On Injustice (Answering Doug Wilson, Part 2)

I am very pleased to post this week a series of articles authored by our good friends Joseph Knowles, Terry Gant, and Jeff Wright in response to theologian Doug Wilson’s recent article against libertarianism. While I had intended to write something myself, these three gentlemen have gone above and beyond the call of duty and written a tremendous detailed rebuttal. It’s so large, in fact, that I felt it needed to be posted over multiple days to be absorbed more completely. So, here is Part 2… (If you haven’t yet, start by reading Part 1.)

What about responding to injustice in the world?

For purposes of answering this question, we assume that Wilson means whether one may use violence to right such an injustice. The short answer is “no.” It is not consistent with libertarianism to use violence to right an injustice that has nothing to do with self-defense.

What Wilson has done in re-stating his question, however, is to ask a different question from the one implied by the example he gave earlier. Setting aside the question of whether the British navy itself was born of impermissible aggression (more on that in response to the final question), it’s not correct to say that the suppression of the slave trade had nothing to do with “self-defense at all” (emphasis added). It’s a fairly safe assumption that the captains of those British ships themselves were not in immediate danger of being kidnapped and sold into bondage. But that’s rather beside the point.

The men and women and children who actually were victims of the Atlantic slave trade had every right to defend themselves. Thus, it simply is not the case that British suppression of the slave trade had nothing to do with self-defense at all. Instead, the relevant question from a libertarian standpoint is whose “self” is legitimately being defended in a given situation.

Presumably, Wilson’s view of self-defense is not so restrictive that any particular “self” is forbidden to use anything outside himself for defense. In other words, depending on the circumstances (and depending on proportionality in particular), one has the same right to defend himself with his fists as he does with a firearm; the right to self-defense necessarily entails the use of means. From there, extending the principle to employing another person to act in defense is no great leap. Wilson himself seems to acknowledge the legitimate extension of the principles of self-defense to the defense of others (even in a libertarian legal order) when he notes the potential for the formation of “voluntary military bands.”

Thus, in the case of the British suppressing the slave trade, the British navy (indeed, anyone who might have had the means to do so) was well within the bounds of the legitimate, libertarian use of force to vindicate the right of self-defense of those African men and women who had been forced into slavery. To carry the analogy forward into our time, if a man looks up from pumping his gas just in time to witness another man forcing a woman who’s been bound and gagged with duct tape into the trunk of a car, he need not bemoan the fact that he wore his favorite Murray Rothbard t-shirt out that day, lest he besmirch the good name of libertarians everywhere. The man may intervene to prevent what certainly appears to be a grave injustice. A libertarian legal order, properly understood, not only would permit such defensive use of force but would (we believe) encourage it.

Perhaps another angle on the question of the appropriate use of mechanisms of coercion can be found by way of analogy in the realm of story.  Can Wilson’s real-world example of the British Navy be compared to the One Ring of Power in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, considering that both are mechanisms (at least in part) for exercising coercive power? Assuming so, Wilson becomes his own best interlocutor: 

“On the subject of magic, J.R.R. Tolkien continues to show precisely how evil magic is. As we have already noted, this evil is manifested in a desire to manipulate matter in such a way as to gain power over others. In the mindset of a magician, whenever such power comes into your hands, the only reasonable thing to do is use it for your own advantage. But in [Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books], the mission of the fellowship is to reject and destroy that way of thinking…

Speaking of Sauron, Gandalf says, ‘Indeed he is in great fear, not knowing what mighty one may suddenly appear, wielding the Ring, and assailing him with war, seeking to cast him down and take his place.  That we should wish to cast him down and have no one in his place is not a thought that occurs to his mind. That we should try to destroy the Ring itself has not yet entered into his darkest dream.’ …

In [Tolkien’s] book, we do not have just a bare assertion that these people over here are ‘good’ and that those others are ‘bad.’ The categories of good and evil are not just arbitrarily assigned. Tolkien shows us on every page (as his plot unfolds) how one group rejects magic and grasping after power, and how Sauron lusts for power, and how that lust is his undoing.” [1]

Tolkien has given good counsel via his narrative: the right response to mechanisms of coercive power is, at least, often found in the choice to dissolve them. The One Ring (and the British Navy) hold tremendous potential as mechanisms for the restraint of evil. Indeed, Boromir, in the same story, shows us a character powerfully persuaded by the idea that the Ring should be put to some good use. But Lord Acton was on to something when he told us that power has an inherently corrupting influence on fallen men and Boromir also serves Acton’s point. It may not be true that the existence of these grand-scale mechanisms of coercive power turn those who use them into Sauron, but human history strongly suggests they often turn their users into Gollum.

Stay tuned for Part 3 on Thursday, October 29.

[1] Doug Wilson, “Introduction to The Fellowship of the Ring”, found in “Omnibus II: Church Fathers to the Reformation.”

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