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Auberon Herbert, Part 2


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On other issues, Auberon Herbert predictably sided with working people. In 1869, he acted as one of the presidents of the first national Cooperative Congress. As its name suggests, the Cooperative movement focused on establishing cooperative societies and arrangements, such as mutual insurance agencies.

When Herbert’s Right and Wrong of Compulsion by the State first appeared, Benjamin Tucker reviewed it in Liberty (May 23, 1885). The book, he explained, “consists of a series of papers written for Joseph Cowen’s paper, the Newcastle Chronicle, supplemented by a letter to the London Times on the English factory acts. Dedicated to Mr. Cowen’s constituents, ‘The Workmen of Tyneside,’ it appeals with equal force to workmen the world over, and their welfare and their children’s will depend upon the readiness with which they accept and the bravery with which they adhere to its all-important counsel.”

In 1877, as an outward manifestation of his support of labor, Herbert founded the Personal Rights and Self-Help Association that opposed the increasingly popular socialist “solution” to labor. Whereas the socialists called for more laws, especially factory legislation, the Personal Rights Association advocated the repeal of laws and called for free trade as the way to empower labor. The “Self-Help” aspect of the Association referred to the working man’s need to protect himself through voluntary association rather than authority. In advocating free trade, Herbert went so far as to defend sweatshop owners (sweaters), who were almost universally reviled by the cooperative movement. He wrote,

The sweater may or may not be a very evil person, but he has no power to compel those he employs to accept his terms. He is not a user of force. You have therefore no moral right to employ force against him…. But apart from the moral argument, it is stupid in such a case to use force…. [It] is the circumstances that compel those in the sweater’s employment to accept the hard conditions. Is there not then something very left-handed in employing force against the sweater himself, who, as is confessed, is not the cause of the evil? The cause of the evil is in the circumstances, and it is in the circumstances that a remedy must be found. (Free Life, July 1898)

At podiums across England and in prominent publications, Herbert argued against other core ideas of socialism. For example, he dissected the concept of the state or society as being an independent organism in which individuals functioned as limbs or muscle; in essence, the socialists were denying the independent existence of individuals. In an early expression of methodological individualism, Herbert claimed the opposite was true.

The State is created by the individuals. It is fashioned and refashioned by them at their own will and pleasure … for their use and service, and when it does not satisfy their requirements, they pull it to pieces and reconstruct it. Men throughout their lives are included in many wholes…. Schools, colleges, clubs, associations, joint stock companies, cooperative companies, political parties, village or town organisations, and then lastly comes national organisation or the State; but in all these cases, the organisation is created by the individuals themselves…. [How] is it possible for any constructed and reconstructed things to be greater than those who construct it and reconstruct it? To indulge in any such imagination is to imitate the carver of idols, who, when with his own hands he has fashioned the log of wood, falls on his knees before it and calls it his god. (Free Life, July 1898)

Objections to Herbert

Prominent socialists struck back. The economist and democratic socialist J.A. Hobson wrote a harsh critique of Herbert in the Humanitarian, entitled “A Rich Man’s Anarchism,” echoing the accusation of anarchism and attacking Herbert’s defense of private property as a ploy to enslave the poor to the rich. During the 1890s, both Hobson and the socialist E. Belfort Bax engaged in lengthy published debates with Herbert, returning again and again to attacks based on Herbert’s advocacy of private property and to ad hominems accusing him of anarchism.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Tucker agreed with the “accusation” of anarchism but praised Herbert for it. The matter on which he took Herbert to task was his embrace of laissez-faire capitalism. Along with most other 19th-century American libertarians, Tucker accepted the labor theory of value, which claims that the value of a good results solely from the labor and the basic costs required to produce it. If a capitalist subsequently takes the good and sells it for twice what he pays the laborer, then the resulting profit is a form of theft. Tucker also considered charging interest on money to be usury. He believed the remedy was free banking and the elimination of all state support for business, including monopoly privileges. He opposed the charging of rent on the grounds that people did not rightfully own property they did not occupy.

To Herbert, selling goods for profit and charging interest on money were naturally occurring market phenomena that would exist whether or not the state did. The practice of collecting rent was an extension of ownership, which did not require constant use or occupation to be legitimate. Interesting enough, although Herbert was baited repeatedly on that issue within Liberty, especially by the periodical’s sometimes co-editor Victor Yarros, Herbert — usually an ardent debater — chose not to respond.

After a fire destroyed Tucker’s offices in 1907, he left for Europe, and an era of America libertarianism ended. The same can be said of British libertarianism with the death of Herbert in 1906.

Shortly before his death, Herbert declared, “I venture to prophesy that there lies before us a bitter and an evil time.” He spoke not merely of the rapid rise of socialism. An avid observer of military matters, Herbert undoubtedly saw the early stirrings of World War I, which would erupt in 1914. It would sweep away the last remnants of classical liberalism in England and devastate a generation of young men. Herbert’s focus on the terrible impact that violence has upon those who commit it meant there could be no victors emerging from such a conflict.

Referring to the “victory” of three men who use force against two others, Herbert wrote,

Nothing can be worse for the 3 men. To be told that for your convenience the rights of others are not to count must corrupt and make a beast of you, It is an untrue exaltation of yourself that human nature cannot withstand…. That is mere paganism — the paganism of numbers; and from it we must extricate ourselves as quickly as may be, if our people are not to live blindly worshiping force, and with as much peace and harmony in their lives as there is for two cats cruelly and wickedly tied together by their tails. (Free Life, July 1898)

Today, with wars and hate-mongering rampant, Herbert’s psychological insights on the brutalizing nature of force upon all involved are particularly poignant. If we spotlight only his unique anti-war arguments, a Herbert revival is merited.

Herbert himself must bear some responsibility for his current obscurity, however. He neglected to organize his philosophy into a systematic expression. Indeed, much of his writing occurred in an ephemeral periodical entitled Free Life, which he published — at first weekly and then monthly — from 1890 to 1901. Although an anthology of Herbert’s work, The Right and Wrong of Compulsion by the State and Other Essays, was published in 1978, much more is needed to restore the legacy of this thinker, whom the Austrian economist Richard M. Ebeling once called “one of the most important and articulate advocates of liberty in the last 200 years.”

Part 1 | Part 2

This article originally appeared in the March 2011 edition of Freedom Daily.

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).