A Radical Libertarian in the British Parliament

When Murray Rothbard was a young student, he wrote under the pen name Aubrey Herbert. I thought he made it up. Not so. There really was a man named Auberon Edward William Molyneux Herbert. He was a member of the British Parliament. He lived from 1838 to 1906. He was a disciple of Herbert Spencer who kept Spencer’s youthful idealism long after his mentor lost it. He was the author of “The Right and Wrong of Compulsion by the State.”

That much I’ve known for a while, but I never bothered to read Auberon Herbert’s work. I did that recently, and I think I’ve found my muse. This man was incredible. I can’t say I’ve ever read more luxurious and erudite prose in defense of human liberty. And it’s not like the work of many people writing at the time, good on some stuff and bad on other stuff. Herbert’s writing is awesome on all subjects: property, markets, slavery, empire and colonialism, civil liberties, universal rights, and the state. He spoke about rights and the social consequences of violating rights with equal passion.

He wrote and spoke at a time of rising socialism in Europe. Britain resisted for a while, and Herbert was part of the reason. He presented one of the last clarion calls for pure liberty that occurred in the old world before World War I. He applied every effort to stopping the rise of the total state.

He penned his most famous writings in the 1870s, and they represented the best and most elaborate of the classical liberal school. He held the torch of liberty high and spoke out, consistently and constantly, for the principle of voluntarism. He viewed every state action that contradicted the principle of liberty to be a violation of rights.

From his days in Parliament, Herbert came to be frustrated over the lack of fundamental questions regarding the purpose of politics. So many were involved in the attempted micro-regulation of every industry, all services, matters of state, and civic order, that state regulation of life was an ongoing threat. Herbert came to be appalled at how little thought was put into what this would do to people. Every law, every mandate, every rule, had to be enforced by violence against property and against people. They all violated the natural liberty that had giving rise to the glory of civilization at the time.

“Sooner or later,” he wrote, “every institution has to answer the challenge, ‘Are you founded on justice? Are you for or against the liberty of men?’”

Herbert argued that all state action violates the liberty of person, a liberty that should only be constrained according to Spencer’s rule: all should be permitted so long as no one is harmed.

It takes people’s property so that the politicians can use it. It takes away liberty so that the state can regulate industry. It takes away industry and creativity so that the state can enact its own plans. Looked at this way, everything the state is and does contradicts the principle of liberty.

An excellent example is national education. All the best-educated and well-to-do people seem to believe it is necessary. Taxes are levied against the richest in England, for they are the only ones with enough money to pay for it. The buildings are built and the teachers are hired. But who runs the system and who establishes the priorities for what is taught, when, and how it is taught? The elites and the rich. It is they whose views hold sway, while the working classes and the poor have very little to say about the matter. In the end, though the rich are bearing the greatest burdens of financing the system, it is the poor who bear the burdens of obeying the masters in charge of the system. This is contrary to justice.

It is also creates a system inconsistent with progress. National education means one plan for all, imposed without creativity or the possibility for adaptation to change. One view of religion must prevail at the expense of all other views. This is not tolerance but imposition, and it locks out perspectives that are different from those of the rich who administer the system. But cut the cord completely, grant full rights to all to their property and their own decisions, and tolerance at once becomes the rule.

As for self-responsibility, all state education drains it from parents. They are treated as if they can’t be trusted, and, in time, they come to confirm that perception. Public education acculturates the entire population to become passive and disempowered. This is contrary to progress because progress requires experimentation, toleration of differences, and celebration of new ideas and new ways of doing things.

Herbert further argues that any time a task is placed upon a government department, progress in that task comes to a halt. The system is frozen. To make a change appears dangerous to the bureaucracy, even revolutionary. Change happens to government agencies only under great pressure, and, even then, the change is perfunctory and cosmetic — enough to satisfy the public but not enough to fundamentally change the system. (The TSA comes to mind here, but so do all other government agencies.)

It is true in every sector of life, whether commerce, health, religion, family, or foreign relations. Once you grant the state the power to regulate some aspect of life, there will be no end to the arguments for how power is used. People will disagree on priorities. What makes one person happy makes another furious. What pleases one person pillages another. To realize the plans for one group is to subvert the plans of another. The result is a war of all against all, each interest group vying for control of the levers of power. This is not unity or peace but division, conflict, and war.

The state, despite the best of intentions, is always in the business of harm.

A person is either free or not free. It is not possible to split this difference and make a compromise, even by majority vote. Freedom is indivisible, Herbert said. Either our volition is our own or it is taken away and exercised by the state.

What are the implications of Herbert’s analysis? Taxation must be abolished and replaced by voluntary contributions to the government. If people are unwilling to pay, it is evidence that they do not consider the service rendered to be worth the price.

All monopolies and privileges granted by the state must be abolished, whether in education, the postal service, or trade. That includes libel law, since no one has a right to his or her reputation. When people call each other bad names, they must face those consequences themselves.

All state services must be abolished, including poor laws, nationalized mines, religious restrictions, and government subsidies for industry.

All restrictions on individual behavior must be abolished. That includes restrictions on alcohol and drug consumption, prostitution, mandatory vaccinations, and divorce. All must be free to do what they wish without being impeded by government decree. That includes repealing compulsory education laws, laws restricting what one does on Sunday, and child labor laws.

Finally, justice demands the end to all colonialism and imperialism against neighboring states. All people everywhere should be free to choose their own government. Nothing should be imposed on anyone, foreign or domestic.

Herbert was a voluntarist who rejected the term “anarchism,” which he took to mean lawlessness. He also rejected the use of violence in the reform of the system, writing that it is a different matter to hate the current system versus loving liberty. To love liberty is to seek peace, understanding, and universal rights and cooperation. To hate the system is to use every tactic to overthrow it, including violence. That second path does nothing to secure a lasting liberty.

As for socialism, Herbert saw it as a system resting fundamentally on force by the government against person and property. All the theories of socialism come down to this: the government can do to anyone whatever it wants in the guise of collectivization or any other excuse. It is a map for the total state — the total abolition of liberty.


Nothing substitutes for reading Herbert’s own words. Here are a few choice quotations:

“I no longer believed that the handful of us — however well-intentioned we might be — spending our nights in the House, could manufacture the life of a nation, could endow it out of hand with happiness, wisdom, and prosperity, and clothe it in all the virtues.”

“Compulsory taxation means everywhere the persistent probability of a war made by the ambitions or passions of politicians.”

“If you mean to have and to hold power, you must do whatever is necessary for the having and holding of it. You may have doubts and hesitations and scruples, but power is the hardest of all taskmasters, and you must either lay these aside, when you once stand on that dangerous, dizzy height, or yield your place to others, and renounce your part in the great conflict. And when power is won, don’t suppose that you are a free man, able to choose your path and do as you like. From the moment you possess power, you are but its slave, fast bound by its many tyrant necessities.”

“In politics quite as much as in medicine the local evil is often but a symptom of the systematic evil, and only to be removed when some condition of life, at first sight unconnected with it, is altered.”

“Each man must be left free so to exercise his faculties and so to direct his energies as he may think fittest to produce happiness; — with one most important limitation, which must always be understood as accompanying the liberty of which I speak. His freedom in this pursuit of happiness must not interfere with the exactly corresponding freedom of others. Neither by force nor by fraud may he restrain the same free use of faculties enjoyed by every other man. This then, the widest possible liberty, is the great primary law on which all human intercourse must be founded if it is to be happy, peaceful, and progressive.”

“Whatever party names we may give ourselves, this is the question always waiting for an answer, Do you believe in force and authority, or do you believe in liberty?”

“Either you must treat men as self-responsible, as bearing their own burdens, and making their own lives, as free in thought, word and action, or you must treat them as so much political matter, which any government that can get into power may protect, restrain and fashion as it likes.”

“There are some persons who hold that the more money you can extract by legislation from the richer classes for the benefit of the poorer classes the better are your arrangements. I entirely dissent from such a view. “

“Justice requires that you should not place the burdens of one man on the shoulders of another man, even though he is better able to bear them. In plainer words, that you should not make one set of men pay for what is used by another set of men.”

“Under voluntary systems there is continual progress, the constant development of new views, and the action necessary for their practical application; under political systems, immobility on the part of the administrators, discontented helplessness on the part of those for whom they administer.”

“Cut the cord, give us full freedom for differing amongst ourselves, and it at once becomes possible for a man to hold by his own convictions and yet be completely tolerant of what his neighbor says and does.”

“If you desire progress, you must not make it difficult for men to think and act differently; you must not dull their senses with routine or stamp their imagination with the official pattern of some great department. If you desire progress, you must remove all obstacles that impede for each man the exercise of his reasoning and imaginative faculties in his own way; and you must do nothing to lessen the rewards which he expects in return for his exertions.”

“A great department must be by the law of its own condition unfavorable to new ideas. To make a change it must make a revolution.”

“To live in a state of liberty is not to live apart from law. It is, on the contrary, to live under the highest law, the only law that can really profit a man, the law which is consciously and deliberately imposed by himself on himself.”

“It is impossible for us to make any real advance until we take to heart this great truth, that without freedom of choice, without freedom of action, there are not such things as true moral qualities; there can only be submissive wearing of the cords that others have tied round our hands.”

“Private property and free trade stand on exactly the same footing, both being essential and indivisible parts of liberty, both depending upon rights, which no body of men, whether called governments or anything else, can justly take from the individual.”

“No amount of state education will make a really intelligent nation; no amount of Poor Laws will place a nation above want; no amount of Factory Acts will make us better parents.”

“Set men up to rule their fellow-men, to treat them as mere soulless material with which they may deal as they please, and the consequence is that you sweep away every moral landmark and turn this world into a place of selfish striving, hopeless confusion, trickery and violence, a mere scrambling ground for the strongest or the most cunning or the most numerous.”

“It is only you, treading in the blessed path of peace and freedom, who can bring about the true regeneration of society, and with it the true happiness of your own lives.”

This article originally appeared on FEE.org, and is written by Jeffrey Tucker.

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