Excerpted and edited from the book: ‘The Individual Anarchists, An Anthology of Liberty (1881-1908)’, Frank H. Brooks, editor. Transaction Publishers, 1994.
Benjamin R. Tucker, a famous American 19th century individualist anarchist, held that “if the individual has the right to govern himself, all external government is tyranny.” In this way, individual sovereignty—that is, the greatest amount of liberty compatible with equality of liberty—is the law of social life, the only condition upon which human beings can live in harmony.
Spencer concluded from his law of equal freedom that a person can decide to assume a condition of “voluntary outlawry” and chose to “ignore the sate” entirely without infringing on anybody else’s rights.Herbert Spencer expounded his law of equal liberty (equal freedom), a doctrine which says “…that every man may claim the fullest liberty to exercise his faculties compatible with the possession of like liberty to every other man.” Or, stated another way, “each has freedom to do all that he wills provided that he infringes not the equal freedom of any other.”
“As a corollary to the proposition that all institutions must be subordinated to the law of equal freedom, we cannot choose but admit the right of the citizen to adopt a condition of voluntary outlawry. If every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man, then he is free to drop connection with the state—to relinquish its protection, and to refuse paying towards its support. It is self-evident that in so behaving he in no way trenches upon the liberty of others; for his position is a passive one; and whilst passive he cannot become an aggressor.
Those who hold to equal freedom and the sovereign individual believe that human happiness is an intrinsically developed emotion. Holding that “man’s purpose can be obtained only by the exercise of his faculties” (Spencer) and therefore that exercise must be a human right. “Restraining the liberty of someone else prevents him from pursuing happiness. But, for this to be a universal ethic, that is, a moral code that applies to all individuals rather than just some, it would have to apply to all individuals. Therefore, if an individual restrains another individual from doing the same, then he has overstepped his rights. As a result, rights are equalized among all people.” (Spencer)
These two pillars, individual sovereignty and equal freedom for all, make up the individualist anarchist and the basis of a just society based on egoism and contracts [critics argue that ‘rights’ begin and are created by contracts, legislative force and law, in short, ‘government’, against which there will always be rebellion, ed].
Tucker also thought that the “laboring classes are deprived of their earnings by usury in its three forms, interest, rent and profit.” Therefore “Liberty will abolish interest; it will abolish profit; it will abolish monopolistic rent; it will abolish taxation; it will abolish the exploitation of labor; it will abolish all means whereby any laborer can be deprived of any of his product.”
Tucker asks, “Now what is aggression? Aggression is simply another name for government. Aggression, invasion, government, are inter-convertible terms. The essence of government is control, or the attempt to control. He who attempts to control another is a governor, an aggressor, an invader; and the nature of such invasion is not changed, whether it is made by one man upon another man, after the manner of the ordinary criminal, or by one man upon all other men, after the manner of an absolute monarchy, or by all other men upon one man, after the manner of a modern democracy.
“On the other hand, he who resists another’s attempt to control is not an aggressor, an invader, a governor, but simply a defender, a protector; and the nature of such resistance is not changed whether it be offered by one man to another man, as when one repels a criminal’s onslaught, or by one man to all other men, as when one declines to obey an oppressive law, or by all men to one man, as when a subject people rises against a despot, or as when the members of a community voluntarily unite to restrain a criminal. This distinction between invasion and resistance, between government and defense, is vital. Without it there can be no valid philosophy of politics.
“Now comes the question proper: What relations should exist between the State and the Individual? The general method of determining these is to apply some theory of ethics involving a basis of moral obligation. In this method the Anarchists have no confidence. The idea of moral obligation, of inherent rights and duties, they totally discard. They look upon all obligations, not as moral, but as social, and even then not really as obligations except as these have been consciously and voluntarily assumed. If a man makes an agreement with men, the latter may combine to hold him to his agreement; but, in the absence of such agreement, no man, so far as the Anarchists are aware, has made any agreement with God or with any other power of any order whatsoever.
“The Anarchists are not only utilitarian’s, but egoists in the farthest and fullest sense. So far as inherent right is concerned, might is its only measure. Any man, be his name Bill Sykes or Alexander Romanoff, and any set of men, whether the Chinese highbinders or the Congress of the United States, have the right, if they have the power, to kill or coerce other men and to make the entire World subservient to their ends. Society’s right to enslave the individual and the individual’s right to enslave society are unequal only because their powers are unequal.
“If this, then, were a question of right, it would be, according to the Anarchists, purely a question of strength. But, fortunately, it is not a question of right: it is a question of expediency, of knowledge, of science; the science of living together, the science of society.
“The history of humanity has been largely one long and gradual discovery of the fact that the individual is the gainer by society exactly in proportion as society is free, and of the law that the condition of a permanent and harmonious society is the greatest amount of individual liberty compatible with equality of liberty. The average man of each new generation has said to himself more clearly and consciously than his predecessor: “My neighbor is not my enemy, but my friend, and I am his, if we would but mutually recognize the fact. We help each other to a better, fuller, happier living; and this service might be greatly increased if we would cease to restrict, hamper, and oppress each other. Why can we not agree to let each live his own life, neither of us transgressing the limit that separates our individualities?”
“It is obvious that this contract, this social law, developed to its perfection, excludes all aggression, all violation of equality of liberty, all invasion of every kind. Considering this contract in connection with the Anarchistic definition of the State as the embodiment of the principle of invasion, we see that the State is antagonistic to society; and, society being essential to individual life and development, the conclusion leaps to the eyes that the relation of the State to the individual and of the individual to the State must be one of hostility, enduring till the State shall perish.
“But,” it will be asked of the Anarchists at this point in the argument, “what shall be done with those individuals who undoubtedly will persist in violating the social law by invading their neighbors?” The Anarchists answer that the abolition of the State will leave in existence a defensive association, resting no longer on a compulsory but on a voluntary basis, which will restrain invaders by any means that may prove necessary. “But that is what we have now,” is the rejoinder. “You really want, then, only a change of name?” Not so fast, please. Can it be soberly pretended for a moment that the State, even as it exists here in America, is purely a defensive institution? Surely not, save by those who see of the State only its most palpable manifestation; the policeman on the street-corner. And one would not have to watch him very closely to see the error of this claim. Why, the very first act of the State, the compulsory assessment and collection of taxes, is itself an aggression, a violation of equal liberty, and, as such, initiates every subsequent act, even those acts which would be purely defensive if paid out of a treasury filled by voluntary contributions.
“How is it possible to sanction, under the law of equal liberty, the confiscation of a man’s earnings to pay for protection which he has not sought and does not desire? And, if this is an outrage, what name shall we give to such confiscation when the victim is given, instead of bread, a stone, instead of protection, oppression? To force a man to pay for the violation of his own liberty is indeed an addition of insult to injury. But that is exactly what the State is doing. Read the “Congressional Record”; follow the proceedings of the State legislatures; examine our statute-books; test each act separately by the law of equal liberty, you will find that a good nine-tenths of existing legislation serves, not to enforce that fundamental social law, but either to prescribe the individual’s personal habits, or, worse still, to create and sustain commercial, industrial, financial, and proprietary monopolies which deprive labor of a large part of the reward that it would receive in a perfectly free market.
“To be governed,” says Proudhon, “is to be watched, inspected, spied, directed, law-ridden, regulated, penned up, indoctrinated, preached at, checked, appraised, sized, censured, commanded; by beings who have neither title nor knowledge nor virtue. To be governed is to have every operation, every transaction every movement noted, registered, counted, rated, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, refused, authorized, indorsed, admonished, prevented, reformed, redressed, corrected. To be governed is, under pretext of public utility and in the name of the general interest, to be laid under contribution, drilled, fleeced, exploited, monopolized, extorted from, exhausted, hoaxed, robbed; then, upon the slightest resistance, at the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, vilified, annoyed, hunted down, pulled about, beaten, disarmed, bound, imprisoned, shot, mitrailleused, judged, condemned, banished, sacrificed, sold, betrayed, and, to crown all, ridiculed, derided, outraged, dishonored.” And I am sure I do not need to point out to you the existing laws that correspond to and justify nearly every count in Proudhon’s long indictment. How thoughtless, then, to assert that the existing political order is of a purely defensive character instead of the aggressive State which the Anarchists aim to abolish!
“This leads to another consideration that bears powerfully upon the problem of the invasive individual who is such a bugbear to the opponents of Anarchism. Is it not such treatment as has just been described that is largely responsible for his existence? I have heard or read somewhere of an inscription written for a certain charitable institution:
“This hospital a pious person built,
But first he made the poor wherewith to fill’t”
“And so, it seems to me, it is with our prisons. They are filled with criminals which our virtuous State has made what they are by its iniquitous laws, its grinding monopolies, and the horrible social conditions that result from them. We enact many laws that manufacture criminals, and then a few that punish them. Is it too much to expect that the new social conditions which must follow the abolition of all interference with the production and distribution of wealth will in the end so change the habits and propensities of men that our jails and prisons, our policemen and our soldiers, in a word, our whole machinery and outfit of defense; will be superfluous?
“That, at least, is the Anarchists’ belief. It sounds Utopian, but it really rests on severely economic grounds. Today, however, time is lacking to explain the Anarchistic view of the dependence of usury, and therefore of poverty, upon monopolistic privilege, especially the banking privilege, and to show how an intelligent minority, educated in the principle of Anarchism and determined to exercise that right to ignore the State upon which Spencer, in his “Social Statics,” so ably and admirably insists, might, by setting at defiance the National and State banking prohibitions, and establishing a Mutual Bank in competition with the existing monopolies, take the first and most important step in the abolition of usury and of the State. Simple as such a step would seem, from it all the rest would follow.”