Monday, August 28, 2006

The Grave Danger of Self Defense

I get scads of emails about two positions I hold.

  1. The principle of self-defense is relatively unimportant, and

  2. You live a peaceful life, so you are proof that a stateless society can work.

A communicator must always take responsibility for misunderstandings, so, as a clarification, here is a more detailed description of what I mean.
  1. Self-defense is a red herring
I talk about this in a podcast called “Forget about Self-Defense”, which has led many people to believe that I am a radical pacifist, who would not lift a finger to oppose a home invasion.

I perfectly support the principle of self-defense, but view it to be an unimportant – and, frankly, dangerous – principle in practice.

People who support “self defense” usually view it as a very important principle, central to life in society and crucial to questions of ethics.

I could not disagree more – and my disagreement is fundamental, since it deals more with methodology than conclusions.

To develop my ideas, I try to work empirically, from my own life to the lives of those I know, to general evidence, and then on up to the logical abstract world of concepts and principles. I think this is a more scientific (and anti-Platonic) approach, more grounded in real life, which eschews abstractions not derived from “real world” examples.

So when I think of the “right to self defense”, I think: “OK, when has this right been useful in my life? How many times have I had to stare down 12 ninjas with holding only a broken bottle and found this moral principle to be valuable? Conversely, when have I been in situations of imminent violence and worried about the principle of self-defense?”

And I have to say: well, never!

I grew up in a rough neighborhood, with lots of bullies, and let me tell you something – the principle of self-defense never really comes up with bullies, since they never attack anyone really capable of, or willing to, defending himself. (For more on this, see Bush’s approach to Iraq versus North Korea.)

I was only bullied a few times in my life, and each time the bully was approximately 12 times my size, or I was outnumbered approximately 12-1. “My lunch money? Absolutely, here you go, would you like a kidney too, sir?”

No possibility for self-defense. A nice idea in principle, but in reality

I was also sent to boarding school, where you got caned for disobedience. Self defense? Impossible. Your best hope was self protection – i.e. put a comic book down your trousers and pray!

Now I have to pay 50% of my money in taxes. Self-defense against the state? Impossible!

Thus, when I look at my life, I find that I have never been in a single solitary situation in my life where self-defense was even a remotely viable strategy. Now I could be an anomaly, but I also have never met anyone who was ever able to use personal self-defense as a viable strategy.

Of course, I recognize that such situations do exist – just as agonizing decisions exist regarding brain function and euthanasia – but they are scarcely the norm, and surely not at – or even near – the top of most pressing moral issues.

And why is this issue even important? Why is focusing on “self defense” dangerous?

Well, because it’s so often used as a justification for the state. The argument runs something like this: “We all have the right to self-defense, but some people cannot defend themselves, so we need an agency that will defend them, which is the state.”

The logical – and moral – problem with this is, of course, that if people exist who cannot defend themselves from mere individual criminals, how on earth can they possibly defend themselves against the state? In other words, if you’re afraid of being exploited by violent people, is armed might of the modern state less dangerous than a mugger?

Turning to the state for self-protection is like avoiding a bee by running off a cliff.

Criminals exist, of course, and can be dangerous, and can do great harm – and it is the very fact that sociopaths exist that makes the creation of a state such a deadly mistake! Imagining that you can create a monopolistic agency of pure violence and not automatically attract sociopaths to populate it is one of the greatest illusions of the species! The more that you fear criminals, the less you should ever support the existence of the state! If criminals are dangerous, the state will be totally deadly. If criminals are not so dangerous, the state is unnecessary.

In order to preserve the right to “self defense”, we get the following absurdities:


  • To protect their persons, people submit to states that draft them, declare wars, provoke attacks, and arrest and imprison citizens for non-violent “crimes”.

  • To protect their property, people submit to states that strip that property through taxes, subject them to endless regulations, destroy their currency, load them with public debts, and openly that that property through the force of law.

Does that mean that we give up on the principle of self-defense? Of course not. But the real goal of “self-defense” should be the prevention of violence, rather than the affirmation of our right to shoot attackers. Moral philosophy is like medicine – an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure – and currently, our doctors are on the verge of “healing us to death.”
  1. You live a peaceful life, so you are an example of a stateless society.
People also get confused about this one – which is my fault, of course. I recently got an email from a woman who lived in a bad neighborhood telling me that I had no idea how violent society could be – and that without a government, society would dissolve into a death match of endless warring gangs etc etc etc.

This is very common – and interesting – argument. Of course, when I ask such people how the state is protecting them now, they tell me that it isn’t protecting them at all! What happens when she call the cops? Nothing! And is there welfare, drug gangs, public housing, government schools and so on in her neighborhood? Of course!

Thus her objection to a stateless society is fascinating, and speaks volumes about the effectiveness of state propaganda.

Such people see no contradiction between these four positions:

  1. There is too much violence in my neighborhood to get rid of the state.

  2. The state is responsible for most of that violence.

  3. The state is not protecting me from the violence it creates.

  4. Therefore getting rid of the state is impossible!

This would be akin to a sick person saying:

  1. I am too sick to get rid of my doctor.

  2. My doctor is poisoning me.

  3. My doctor is not giving me an antidote to that poison.

  4. Therefore changing doctors is impossible!

Do you see what a “death spiral” this sort of logic represents?

Either violence is not common in your world, in which case you do not need a state, or violence is common in your world, in which case the state, as ‘educator’ and ‘protector’, is primarily responsible for the dangers you face.

Either way, we need a new doctor. And time is running out.

4 comments:

Presto said...

Brilliant. You just summed up in a few words something that I have been writing pages and pages of notes about to figure out how to get across.

In every dangerous situation that I have been in the kind of aggressive 'self-defense' advocated by many libertarians would have made the situation far worse. It is the same for most of the people I have known. There are exceptions, of course, but more often than not non-resistance is the only way to get out of the immediate situation safely.

Turning to the state for help is also of little practical help. Almost any dangerous situation is long over before the cops can get there. And I agree with you that the state is responsible for much of the crime in the first place. The state has created Capone, and the modern street gang. They would have no funds to operate if not for drug profits, which would be next to non-existant without the state's prohibition.

I agree with you that the main goal of self-defense should be prevention. As you put it, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pond of cure."

Lisa said...

There is the gratuitous assumption that every state is somehow the same.

It is rather a question of a given state, and not of "the" state.

It is not enough to speak of "the state," on pain of creating a language more ideological than what should be a more faithful mirror of reality.

Our state specializes in harboring drugs for profit. Singapore or Switzerland, for example do not.

Finally, no system can be perfect. Fallible and imperfect humans are in questions, not angels in paradise.

At the core of any ideological or quasi-idelogical position is a kind of utopianism and sentimentalism.

Anonymous said...

To the point.

@Lisa: I agree that not all states wage a war on drugs in a way that creates huge Mafia gangs, but all aspects of state intervention (that exist in various combinations in different countries) create violence in a way.

I'm living in Germany, and the war on drugs isn't too harsh, but we have other problems that also create violence and street gangs (like excessive business and labor regulations and a totally crappy educational system).

The state always uses different combinations of interventionism (like a criminal can use different weapons for violence), but that doesn't make it a bit better!

Anonymous said...

@Anonymous,

Granted states may encourage crime (let us be honest, the state doesn't put a gun against the head of the criminal to break the law, in fact as per other arguments here it puts a gun against their head to obey the law) but there is nothing inherent in the argument for removing the state that implies that certain crimes will dissolve because of lack of a government.

For example: the legalization of drugs might alleviate organized crime funded by the profits of the black market, however, it will not remove the desire to steal from the poor addict in order to sell stolen goods for drugs. Nor will it prevent organized crime, whether it be through monopolization of a limited resource, trafficking confidential information, or any number of other venues.

Although I agree that the argument for government from self-defense is unconvincing, I've yet to see how anarchistic capitalism offers a deterrent from crime.

Anon