Benjamin Tucker's Liberty
I was the first American—I may say the first Anglo-Saxon—to start an avowedly Anarchistic newspaper printed in the English language. I am still the editor, publisher and proprietor of that paper. It is everywhere regarded as the pioneer and principal organ of modem individualist Anarchism. I either am, or have been, the publisher of the chief Anarchistic works in the English language. I am the author of the most widely-accepted English text-book of Anarchism. I have enjoyed the friendship, had the benefit of instruction, and have carefully studied the works, of those Americans from whom the Anarchists have largely derived their beliefs—Josiah Warren, Stephen Pearl Andrews, Lysander Spooner, and Colonel William B. Greene. I am the translator into English of some of the principal works of P.J. Proudhon, who was the first writer in any language to declare himself an Anarchist. I am acquainted, perhaps better than any other man, with the English-speaking Anarchists of the United States.
Such credentials, cited in a letter to the New York Tribune on December 4, 1898, obviously entitle their holder to claim a prominent role in the libertarian-anarchist tradition in the United States. Benjamin Tucker (1854-1939), author, editor, and anarchist, started in August 1881 a little fortnightly journal called Liberty. Its purpose was to contribute to the solution of social problems by threshing out the ultimate implications of the battle against authority. The journal continued to appear until 1908. In the words of Paul Avrich, a contemporary historian of anarchism, "Liberty was simply the best Anarchist newspaper ever to appear in the English language." And Liberty well reflected Tucker's ideas.
ANARCHISM Tucker made it abundantly clear in his first issue that his journal would be edited to suit himself and not his readers. No subscriber or body of subscribers would be allowed to govern his course, dictate his policy, or prescribe his methods. It was Tucker's very definite intention to publish Liberty so as to spread certain ideas.
The purpose of Liberty, boiled down to its ultimate essence, is the abolition of authority.…Liberty denies the authority of anybody's god to bind those who do not accept it through persuasion and natural selection. Liberty denies the authority of anybody's State to bind those who do not lend voluntary allegiance to it. Liberty denies the authority of anybody's "public opinion," "social custom," "consensus of the competent," and all other fashionable or scholarly despot, to step between the individual and his free option in all things.
For Tucker, anarchism meant the absence of State and government but not necessarily the abolition of all laws and all coercion. He maintained that anarchists oppose government, not because they disbelieve in punishment of crime and resistance to aggression, but because they disbelieve in compulsory protection. Tucker was one of the first people ever to argue that defense is a service just like any other service, which should be and can be provided by private agencies supported by voluntary patronage. This advocacy was based on the definition of government as "the subjection of the non-invasive individual to a will not his own." The State is a compulsory institution to which all are forced to belong and which all are compelled to support.
When Tucker inaugurated his journal, his starting point was the absolute sovereignty of every individual. He and his readers were the sternest enemies of invasion of person and property, making war upon the State as the chief invader. Tucker realized that criminals would remain even after governments disappeared, but his position was that, "of the really serious and important acts of invasion of individual sovereignty, at least nine-tenths are committed by organized State governments or through privileges granted by them, and that the governmental idea, with the State as its principal embodiment, is the efficient cause of almost all of our social evils."
ARE THERE RIGHTS? Tucker originally relied on the theory of natural rights to defend anarchism and attack government, but it was not until 1887 that the question of natural rights and obligations was thoroughly threshed out in Liberty. In the process, Tucker became a convert to Max Stimer's variety of egoism.
From the start [of Liberty] I have known that self-interest is the mainspring of conduct and that the ego is supreme. I had not, however, carefully thought out or even considered the bearing of this philosophy upon the question of obligation. I took society for granted and assumed the desire of man for society, and it was from this standpoint that I had loosely talked of natural rights. But Stimer's book [The Ego and His Own] caused me to ask myself: If the individual does not wish society, is he under any obligation to act socially? And I no sooner asked it than I answered it in the negative. At no time have I answered it in the affirmative.…I have since  seen that my use of the word right in those days was entirely improper, and this, coupled with a steadily-clearing perception of the logic of egoism, is the only change my ethical opinions have undergone since I started Liberty.
In later years, Tucker exemplified his new position by questioning the supporters of natural rights.
Why is one man bound to refrain from injuring another? That is the question which the moralists must answer. I know plenty of reasons why it is expedient for one man to refrain from injuring another. Therefore I advise him to refrain. But if my reasons do not commend themselves to his judgement; if my view of expediency does not coincide with his,—what obligation is there upon him to refrain?…I see no reason, as far as moral obligation is concerned, why one [man] should not subordinate or destroy the other. But if each of these men can be made to see that the other's free life is helpful to him, then they will agree not to invade each other; in other words, they will equalize their existences, or rights to existence by contract.…Before contract is the right of might. Contract is the voluntary suspension of the right to might. The power secured by such suspension we may call the right of contract. These two rights—the right of might and the right of contract—are the only rights that ever have been or ever can be. So-called moral rights have no existence.
Thus Tucker concluded that rights begin only with convention. They are not liberties that exist naturally but liberties that are created by mutual guarantee. So he no longer defended property as a natural right but declared that property is a social convention.
Having abandoned natural right as the basis of his anarchism, Tucker replaced it with the concept of equal liberty. "It is true," he claimed, "that Anarchism does not recognize the principle of human rights. But it recognizes human equality as a necessity of stable society." The only compulsion of individuals that his anarchism recognized was that by which individuals would have to refrain from violating the principle of equal liberty. The social convention of equal liberty is to be protected, not because it is a social convention, but because it is equal liberty—because it is anarchism itself.
ANARCHIST NUANCES During the subsequent years of Liberty, Tucker deviated in other ways from his earlier anarchism based on individual sovereignty. He denied that the thing fundamentally desirable is the minimum of invasion. Having come to believe, within Stirner's framework, that the ultimate end of human endeavor is the minimization of pain, he reasoned that we aim to decrease invasion because, as a rule, invasion increases the total of pain. Despite the immense importance he placed on the rule of noninvasion, it was not an absolute for him. He argued that there are exceptional cases where invasion—that is, coercion of the noninvasive—lessens aggregate pain and is therefore justifiable.
In 1890, Tucker reprinted a short article that expressed his own thoughts about children and parents: "that parents have a certain lien upon their children, at least as long as their children lean upon them." Later he emphasized that the child, like the adult, has no right to life but should be accorded the immunity from assault or invasion due all human beings. In May 1895, Tucker reprinted the letter of an English individualist dealing with the question of parental responsibility for support of children. Tucker agreed with the conclusion that we must not interfere to prevent neglect but only to repress positive invasion and that no person, parent or not, may be compelled to support any helpless being, of whatever age or circumstance, unless he has made that being helpless by some invasive act.
Some months later, Tucker reconsidered his position and came to the conclusion that, since the mother owns the child, parental invasion is not to be prohibited. Thus a mother who throws her baby into a fire is not acting aggressively; she is only handling her property as she sees fit. Tucker maintained that his change of opinion consisted "simply in the substitution of certainty for doubt as to the noninvasive character of parental cruelty—a substitution which involved the conclusion that parental cruelty was not to be prohibited, since third parties need not consider the danger to organisms [children] that were outside the bounds of societal protection."
In the early years of Liberty, Tucker reviewed Lysander Spooner's pamphlet on the copyright question, disagreeing with his anarchist mentor. Spooner held that scientists and inventors should have a right of perpetual property in their discoveries and inventions, but Tucker could find
no more justification for the claim of the discoverer of an idea to exclusive use of it than there would have been for a claim on the part of the man who first struck oil to ownership of the entire oil region or petroleum product. The central injustice of copyright and patent law is that it compels the race to pay an individual through a long term of years a monopoly price for knowledge that he has discovered today, although some other man or men very probably would have discovered it tomorrow.…From the justice and social necessity of property in concrete things, we have erroneously assumed the justice and social necessity of property in abstract things, that is, of property in ideas, with the result of nullifying to a large and lamentable extent that fortunate element in the nature of things, in this case not hypothetical but real, namely the immeasurably fruitful possibility of the use of abstract things by any number of individuals in any number of places at precisely the same time, without in the slightest degree impairing the use thereof by any single individual. The "raison d'etre" of property is found in the very fact that there is no such possibility,—in the fact that it is impossible in the nature of things for concrete objects to be used in different places at the same time.
MONOPOLY When Spooner's reasoning in Intellectual Property was pitted against Tucker's argument, Tucker announced that Spooner's work was positively foolish because it was fundamentally foolish—
that is to say, its discussion of the acquisition of the right of property starts with a basic proposition that must be looked upon by all consistent Anarchists as obvious nonsense. I quote this basic proposition. "The natural wealth of the world belongs to those who first take possession of it.…So much natural wealth, remaining unpossessed, as any one can take possession of first, becomes absolutely his property." In interpretation of this, Mr. Spooner defines taking possession of a thing as the bestowing of valuable labor upon it, such, for instance, in the case of land, as cutting down the trees or building a fence around it. What follows from this? Evidently that a man may go to a piece of vacant land and fence it off; that he may then go to a second piece and fence that off; then to a third, and fence that off; then to a fourth, a fifth, a hundredth, a thousandth, fencing them all off; that, unable to fence off himself as many as he wishes, he may hire other men to do the fencing for him; and that then he may stand back and bar all other men from using these lands, or admit them as tenants at such rental as he may choose to extract. Now, if this be true, what becomes of the Anarchistic doctrine of occupancy and use as the basis and limit of land ownership?
Tucker rejected Spooner's argument in favor of basing land ownership on occupancy and use. In this he followed the teachings of Josiah Warren, who contended that natural wealth is not property at all and that neither the State nor the individual can set a price upon it without violating the first principle of commercial justice, that cost is the equitable limit of price. Under this theory, tenants owe their landlords no rent, since only the tenants, or actual occupiers of the land, own the land.
In addition to land monopoly and patent-copyright monopoly, Tucker denounced the banking monopoly privileges granted by the government. Being opposed to governmental compulsion, he objected to the prohibition of any voluntary currency or arrangements that the people might make for and among themselves. Free banking and free money meant free trade carried into finance, unlimited competition in the business of making money, and as a result the utter rout of inferior and usurious currencies by the virtues of the cheapest and the best. While Tucker rejected the claim that one has a moral right to engage in usury, he did not advocate any method of abolishing it save the removal of all restrictions preventing the free action of natural principles. "To attempt to suppress usury by statute is outrageous because tyrannical, and foolish because ineffectual."
"ADVANCED THOUGHT" To study Liberty is to touch on practically every social question of its era. During his anarchist career, Tucker expressed interest in a wide variety of topics. During the early years, space in Liberty was devoted to the social revolutionaries, and Tucker was a follower of the activities of such internationally famed anarchists as Elisée Réclus, Peter Kropotkin, and Michael Bakunin. Tucker proudly published and reprinted some of the classics of the English-speaking libertarian movement, such as Spooner's Natural Law and A Letter to Grover Cleveland. Liberty also served as a forum for publishing and publicizing what he called advanced literature—literature which in religion and morals led away from superstition, in politics led away from government, and in art led away from tradition.
Tucker promoted similar ends by publishing books, such as his own anarchist textbook, Instead of a Book; Emile Zola's Modem Marriage; Paul Eltzbacher's Anarchism; and Stirner's The Ego and His Own. The appearance of this latter book was, in Tucker's opinion, his most notable contribution in behalf of anarchism. Tucker operated a book store in New York City that eventually came to house a large collection of such literature.
When Tucker's bookstore was destroyed by fire in 1908, he retired to Europe, gave up publishing Liberty, and abandoned the anarchist movement in the United States. Some would maintain that he had already abandoned libertarianism. In his early years Tucker had written that "it is better to suffer great inconveniences than the evils engendered by the violation of individual rights." But he eventually came to disagree with this position, calling the person who would do justice though the heavens fall, a person with justice on the brain. Nevertheless, he maintained a life-long emphasis on individual sovereignty and noninvasion, even though tempered by what he understood to be the implications of Stimer's egoism. And, with his Liberty, he contributed mightily to the libertarian heritage.
Carl Watner lives in Baltimore. He has penned several articles on historical topics for REASON.