The Right and Wrong of Compulsion by the State

By Auberon Herbert

Synopsis: This booklet published by the Libertas Institute, as part of an inexpensive pass-along series of literature, contains an essay written by an English politician about if or when the government is justified in applying force, compulsion, or violence to reach any given end. It concludes that the role of the state is merely to protect the rights of citizens, and only when a person’s rights have been infringed by another is force and compulsion justified.

Strong Points: This book is a quick read, and very inexpensive ($1.00 apiece), and therefore is great for buying up in bulk and passing out to friends. I tip my hat to the Libertas Institute for initiating a series like this, and hope to see future additions to it. It is great to have a classic in freedom literature in such a handy and accessible format. Herbert’s writings put in plain and easy to understand terms the principles of non-aggression and the morality of it. The entire essay argues from the morality standpoint, the justifiability of compulsion by the state; it shows very clearly and cleverly that the government, or other people using the government as a means, has no right to coerce people and impose its will on others, but that the justifiable function of the state is merely to ensure that people’s rights are protected from dangers such as violence, theft, fraud, etc. This little booklet packs a powerful punch, is persuasive, and full of so many profound thoughts and quotable phrases.

Weak Points: I disagreed somewhat with Herbert’s thoughts on marriage. In arguing for the state to leave the marriage institution alone, he stated, “There can be nothing which so lowers our view of marriage as the belief that, for the imagined good of society, two people, whose lives and aims are inharmonious, should by some sort of external coercion be bound together; as if society had ever been benefited by sacrificing the individual.” (p. 50). I sympathize with his general intent here, but especially in the case of children having joined a family, there is much benefit in the sacrifice of the individual for the sake of a stability of marriage and family life. I agree that the state is not the best means to keep the family strengthened, but there is an incalculable social benefit for parents to keep their family together, despite issues that may arise.

Interesting: 4/5

Must Read: 3.9/5

Overall: 4/5

Pages: 70

Selected Quotes: “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 around our hands. There cannot be unselfishness and generosity, there cannot be prudence and self-denial.” (p. 4).

“Third, even if you believed that you could make men wise and good by depriving them of liberty of action, you have no right to do so. Who has given you a commission to decide what your brother man shall do or not do? Who has given you charge of his life and his faculties and his happiness as well as of your own? Perhaps you think yourself wiser and better fitted to judge than he is; but so did all those of old days – kings, emperors, and heads of dominant churches – who possessed power, and never scrupled to compress and shape their fellow-men as they themselves thought best, by means of that power.
“You can see as you read the story of the past, and even as you look on the world at present, what a mess the holders of power made of it, whenever they undertook to judge for others, whenever they undertook to guide and control the lives and faculties of others; and why should you think that you are going to succeed where they failed? On what reasonable ground should you think so? Why should you suppose that you have suddenly in this our generation grown much better and wiser and more unselfish than they were? We have probably all of us the same or nearly the same share of human nature as they had.” (p. 5).

“The freedom of a man to use either his faculties or his possessions, as he himself wills, is the great moral fact that exists in the independence of every form of government.” (p. 6-7).

“You tell me a majority has a right to decide as they like for their fellow-men. What majority? 21 to 20? 20 to 5? 20 to 1? But why any majority? What is there in numbers that can possibly make any opinion or decision better or more valid, or which can transfer the body and mind of one man into the keeping of another? Five men are in a room. Because three men take one view and two another, have the three men any moral right to enforce their view on the other two men? What magical power comes over the three men that because they are one more in number than the two men, therefore they suddenly become possessors of the minds and bodies of these others? As long as they were two to two, so long we may suppose each man remained master of his own mind and body; but from the moment that another man, acting Heaven only knows from what motives, has joined himself to one party or the other, that party has become straightway possessed of the souls and bodies of the other party. Was there ever such a degrading and indefensible superstition?” (p. 15).

“Second, governments recognizing that the only justification for their existence is to be found in the acts of violence and fraud committed by men against each other, and in the right of self-preservation in presence of such acts, must employ the force which they possess for the one and single purpose of repelling force. They must simply defend the person and property of all persons from attacks by whomsoever they are made. Private and personal property must be fully and completely recognized, whether it be the property of the rich or the poor man. We must close our ears to the careless and unthoughtful denunciations of property, and see that without the fullest recognition of property there can be no real liberty of action.” (p. 30).

“There can be no true condition of rest in society, there can be no perfect friendliness among men who differ in opinions, as long as either you or I can use our neighbor and his resources for the furtherance of our ideas and against his own.” (p. 42).

“I would point out that none of the proposals that I have made are arbitrary in their nature. ... They are, as I believe, the necessary deductions from the great principle – that a man has inalienable rights over himself, over his own faculties and possessions….” (p. 55).

“The leading intention in this paper has been to show – apart from all those practical evils which are the children of force – that there is no moral foundation for the exercise of power by some men over others, whether they are a majority or not; that even if it is a convenient thing to exercise this power, in so apparently simple a form as that of taking taxes, and for purposes which are so right and wise and good in themselves, as education, or the providing for the old age of the destitute, there is no true authority which sanctions our doing so; and therefore that the good which we intend to do will ever be perverted into harm.” (p. 69).


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