Free Minds & Free Markets

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.


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."


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 [1886] 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 rightsthe right of might and the right of contractare 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 libertybecause it is anarchism itself.


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 invasionthat is, coercion of the noninvasivelessens 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 crueltya 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."

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