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Is Violence Inherently Wrong?

This article is part of an ongoing series exploring the tensions between, coalitions within, and futures of conservatism and libertarianism. We are looking at ideas that divide conservatives and libertarians, as well as ideas that bring them together. One of the cultural clichés that Jonah Goldberg takes on in his new book, “The Tyranny of Clichés” (which I review here), is “violence doesn’t solve anything.” While he goes into greater length in the actual book, he summed up his position for the Washington Post saying:
It’s a nice idea, but it’s manifestly absurd. If violence never solved anything, police would not have guns or nightsticks. Obama helped solve the problem of Moammar Gaddafi with violence, and FDR helped solve the problem — far too late — of the Holocaust and Hitler with violence. Invariably, the slogan (or its close cousin “War is not the answer”) is invoked not as a blanket exhortation against violence, but as a narrow injunction against the United States, NATO or Republican presidents from trying to solve threats of violence with violence.
While he was addressing his comments to a liberal audience, and therefore invoked presidents Obama and Roosevelt, the uproar that I have heard loudest has come from libertarians. You may have heard it, too. It goes something like this: “But violence is coercion. Coercion violates my rights. Therefore violence is wrong!” I accused a libertarian friend of mine who made this argument of reading too much into it. Because it is coming from a conservative figure like Jonah Goldberg of the American Enterprise Institute, the argument is assumed (as it was by my friend) to be supporting an aggressive foreign policy. Whereas the point Goldberg was making—and he is always welcome to correct me if I am misrepresenting his point—is that kind of argument is not a sufficient criticism of America’s foreign policy history. Someone who is anti-war needs to come up with something better than “violence never solves anything,” because actually violence does a lot to solve the problems caused by the violations of individual rights. In the quote above, Goldberg starts with “if violence never solved anything, police would not have guns or nightsticks.” In his book, he uses the example of a woman using violence to protect herself from an attacker. The argument clearly is not limited in scope to foreign policy. Goldberg’s point is that violence is not inherently wrong. Violence used to violate individual rights is wrong; violence used to protect our rights is good. He does not wade into the waters of what is and is not proper usages of violence —beyond the extremely obvious examples of fighting off a would-be rapist or stopping Hitler. What confuses me is why certain libertarians have been so quick to absolutely associate violence with coercion. Even the most peaceful libertarians that I know support the second amendment. Maybe these anti-violence libertarians I have met are not the norm—if there can be a “norm” for libertarians. I believe that they are just looking for a fight with conservatives, interesting given the subject matter. Sure, some conservatives will say that a proactive, aggressive foreign policy is a proper use of violence because it preemptively protects our rights. And sure, libertarians will disagree. And that is where there is healthy room for debate. An argument against a preemptive foreign policy action should consist of why such an action does not protect our rights, or how it unjustly violates the rights of others. But for a libertarian to say that “violence is wrong” and “violence never solves anything” is inconsistent with their philosophy of protecting individual rights. I’m interested in writing more on this topic. If you have you have a comment about this article or a question for this column, leave a comment below. Also send your comments and questions to Values & Capitalism or me, Jacqueline Otto, on Twitter.