of nerve gas grenades. All your family have gas masks, but the shooter doesn't and you're in a crowd of a thousand people who also have no gas masks." (It's a ridiculous scenario, I know, but hypotheticals are supposed to be unlikely, in order to remove ambiguity) If you'd really still attack the shooter in that situation, I hope to God I'm never standing in your general vicinity.

Aeon J. Skoble writes:

Evan, I'm not trying to avoid the issue of collateral damage - my point was that the doctrine of double effect makes good sense, and if Smith harms human shields taken by Jones, the moral responsibility is Jones' not Smith's.
None of this is to endorse the sort of freewheeling use of force that we've seen the last couple administrations, but as I said, I think "pacifism" overstates the case.

Tracy W writes:

The distinctions between rights and interests I think comes down to that rights are something everyone can have fully, while interests are more constrained.
So for example everyone can have freedom of speech, and all it obliges everyone else to do is to exercise some self control to tolerate people saying some really bad things, but not everyone can have all the gold they might possibly want.
This of course only works in libertarian like conceptions of rights, things like a right to an education run into scale problems, but that's only a problem for people who believe in those rights, who are typically not libertarians.

Noah Yetter writes:

Don't conflate "self-defense" with "war(s) of self-defense". They have little to do with each other. The former is a problem for individuals, the latter for States.

When another man attempts to violate my rights, he forfeits his own in proportion.

Wars are fought by States, i.e. the engines of plunder, murder, and slavery. Rights have already gone out the window.

stuhlmann writes:

"If a policeman fought crime the way that "civilized" armies wage war, we'd put him in jail."

You need to start reading Radley Balko's blog, which highlights the ever increasing use of militarized police SWAT teams to fight crime. Policemen end up raiding the wrong house and killing innocent people and rarely are even disciplined, let alone arrested and tried.

david (not henderson) writes:

Perhaps a key (although perhaps most often implicit) difference between a pacifist and a pro-war libertarian is who is determined to be an aggressor. The pacifists appear to consider that the aggressors are simply the foreign state and the military, whereas the pro-war libertarians appear to consider others as aggressors as well, for example, non-state actors that voted for or otherwise supported/justified the war or voted for an aggressive foreign policy, etc. It is not collectivist to recognize that sometimes state action is a reflection of the popular will or at least unopposed by it.

See also: http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2011/04/reply_to_aeon_s.html#136884

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