With characterizations of protests and riots that have occurred over the last several months as “mostly peaceful” and headlines that include “peaceful demonstration intensified,” and “Fiery But Mostly Peaceful Protests,” it’s clear many in the press do not consider property destruction to be violent. Most likely, they mean most of the protesters haven’t physically harmed anyone. Still, during the very same protests, a large proportion of the “peaceful” participants, in obvious acts of aggression and hostility, have vandalized and stolen property. In fact, property destruction and theft are acts of violence, and are therefore legitimately defended against, not because these acts feel threatening, but because they are, in and of themselves, violent. 

Nevertheless, it’s common to hear many condemn individuals who use or threaten force in defense of their property. After all, if no one is physically harmed, or even actually threatened, how can damaging inanimate objects possibly be considered violence, and how can defending objects with violence possibly be justified? Let’s look at it.

Most everyone would agree that enslaving someone, even for a short time, is an act of violence. Slavery is the assertion of a right or entitlement to the fruits of another’s labor, without recompense, through a credible threat of certain harm if the slave tries to escape or fails to obey a command. That is, the slaver does not secure a slave with the slave’s permission, so the slave has no choice. Few would argue that an individual threatened with slavery, even if it were to last only months, has no right to defend himself, even with lethal force.

Now consider what happens when someone steals another person’s vehicle. A thief never asks permission, and the rightful owner has no choice in the matter. If it took the rightful owner six months to earn the money to purchase the vehicle, the thief stole six months of the rightful owner’s working life. Theft (or property destruction) and slavery are both one person asserting a right or entitlement to the fruits of another’s labor, without recompense. Sure, theft and destruction are not a direct threat of bodily injury on the rightful owners. In one sense, however, these acts are worse, because the rightful owners often never have a chance to defend the months or years of their lives expropriated by vandals and thieves. This is made all the worse when one realizes that time out of an individual’s life can never be recovered.

Nothing changes if the owner is a corporation, or if the property is insured. All that does is camouflage the expropriation of others’ labor by dispersing that expropriation across more individuals – the corporation’s shareholders and other holders of insurance policies.

Some have seized on the fact that time in an individual’s life cannot be recovered to justify destroying property when someone dies at the hands of police or to call attention to other policing tactics they consider unjustified. Let’s face it, the threat of violence is, in fact, a means to accomplish a more peaceful and orderly world. But, we generally use the threat of violence against actual past or acting perpetrators, not on third parties who are not directly responsible for perpetrating wrong. The United States threatened the Soviet Union with nuclear annihilation because of the threat we knew they represented. We didn’t threaten to annihilate Africa because those nations might fail to prevent the Soviet Union from shooting a missile at the United States. The height of injustice and picture of evil is when a whole neighborhood is murdered in retaliation for a few people attacking an occupying army. Justifying the destruction of someone’s livelihood when they had nothing to do with maltreating George Floyd or anyone else makes the same amount of sense – i.e., none – and is just as evil.

Private property has long been recognized as a critical positive incentive that leads to prosperity, where all boats rise even in the face of inequality, even when that inequality is itself increasing. Homeownership is associated with better health, higher incomes, and greater entrepreneurship. Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto’s worldwide research has demonstrated the importance to individual prosperity of the ability to obtain and prove title to private property. He has shown that without such institutions, private property does not truly exist. Private property encourages long-term thinking, lasting relationships, good reputation, neighborliness, and discourages fly-by-night behavior.

When ideologues on the left like Vicky Osterweil, author of In Defense of Looting, make absurd statements like, “So you get to the heart of that property relation, and demonstrate that without police and without state oppression, we can have things for free,” it becomes clear what she is advocating. She would allow some to behave like Vikings, who decided it was easier to plunder to get what they wanted than to work and produce it themselves. Of course, all the Vikings did was make the rest of Europe poorer, and deader, until there was nothing to plunder and the Vikings stopped their pillaging ways to produce themselves. “Might makes right” was as wrong-headed back then as it is now, no matter how Ms. Osterweil dresses it up.

It also becomes clear just how threatening ideologues are in general when Neil Gorsuch, wedded to the ideology of an idiosyncratic, form-over-substance strain of “textualist” legal interpretation, casts doubt on a hundred years of established jurisdiction over property in Oklahoma. Private property’s legal and moral recognition is more than just a legal nicety. It’s more fundamental than a progressive economic or legal theory. It’s basic to prosperity, health, social welfare in general, quality of life, and progress. It’s not to be lightly trifled with in the name of the latest manifestations of Marxist, libertarian, or legal ideology. And private property is, most certainly, worth defending, even with lethal force and at the risk of one’s own life, given that the theft and destruction of property are always violent acts.

Byron Schlomach is Director of the 1889 Institute. He can be reached at bschlomach@1889institute.org.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.