JP Floru is Head of Programmes at the Adam Smith Institute.
State action is usually less efficient than private action. To libertarians the police’s ineptitude in dealing with the riots did not come as a surprise. We saw how freely organised individuals – notwithstanding their limited brain power – got the better of the multibillion state apparatus of law and order. There is nothing surprising about individuals being faster and more lethal than state enforcers. Let us use private individual action to counter the rioters: allow individuals to defend their own property.
Self-defence is legal. You can defend yourself, others, and your property – provided that the force used is reasonable. This raises two questions: (1) what is reasonable; and (2) should the reasonableness threshold not be lowered in the self-defender’s favour?
Most will desist doing anything out of fear that they themselves may end up in the dock: if your force is judged to be unreasonable you will go to prison. Shooting someone, or inflicting serious injury will usually be deemed unreasonable.
The reasonableness requirement makes a mockery of self-defence. It means that a shopkeeper needs to call his lawyer before he tries to prevent rioters from destroying his livelihood. What exactly is reasonable force against a criminal who is smashing your shop furniture with a baseball bat?
Both the 2010 Conservative Party Manifesto and the Coalition Agreement state that the law will be changed. The Manifesto says that ‘We will change the law so that anyone acting reasonably to stop a crime or apprehend a criminal is not arrested or prosecuted, and we will give householders greater legal protection if they have to defend themselves against intruders in their homes’. The Coalition agreement states: ‘We will ensure that people have the protection that they need when they defend themselves against intruders’.
Note the ambiguity of both texts. Will the change of law include defending one’s property, or not? Does the electorally alluring emphasis on ‘home’ and ‘homeowners’ mean that you will not be able to defend your shop? Also note that nothing has been done about it yet.
Justice Secretary Ken Clarke recently told the BBC that ‘people are entitled to use whatever force necessary to protect their person and their homes’. At present, that is legally absolutely not the case, because of the ambiguous reasonableness requirement. Cameron said that ‘the issue should be put ‘beyond doubt’.
The big question is: will the government’s action include tweaking the reasonableness test in the self-defender’s favour?
When state protection of citizens fails, citizens need to be given the unambiguous power to defend themselves and their property. When state budgets are reduced, one could also think of a return of Civic Watch Patrols constituted of volunteers. Individuals will act when the state fails. They are better at it in any event.