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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Lysander Spooner: American Anarchist

It was in the early 1970s that I first learned of Lysander Spooner’s ideas. The six volumes of his Collected Works, which were published in 1971 and which I purchased soon thereafter, played an important part in my intellectual development as a voluntaryist. I was the person who in 1976 unearthed Spooner’s essay “Vices Are Not Crimes,” and I was the first to mark Spooner’s unidentified grave with a bronze plaque.

For those neophytes who have never heard of Spooner, let me simply quote Murray Rothbard’s description from the September 1974 Libertarian Forum: “[H]e was undoubtedly the only constitutional lawyer in history to evolve into an individualist anarchist,” and “of all the host of Lockean natural rights theorists, Lysander Spooner was the only one to push the theory to its logical—and infinitely radical—conclusion: individualist anarchism.”

The table of contents of Steve Shone’s book outlines the major areas of political philosophy and economics about which Spooner wrote: Natural Law, Private Mail, and Property; Poverty and Economics; Political Obligation; Jury Nullification; Slavery; and Religion, Morality, and the Legal Profession.

Spooner’s concern with natural law and justice manifested itself in his lifelong arguments against slavery; government monopolization of money, credit, and the post office; government licensure of lawyers and restrictions on juries; taxation; seizure and confiscation of private property; and government interference with the natural laws of intellectual property.

Just one example will suffice to demonstrate Spooner’s unique interpretation of the U.S. Constitution and the natural right of human beings to use their property peacefully as they see fit. Before Spooner’s own private postal delivery company was harassed and put out of business by federal authorities in 1844, he published “The Unconstitutionality of the Laws of Congress Prohibiting Private Mails.” In it he noted that the Constitution did not grant Congress a sole and exclusive right to establish post offices and post roads. In other words, the power given to Congress did not allow it “to forbid similar establishments by the States or the people.”

Furthermore, Spooner noted that no branch of the government had ever questioned the right of American citizens to mint their own gold coins so long as they did not attempt to imitate current coins of the United States. Spooner argued it was just as much a common-law right to deliver private mail entrusted to one’s care as it was a right “to weigh and assay pieces of gold and silver, mark upon them their weight and fineness, and sell them for whatever they bring, in competition with the coin of the United States.”

Although the author bills his work as “the first full-length work devoted to the ideas of Lysander Spooner,” Spooner’s writings are so extensive and comprehensive that some of his most important commentaries are not mentioned. One, reminiscent of Spooner’s famous No Treason series, is the appendix to his 1852 book, Trial By Jury. This short, seven-paragraph addendum epitomizes Spooner’s outlook on the nature of government, even before the citizens of the southern states were beaten into submission by federal armies and navies. Spooner wrote:

It was a principle of the Common Law . . . that no man can be taxed without his personal consent. The Common Law knew nothing of that system . . . of assuming a man’s own consent to be taxed, because some pretended representative, whom he never authorized to act for him, has taken it upon himself to consent that he may be taxed. . . .

. . . Taxation without consent is as plainly robbery, when enforced against one man, as when enforced against millions; . . . Taking a man’s money without his consent, is . . . as much robbery, when it is done by millions of men, acting in concert, and calling themselves a government, as when it is done by a single individual, acting on his own responsibility, and calling himself a highwayman. Neither the numbers engaged in the act, nor the different characters they assume as cover for the act, alter the nature of the act itself. . . .

. . . The government’s pretence of protecting him, as an equivalent for the taxation, affords no justification. It is for himself to decide whether he desires such protection as the government offers him. If he do not desire it, or do not bargain for it, the government has no more right than any other insurance company to impose it upon him, or make him pay for it.

For anyone interested in the antecedents of contemporary libertarianism and individualism, Lysander Spooner: American Anarchist is a good place to start. Be prepared to meet a man whose ideas are radical.