When Should Violence Be Initiated?

I've always argued immorality is the root cause of most of our great social and economic problems. Let's put my argument in another light by going to first principles and ask: what's the moral basis for initiation of violence by either a person or government?

Part of the answer is simple and has a broad consensus: a person is morally justified to use violence when another initiates violence against his person or his property. Self­defense is one of those "unalienable rights." Governments represent people's efforts to collectively provide self­defense. We authorize governments to carry out our natural right of self­defense. The only legitimate purpose for government initiation of violence and threats is to prevent or punish those who'd use it against others. By granting government a near monopoly on the use of violence, more order is created and there's less preying upon the weak by the strong. The bottom line is moral government use of force cannot have a purpose exceeding private use of force.

Let's examine this generality and ask: do people have the right to rape, murder, or steal? Fortunately, most Americans would answer no; but the next question poses a problem. Is there a moral basis for granting government officials the right to rape, murder, or steal? Most Americans would give a no answer for rape but they'd be speaking with a forked­tongue if they said they were against government murder or theft.

"Doggone it! Williams," you say, "you've just insulted the entire nation." Let's look at it. Do people have a moral right to take someone else's money, by threats or force, for themselves or to give to someone else? If they don't have the moral right to do so privately, how can they grant government that right? You say, "Government programs like welfare, Medicare and farm handouts aren't the same as theft; they're a result of a democratic process." Such a position differs little from saying that acts, clearly immoral when done privately, become moral and perhaps even laudatory when done by government. The moral bankruptcy of that position becomes clear if we applied it to rape. Some might object to my calling welfare, Medicare and farm handouts theft and prefer to delude themselves calling them income redistribution. That being the case, might we give sanction to government sponsored rape by renaming it "compassion" redistribution?

Next. Suppose I want to manage my own retirement needs and resolutely refuse to pay into Social Security. The first moral question you might ask is: have I initiated violence or the threat of violence toward anyone? The answer is a clear no. Then, if I have not initiated violence and threats toward anyone, what is the moral basis for threats and violence being initiated against me? Plus, if I resolutely refuse to obey Social Security mandates, and refuse to submit to fines, property confiscation and arrests, the ultimate penalty will be death at the hands of government. Some might argue that government initiation of violence is just deserts for disobedience; however, laws do not necessarily establish morality as clearly demonstrated by: the Fugitive Slave Act, Nazi anti­Semitic laws, and South Africa's former apartheid laws.

The Founders of our nation, clinging to the self­evidence of "certain unalienable rights" risked execution for treason and went to war with Britain for tyrannical acts of Parliament and King George that pale in comparison to today's tyrannical acts of Congress. Today's tolerance of tyranny highlights a danger of democracy, namely, tyrannical acts assume an aura of moral legitimacy when there's a majoritarian process.

Walter E. Williams
December 26, 1995
Return to the Syndicated Columns page