In The Ethics of Liberty Murray Rothbard made the remark that punishment theory has been scarcely treated by libertarians. The very same thing could be said for the theory of defense. If there has been little attempt by libertarians to determine what sanctions may be taken against an invader of property of another, there have been just as few attempts to determine what means may be used to thwart such an invader.
Rothbard himself devoted a chapter of The Ethics of Liberty to each of these two questions, but then spent a number of paragraphs in the chapter on defense discussing punishment instead, and so himself treated the latter question even more briefly than the former. This brief treatment of defense in The Ethics of Liberty is inspirational, but underdeveloped and insufficient.
In his treatment of defense Rothbard first poses a question of how extensive one’s right to defense of person and property is. He then proposes a basic answer: “Up to the point at which he begins to infringe on the property rights of someone else.” This can scarcely be argued with, for it is simply the principle of non-aggression restated. To infringe upon the property rights of another is indeed impermissible in any circumstances.
Rothbard’s elementary answer is useful in that it settles the matter of how much force may, in the conduct of defense, be brought to bear against people other than the aggressor. The answer is none at all. The non-aggression principle does not permit for any amount of “collateral damage” against third parties. Any act of intimidation, fraud or violence against people other than the aggressor carried out under the veneer of repelling aggression is in fact an act of aggression in its own right, and does not fall under defense.
There is one matter Rotbard’s basic answer does not resolve, however. That is, the question of how much force may in the conduct of defense be brought to bear against the aggressor himself? If there is a right to self-defense — and Rothbard showed that for libertarians there has to be — then there can only be one answer. Against the aggressor, the aggressed-upon may use up to exactly the amount of force that is necessary to thwart the aggression.