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L. Neil Smith's
Number 566, April 18, 2010

"One way or another, the next three years could
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Principles Not Excuses
by Jim Davidson

Special to The Libertarian Enterprise

Two errors have come to my attention in recent days. One is the error or fallacy of proportional response. The other is the difficulty of institutional stability.

My friend Alex Peak makes the reasoned argument that self-defence is not an absolute freedom, but a limited one. He argues that if I see a stranger speeding away in my motor car, I do not have the right to blow that person's head off with a .50 calibre round from my scope sighted rifle. Rather, I should respond only in proportion to this event, so as to retrieve my property without doing any further harm.

I disagree. First of all, this expectation of proportionality creates bizarre results. If I am to respond proportionally, in the instance I've cited, what would that look like? Me shooting out the tires of my car? Or putting a round through the engine block? Sure that brings the car to a halt, with major damage. Then the burglar runs away. I haven't prevented him from robbing someone else, nor from robbing me again. I have incurred the cost of repairing the damage I've caused to my vehicle, though.

Or, what, cycle the bolt and shoot the burglar through his leg? I'm not confident that a .50 cal round won't blow his entire limb off, with hydrostatic shock killing him within minutes. Shooting to wound instead of shooting for the centre of mass of my target is a bad idea, because I don't get the result I want: bad guy stopped. I do have to watch for other things in my field of view, so that the back stop is something that ought to be destroyed. Chances go up when you shoot at a thinner part of the body such as an arm or a leg, and you might hit someone else with your bullet. Besides which, I can't be sure that I'm hitting part of his arm or leg that isn't going to cause a fatal injury. Hit the femoral artery in his leg, or even nick it, and he bleeds out within minutes. Hit one of the long bones and shards from the bone could nick a major artery.

So I think it is a valid criticism of the proportional response fallacy that there are all these weird results. By insisting that I use only enough force to stop the bad activity, and not end the life of the bad guy, there are all sorts of secondary and side effects that seem undesirable. The last thing I want to do is injure a bystander because I wasn't using deadly force against an assailant.

Second, I think it is a valid criticism that the expectation of live and let live goes away when force is initiated against me. There can be no reasonable expectation that if I let the robber go after he's abandoned my property that he won't come back and do it again. He has demonstrated his unwillingness to play by those rules by first stealing from me at all. I don't want to go through this process over and over again until he either gets the idea and stops robbing people or gets tired of being schooled by me and goes and robs someone else. What I want in using force in self-defence is to end the problem. I want to use overwhelming force to such an extent that there isn't any danger of another visit from the same guy.

Third, I think it is a valid criticism of the proportional response fallacy that if I only use enough force to stop the robber this time and retrieve my stuff, I leave him as a threat to others. Remember, he's already demonstrated his unwillingness to live and let live. He's used aggression against me. There is no reason to suppose that having chosen to steal from me he won't steal from others. By ending his ability to do so, right now, I cut way back on recidivism.

Fourth, there is the peculiar situation of having a bad actor create an obligation on his victim through his bad action. This situation arises if the victim is obliged only to use so much force as Alex regards as proportional, to only stop the aggression and not end the aggressor. Where does this obligation come from? The person acting in self-defence is not obligated to the person who attacked her in any way. Initiating force does not create any obligation on the victim. Rather, it removes all restraints from the victim, who is then immediately free to use overwhelming and decisive force in self-defence.

So the only sensible response to the initiation of force is to leave it to the victim of aggression to defend herself with as much force, including deadly force, as she sees fit. It cannot be up to Alex to judge, nor up to me to judge, nor up to the aggressor to judge how much force the victim should use. Once force is initiated, the victim has free rein to defend. It is common sense that the victim of aggression wants to use overwhelming force, directed entirely at the aggressor, and end the threat to herself and to others with finality.

A corollary to Alex's fallacy of proportional response is his view that you have to get permission from the victim to engage in acts of defensive force. I disagree. Whether or not there is time to engage the victim in such a discussion, any attack on life, liberty, or property is a threat to the individual, whether presently or down the road a bit when that same attacker looks for a new victim. Just because I'm not the target this time doesn't mean I have to leave the victim to choose how to respond and against whom. Nor does it mean that I have to respond only against the one or two individuals currently attacking a victim.

If I'm free to defend my life, I'm free to defend the lives of others. If I'm free to defend my property, I am free to defend my neighbour's property. And if a gang of five or ten or 185,000 are attacking various people over and over again, none of them is exempt from defensive force.

The second error I wish to discuss was brought up by an erstwhile friend Vince Cate. He said that he felt it was a valid criticism of a system without rulers that it doesn't create stability.

On further reflection, that's a major benefit of a system without rulers. Stability means that the market forces that create spontaneous order, which spontaneously allocate resources toward things that are desired presently and away from things that have become undesirable, are stymied. Stability means that the big banking gangsters have special privileges and can get bailed out by their cronies in government. Stability means licences and permits and other barriers to entry so that those who have cronies in government can limit the competition.

Mind you, given the centuries of Icelandic anarchy and Somalian kritarchy, I'm not confident that there is some sort of instability problem endemic to systems without rulers. But even if there were, stability in free markets is not a desirable quality. It stinks of coercion.

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Jim Davidson is an author, entrepreneur, and anti-war activist. His 1990 venture to offer a sweepstakes trip into space was destroyed by government action as was his free port and prospective space port in Somalia in 2001. His 2002-2007 venture in free market money and private stock exchange was destroyed by government action in 2007. He's going to Mars if he has to walk. His second book, Being Sovereign is now availble from Lulu and Amazon. His third book Sovereign Self-Defense will be released for Kindle soon. His fourth book Being Libertarian will be available for free download as a .pdf, being a compilation of all his essays and letters in "The Libertarian Enterprise" since 1995. Contact him at or


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