Liberty or Authority

Excerpted from the book;
Individual Liberty: Selections From the Writings of Benjamin R. Tucker
Vanguard Press, New York, 1926
Kraus Reprint Co., Millwood, NY, 1973.


It has always been difficult to induce the superficial thinker to distinguish between things libertarian and things authoritarian. Hence even trained economists have frequently confused State Socialism and Communism with Anarchism. In the following article the editor of Liberty proceeded to clarify the subject for one who had failed to make the proper discrimination:

Professor Sumner, who occupies the chair of political economy at Yale, addressed recently the New Haven Equal Rights Debating Club. He told the State Socialists and Communists of that city much wholesome truth. But, as far as I can learn from the newspaper reports, which may of course have left out, as usual, the most important things that the speaker said, he made no discrimination in his criticisms. He appears to have entirely ignored the fact that the Anarchistic Socialists are the most unflinching champions in existence of his own pet principle of laissez faire. He branded Socialism as the summit of absurdity, utterly failing to note that one great school of Socialism says "Amen" whenever he scolds government for invading the individual, and only regrets that he doesn't scold it oftener and more uniformly.

Referring to Karl Marx's position that the employee is forced to give up a part of his product to the employer (which, by the way, was Proudhon's position before it was Marx's, and Josiah Warren's before it was Proudhon's), Professor Sumner asked why the employee does not, then, go to work for himself, and answered the question very truthfully by saying that it is because he has no capital. But he did not proceed to tell why he has no capital and how he can get some. Yet this is the vital point in dispute between Anarchism and privilege, between Socialism and so-called political economy. He did indeed recommend the time dishonored virtues of industry and economy as a means of getting capital, but every observing person knows that the most industrious and economical persons are precisely the ones who have no capital and can get none. Industry and economy will begin to accumulate capital when idleness and extravagance lose their power to steal it, and not before.

Professor Sumner also told Herr Most and his followers that their proposition to have the employee get capital by forcible seizure is the most short-sighted economic measure possible to conceive of. Here again he is entirely wise and sound. Not that there may not be circumstances when such seizure would be advisable as a political, war, or terroristic measure calculated to induce political changes that will give freedom to natural economic processes; but as a directly economic measure it must always and inevitably be, not only futile, but reactionary. In opposition to all arbitrary distribution I stand with Professor Sumner with all my heart and mind. And so does every logical Anarchist.

But, if the employee cannot at present get capital by industry and economy, and if it will do him no good to get it by force, how is he to get it with benefit to himself and injury to no other? Why don't you tell us that, Professor Sumner? You will, to be sure, send us a stray shot somewhere near the mark when, in answer to a question why shoemakers have no shoes, you said that, where such a condition of things prevailed, it was due to some evil work of the government, said evil work being manifest at present in the currency and taxation. But what is the precise nature of the evils thus manifest? Tell me that definitely, and then I will tell you whether you are a consistent man.

I fancy that, if I should ask you what the great evil in our taxation is, you would answer that it is the protective tariff. Now, the protective tariff is an evil certainly; and an outrage; but, so far as it affects the power of the laborer to accumulate capital, it is a comparatively small one. In fact, its abolition, unaccompanied by the abolition of the banking monopoly, would take away from very large classes of laborers not only what little chance they now have of getting capital, but also their power of sustaining the lives of themselves and their families. The amount abstracted from labor's pockets by the protective tariff and by all other methods of getting governmental revenue is simply one of the smaller drains on industry. The amount of capital which it is thus prevented from getting will hardly be worth considering until the larger drains are stopped. As far as taxation goes, the great evils involved in it are to be found, not in the material damage done to labor by a loss of earnings, but in the assumption of the right to take men's property without their consent, and in the use of this property to pay the salaries of the officials through whom, and the expenses of the machine through which, labor is oppressed and ground down. Are you heroic enough, Professor Sumner, to adopt this application of laissez faire? I summon you to it under penalty of conviction of an infidelity to logic which ought to oust you from your position as a teacher of youth.

If taxation, then (leaving out the enormous mischief that it does as an instrument of tyranny), is only one of the minor methods of keeping capital from labor, what evil is there in the currency that constitutes the major method? Your answer to this question, Professor Sumner, will again test your consistency. But I am not so sure what it will be in this case as I was in the other. If you answer it as most of your fellow-professors would, you will say that the great evil in the currency is the robbery of labor through a dishonest silver dollar. But this is a greater bugbear than the protective tariff. The silver dollar is just as honest and just as dishonest as the gold dollar, and neither of them is dishonest or a robber of labor except so far as it is a monopoly dollar. Both, however being monopoly dollars, and all our other dollars being monopoly dollars, labor is being robbed by them all to an extent perfectly appalling. And right here is to be found the real reason why labor cannot get capital. It is because its wages are kept low and its credit rendered next to valueless by a financial system that makes the issue of currency a monopoly and a privilege, the result of which is the maintenance of interest, rent, and profits at rates ruinous to labor and destructive to business. And the only way that labor can ever get capital is by striking down this monopoly and making the issue of money as free as the manufacture of shoes. To demonetize silver or gold will not help labor; - what labor needs is the monetization of all marketable wealth. Or, at least, the opportunity of such monetization. This can only be secured by absolutely free competition in banking. Again I ask you, Professor Sumner, does your anxiety lest the individual be interfered with cover the field of finance? Are you willing that the individual shall be "let alone" in the exercise of his right to make his own money and offer it in open market to be taken by those who choose? To this test I send you a second summons under the same penalty that I have already hung over your head in case you fail to respond to the first. The columns of Liberty are open for your answer.

Before you make it, let me urge you to consistency. The battle between free trade and protection is simply one phase of the battle between Anarchism and State Socialism. To be a consistent free trader is to be an Anarchist; to be a consistent protectionist is to be a State Socialist. You are assailing that form of State Socialism known as protection with a vigor equaled by no other man, but you are rendering your blows of little effect by maintaining, or encouraging the belief that you maintain, those forms of State Socialism known as compulsory taxation and the banking monopoly. You assail Marx and Most mercilessly, but fail to protest against the most dangerous manifestations of their philosophy. Why pursue this confusing course? In reason's name, be one thing or the other! Cease your indiscriminate railing at Socialism, the Anarchistic or the governmental sort: either be a State Socialist and denounce liberty everywhere and always, or be an Anarchist and denounce authority everywhere and always; else you must consent to be taken for what you will appear to be, - an impotent hybrid.

Herbert Spencer was prone to err in a similar manner, and he was no more immune than Professor Sumner to Mr. Tucker's shafts of criticism:

Liberty welcomes and criticises in the same breath the series of papers by Herbert Spencer on "The New Toryism," "The Coming Slavery," "The Sins of Legislators," etc., now running in the Popular Science Monthly and the English Contemporary Review. They are very true, very important, and very misleading. They are true for the most part in what they say, and false and misleading in what they fail to say. Mr. Spencer convicts legislators of undeniable and enormous sins in meddling with and curtailing and destroying the people's rights. Their sins are sins of commission. But Mr. Spencer's sin of omission is quite as grave. He is one of those persons who are making a wholesale onslaught on Socialism as the incarnation of the doctrine of State omnipotence carried to its highest power. And I am not sure that he is quite honest in this. I begin to be a little suspicious of him. It seems as if he had forgotten the teachings of his earlier writings, and had become a champion of the capitalistic class. It will be noticed that in these later articles, amid his multitudinous illustrations (of which he is as prodigal as ever) of the evils of legislation, he in every instance cites some law passed, ostensibly at least, to protect labor, alleviate suffering, or promote the people's welfare. He demonstrates beyond dispute the lamentable failure in this direction. But never once does he call attention to the far more deadly and deep-seated evils growing out of the innumerable laws creating privilege and sustaining monopoly. You must not protect the weak against the strong, he seems to say, but freely supply all the weapons needed by the strong to oppress the weak. He is greatly shocked that the rich should be directly taxed to support the poor, but that the poor should be indirectly taxed and bled to make the rich richer does not outrage his delicate sensibilities in the least. Poverty is increased by the poor laws, says Mr. Spencer. Granted; but what about the rich laws that caused and still cause the poverty to which the poor laws add? That is by far the more important question; yet Mr. Spencer tries to blink it out of sight.

A very acute criticism of Mr. Spencer's position has been made recently before the Manhattan Liberal Club by Stephen Pearl Andrews. He shows that Mr. Spencer is not the radical laissez faire philosopher which he pretends to be; that the only true believers in laissez faire are the Anarchists; that individualism must be supplemented by the doctrines of equity and courtesy; and that, while State Socialism is just as dangerous and tyrannical as Mr. Spencer pictures it, "there is a higher and nobler form of Socialism which is not only not slavery, but which is our only means of rescue from all sorts and degrees of slavery." All this is straight to the mark, - telling thrusts, which Mr. Spencer can never parry.

But the English philosopher is doing good, after all. His disciples are men of independent mind, more numerous every day, who accept his fundamental truths and carry them to their logical conclusions. A notable instance is Auberon Herbert, formerly a member of the House of Commons, but now retired from political life. While an enthusiastic adherent of the Spencerian philosophy, he is fast outstripping his master. In a recent essay entitled "A Politician in Sight of Haven," written, as the London Spectator says, with an unsurpassable charm of style, Mr. Herbert explodes the majority lie, ridicules physical force as a solution of social problems, strips government of every function except the police, and recognizes even that only as an evil of brief necessity, and in conclusion proposes the adoption of voluntary taxation with a calmness and confidence which must have taken Mr. Spencer's breath away. To be sure, Mr. Herbert is as violent as his master against Socialism, but in his case only because he honestly supposes that compulsory Socialism is the only Socialism, and not at all from any sympathy with legal monopoly or capitalistic privilege in any form.

Mr. Willis Hudspeth, in a communication to Liberty, stated that an Anarchist paper defines an Individualist to be "one who believes in the principle of recognizing the right of every non-aggressive individual to the full control of his person and property"; and he then inquired how, if that were correct, does Anarchism conflict with Socialism or Individualism. Mr. Tucker answered his question in this manner:

The definition offered of Individualism might not be accepted by all Individualists, but it will do very well as a definition of Anarchism. When my correspondent speaks of Socialism I understand him to mean State Socialism and Nationalism, and not that Anarchistic Socialism which Liberty represents. I shall answer him on this supposition. He wishes to know, then, how State Socialism and Nationalism would restrict the non-aggressive individual in the full control of his person and property. In a thousand and one ways. I will tell him one, and leave him to find out the thousand. The principal plank in the platform of State Socialism and Nationalism is the confiscation of all capital by the State. What becomes, in that case, of the property of any individual, whether he be aggressive or non-aggressive? What becomes also of private industry? Evidently it is totally destroyed. What becomes then of the personal liberty of those non-aggressive individuals who are thus prevented from carrying on business for themselves or from assuming relations between themselves as employer and employee if they prefer, and who are obliged to become employees of the State against their will? State Socialism and Nationalism mean the utter destruction of human liberty and private property.


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