Ever since I first read it, I have considered Frédéric Bastiat’s essay The Law to be the essential “missionary tract,” as it were, for liberty – the best resource to provide to a neophyte learning about the principles of freedom.
That prized status has now changed. The Right and Wrong of Compulsion by the State by Auberon Herbert is an even clearer and more compelling analysis of the moral case for liberty. While Bastiat is well known within the freedom movement, Herbert is a relative nobody.
Auberon Herbert (1838-1906) was an English political philosopher who advocated for a form of “thorough” individualism he named “voluntaryism.” Influenced greatly by the work of Herbert Spencer, a prominent political theorist and classical liberal, Herbert became a prolific disseminator of his ideas through his position in Parliament, monthly and weekly newspapers he founded, essays, books, and organizations such as the Personal Rights and Self-Help Association, which he founded to advocate for free market solutions to the problems resulting from increased industrialization.
Herbert’s persuasive ability stems from the method by which he formulated his arguments. Whereas many advocates focus on the utilitarian benefits of free markets and individual liberty – highlighting the net positive impact freedom has on society in an attempt to endear others to our cause – Herbert focuses almost exclusively on the underlying moral questions.
Power Over Each Other
Herbert offers one example after another of the inefficiency and immorality of relying upon force as a means to achieve worthy social ends.Put differently, many focus on the fruits of freedom while Herbert points our attention – quite eloquently – to the tree’s root. Even more fundamentally, he focuses on a single question as the basis of all others: “By what right do men exercise power over each other?”
This, Herbert writes, is “the greatest of all questions” and “the one that concerns the very foundations of society.” Even more boldly, he declares that “all ideas of right and wrong must ultimately depend upon the answer.” Every issue, every principle, every position must have as its foundation a response to this question. Herbert explains in refreshingly clear detail why there is only one true and correct answer.
The power to which Herbert refers, of course, is force – whether it be “the violent interference with a man’s faculties” or “the constraining of his will and actions.” Throughout the essay, he offers one example after another of the inefficiency and immorality of relying upon force as a means to achieve worthy social ends. Though taxpayer-funded, centrally planned projects may superficially solve a perceived problem, “great works are a poor compensation for other serious evils.”
Socialism is Mass Violence
As Herbert writes, socialism carries with it a number of such evils—for the compulsion of the mind and body of many is necessarily accompanied by a host of negative consequences, such as resentment, jealousy, factionalism, hatred, slothfulness, and a lengthy list of other negative byproducts. But Herbert appears more concerned with the missed opportunities that force obscures.
Until force is universally renounced, he says, “we cannot hope to discover the best form of local management”—in other words, how to voluntarily work through common problems. “The conception of our true relations to each other is poisoned at an ever-flowing spring,” to the extent that we rely on force as a mechanism of social change.
“The foundation of all morality is respect for the free choice and the free action of others.”Lovers of liberty will find in this essay a number of deliciously barbed one-liners on a wide range of familiar, inter-connected topics: consent of the governed, taxation as theft, freedom of choice and conscience, ends as justification for means, the pandering of politicians, the connection between liberty and personal responsibility, persuasion versus force, eternal vigilance as the price of liberty, false philanthropy, the perils of democracy, and many more. If you’re like me, you’ll likely underline or annotate something on every page of this booklet—or more likely, every paragraph.
In a day when democracy is championed at home and abroad, and when majoritarian decisions are assumed to be the best practice in politics, Herbert’s voice could not be more needed.
“What is there in numbers,” he wonders, “that can possibly make any opinion or decision better or more valid, or which can transfer the body and mind of one man into the keeping of another man?”
After repeatedly poking holes in the common claims made by those who justify the use of coercion because of a majority vote, Herbert dispenses with their belief in this absurd “magical power” – a “paganism of numbers,” he also calls it – so central to the socialist’s system of arranging human affairs. “Was there ever such a degrading and indefensible superstition?”
Foundation of Culture
Culture warriors are often quick to decry the “moral relativism” they see around them, yet Herbert points out that “the foundation of all morality is respect for the free choice and the free action of others.” As such, the nanny state that compels people to act in virtuous ways is not only ineffective, but immoral; “civilization has never yet and never will be simply made by the fiat of those who have power.” We must be free to allow “the better and higher part of our nature to rule in us” in order to “subdue those passions that we share with the animals.”
From city councils to multi-national conferences, those who focus on and fret about pressing issues while presuming government to be the solution necessarily believe that force is the means by which societal ills must be cured. This vexatious trend must be stamped out if freedom is to have any chance, for as Herbert writes, “by the wrong weapons and wrong methods nothing truly worth having can be won,” as “the highest value of property results from the qualities of character that are developed in the gaining of it.” Advocates of coercion use the magician’s trick known as sleight of hand, hoping we focus on the ends while overlooking the many evils hidden in plain view.
Governments masquerade as the cure to the very problems they create. Our society is sick, infected with a glorification of force and a reliance upon coercive means to navigate through an uncertain future. Herbert calls upon us to renounce “the exercise of power by some men over others” to build a safe, happy, and prosperous society on a solid and moral foundation.
That’s a future worth fighting for.
(The author is the publisher of a physical version of the monograph by Herbert.)