Lysander Spooner was a great 19th Century individualist anarchist who wrote such works as No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority, among others, and the subject of Murray Rothbard’s essay, “Lysander Spooner: Libertarian Pietist.” He was the last of his generation to hold onto his principled belief in moral rights, or natural rights, not subject to utilitarian or arbitrary interpretation.
Some argue that there are no objective morals, that there is no right or wrong, it’s all subjective and arbitrary. Adam Kokesh made this point when he spoke a few weeks ago at the Show-Me Freedom Fest in Kansas City, Missouri. His point was, essentially, that rights are subjective, based on the preferences of the individual. But, as Rothbard explains, Spooner disagreed, and one of his reasons for dissenting was that the alternative to a belief in natural rights leads to a situation where “might makes right.” With the State being the most powerful, all individuals would be subject to its ultimate authority and be without any defense against its brute force.
Rothbard was inspired to write this short piece by the discovery of a wonderful essay by Spooner, “Vices are not Crimes.” In it, Spooner makes clear the difference between a vice, something which may cause harm to the individual, and a crime, an action that does cause harm to someone else or his property. The distinction – which is vitally important – has been murky at best, for too many too long. He argues that the law, “the engine of socially legitimized violence,” should only be applied to crimes and, for reasons of justice and morality, vices should not be criminalized.
This understanding of rights and morality contrasts sharply with other moral theories, both then and now, which seek to employ the State to correct some perceived moral flaw in the individual. We have seen this argument applied to such issues as prohibition (both alcohol a century ago, and other drugs today), marriage, environmental issues, dieting and nutritional preferences, among so many others. While none of these particular issues should concern the “law,” each has been enveloped into the legal code and there is hardly any vice not subject to near total regulation by the full spectrum of government agencies.
Rothbard provides insight into where some of these theories come from by referring to research conducted by Paul Kleppner, who found with “almost remarkable precision” that one’s political and economic views are shaped by his religious beliefs. For the pietist, one must have a personal relationship with God and a man’s actions reflect this personal connection. The liturgical believer is more inclined to believe in church dogma and that following the doctrinal guidelines of the church will lead to salvation.
Counter intuitively, the pietist was much more inclined to invite the State into civil society, despite the more individualist approach they took to religious beliefs. He wanted the government to intervene to ensure that individual behavior (at least what was considered sinful behavior) was controlled. This was because there was no other way to gauge one’s salvation than by his actions.
But the liturgical follower cared little for the government’s involvement. This too seems backwards in light of the more rigid approach to salvation, but it reflected his desire to be left alone to live his life, and let the ministers and priests deal with issues of morality.
During this period in history when Spooner was active there were three main issues that drew national attention, they were prohibition, Sunday blue laws, and compulsory schooling. In large part the Democrats at the time linked economic intervention to “paternalistic” issues and saw no room for the government to be involved in the economy. Democrats tended in large part to be liturgical believers. The Republicans on the other hand were very much inclined to use the government to enforce both morality and economic policies. They were in favor of big government, as Thomas DiLorenzo points out in many of his books. It should be no surprise that Republicans were, more often than not, pietists.
The one major area where these views diverged was over the issue of slavery. Rothbard notes that by and large the Democrats aligned themselves with the libertarian position on most issues, but took a wholly anti-liberty stance on slavery. The Republicans generally took the opposite view, and advocated abolition. (The motives of the Republicans weren’t always so noble, however, since many opposed slavery for the reason of not wanting to compete with “free” labor, rather than an objection on purely moral grounds).
Prior to the time of the War Between the States Spooner was a “Garrisonian abolitionist,” bent on ending slavery through what Rothbard describes as “a combination of moral fervor and slave rebellion.” Spooner later dissented from the Garrisonians when their position changed and they “forgot their anarchistic principles in their enthusiasm for militarism, mass murder, and centralized statism.” Rothbard explains that to Spooner, “it would be compounding crime and error to try to use government to right the wrongs committed by another government.”
And so it is with all government “solutions.” Each one is an attempt to correct a previous government action, and each one merely compounds the problem. The Affordable Care Act is simply one “solution” in a long line of fixes meant to rectify previous government errors. The health and nutrition laws being contemplated and passed all over the place are in many ways attempts at correcting health problems spawned by the government’s manipulation of the food industry. Environmental regulations often come about in an attempt to limit pollution that could have been prevented, had the government more rigidly enforced property rights in the past.