Rights: A License to Kill?
By Bryan Caplan
I’m a pacifist not because I oppose self-defense, but because
it’s virtually impossible to fight a war of self-defense. Even if
militaries don’t deliberately target innocent bystanders, they almost
always wind up recklessly endangering their lives. If a policeman
fought crime the way that “civilized” armies wage war, we’d put him in
Many libertarians respond to my position in a curious way. For all other purposes, they view individual rights as sacrosanct. But when I point out the hard truth that wars of “self-defense” are nigh impossible, they suddenly discover the wonder of pragmatism. I’ve repeatedly heard them opine that “Rights are not a suicide pact.” On reflection, this is a strange argument indeed; are they really claiming that both sides would be safer if everyone recklessly endangered the lives of bystanders? If not, where’s the suicide pact?
If pro-war libertarians merely became consequentialists, though, the moral danger would be minimal. As long as you remember to count all the collateral damage of war on all sides, and appropriately adjust for the uncertainty that war will actually yield the long-run benefits its advocates promise, you’ll be a pacifist, more or less.
But surprisingly few pro-war libertarians actually adopt this sanely moderate position. Many instead look upon their rights as a license to kill. If their rights are in danger, they consider it morally permissible to do whatever necessary to defend them. When pressed with hypotheticals, some admittedly retreat to a lop-sided consequentialism, where their rights simply count far more than the rights of innocent bystanders on the other side. But plenty of pro-war libertarians bite the bullet, and affirm that they could in good conscience kill any number of strangers to protect the most trivial of their rights.
It’s hard to argue with a position so outrageous, but I’ll try. If there are no moral limits upon your defense of your own rights, why would you imagine that there are any moral limits upon your pursuit of your own interests, either? If you’ll kill a million strangers to defend your right to burn the Quran, why not kill a million strangers to rob them of their possessions? If you bite that bullet, too, there’s no reason to keep calling yourself a libertarian. Just say you believe that might makes right, and leave it at that.