The Volokh Conspiracy

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Rioting is Wrong

An obvious point. But one that, sadly, needs to be repeated in light of today's pro-Trump riot at the Capitol.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

The Capitol, Jan. 6, 2021.


I cannot say much about the current despicable rioting by Trump supporters at the US Capitol, other than to condemn it and the actions and rhetoric by Trump himself, which have helped inspire it. Rioting is wrong even when done in a just cause, and is especially so when—as here—the cause (bogus claims of election fraud) is pretty obviously unjust. The point is, perhaps obvious. But sometimes the obvious still needs to be said.

I would add that I similarly condemned the rioting and looting that occurred this past summer, even though some of those involved did have a just cause (opposing police abuses). Much of what I wrote then is relevant now:

Most of the damage caused by rioting is inflicted on innocent people…. Violence and violation of property rights reduce investment and economic development, which predictably exacerbates the poverty of minority inner-city neighborhoods. The negative economic effects can persist for many years.

It may be tempting to say that rioting and other similar violence is justified if you are doing it in the name of a just cause. But even people with legitimate grievances must still observe moral limits on tactics they use to pursue them. Ignoring this principle is a recipe for disaster.

As I noted in June, one can imagine extreme circumstances where rioting or similar actions are the only way to address some even greater evil. It is plausible to argue that they might be justified in such circumstances. Indeed, a sufficiently extreme situation can justify a wide range of otherwise indefensible actions, including war, suppression of civil liberties, and so on.

But anyone defending riots on that basis has a high burden of proof to show that the riots really will remedy the evil in question, and that they really are the only way to achieve that objective. That wasn't true of the riots that occurred this past summer. And the same point applies even more clearly today, when the rioters don't even have a legitimate grievance to begin with.

In the June post, I pointed out that, historically, riots have damaged the cause the rioters and their supporters seek to promote, because they predictably lead to political backlash. As Martin Luther King, Jr. warned in 1968, "riots are socially destructive and self-defeating." It is quite possible history will repeat itself, and that today's events will further discredit President Trump and his supporters in the eyes of the majority of Americans.

I am, to put it mildly, no fan of Trump and his many cruel policies, and would be happy to see him and his allies take some political damage. But even if today's violence ends up having some beneficial political effects unintended by the perpetrators, it is still wrong, and the potential gains are unlikely to be worth the awful cost.