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On Self-Defense

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[Excerpted from “Voluntaryism: The Political Thought of Auberon Herbert,” from the Journal of Libertarian Studies 2, no 4 (1978): 303–04.] Against what types of actions do a person’s rights provide moral immunity? Since person A’s having a right to something involves his moral freedom and prerogative to do with that thing as he chooses (provided that in so doing A does not prevent person B from exercising his rights), A’s rights are violated whenever he is prevented from doing as he chooses with what is rightfully his. Violations of rights consist in subverting a person’s choice about and disposal of what he owns. Since physical force (and the threat thereof) is the great subverter of choice, since this is the essential vehicle

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[Excerpted from “Voluntaryism: The Political Thought of Auberon Herbert,” from the Journal of Libertarian Studies 2, no 4 (1978): 303–04.]

Against what types of actions do a person’s rights provide moral immunity? Since person A’s having a right to something involves his moral freedom and prerogative to do with that thing as he chooses (provided that in so doing A does not prevent person B from exercising his rights), A’s rights are violated whenever he is prevented from doing as he chooses with what is rightfully his. Violations of rights consist in subverting a person’s choice about and disposal of what he owns. Since physical force (and the threat thereof) is the great subverter of choice, since this is the essential vehicle for the non-consensual use of persons, their faculties, and their properties, it is against force (and the threat thereof) that all persons have rights. In addition, persons have rights against being subjected to fraud. For fraud is simply a surrogate for, and the moral equivalent of, force. Fraud is the “twin-brother of force … which by cunning sets aside the consent of the individual, as force sets it aside openly and violently”.25

In The Right and Wrong of Compulsion by the State, Herbert is anxious to point out that there is a potentially dangerous confusion between “… two meanings which belong to the word force”.26 Direct force is employed when person A, without his consent, is deprived of, or threatened with the deprivation of, something to which he has a right — e.g. some portion of his life, liberty, or property. Anyone subject to such a deprivation or threat is, in his own eyes, the worse for it. His interaction with the wielder of force (or fraud) is something to be regretted, something to which he does not consent. This is the case, e.g. when A pays B to stave off being beaten or murdered by B. In contrast, B might get A to pay B a certain sum or do B a particular service, by indicating that B will only do something which A values if A pays that sum or renders that service. By so indicating the conditions for A’s receiving from B what A values, person B may get person A to do something which, in itself, A had rather not do. If B does induce A to act by threatening (so-called) to withhold what A values, then, according to Herbert, we can say that B has used “indirect force” upon A. But “indirect force” is radically different from “direct force”. In the case of indirect force, person A does not act under a genuine threat. For he is not faced with being deprived of something rightfully his (e.g. his arm or his life). Instead he is bribed, coaxed, induced, into acting by the lure of B’s offer of something which is rightfully B’s. No rights-endangering act plays any role in motivating A. A may, of course, wish that B had offered even more. But in accepting B’s offer, whatever it may be, A indicates that on the whole he consents to the exchange with B. He indicates that he values this interchange with B over the status quo. He indicates that he sees it as beneficial — unlike all interactions involving direct force.

The employer may be indirectly forced to accept the workman’s offer, or the workman may be indirectly forced to accept the employer’s offer; but before either does so, it is necessary that they should consent, as far as their own selves are concerned, to the act that is in question. And this distinction is of the most vital kind, since the world can and will get rid of direct compulsion; but it can never of indirect compulsion…27

Besides, Herbert argues, any attempt to rid the world of indirect force must proceed by expanding the role of direct force. And, “… when you do so you at once destroy the immense safeguard that exists so long as [each man] must give his consent to every action that he does”.28 The believer in strong governments cannot claim, says Herbert, that in proposing to regulate the terms by which individuals may associate, he is merely seeking to diminish the use of force in the world.

What, then, may be done when the violation of rights threatens? So strong is Herbert’s critique of force that, especially in his early writings, he is uncomfortable about affirming the propriety of even defensive force. Thus, in “A Politician in Sight of Haven”, the emphasis is on the fact that the initiator of force places his victim “outside the moral-relation” and into “the force-relation”. Force, even by a defender, is not “moral”. The defender’s only justification is the necessity of dealing with the aggressor as one would with “a wild beast”. Indeed, so pressed is Herbert in his search for some justification that he says, in justification of his defense of himself, that “The act on my part was so far a moral one, inasmuch as I obeyed the derived moral command to help my neighbor“.29In The Right and Wrong of Compulsion by the State, Herbert starts by identifying the task of finding moral authority for any use of force with the task of finding moral authority for any government. He declares that no “perfect” foundation for such authority can be found, that all such authority is an usurpation — though “when confined within certain exact limits … a justifiable usurpation”.30 Herbert also asserts the inalienability of each person’s rights — including, presumably, the rights of each aggressor. This seems to confirm the status of even defensive force as an usurpation. But then Herbert seems to reverse himself — arguing that those who use force (or fraud), having disallowed, “this universal law … therefore lose the rights which they themselves possess under it”.31 Finally, Herbert arrives at the considered judgment that, within special contexts, self-preservation does justify self-defense. Self-preservation “… justifies an action wrong in itself (as the employment of force) only because of the wrong which has been already committed in the first instance by some other person”.32 Ten years later, Herbert was, if anything, more hesitant about defensive force when he wrote,

If the self is the real property of the individual, we may, I think assume (it is however at best an assumption) that force may be employed to repel the force that would take from an individual this special bit of property in himself…33

Finally, however, Herbert seems to have fully overcome his hesitancy about defensive force. Possibly his most forceful statement appears in the essay, “A Voluntaryist Appeal”.

If you ask us why force should be used to defend the rights of Self-ownership, and not for any other purpose, we reply by reminding you that the rights of Self-ownership are … supreme moral rights, of higher rank than all other human interests or institutions; and therefore force may be employed on behalf of these rights, but not in opposition to them. All social and political arrangements, all employments of force, are subordinate to these universal rights, and must receive just such character and form as are required in the interest of these rights.34

25.Auberon Herbert, “A Plea for Voluntaryism”, p. 329.

26.Herbert, Right and Wrong of Compulsion by the State and Other Essays (Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Classics, 1978), p. 144.

27.Ibid., pp. 144–145.

28.Ibid., pp. 145–146.

29.Herbert, “A Politician in Sight of Haven”, p. 101. (Italics added)

30.Herbert, Right and Wrong, p. 141

31.Ibid.

32.Ibid., p. 142.

33.Herbert, “State Socialism in the Court of Reason”, p. 29. (Italics added.)

34.Herbert, “A Voluntaryist Appeal”, p. 317.

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