Saturday, April 08, 2006

Pacifism and Property

I've seen in a few sources that Tolstoy said that a pacifist cannot own property, since ownership requires violence or the threat of violence to protect the property.

As a committed pacifist who is about to purchase a home, I have to consider this seriously. But I disagree with it.

This line of reasoning would support one of the most prevalent arguments against pacifism. I'll call this the "Passing the Buck" argument. Here it is in a basic form.

Pacifists, by refusing to participate in violent acts, simply pass off responsibility to those willing to use violence. They still require violence to live safely, but force others to practice the violence for them.

In order to provide order and safety, somebody must be willing to be violent, either in action or in threat. The state provides violent protection in the form of military and police. Pacifists may refuse to participate in this violence, but they are merely passing the responsibility to others to act violently for them. If nobody in society was willing to use violence for safety and order, then the bad people willing to use violence for their own ends would essentially be able to run the world. Pacifists require violent people, but refuse to take responsibility for the violence that protects them.

This is a common argument. There are also ways to refute this argument. But a pacifist living in a society in which private ownership does exist who refuses to own property lest he require the threat of violence really is passing off responsibility of violence to the owner. We need a place to sleep: either we must rent, live with owners, own, or sleep in the streets. To rent simply means you let the owners (and the state) use threat of violence for you.

Furthermore, in a society that allows private ownership, moral requirements for pacifists to rent create all sorts of serious class problems. To consider yourself an ethical pacifist, you would be required to be a tenant to somebody willing to accept force, you'd never have the opportunity to not pay rent, you'd always be dependent and never "free," etc. A pacifist should also be able to be free, to be independent, and not required to be a lower class person who is beholden to the whims of the owner renting a place to sleep.

Now, I don't want to bastardize Tolstoy. In the Russian society he lived in, perhaps the force and threat of force associated with property meant something different than it does in today's America. And Tolstoy, as I understand it, wanted to go the large-scale route of abolishing private property ownership altogether. Indeed, private property may lead to violence and the threat of force, and if Tolstoy's solution of abolishing property rights were inacted, this discussion would be different.

It may be possible that promotion of pacifism could entail an anarchist abolition of property rights. However, while living in a society which does allow property rights, pacifists should be allowed to own property.

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