Libertarian History/Philosophy

The Right and Wrong of Compulsion by the State, and Other Essays


The Right and Wrong of Compulsion by the State, and Other Essays, by Auberon Herbert. Edited and with an introduction by Eric Mack. Indianapolis: LibertyClassics, 1978, 425 pp., $9.00/$3.50.

What is the proper activity and extent of government? That was the major conflict in English politics in the 1800s. On the one hand, there were the great body of politicians, the Fabian socialists, and a host of lesser lights who saw virtually no limit to State intervention. On the other hand, there were…? Of course, that is the problem with our historical hand-me-downs: "losers" don't count. So we know little about the individualists of this period. We know little about their positive proposals, their criticisms of socialism, or their attacks on the State. It is a pleasure, then, to read this collection of Auberon Herbert's essays. The most widely read of the late-19th-century individualists, he connects us to our past. The essays are insightful and well written. Eric Mack's philosophical introduction is helpful in pointing out the threads of Herbert's thought.

Born in 1838 into a wealthy, aristocratic family, Herbert was educated at Eton and Oxford. He was a war reporter, a poet, a vegetarian, an archeologist, and, for a spell, a member of Parliament. Then he came under the influence of Herbert Spencer, who, as Herbert reports, "spoilt my political life.…I saw that no guiding, no limiting or moderating principle existed in the competition of politician against politician." Until his death in 1906, he dedicated his work to espousing Voluntaryism and the doctrine of self-ownership against the State and against what he called the "force relation." Herbert wrote prolifically for over 20 years—his writing ranging from pamphlets and hundreds of long letters in newspapers to The Free Life, which he edited from 1890 to 1901.

Seeing through "the great law-making machine," Herbert attacked the practice of politics, leaving no one unscathed. "The politician is only the unmatured socialist"—so he wrote in "A Politician in Trouble about his Soul" (the last part of which, "A Politician in Sight of Haven," is included in this volume). With this anti-political fable, he had hoped to sow in our minds "some seeds of discontent with the rivalries of parties, the tricks of practised politicians, and the sordid appeals to class interests which prevail in public life." The work was widely read and quite influential. Herbert clearly argued that there is no right or wrong in politics, that no principles are applicable to the practice of politics, since it necessarily involves the use of force and the eschewing of responsibility.

These moral issues, the principles of life and freedom, concerned Herbert very much. In the title essay to this collection, he asks, "By what right do men exercise power over each other?…This question of power, exercised by some men over other men, is the greatest of all questions, is the one that concerns the very foundation of society." There is no such moral right to power over another person, no justification for the "brutalizing weapon" of the State. In "A Plea for Voluntaryism," he says, "We have to learn that our systems of force destroy all the great human hopes and possibilities."

The inescapable moral solution is recognizing the rights of self-ownership and the rights to property. These rights apply equally to all people. There is also the imperative of nonaggression, of remaining within the "moral relation." Herbert is a little ambiguous about defense against aggression, and his thoughts on the subject mirror many of the discussions among libertarians today. It is clear, however, that it is only through the free development of the diversity of each individual that people are happy and society will advance. As he says in "Mr Spencer and the Great Machine," progress can only come "by acting through the living energies of the free individuals…finding their own experience, setting before themselves their own hopes and desires, aiming only at such ends as they truly shared in common, and ever at the foundation of it all, respecting deeply and religiously alike their own freedom, and the freedom of all others."

Herbert was extremely sensitive to the problems of his day. He was as concerned with the methods of freedom as he was with the moral principles of freedom. And it is a minor fault of this volume that some of his better pieces on education, the land question, and unionism have not been included. Yet, while we don't see the application in these selected essays, the point is clear: "You can only mend matters by individualizing the individual." Free individuals and the voluntary associations they join have both the moral and economic ability to solve the problems of society. Herbert was, for instance, concerned about legal restrictions on land ownership in England. He was convinced that through the "magic of property" and "a free and open market in everything" England could arrive "at that blessed condition when a worker will be at the same time that he is a worker also a capitalist." No force was necessary. No State intervention was necessary. Just the dedicated use of freedom. And he was actively involved in organizations that bought large tracts of land and sold them in small parcels.

Seeing no perfect foundation for the State, Herbert put forth his suggestion for a Voluntary State, serving only to protect each person from aggression. His Voluntary State would compete freely with other voluntary associations of society and would be voluntarily funded (what Herbert called Voluntary Taxation). Anyone could withhold support from such a Voluntary State. Anarchist or not, and whether or not we accept his terminology, Auberon Herbert's arguments can be seen in much of the current debate over limited government and anarchism.

Herbert's old friend Beatrice Webb once called him "the Don Quixote of the Nineteenth Century." What this famous Fabian socialist saw as imaginary windmills we know to be powerful and enslaving States and a totalitarian predisposition and temptation on almost all sides of any political debate. We are paying for her naiveté. And we have much to learn from Auberon Herbert's jousting with an all-too-real villain.

Charles Hamilton is the publisher of Free Life Editions, former publisher of Libertarian Review, and the editor of a forthcoming collection of essays by Frank Chodorov.