Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Auberon Herbert on "Voluntaryism"

From Gary Galles of The Freemen:

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.


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