January 07, 2004

Lysander Spooner: Libertarian Pietist

Rothbard introduction to "Vices are Not Crimes: A Vindication of Moral Liberty":

We are all indebted to Carl Watner for uncovering an unknown work by the great Lysander Spooner, one that managed to escape the editor of Spooner's Collected Works. Both the title and the substance of "Vices are not Crimes" highlight the unique role that morality and moral principle had for Spooner among the anarchists and libertarians of his day. For Spooner was the last of the great natural rights theorists among anarchists, classical liberals, or moral theorists generally; the doughty old heir of the natural law-natural rights tradition of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was fighting a rear-guard battle against the collapse of the idea of a scientific or rational morality, or of the science of justice or of individual right. Not only had natural law and natural rights given way throughout society to the arbitrary rule of utilitarian calculation or nihilistic whim; but the same degenerative process had occurred among libertarians and anarchists as well. Spooner knew that the foundation for individual rights and liberty was tinsel if all values and ethics were arbitrary and subjective. Yet, even in his own anarchist movement Spooner was the last of the Old Guard believers in natural rights; his successors in the individualist-anarchist movement, led by Benjamin R. Tucker, all proclaimed arbitrary whim and might-makes-right as the foundation of libertarian moral theory. And yet, Spooner knew that this was no foundation at all; for the State is far mightier than any individual, and if the individual cannot use a theory of justice as his armor against State oppression, then he has no solid base from which to roll back and defeat it.

(...)

Spooner's anarchism was, like his abolitionism, another valuable part of his pietist legacy. For, here again, his pietistic concern for universal principles - in this case, as in the case of slavery, for the complete triumph of justice and the elimination of injustice - brought him to a consistent and courageous application of libertarian principles where it was not socially convenient (to put it mildly) to have the question raised. While the liturgicals proved to be far more libertarian that the pietists during the second half of the nineteenth century, a pietistic spirit is always important in libertarianism to emphasize a tireless determination to eradicate crime and injustice. Surely it is no accident that Spooner's greatest and most fervent anarchistic tracts were directed in dialogue against the Democrats Cleveland and Bayard; he did not bother with the openly statist Republicans. A pietistic leaven in the quasi-libertarian liturgical lump?

But it takes firmness in libertarian principle to make sure to confine one's pietistic moral crusade to crime (e.g. slavery, statism), and not have it spill over to what anyone might designate as "vice." Fortunately, we have the immortal Lysander Spooner, in his life and in his works, to guide us along the correct path.