All Commentary
Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Vindicating Voluntaryism

Voluntaryism. Other than to those who have seriously considered the overwhelming case for liberty in human affairs, the word doesn’t have a very catchy ring. As a result, it would not survive vetting by our modern gamut of political focus groups and public-relations gurus. Yet that was what Englishman Auberon Herbert used to describe and endorse the only social arrangement that does not deny people’s self-ownership—voluntary cooperation. 

Herbert, who was born in 1838, died a century ago in 1906. As well as being a member of Parliament, he was a writer, editor, and political philosopher. He advocated government “strictly limited to its legitimate duties in defense of self-ownership and individual rights.” Therefore, he said, it must be supported by voluntary contributions. 

Unlike many intellectuals, Herbert acted on his avowed beliefs in a manner that made him, as the late Chris Tame put it, “probably the leading English libertarian” in the early twentieth century. His writing, in the words of Benjamin Tucker, the libertarian-anarchist editor of Liberty, was “a searching exposure of the inherent evil of State systems, and a glorious assertion of the inestimable benefits of voluntary action and free competition.” But in addition, he founded the journal Free Life and The Personal Rights and Self Help Association, was an anti-war leader, and more. 

(For more about Herbert’s life and philosophy, see his collection, The Right and Wrong of Compulsion by the State and Other Essays, Liberty Press, 1978, and Eric Mack’s “Voluntaryism: The Political Thought of Auberon Herbert,” Journal of Libertarian Studies, vol. 2, no. 4, 1978.) 

Auberon Herbert rejected the term anarchism for his beliefs because he believed in government empowered solely for the defensive use of force. Instead, he chose the term voluntaryism because it captured a characteristic that is true of “complete liberty in all things,” but not of any alternative social “ism”: the no coercive “respect for the rights of others.” In his words, “under voluntaryism the state would defend the rights of liberty, never aggress upon them.” 

If one accepts that every individual owns himself, which Herbert called “supreme moral rights,” there is only one consistent form of social organization: mutual consent. From that he derived his view of the role of government: “[T]herefore force may be employed on behalf of these rights, but not in opposition to them.” Any other state-imposed compulsion is illegitimate because it must inherently violate mutual consent, and therefore self-ownership. But such illegitimate compulsion is the core of government as we have long experienced it. 

At a time in history when, despite occasional garnishes of boilerplate rhetoric in favor of freedom, the practical philosophy of those in the innumerable tentacles of our governments is that they own as much of each individual as they choose to, Herbert’s moral challenge to the idea that others have “a commission to decide what [their] brother-man shall do or not do” is essential to the defense of the liberty that remains to Americans. And it is equally important to any hope of expanding that liberty. 

Herbert started from what he discerned as “the question always waiting for an answer: Do you believe in force and authority, or do you believe in liberty?” Self ownership led him to the answer that we must “reject compulsion in every form.” 

Herbert identified self-ownership as the core of John Locke’s trinity of “life, liberty and property.” Further, he understood that property rights derived from self ownership were the only solid basis for our mutual pursuit of happiness: “[E]ach man must be left free so to exercise his faculties and so to direct his energies as he may think fit to produce happiness—with one most important limitation. His freedom in this pursuit must not interfere with the exactly corresponding freedom of others.” The sole way to achieve this was through “the fullest recognition of property.” He drew the ominous implication for our era: “Destroy the rights of property, and you will also destroy both the material and the moral foundations of liberty.” 

Herbert also showed the logical contradiction between self ownership and the use of government coercion to pursue happiness: “No man can have rights over another man unless he first have rights over himself. He cannot possess the rights to direct the happiness of another man, unless he possess rights to direct his own happiness: if we grant him the latter right, this is at once fatal to the former.” 

Herbert recognized that without defending self ownership and its inevitable implications, there could be no such thing as true morality. “Force rests on no moral foundations,” he said, because “without freedom of choice . . . there are no such things as true moral qualities.” 

Further, he saw that justice (in its legitimate meaning, applicable “for all,” as opposed to the many variants that apply only to some by denying equal treatment to others) was only possible under self-ownership: “Justice requires that you should not place the burdens of one man on the shoulders of another man.” And the only way to achieve that is to recognize that “If we are self-owners, neither an individual, nor a majority, nor a government, can have rights of ownership in other men.” 

Herbert reasoned further that once we accept self-ownership, logic must lead us to also accept that “All these various wholes, without any exception, in which an individual is included . . . exist for the sake of the individual. They exist to do his service. . . . If they did not minister to his use, if they do not profit him, they would have no plea to exist.” In other words, because it is not true that “numbers . . . take from some persons all rights over themselves, and vest those rights in others,” no one can be legitimately forced to support any group decision against his will. Despite this fact, “Far the larger amount of intolerance that exists in the world is the result of our own political arrangements, by which we compel ourselves to struggle, man against man.” 

The Moral Standpoint 

Auberon Herbert thought deeply about self-ownership. He recognized and was repulsed by “the odiousness of compelling men to act against their own wishes,” not only from pragmatic considerations, but especially from a moral standpoint. He even put his beliefs in verse, as in the chorus to his poem, Libertas in Excelsis:

Each man shall be free, whoever he be, 

And none shall say to him nay! 

There is only one rule for the wise and the fool— 

To follow his own heart’s way. 

For the heart of the free, whoever he be, 

May be stirred to a better thing; 

But the heart of the slave lies chill in its grave, 

And knows not the coming of spring.

In our era, where myriad government bodies tax and regulate away individuals’ self-ownership far beyond that when Herbert wrote, we need to hear and act on his compelling case for liberty, with its voluntary arrangements, as the organizing principle of  society. As he recognized, the alternative involves the widespread abuse of people’s rights and is ultimately futile: “All the methods of restriction . . . are wrong and will only end in disappointment.” 

When Auberon Herbert chose “voluntaryism” to express his political philosophy, logically derived from the principle of self-ownership, he did not pick a term that modern spin doctors would have chosen. But it is hard to imagine a more promising future than that which it envisions, especially in contrast to the direction society seems to be headed today: “Voluntaryism . . . denies that any good or lasting work can be built upon the compulsion of others. . . . It invites all men to abandon the barren problems of force, and to give themselves up to the happy problems of liberty and friendly co-operation; to join in thinking out—while first and foremost we give to the individual those full rights over himself and over whatever is his. . . how we can do all these things, without at any point touching with the least of our fingers the hateful instrument of an aggressive and unjustifiable compulsion.

  • Gary M. Galles is a Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University and a member of the Foundation for Economic Education faculty network.

    In addition to his new book, Pathways to Policy Failures (2020), his books include Lines of Liberty (2016), Faulty Premises, Faulty Policies (2014), and Apostle of Peace (2013).