Thursday, March 29, 2007

Van Ornum, Why Government at All? - Part II, Chapter 7




The main purpose of this work is to make clear the nature and scope of human liberty; and to show its importance as the one necessary condition of human progress. Every examination we have heretofore set on foot, and every inquiry instituted, has led directly to that one condition. If we have considered the different schools of professed social reform we have found them progressive just as we have found them tending toward liberty; and retrogressive just as we have found them necessarily violating liberty. In examining the constitution of man it was everywhere the one important requisite of his development. It becomes very important then to understand what this thing is that meets us at every turn; that claims our attention; and punishes our neglect.

Webster defines liberty as “the state of a freeman; ability to do as one pleases, freedom from restraint.”

It will be noticed that it is used as synonymous with “freedom;” and freedom is an absolute term. It admits of no limitations. To be free is to be without restriction, especially the restriction imposed by the will of another. A thing cannot be free as long as it is restricted. It is true, a man whose freedom is restricted a little, is more free than one who is restricted a good deal; but he is not free. He only approximates toward freedom. Nor is a people whose freedom of action is restricted, either through the law, or through religion, free. A sprinter, who would run a race while wearing shackles, would not be regarded as free, even if those shackles were placed there by his own hand. [153]

We should say that the limitation of that man's freedom was his ignorance. So, it is not only the will of others that restrains men of their liberty, but their own ignorance. Their greatest restraint is their ignorance because it places the most absolute check, not merely upon the gratification of desire, but upon desire itself; for how can a man desire a thing if be is ignorant of the good which comes from its enjoyment? In fact, it may be said to embrace all forms of restraint, for as men become intelligent enough to see the injurious effects of restraint upon themselves through imposing it upon others, they cease to impose it; and when they perceive the nature and cause of restraint when imposed directly upon themselves, they refuse to submit.

There are three forms in which artificial restraint, or the restraint of one man, or some men, over other men, is imposed, namely, law, religion, and public sentiment. The first two are positives and act positively to suppress men’s activities. The third is more negative in its action, but none the less effective. Law is the will of the governors, whether those governors be the king, or a multitude of monopolists. It is to compel subjection. The church, for a long time, aimed to be, and was, the principal monopolist. It made the laws, and controlled not only the actions, but thoughts and consciences of men; and kings, even, were subject to it. It even made the public sentiment, and, through its influence and power was all but absolute. Then, the darkness of ignorance was most intense. Superstition was for the masses, craft and intrigues for the priests who were the politicians; and licentious indulgence in the grossest animal desires, for the rulers. If the rulers quarreled they set the people to fighting, and called it war. And the ruler who could murder most of the people who were subject to the other ruler, regardless of the number of his own subjects that were murder, was the greatest. [155]

But the outs are always scheming to get iii. The so-called temporal rulers were jealous of the spiritual ones, and, in order to boost themselves conceded somewhat to the ruled. The church found itself compelled to grant concessions too, in order to regain its advantage. This would again be met, in time, by the others, every concession being a gain to the people, and a loss to power. Greater freedom always promoting greater intelligence, the gain became confirmed in the people through that intelligence, so that every real advance has been maintained. There has been no step backward. Every contest between the church and the state has been a gain to the people; and it was only through those contests that, for a long time, the people were able to progress at all. Along this line has been all advance toward human liberty; and as soon as the people are intelligent enough, they will throw overboard what remains of both these twin brothers in infamy, the church and the state, and realize complete liberty. Will they also discard public sentiment? They will have no occasion to do so. When intelligence becomes sufficiently enlightened to achieve liberty, public sentiment will be but the expression of that enlightenment. It will always keep pace with progress. When men once realize the value of liberty public sentiment will condemn all infractions of it.

But men’s appreciation of liberty cannot go beyond their understanding of it; and the popular understanding has been greatly at fault. This has been promoted largely by the very general acceptance among scholars, and writers on social topics of the principles laid down by John Stuart Mill, in his work on “Liberty.” When first published, that was by far the most advanced statement of those principles which had been worked out in detail, and which had secured any general recognition from the public; although long before, Baron Wilhelm von [156] Humboldt[1] had laid a broader foundation than that of Mr. Mill. Humboldt’s work was written about the beginning of the present century, and at a time when he was Prime Minister of Germany; but it was not published until after the author’s death. A single comparison will show the marked difference between the two authors in their understanding of liberty.

Von Humboldt says the State is to abstain

“from all solicitude for the positive welfare of the citizens, and not to proceed a step further than is necessary for their mutual security and protection against foreign enemies, for with no other object should it impose restrictions on freedom.”

Contrast that, with the statement by Mr. Mill, on page 14, of his book.[2]

“All that makes existence valuable to any one, depends upon the enforcement of restraints upon the action of other people. Some rules of conduct, therefore, must be imposed, by law in the first place, and by opinion in many things which are not fit subjects for the operations of the law.”

This might have been written by the most bigoted and intolerant religionist, or prohibitionist, with perfect consistency.

Mr. Mill presents another instance of radically wrong conclusions proceeding from false premises. He too looked upon society as some sort of an entity apart from the voluntary association of individuals for the mutual benefit of those individuals. Regarding it as a separate entity, he assumed that it has rights. He also recognized that the individual has rights; then he devoted his whole work to an effort to reconcile the conflicting rights of society, with those of the individual. Of course, it became a patchwork of compromises,—a balancing of the good of society against the good of the individual, with the mutual good thrown in indifferently [157] on one side or the other as inclination dictated. It was perfectly natural for him, under these circumstances, to assume that in all matters that were self- regarding to the individual the individual should be supreme. If the individual had any rights at all, it was obvious that they must be here; but in order to save what he regards the rights of society, he / limits the rights of the person to those matters which directly affect himself. This was a very plausible theory until he undertook to apply it, when he loses himself in a multitude of contradictions and difficulties, which he admits his inability to solve. “So many things,” as he says, “lie on the exact boundary line between the two principles;” that is, between the rights of the person and the right of society to restrain him, that he was unable to decide where to place them.

Another thing that conclusively proves Mr. Mill’s inadequate conception of liberty is his statement on page 184, that “the principle of individual liberty is not involved in the doctrine of free trade.” If his individual liberty is not involved in his right to do what he will with his own, where, in the name of common sense, is it involved? Again, when he speaks of trade regulations pertaining to adulterations, and sanitary precautions to protect working people in dangerous occupations, he says, “these interferences are objectionable, not as infringements on the liberty of the producer, or seller, but on the buyer;” just as if an infringement on the liberty of the buyer, were not equally an infringement on the liberty of the seller, and the producer. Whatever interferes with the freedom of the buyers in a market, interferes to precisely the same extent with those who produce for that market, and those who supply that market. Then again, any process of reasoning which justifies society in an interference in favor of one party in a transaction is equally good for a like interference in favor of the other party. If we may [158] especially protect workingmen, we can also protect their employers; and the workingmen have no right to complain if they find that measures intended to protect them have, in their practical workings, really protected their masters instead of them. The principle of protection, whether applied to trade and production, or to security of possession, is only effective when applied to a part of the people.

Whatever protects all, protects none; because universal protection is an impossibility. The only way that any man can seriously violate the rights of another man, or restrain him of his liberty, is through the law. So that the law is the only efficient violator of liberty from which the people need protection; and the only protection they can receive from that, is to kill it.

Mr. Mill saw clearly enough how essential freedom is to the individual, in those matters which pertain immediately to himself. He says:

“The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot be rightfully compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”

But on the very next page he adds:

“Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end.”

According to that, the barbarians in our cities, who are made so, and kept so by the law, may legitimately [159] be the objects of despotism, “provided,’ in the opinion of the despots, “the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end.”

And I suppose that the wolves, observing how lamentably ignorant and barbarous the sheep are, would be justified in adopting despotic methods for their improvement, provided always that, in their own opinion, the means were “justified by actually accomplishing that end.”

But it is impossible to improve men by despotism. The history of the world may be successfully challenged for a single instance where a people has been improved by its rulers. On the other hand, they may be, and often are debased almost immeasurably by the pernicious effects of bad laws, and bad rulers. A remarkable case is that of Spain under a line of bigoted and inefficient kings, following the expulsion of the Moors in the seventeenth century. Spain had been brought to a condition of absolute helplessness as a result of that almost unparalleled act of despotism. The condition of the country was almost beyond description. Its power was broken, its wealth dissipated, its commerce destroyed, and its industries were utterly annihilated. The industrious Moors, on whom the prosperity of the country had depended, had been banished, for the glory of God—and the church. The three succeeding sovereigns were idle, ignorant, infirm of purpose, passing their lives in the lowest and most sordid pleasures. Spain was brought to the lowest point of debasement, insulted with impunity by foreign nations; or rather, by the despotic rulers of foreign nations, was reduced to bankruptcy, stripped of her fairest possessions, held up to public opprobrium, and her territories mapped out and divided by a treaty in which she had no share, but which she could not resent. Certainly here, if ever, was an opportunity for a wise ruler to lift a country and a people out of the [160] miserable condition into which the ignorance, intolerance, and arrogance of its rulers had plunged it.

This was the condition of affairs when Charles III succeeded to the throne. A man of great energy, respected for his honesty, and feared for his vigor, he raised Spain from the condition of a third, to that of a first rate power. As a man he was of high repute; as a sovereign, the superior of all his contemporaries. The army was improved, increased, better equipped; the national defences strengthened and extended; the navy doubled in number and more than doubled in efficiency; and public, improvements were undertaken and carried out with wisdom and skill. All this was done without imposing fresh burdens upon the people; but, on the other hand, trade regulations were relaxed, the laws. of mortmain were reformed, and the principles of free trade received considerable recognition in the repeal of laws relating to the transportation and exportation of corn. A wise and liberal policy was adopted for the first time in the treatment of the American Colonies. While George III was driving the English Colonies into rebellion, Charles III was conciliating the Spanish ones. Finally, he conceded free trade, first to the West Indies, and then to the American Continent, which quickly reacted upon Spain itself by increased trade, trebling its exports of foreign products, multiplying its export of home produce more than five-fold, and increasing the returns from America nine-fold. Many taxes were repealed, the industrious classes were relieved of their principal burdens, and important reforms introduced in the administration of law, securing to the poor a larger degree of equality with the rich. He founded schools, endowed colleges, rewarded professors, and granted pensions. He practically re-built Madrid, and the roads leading to it, built canals, opened up national highways which are even now regarded among the best in Europe, improved the navigation[ 161] of the rivers, and even made their waters available for irrigation, which again increased the productiveness of the country. With unlimited power, and almost unlimited resources, backed by personal wisdom and fidelity, if it were possible for a ruler to confer civilization upon a people, certainly Charles III ought to have done it upon the Spaniards. But he did not and he could not. At his death he was succeeded by Charles IV, a Spaniard devout, ignorant, and orthodox. The liberal policy of his father was reversed, freedom of discussion was forbidden, arbitrary principles revived, the priests reassumed their old importance, the Inquisition was restored, learning was discouraged, the study of moral philosophy even was forbidden in the universities, reforms were neutralized, and the country was brought to the verge of bankruptcy.

And, surprising as it may seem, the king received the cordial support of the people. The advance had been external. It had not been from within. Superstition was revived with the reaction, and the country was again plunged into a darkness from which only its own development can permanently release it. Despotism is no remedy for barbarism; the only remedy is knowledge. This fact is attested both by philosophy and history; and the one condition of the progress of any people in knowledge, is the freedom of its individual members in the pursuit of it.

Out of Mr. Mill’s fundamental error, his misconception of society, flow all his efforts to balance and harmonize the rights of each; the individual and society. He says:

“There are also many positive acts for the benefit of others, which he (the individual) may rightfully be compelled to perform; such as, to give evidence in a court of justice; to bear his fair share in the common defense, or in any other joint work necessary to the interests of society of which he enjoys the protection; and to perform certain acts of individual beneficence such as saving a fellow creature’s life, or interposing to protect the defenseless against ill-usage, things [162] which whenever it is obviously a man’s duty to do, he may be right. fully made responsible to society for not doing.”

We have already seen that a just society is the voluntary association of individuals for mutual benefit; but when its members are “compelled to perform positive acts for the benefit of others,” the compulsion destroys the voluntary nature of the association, as well as the mutuality of benefit. People will often perform acts for others, out of their love of the admiration of those others, which, if they were compelled to perform for the benefit of the others, regardless of the mutual benefit to come, they would be exceedingly distasteful. So far as it is desirable and natural that one man should assist another, men need no compulsion of the law to induce them to do it. Nature has provided abundantly for that. No amount of law can add one iota to nature’s decree.

Also in the payment of taxes, compulsory payment (and people only pay taxes on compulsion,) violates the voluntary condition of the association. If taxes were natural or necessary nature would have provided a natural tax, which would have been collected without resort to artificial means, and without violating natural right. Besides, the right of taxation implies the right of confiscation. This has been decided over and over again in the courts; and it stands to reason. If the taxing power has no right to take all, how much has it the right to take? Where is the limit? There is none in law; and the only one in nature is the one where the taxed will consent to submit. And this is just as true of the single tax, as of any other tax. Then again as to the “joint work necessary to the interest of society of which he enjoys the protection,” I have sufficiently disposed of the protection idea; but who is to judge of the necessity of the proposed “joint work?” If I am a member of a voluntary association, and the other members can compel me to contribute to a [163] “joint work’s of which I do not approve, it is voluntary no longer, but rather, compulsory. The condition of absolute freedom of every individual is necessary to secure a positively mutual and equal intercourse between the members of a community. Nothing short of this is freedom, for anything less is restriction; and restriction is the opposite of freedom; that is, slavery. To use Mr. Mill’s own words, “If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would he justified in silencing mankind.” This had reference only to freedom of opinion, but the recognition of the principle of freedom of opinion carries with it the right of freedom of action; for action is the result of thinking; and if a man may think freely, he may also realize his thought in action. So, let us look at it in whatever way we will, the unqualified liberty of the individual is the central fact and condition of his being. It is a common expression now among professed lovers of liberty that “men should be free, only their freedom must be bounded by the equal freedom of every other man.” Then if men immure themselves in narrow cloisters, like grubs in a honey-comb, they must be content, because the freedom of each is bounded by the equal freedom of every other one. This is not to me a lofty conception of man’s liberty. Who is it that thus places bounds to human thought human activity? Not so! I would instead place man upon the mountain ‘top of his sublimest possibilities, bounded by nothing but the sweep of his own powers. I would bid him trace back the chain of causation, link by link through all the past, explore the present in its infinity, and boldly soar on the wings of his imagination through the eons of eternity. He should delve deep into all mysteries, bring up the hidden treasures of earth and sea, traverse limitless space, weigh [164] suns and stars, and measure constellations, pluck God himself from off his golden throne, consign him to the lumber-room of forgotten myths, and seat himself upon his vacant throne, the master of earth, and air and skies. This is liberty: all-absorbing, all-embracing liberty.

[1] “The Sphere and duties of Government,” by Baron Wilhelm Von Humboldt, translated from the German by Joseph Couthard, London: 1854.

[2] “On Liberty,” by John Stuart Mill, 4th edition, London: Longmans, Green, Reader and Dyer, 1869.

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