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Is it proper to say that one has a right to use retaliatory force? On the one hand, Rand says that men "have the right to use physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use". On the other hand she says that having a right means "freedom from physical compulsion, coercion or interference by other men", and if one attempts to engage in one's "right to retaliatory force", without first getting permission from the government, one will not be free from interference.

One potential response is that one has a right to retaliatory force but that this right is delegated to the government. But how is this different from, for instance, justifying the income tax, by saying that one has the right to one's income but that this right is delegated to the government?

Am I equivocating on "right" between the two statements?

asked Jan 21 '13 at 14:17

anthony's gravatar image


edited Jan 21 '13 at 15:56

Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Greg Perkins ♦♦

One doesn't have to read very far in the literature of Objectivism to find that Objectivism does, indeed, hold that man has the right of self-defense, but that this right is delegated to the government in a free society. It may take considerably more study of Objectivism to understand how something can be a right, yet individuals not be allowed by the government to exercise that right on their own, without government-enforced sanctions or "rules of engagement." A passage in the literature of Objectivism that I have usually found most helpful on this issue is the following (from "The Nature of Government" in VOS and CUI):

The source of the government's authority is "the consent of the governed." This means that the government is not the ruler, but the servant or agent of the citizens; it means that the government as such has no rights except the rights delegated to it by the citizens for a specific purpose.

There is only one basic principle to which an individual must consent if he wishes to live in a free, civilized society: the principle of renouncing the use of physical force and delegating to the government his right of physical self-defense, for the purpose of an orderly, objective, legally defined enforcement. Or, to put it another way, he must accept the separation of force and whim (any whim, including his own.)

(This excerpt can be found on p. 332 in the Signet paperback edition of CUI.) Note that "delegated" does not mean seized. According to the above excerpt, there is an element of choice involved, i.e., chosen consent. How so? Well, one form of consent is the right to vote for the agents who will carry out the just powers delegated to the government. Ayn Rand mentions this explicitly in "Representation Without Authorization" in VOR (Chap. 21, p. 233). Another form of consent is one's choice about whether or not to remain within the territorial boundaries of one's government, or emigrate to another country. Yet another form of consent is the very direct consent that was given by our ancestors at the time of the founding of America, and by immigrants who have come to America subsequently. "Consent" might also be considered to "run with the land" as land ownership passes from one owner to the next.

Note that there is also an element of trade involved implicitly in the above excerpt. One delegates one's right of self-defense to one's government, in return for "a free, civilized society [with] an orderly, objective, legally defined enforcement." One accepts "the separation of force and whim" in return for protection of all his other rights by an agency capable of doing it effectively, with precisely delimited powers and safeguards. Individual rights do not preclude the possibility of trading with others and entering into enforceable contracts; on the contrary, individual rights uphold and sanction such trading.

Note further that it is the unique nature of retaliatory physical force -- its identity -- that makes its delegation to a proper government necessary. Note, also, that there are instances where it is feasible and even necessary for individuals to use physical force in immediate self-defense on their own, without waiting for the government to become aware of the problem and act on behalf of the victim. This does not mean that individuals are never allowed to use force at all, for any reason; nor does it mean that they are free to use physical force themselves whenever they feel like it. Just as officials of the government are subject to strict rules concerning the use of physical force, so are private citizens, even in situations where their direct use of retaliatory physical force is within the scope of justified self-defense.

The question ponders, "how is this different from, for instance, justifying the income tax, by saying that one has the right to one's income but that this right is delegated to the government?" There is a whole context of rights that makes it vastly, fundamentally different. There is nothing in the nature of income that requires it to be placed under the control of a government. On the contrary, the whole purpose of retaliatory physical force is to uphold rights such as property rights and the right to one's own income. The delegation of the right to self-defense isn't based on social convention or political whim; it proceeds from the nature of what physical force is, from man's need to pursue values by means of rational effort and voluntary trade, and from man's need for effective protection from those who would initiate physical force against him. Physical force is the opposite of (and negation of) mind and property.

Regarding equivocation, I don't see the term "right" as being equivocated in the question. There is no contradiction between individual rights in general and the delegating of the right of self-defense. Indeed, the above discussion also indicates how one could withhold one's consent and act on one's right not to delegate one's right of self-defense (without any use of force), although it would be blatantly irrational to do so without a very good reason.

answered Jan 22 '13 at 01:00

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦

Great answer.

(Jan 22 '13 at 16:48) anthony anthony's gravatar image

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Asked: Jan 21 '13 at 14:17

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Last updated: Jan 22 '13 at 16:48