The Disutility of Violence by Seamus Light (Animation BFA Department) received Third Place in Critical Essay category of the Humanities and Sciences Department’s First Annual Writing Program Contest.
The central moral position of most modern libertarians and anarchists is the axiom commonly referred to as the “Non-Aggression Principle.” This principle states that any act initiated by one person which serves to violently interfere with the life, liberty, or property of another is inherently immoral. The N.A.P naturally extends to government as well, and renders such involuntary practices as war, conscription, and taxation immoral, as they are merely legalized forms of murder, kidnapping, and theft respectively. This position, however, should not be confused with the philosophy of pacifism, as libertarians also tend to believe strongly in the right to self-defense, and do not preclude the use of violent action entirely. Since the focus is on non-aggression, as opposed to non-violence, one would be morally justified in disarming an attacker, even if it meant injuring or killing them in the process.
This is where many questions arise. What should be considered “aggression,” and is a forceful response appropriate? Most would agree that violently toppling a cruel dictatorship is justified; but what about the common supporters of that regime? It is through their support that the regime gains the illusion of legitimacy, and is able to survive. Without them, that government would cease to function, just as was seen in the former Soviet Union. The collapse of the Soviet superpower did not occur so rapidly merely because it was inefficient or bankrupt. The USSR had always been inefficient and bankrupt. What changed was how the population began to lose its confidence and, eventually, fear of its rulers. So if a regime’s supporters are its lifeblood, then it can be argued that suppression of such people is morally justifiable.
Libertarian thinkers such as Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek agreed with these statements, and showed support for regimes such as that of Augusto Pinochet in Chile. For several years prior to Pinochet’s 1973 coup d’état, Chile had been suffering a noticeable economic decline under the ruling socialists, led by then-president Salvador Allende. Allende’s authoritarian regime had been enacting policies of nationalization and collectivization of businesses, and the violent expropriation of private citizens’ property that entails. But in 1973, Pinochet and the Chilean military launched a successful coup, installed General Pinochet as dictator, and began peeling back decades of government control of the market. Under Pinochet’s economically liberal dictatorship, Chile would not only recover, but become one of South America’s most prosperous nations. But there was a price. The Pinochet regime, in order to prevent the resurgence of a new Marxist opposition, perhaps even greater than the already present left-wing insurgency, began the systematic suppression, imprisonment, and execution of thousands of political opponents. Pinochet’s government lasted until 1990, and many of his economic reforms remain in place today.
In the end, was this as close a victory free-market advocates could reasonably hope for? Should such techniques be advocated by groups which embrace liberty? Is it moral to prevent a man from supporting, and therefore empowering, an aggressive political ideology by slitting his throat? Is it reasonable to cut out the tongue of a man whose voice and whose will would condemn innocents to slavery or death? And can dictatorship prevent even greater evils?
From a moral standpoint, forcefully halting the advances of an authoritarian political movement is indeed justified. The suppression and rooting out of its adherents can often be useful practices, as they were in the American Revolution, where rebellious colonists took up arms not only against their royal government, but also against its royalist supporters. However, if one is pursuing liberty, and the overarching goal of a society based on peaceful, voluntary cooperation, violence is not the most desirable nor practical option.
First, dictatorship or government policy as a tool is ruled out almost immediately. Such institutions are interested first and foremost in the preservation of their own authority. Authoritative government bodies never willingly give up power, and any support initially given to them by libertarians would merely help legitimize that government, and prolong the suffering. And considering the harm which is inevitably inflicted upon innocent bystanders, as well as dissenters who may have originally been the ones supporting the regime, police states simply cannot be trusted.
Second, violence must not continue to be normalized; for that plays a major role in the reason why governments and their associated acts of coercion are so common. When war and violence is normalized, and even praised, that society will produce nothing but more violence and misery. Children are ordered not to hit or steal, yet are told to admire and obey governments who are perpetually at war, and paying for it with the stolen wealth of their citizens. This numbs people to atrocity, and is why the United States, as of this writing, has been at war for 215 of its 236 years in existence. Similarly, if advocates of liberty were to proclaim violence as the first and most effective means of achieving a goal, those around them, especially the young, would adopt such a position, and form pathological personalities. Violence must be seen only as a final, desperate option, once all others have been exhausted.
Thankfully, there are alternatives. The most important struggle in the movement for freedom is ideological. If enough people can be convinced that personal liberty is preferable to statism, or become disengaged with the government apparatus, then that state will quickly lose its air of legitimacy, and collapse. People must voluntarily withdraw their consent from the state, become independent of its services, and pay as little into its coffers, both monetarily and morally, as one can get away with. Forming cohesive communities, providing for one’s own defense, and teaching the Non-Aggression Principle to the young and uninitiated will spell the end of the state. Once people know their value as individuals, and their potential, those who run the state’s machinery and enforce its laws would cease to show up for work.
If one seeks a lasting victory for peace, liberty, and prosperity, it must not be founded upon violent conflict. Instead, one must have the capability to defend oneself, and the will to cooperate peacefully with those around them.