In the wake of the shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin, by Kyle Rittenhouse, there have been a lot of arguments made against his actions, mostly from the American left, but even some from libertarians. A quick perusal of articles from various left-leaning outlets, and the comments sections therein, reveal Kyle to be anything from a mass shooting murderer, to a right-wing nut in search of trouble. In the time since the shooting, a lot of new information has come to light, including a remarkably fair analysis of the footage by the New York Times.
To get some basic arguments out of the way, I think it’s clear from NYT’s analysis that Kyle acted in self-defense. Another argument might be that his claim to defending property is illegitimate because it was not his property, or because he crossed state lines. This, in my view, is a ridiculous proposition. To argue that you have no right to protect the property of another would imply that you would be acting outside your rights if you prevented a kidnapping in process. After all, the victim is not your property – they own themselves. The claim that people don’t have a right to defend the property of others also undermines the entire premise of protesting on the behalf of another. The argument that Kyle’s claim to property defense ends across state lines also draws arbitrary boundaries on where your rights to aid others begin and end. Would you honestly refuse a request for aid from a friend, or relative, because they live in another state? This undermines any protests on behalf of George Floyd, or Jacob Blake, that occur in other states.
I’ve seen a different kind of argument against Kyle’s actions as well, from self-avowed Marxists, the left, and even libertarians, to varying degrees. That is the argument against lethal force in defense of property. From the Marxists, they claim that private property shouldn’t even exist. From the left, and some libertarians, the value of property doesn’t exceed that of a human life.
Let’s define property rights, which are the right to exclusivity over a thing – someone’s property. A person has the right to exclude others from the use of their property.
To dispute the dismissal of property rights as a whole, let’s first identify where property rights come from. The primary right from which all other rights are derived is the right to ownership of one’s own body. From the right of self-ownership, we can derive a right to self-preservation, as you have the right to sustain, or destroy, that which you own. In order to sustain the body, a person must be able to make claims to unclaimed resources in which they have invested their labor to transform. If a person cannot make claims to the resources they utilize to sustain themselves, then self-preservation is impossible. If theft, or destruction, of property cannot be a violation of rights, then the use of violence to impede a person’s survival is not a violation of their rights. Therefore, to imply that a person has no right to defend their property is to imply that they have no right to self-preservation.
Let’s move on to the more common argument, that lethal force is not acceptable in defense of property. This argument is often based on a premise that the force utilized to protect property should be proportional to the threat against the property. However, a requirement of proportional response makes the claim to property rights contingent upon an individual’s ability to use marginally superior force in response to a threat. If you cannot repel a threat without using more force than necessary, then your right to that property is surrendered. Therefore, the claim to property would be relative to one’s own ability to exercise force. This strips property rights from those who cannot exercise force only marginally greater than the aggressor.
Under such conditions, only a person with unlimited access to power, across the spectrum of power, at all levels, has a claim to property. If a person’s right to keep their property is limited by their ability to defend it, then those with limited power must delegate the protection of their property to an outside force. This, in turn, makes the right of property ownership by the powerless subject to the discretion of those with power to enforce it. Because property is derived from self-preservation, this in turn means that self-preservation is limited by one’s ability to enact marginal violence.
That lethal force is permissible in defense of one’s property is based upon the premise that a person’s right to self-ownership, self-preservation, and property, is absolute, not relative. Obviously, there is a reasonable degree of force which is acceptable as a response to a threat. If you shot a person who dared stray onto your property, you’d clearly be in the wrong. However, in the demand for proportional response, it is implied that property rights are relative to one’s ability to exercise force, or are subject to the discretion of those to whom we delegate property enforcement.
The view that it is okay to destroy property, but not to defend property, that it is okay to batter and kill, but not to defend yourself, is a violation of natural rights. The claim that you don’t have a right to defend your property erodes the basis on which people can claim self-ownership, self-preservation, and property.
An outstanding newspaper editor last week wrote about the trillions lost in the economy due to the country’s overreaction to the pandemic. A doctor claimed that was valuing money over lives. That is the kind of attitude (whether the doctor has this attitude or not) that fails to grasp what businesses mean to their owners — not merely profit, but providing customers with products and services, putting food on employees’ tables, and giving back to their communities. All of that is brought to you by property rights.