Protection, Defense, Retaliation, and Self-Ownership

This is a guest post written by Todd Lewis, who graduated from Malone University with a degree in history and philosophy. He has extensive knowledge of history, theology, philosophy, and libertarian theory, with a special focus on Church History, Anabaptist Theology, New Testament Exegesis, and practical Christian living; as well as why libertarian Christians should be minded toward pacifism. 

While most libertarians view the right to use lethal force to defend one’s body and physical property as naturally flowing from a strict reading of the Non-Aggression Principle, there is at least one little-known libertarian, the late great Robert LeFevre, who took an even more radical position on violence. Not only did he eschew the initiation of violence; he also eschewed the use of violence in one’s own self-defense. Bryan Caplan in his Anarchism FAQ identifies LeFevre as, to his knowledge, the only Anarcho-Capitalist to have agreed with the arguments for pacifism as argued for by Count Leo Tolstoy. Rothbard called him “a kind of right-wing Tolstoyan.” While one might not be required to become a pacifist on, as Walter Block calls it, a plumb-line libertarian reading of the NAP, we also see that many diverse beliefs, opinions, and perspectives, as long as they respect the rights of others are tolerated within the libertarian tradition in theory; practice is sometimes a different thing.

It seems that LeFevre’s pacifism is derived from the writings of Leo Tolstoy. In his “Autarchy vs. Anarchy”, LeFevre, critiquing Henry George’s land redistribution scheme, quotes at length from Leo Tolstoy’s essay “Money” (found in “Church and State and Other Essays”). While LeFevre would not agree with Tolstoy on his view of the evils of money, he does seem to agree with Tolstoy on the evils of all violence. It bears quoting a portion from Tolstoy: “Where force is set up as law, there will slavery be … as long as there shall be tyranny supported by the bayonet there will be no distribution of wealth among men, but all the wealth will go to the tyrants.” We see LeFevre’s view of force and violence and his pacifism described in detail in “The Fundamentals of Liberty”. LeFevre analyzes the defense of property rights in an increasing scale of the threat of violence using the terms protection, defense, and retaliation.

LeFevre treats protection as an analytical proposition. An analytical proposition is one in which the predicate is contained in the subject. By this he means that protection is by definition always true. Protection is defined as “preventing a property violation or trespass”. The example he gives is of a locked door. If the lock prevents the entry of the trespasser then protection has occurred; if, on the other hand, the lock failed, i.e. it was broken or destroyed, then protection did not occur. LeFevre views protection as morally justifiable since the prevention of trespass is a moral right of a free individual.

Defense is defined as “what we do during an attack.” This phase of the escalations is not protection; that has already failed. You are now being attacked. LeFevre argues an individual has the right to defend himself, but the constraints he places on defense might seem idiosyncratic to many libertarians, as it did to Rothbard. Continuing with the theme of a home-invader; after the lock has been broken and protection has failed the victim can, raise his arms above his head to ward off the incoming blow; but LeFevre would argue that then transitioning into hitting the invader on the head is impermissible. He views such an action as trespassing on the self-ownership rights of the invader.

Retaliation is the third and final phase of LeFevre’s analysis. He argues that retaliation is what takes place after protection has failed, and the individual has moved from defense to an attack. He defines retaliation as “the intent to inflict harm on the other person.” This element LeFevre views as intrinsically immoral. LeFevre further argues that one should not confuse retaliation with restitution. He argues that there are many non-violent methods available to a free individual in a market system to restore damages from an aggressor, without having to resort to bodily harm. LeFevre gives a thought experiment highlighting the difference between protection and retaliation. He argues that a man might build a chain-link fence to ward off an intruder and another man might also build a chain-link fence and then charge it with 50,000 volts of electricity. He argues the former is protection and the later is retaliation with the intent to inflict bodily harm on the intruder. LeFevre argues that protection and retaliation are incompatible concepts, as the former is used to prevent trespass and the latter is a secondary trespass (i.e. against the body of the aggressor). This indicates that LeFevre does not believe the aggressor has forfeited the rights to his body, even if he has aggressed against the property of another. The goal of protection is to raise the opportunity cost (in time spent breaking down barriers for example) to get the object, such that it discourages the aggressor. Retaliation seeks to discourage the aggressor by inflicting bodily harm.

LeFevre’s position was and is controversial among libertarians; Murray Rothbard in Ethics of Liberty (Chapter 12) argues that LeFevre places himself in a contradiction. He purports to defend the rights of property as such, but then denies the defender the right to defend against such an attack, which, in Rothbard’s mind, creates a truncated and deficient view of property rights. Now, it is a bit unfair to say that LeFevre did not believe the free individual could defend his property as protection is a form of defense. The issue Rothbard seems to have is with retaliation. Rothbard seems to think that protection, defense, and retaliation are all required in a robust view of property rights. Rothbard argues that the aggressor, by failing to respect the property of another has lost his right to self-ownership and therefore forfeited his right to not be retaliated against: “the criminal, or invader, loses his own right to the extent that he has deprived another man of his. If a man deprives another man of some of his self-ownership or its extension in physical property, to that extent does he lose his own rights.” The problem is that Rothbard seems to be caught in a contradiction. He states in “The Ethics of Liberty” page 136, “But there are certain vital things which, in natural fact and in the nature of man, are inalienable, i.e., they cannot in fact be alienated, even voluntarily. Specifically, a person cannot alienate his will, more particularly his control over his own mind and body.” The contradiction Rothbard seems to have gotten himself into is whether self-ownership is inalienable, or is it not? If not then the trespasser cannot and has not forfeited his right to self ownership. To do full justice to the disagreement between Rothbard and LeFevre and the implications for libertarian thought are beyond the scope of this essay.

In an interview with Robert J. Smith by Brian Doherty for his work Radicals for Capitalism, we learn that Robert LeFevre’s pacifism was developed from an incident where he literally played possum when some union workers broke into his radio station to smash the place up. They were so stunned by his lying on the ground that they walked out with out doing anything. He took this pacifism even further where Doherty reports he had got into an argument with a US Colonel on his “not willing to do his duty to fight for the flag”, and through his own integrity and patience won a victory with the Colonel who eventually gave him the grudging respect as to a man of principle. We see from the examples Mr. Doherty has shown, that LeFevre was a man who put his money where his mouth is.

In this essay, I hope to have brought to the attention of the broader libertarian community a very unique and colorful libertarian from yesteryear and bring to light his very unique libertarian, non-religious, defense of pacifism. The only other theoretical defense of pacifism, without making recourse to some external religious set of beliefs or philosophy is Bob Murphy with his game theory analysis of “Doves, Hawks and Snapping Turtles”; demonstrating that libertarianism does not necessarily exclude a pacifist interpretation from axiomatic foundations, as well as highlighting a new field of inquiry in libertarian theory on aggression-retaliation that Rothbard only scratched the surface of in his disagreement with LeFevre. 

References and Further Reading

Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movementby Brian Doherty

The Fundamentals of Liberty, by Robert Lefevre

The Ethics of Libertyby Murray Rothbard

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