The Ethics of Killing Commies

The libertarian consensus on Pinochet seems to be that, while he may have done some good by turning Chile away from the path down which it was headed under Allende, killing 3,000 people and torturing many more was inexcusable. I'm not entirely sure I agree with this.

I'm not going to offer a defense of Pinochet or his regime, largely because I don't really know the details of what he did or the circumstances he faced. Maybe he really was an unprincipled thug. Probably. But it is my understanding that the vast majority of his victims were targeted for their involvement in revolutionary socialist movements, and I can imagine circumstances under which state-sponsored persecution of revolutionary socialists would be justified.

Living in the United States in 2006, it's easy to say that people should not be persecuted for their involvement in fringe political movements. And for us, that's probably the right position to take. We can afford to, because they pose no real threat. But in an unstable political environment, where there is a very real danger of revolution, the answers aren't so clear. A successful socialist revolution is virtually guaranteed to be a humanitarian disaster, and from a strict utilitarian perspective, 3,000 deaths is a small price to pay to avert it.

I also believe there's a case to be made on deontological grounds: From a libertarian perspective, socialism is inherently illegitimate, so revolutionary socialists are by definition conspiring to violate the rights of others on a massive scale. If we do not have moral license to kill them, we certainly have moral license to do whatever it takes to stop them.

None of this should be taken as an endorsement of giving the US government, or any government, the legal authority to regulate speech or persecute members of fringe political groups. There are a number of reasons why this is a bad idea, chief among them the fact that such power has historically been used to suppress good ideas far more often than it has to suppress bad ideas. And again, the threat of revolution in most first-world countries is negligible. But if a general were to overthrow a socialist government and engage in highly selective persecution of members of the socialist resistance in order to suppress revolution, I would find it hard to condemn him for it. Nor can I say with any confidence that I wouldn't do the same thing in his position.

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