Liberty and Violence: A Paradox

By Steven Clyde

The World Health Organization, though incorrectly identifying “self-harm” as a form of violence[1], provides an otherwise laudable definition of violence:

the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, which either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation[2]

The question of primacy then for libertarians as it relates to liberty is as follows:

“Is using violence against non-violent individuals ever justified?”

A common argument is that violence is warranted when used to retrieve stolen property or to mitigate the acts of being defrauded. These examples still beg the original question, as both stealing and defrauding property are considered a form of violence itself; theft is clearly deprivation; theft is clearly intentional.

However, when “defensive violence” becomes conflated with“aggressive violence”, it becomes an obvious concealment for the true intent of the aggressors.

For example, if Robinson Crusoe shows up on an island and claims a coconut tree for himself (among many), and someone else shows up and tries to claim the same tree, it would be argued that “Crusoe is inherently violent. If someone seeks to access “his” tree”, which is given to all of us by nature, he will use violence.”

It is not asked, however, “why is person B attempting to use the tree Crusoe has claimed and begun to care for when 1.) there are plenty of other trees around to homestead, and other islands for that matter and 2.) it has been expressed that conflict will unnecessarily arise.

It cannot be taken seriously that there is real concern over scarce resources being oppressively utilized, but only that a desire to encourage conflict is prevalent in the first place; the lust of another’s source of happiness, in other words, seeks to downplay the sacrifices and time preferences of people enhancing their lives.

Yet many examples exist outside of Crusoe’s fictitious island.

Marquis de Sade [as depicted by Geoffrey Rush]

Marquis de Sade, a late 18th-century libertine philosopher, suggested in his violently pornographic (yet somehow morally based) novel Juliette that:

Tracing the right of property back to its source, one infallibly arrives at usurpation. However, theft is only punished because it violates the right of property; but this right is itself nothing in origin but theft; thus, the law punishes the thief for attacking thieves, punishes the weak for attempting to recover what has been stolen from him, punishes the strong for wishing either to establish or to augment his wealth through exercising the talents and prerogatives he has received from Nature. What a shocking series of inane illogicalities![3]

Speaking of “illogicalities”, is it odd that Juliette runs rampant with ideas such as killing young boys to prevent them from being harmful males, or befriending a millionaire who kills girls and engages in incest with his daughter? The ideas indeed seem in line with the crudeness of labeling a thief a hero, as corroborated above.

De Sade, of course, spent the last 13 years of his life behind bars after the novel was released. Napolean Bonaparte had considered de Sade’s words he voluntarily wrote worthy of violence, in the same way that de Sade thought the same of those voluntarily claiming property.

Peter Kropotkin


Peter Kropotkin, a Left-Anarchist of the 19th century, stated:

By what right then can anyone whatever appropriate the least morsel of this immense whole and say—This is mine, not yours?[4]

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, another Left-Anarchist that claimed “property is theft”, opined that:

If I were asked to answer the following question: What is slavery? and I should answer in one word, It is murder, my meaning would be understood at once. No extended argument would be required to show that the power to take from a man his thought, his will, his personality, is a power of life and death; and that to enslave a man is to kill him. Why, then, to this other question: What is property! may I not likewise answer, It is robbery, without the certainty of being misunderstood; the second proposition being no other than a transformation of the first?[5]

Karl Marx


Even Karl Marx, when asked in a letter to describe his views of Proudhon, found these sentiments (along with the Left-Anarchist philosophy) utterly contradicting:

The upshot is at best that the bourgeois legal conceptions of “theft” apply equally well to the “honest” gains of the bourgeois himself. On the other hand, since “theft” as a forcible violation of property presupposes the existence of property, Proudhon entangled himself in all sorts of fantasies, obscure even to himself, about true bourgeois property.[6]

 Marx knew if the logic was applied evenly across the board, that a claim to land in an area where there isn’t a sign of life for 50 miles would be doing so ferociously despite no one else seeking access. In order to establish a defense of at least some property, in a more convincing way than Proudhon and other Left-Anarchists, the words “private” and “personal” were differentiated.[7] “Private” property is thought to be related to capital goods used in the process of making other goods such as ovens, hammers, factory machines, and also unmoveable goods such as land, while “personal” property is related to moveable possessions that are not used in the process of making other goods.

Much is left to figure out for ourselves, sardonically so considering Marx’s haphazard explanations. Is a child engaging in labor in the form of chores and homework doing so under duress that would amount to violence? If I lend someone a lawnmower, contingent on that they compensate me for the time I loan it out, have I stolen money from an innocent person wanting to cut their lawn for not loaning it for free?

The distinction is meant to rile up anyone who draws a connection as such: there is nothing wrong with me if I own a lawn mower, but there is everything wrong with me if refuse to loan out a lawn mower for free. If, on the other hand, the capitalist is examined beyond their supposed “lack of input”, the incentives they have to make gains on investments cannot be ignored, as the other alternative is them never investing at all.

Marx, through duplicity, gave his own response to the idea of lost incentives:

It has been objected that upon the abolition of private property, all work will cease, and universal laziness will overtake us. According to this, bourgeois society ought long ago to have gone to the dogs through sheer idleness; for those of its members who work, acquire nothing, and those who acquire anything do not work. The whole of this objection is but another expression of the tautology: that there can no longer be any wage-labour when there is no longer any capital.[8] 

The Paradox:

Few fail to amply understand the nature of an individual and their body, which of course is the pith of our ability to find peace and carry on through our lives.

We would find it difficult to travel and cooperate with others if, upon arbitrarily being punched in the face, we were the ones considered violent in this instance. By depriving the attacker of the opportunity to practice martial arts moves on bypassers, we deny them their psychic profit of engaging in such an act! And a natural act at that! Faces are given to us by nature, and were meant for punching, and there is no shortage of faces!

This theoretical is veritably over the top for even a Marxist or Left-Anarchist, but why is it then when we say it is violent to deprive a benevolent person of their land or factory, we are said to engage in the antithesis of meanings?

The first reason is that there exists some plausibility within these buried sentiments. It does appear that by saying this computer monitor is mine, that presumably if someone seized it that I would try take it back; by force if necessary. However, once credence is given towards the fact that I acquired the screen through self-sacrifices of my own, or that it was gifted to me because im poverty-stricken, the believability of the thieves peril in lacking my property becomes transient.

The second reason, with many connections to the first one, is in avoidance to the underlying principle of Marx’s theory of surplus value: that workers get the short end of the stick by default. Marx espoused that a capitalist, in seeking profit through investment, will compensate the employee for much less value than they have produced. For example, if a capitalist invests $100 in capital goods/resources and $50 in labor, but then sells the product for $200 and profits $50, the capitalist has exploited the employee and extracted $50 extra dollars out of them. If, however, the worker were given access to the full value of their labor, they would be entitled to the full $100 (labor value plus profit). This ignores many factors, the first being that capitalists are consumers too. But if we are to base this theory of exploitation off the idea that people are entitled to the full product of what they mix their labor with, then how are we to justify the seizing of a person’s property who earned it through their own labor? Is it not contradicting to state that a person can acquire property if they are the one being exploited, but that they cannot maintain their property in instances where they are said to exploit others (by not wanting to loan property for no interest)?

The last reason has an innumerable set of examples given all of history, yet for some it’s arduous to admit: People who want to commit violence against others will justify it any way they can, often through absurd measures. In this way, the thief can now be considered “the retriever of natures property back unto the public”. The murderer can now be considered “the person preventing further exploitation by capitalists”. The violent rhetoric, often used in real attacks day to day, is rhetoric “only as a result of those wishing to institute mass freedom, which must be stopped.”

The paradox between liberty and violence is such that on one hand, liberty is an experience lacking violence and dominance by others entirely, while the suggestion that liberty is felt through violence versus the aversion of it, is an unpalatable revision of terms.

[1] While harming oneself causes physical harm, libertarians do not tend to view harming oneself as “violent” as comparable to a crime. Though intentional, it only effects the individual at hand (physically at least).

[2] See

[3] Marquis de Sade, Juliette (New York: Grove Press, 1968), p. 177.

[4] Peter Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread (London: Chapman and Hall, 1913), p. 9.

[5] Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, The Works of P.J. Proudhon (Mass: Benj. R. Tucker, 1876), p. 11.

[6] See Marx’s letter to J.B. Schweizer written January 24, 1865 in Marx Engels Selected Works Vol. 2

[7] He did this interchangeably, depending on the instance he was trying to defend or argue against

[8] Karl Marx & Frederick Engels, Manifesto of the Community Party, 1848, p. 24.

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2 Replies to “Liberty and Violence: A Paradox”

  1. Good essay on a fundamental topic.
    The distinction between personal property and production goods fails once you realize, that most of “personal property” contributes to producing. That sandwich in your fridge allows you to produce as much as the hammer in the blacksmith’s hand. the same can be said of clothing, shelter, healthcare, etc.
    Conversely your own body is clearly a “production good” as an engineer or teacher contribute to the production process mostly their mind and speech.

    Also, along the lines of “withholding your lawnmower”, how about withholding your body from sexual interactions? Would Proudhon argue that rape is freedom and self-defense against rape is unjust?

  2. Americans defend the government so fiercely because they have replaced religion with the government. Americans think criticizing the government is the same as attacking God now.

    Americans also equate the US government with the USA. Americans think exposing government abuse is the same as bashing the US. Americans feel that criticizing the US government is a personal insult.

    Maybe if Americans studied history and knew how many millions of people were killed by governments with concentration camps in Nazi Germany, Soviet gulags, the Cultural Revolution in China, and Cambodia’s killing fields then Americans wouldn’t be so eager to embrace tyranny.

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