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The right of self defense against the state

I get asked “that question” several times a year: “Is it time yet?”

My standard answer is some variation on, “Morally, it’s past time to shoot the bastards, but the result would be catastrophic, not only for the shooters but for all gun owners and all freedomistas.”

Yesterday reader TW sent a link to an article that aims for a more sophisticated answer.

As TW noted, “It’s also unusually thoughtful for Reason. I guess unusual thoughtfulness happens when you farm out work to a Georgetown prof.”

The professor in question, Jason Brennan, teaches ethics, economics, and public policy. And for a change, a teacher of ethics turns out not to be weaselly. He begins:

In August 2017, Richard Hubbard III stopped at a red light in Euclid, Ohio, but his front bumper went a few feet past the white line. The cops pulled him over. That’s no surprise: Police in Euclid, Cleveland Heights, and the surrounding cash-strapped towns strictly enforce traffic rules. But officers didn’t just give the driver a ticket.

The police demanded Hubbard—a black man—step out of his vehicle. Dashcam footage shows that he calmly complied. Yet one officer immediately spun Hubbard around, bent his arm, and slammed him against his Hyundai. He flipped Hubbard again, punched him in the face, and kicked his groin. Hubbard screamed and put his arms up to protect himself. The other officer joined in.

They threw Hubbard to the ground but continued to punch, hammer, and kick him. When he tried to protect his face, they chanted the informal motto of American police, “Stop resisting!” Even when Hubbard was subdued, prostrate with his hands behind his back and two large officers pinning him down, one officer continued to pummel his skull.

Imagine you witness the whole thing. A thought occurs to you: You’re armed. You could shoot the officers, perhaps saving Hubbard’s life or preventing him from being maimed and disabled. May you do so?

Below, I defend a controversial answer: Yes, you may. Shooting the cops in this case is dangerous—they may send a SWAT team to kill you—and in many places it’s illegal. But it is nevertheless morally permissible, indeed heroic and admirable. You have the right to defend yourself and others from state injustice, even when government agents act ex officio and follow the law.

Normally it’s wrong to lie, cheat, steal, deceive, manipulate, destroy property, or attack people. But commonsense morality as well as the common law hold that such actions are permissible in self-defense or in defense of others. The basic principle is that you may use deception or violence when you are not the initial aggressor and when you reasonably believe such actions are necessary to protect yourself or others from imminent, severe injury from an aggressor. You may lie to the murderer at the door. You may smash the windows of the would-be kidnapper’s car. You may kill a violent attacker when you reasonably fear for your life.

Now ask: Does it make a difference if the murderer at the door or the kidnapper is a lawfully appointed member of the U.S. government, acting in his or her capacity as an agent?

Brennan has written a very bold article for this age (and this isn’t his first to take the same honest stance), and Reason is unusually bold for publishing it.

I hope you’ll read the whole thing.


  1. kentmcmanigal
    kentmcmanigal December 9, 2018 9:49 am

    I read that and was very impressed with it.

  2. Comrade X
    Comrade X December 9, 2018 11:47 am

    +1 to what Kent McManigal said.

  3. Joel
    Joel December 9, 2018 2:17 pm

    I’m rather surprised to see that published in Reason.

  4. david
    david December 9, 2018 6:29 pm

    It’s long but well thought through and clearly explained.

    I’ve said things like this for years, but not as well and not as well justified. My rants about it usually are to state that the bad guys enjoy institutionalized protection and will continue what they are doing until we start killing enough of them to make them all afraid to be ‘bad’ guys.

  5. larryarnold
    larryarnold December 10, 2018 1:28 am

    the bad guys enjoy institutionalized protection and will continue what they are doing until we start killing enough of them to make them all afraid
    While that is probably the most likely outcome, the law enforcement “institutionalized protection” comes from the elected officials who protect them, and also set their policies. Change those officials, and it’s possible to change the way police treat people.

    Note I’m not betting on that happening any time soon.

  6. david
    david December 10, 2018 6:28 am

    Larryarnold – Professor Brennan spent several paragraphs on the difference between non-violent efforts to affect structural change and the need for violent action in certain kinds of circumstances. You’re discussing the need for structural change by non-violent means. I was suggesting that at some point the system is so rigged that it will not be changed by voters, but only by a different kind of structural change – the absolute refusal of citizens to tolerate systematic malfeasance without violent consequences against the ‘system actors’.

    Sadly, I think we as a nation are much closer to that ‘refusal to tolerate’ than anyone wants to consider, and far closer than most realize.

  7. larryarnold
    larryarnold December 10, 2018 10:12 am

    Agreed, david. I should have made that clearer. At this point nonviolent change is within the realm of possibility, but it’s not at all likely.

  8. Mac the Knife
    Mac the Knife December 10, 2018 10:13 am

    Nothing is going to change until the world as a whole comes to realize that government is the absolute root of all that is evil in the world today. The big question is will they replace their current governments with larger governments, or nothing at all and let the people live in a completely free society.Perhaps what is happening in France will point the way, but I doubt it.

  9. Comrade X
    Comrade X December 10, 2018 11:09 am

    Historically people will put up with a bunch before they take action and there are release valves to let the steam off like voting and the courts but as Frederick Douglass once said;

    “A man’s rights rest in three boxes. The ballot box, jury box and the cartridge box”

    So when the first two boxes become empty that third one may be getting open if justice is what you seek.

  10. Anonymous
    Anonymous December 14, 2018 5:32 pm

    Only 1% of humans are freethinkers. This percentage appears to be unaffected by if your parents were freethinkers, or if your culture is freethinker. The early Americans assembled by emigration the largest collection of freethinkers ever, by percentage and by count. They did this on land area which was rich with game and lumber, with a farmable climate, occupied by humans who were militarily uncompetitive due to lower technology, protected from military invasion by an ocean-width moat from their previous rulers in Europe. An unoccupied ecological niche which they could expand into.

    Yet they proceeded to be put back into debt slavery BY THEIR CHILDREN, which naturally they were unwilling to denounce or disinherit. Are you willing to threaten your spouses and children sufficiently to make them stop voting and act like libertarians? No previous group of freethinkers have found this acceptable.

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