Front Page Titles (by Subject) ESSAY ONE. THE CHOICES BETWEEN PERSONAL FREEDOM AND STATE PROTECTION - The Right and Wrong of Compulsion by the State and Other Essays (1978 ed.)
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ESSAY ONE. THE CHOICES BETWEEN PERSONAL FREEDOM AND STATE PROTECTION - Auberon Herbert, The Right and Wrong of Compulsion by the State and Other Essays (1978 ed.) 
The Right and Wrong of Compulsion by the State, and Other Essays, ed. Eric Mack (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1978).
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ESSAY ONE. THE CHOICES BETWEEN PERSONAL FREEDOM AND STATE PROTECTION
In the midst of much that is written and said about progress and improvement, it is seldom perceived how disorderly are our usual habits of political thinking. Those who are engaged in political work usually reject any kind of systematic thought, and disdain the authority of general principles. Whether they are writers or speakers they dislike to look forward and to consider questions that are not already well above their horizon; they have a generous confidence in the guidance of the future and their own unprepared instincts. They could with difficulty, and perhaps not altogether with satisfaction to themselves, reconcile their votes or opinions on different subjects, and the history of their conduct would contain nearly as many anomalies as does the British constitution. Except in the most general terms they could not describe the goal toward which their efforts are directed, nor have they ever placed before their own minds a distinct and coherent picture of what they seek to make of this England which is subjected to their treatment. They cannot see the forest on account of the trees, and their horizon is inexorably bounded by the immediate struggles in which their party is engaged. Like the rest of the world, they are not unwilling to dislike and condemn what they do not practice. They look on every system of thought as a newfangled invention of the doctrinaires, a sign both of want of practicality and of intellectual conceit, and they resent it vigorously as an attempt to restrain their intelligence from flowing, like Wordsworth's river, “at its own sweet will.” Expressions of pious thankfulness for the prosperous flowings of this mental river meet us on every side. “Thank Heaven!” we hear men say, “we are not as our neighbors! We are not enslaved by formulas! We are not afraid of doing any wise or useful thing, because it is inconsistent with our general views! We have the gift of always stopping in time, and we can therefore safely move to any point, north, south, east, or west, of our political compass. We can never go far wrong, for we always have our good sense ready to protect us!”
In listening to such language we are tempted to ask, does anyone in reality escape the thraldom—if thraldom it be—of general principles? We may not recognize in our own minds the general principles which direct our conduct; we may be profoundly ignorant of their existence; but I think in every case, putting out of consideration actions which are instinctive, it may be shown that whether these general principles are, or are not known to us, nevertheless we are all acting under their guidance. One man may be quite conscious of the principles he is following; he has deliberately examined, tested, and chosen them as his guides; another man is equally under the authority of some other set of principles, though he has never consciously placed himself in that position, and does not even know the name or nature of what he obeys; in one case they may be narrower; in another case, wider; more consistently or more uncertainly applied; but in every case, however carelessly adopted or inconsistently followed, or however little recognized they may be, general principles of some kind or another will be found as the guides of conduct. This will become plainer when we remember that a general principle implies the classing together of certain facts—with or without an injunction added to it—and that daily life is only carried on from hour to hour by means of the knowledge which results from such classifications. We perceive that a certain thing acting under similar conditions produces a certain effect, and having repeatedly observed this same cause and this same effect accompanying each other, we enact for ourselves a command to do or to forbear, and we act so as to produce or avoid a foreseen effect. It will be plain to everyone who considers the matter, that there could be no advance in knowledge of any kind, unless facts were always being classified, and unless, with the enormous increase of facts so classified, the further work were to go on of arranging them in groups according to their relations amongst themselves. This is the work on which the race has been engaged ever since the dim early days when it first classified the effect of fire and water, by saying fire burns and water quenches. Advance of knowledge means that we are learning as regards some substance whatever it may be, metal, plant, animal, that the same cause is accompanied by the same effect—by placing this effect in connection with other effects, and gathering from the members of the group the law which is common to them all. It means not only learning new facts, but introducing order amongst facts already learned. All available knowledge consists of classification, since facts unarranged and unclassified are of no more present use to us, than bricks are until they are built into some kind of a building. What is true as regards material substances of the world is true as regards human nature. Now politics are essentially one part of the science of human nature, and it is the same human nature, neither more nor less, as that with which we come in contact every hour of our lives. This simple truth is often forgotten in presence of the machinery of Parliaments, public offices, parties, organizations, caucuses, and all the other instruments of political life, but we cannot go back in mind too often to the fundamental facts, first, that we are dealing with the simple human nature of every day, and, second, that human nature must be studied and understood—its facts must be classified—like causes connected with like effects, furnishing us with their own special generalizations—then these effects connected with other effects furnishing us with their own special generalizations—then these effects connected with other effects furnishing us with wider generalizations—if we are to act as successfully upon it as we do upon any of the materials that we use in our manufactures. It seems almost like urging the importance of study of the alphabet to urge that all successful political conduct must be founded upon the classification of those facts that affect human nature, of those conditions which as we learn from the common everyday experience of life, either aid or impede its development. Is proof required that in our views of human nature we recognize general principles? Si quaeris signa, circumspice! A speech that wins the applause of its hearers, a character skillfully drawn in a novel, a successful play bear witness to the self-evident proposition that men have classified certain facts regarding their own selves, and recognized what are called laws of human nature. Otherwise we could not by a sort of common agreement praise the skill and truth of the artist; the effect upon each of us would be purely personal, subjective and accidental. We should be without that common standard of reference which we now possess and of which our common judgments of praise and blame are the evidence. And yet the very words “general principles” cause a sort of horror to those who are ingaged in politics. There is a vague superstitious dread about the use of them; and men feel, when an appeal is made in their name, almost as if they were asked to give up the study of facts and to return to those verbal explanations of earlier days, which merely supplied a new clothing of words and left the matter itself standing where it did before.
But amongst the objectors to general principles in politics will be found some men of cautious and exact thought whose mental inclination will be to hand over each question as it arises to the decision of those who have given special attention to it, and may be looked on as authorities in the matter. These men will deny that there is at present sufficient material to justify the laying down of wide general principles; they will be on the side of experiment; they will wish each question to be separately treated, and treated according to the recommendations of those most familiar with it; they will attach immense importance to special knowledge and special experience, and exceedingly little importance to knowledge and experience of a wider kind. I cannot attempt to reply at length here to such objections, which must however be treated with respect. It is sufficient to point out that those great advances in knowledge, which cause mental and moral revolutions, are more often made by those men who fit themselves to connect existing groups of facts, than by those who add one more group to the many thousand groups now in existence. Without undervaluing the gain of a new fact in any department of life, I think one is justified in saying that at present the accumulation of facts is in advance of the power of using and connecting facts, and that the balance seems likely to be still further inclined in this direction; especially as regards the science of human nature the mass of unused facts is enormous. Every history, every novel, every newspaper, every household is full of them; but they are lost to the world for want of careful attempts to follow their connections and to introduce order amongst them. I must also urge as against following the advice of political specialists, that they are seldom if ever men who have studied the body politic as a whole, or who have given much thought to the effect on the general system of the local remedy they would apply. A specialist in medicine is only really deserving of confidence if, in addition to his knowledge of the part, he has thorough knowledge of the whole system, but our local advisers in politics, who are often men of great thoroughness and worthy of all respect for their own special knowledge, would generally disclaim such wider knowledge. In politics quite as much as in medicine the local evil is often but a symptom of the systematic evil, and only to be removed when some condition of life, at first sight unconnected with it, is altered.
But it may be urged that the acceptance of general principles in politics would lead to an idle way of thinking. All questions would be dismissed from political consideration at the dictation of an assumed formula which, as it is remarked, might not be true after all. No doubt there is a saving of intellectual labor. So there is when an astronomer takes the law of gravitation for granted; or a mechanician the properties of the lever; or a chemist the laws of the combining weights of the elements; or a physiologist the law that work implies waste. No worker in any of these departments would be grateful for the obligation to do such work over again on each occasion for himself. He would complain that a science that was not in possession of certain accepted generalizations, could not be treated as a science at all, but as a mere aggregate of floating facts. As regards the objection that incalculable harm might follow from the acceptance of a false general principle, we must bear in mind that every wide generalization that continues to live and gather strength in the world, bears in itself a certain evidence of its truth. It is so far true, that presumably the existing generation of men have not the requisite knowledge to disprove it. The wider it is, the more exposed to attack it is in many places and at many times. It stands in the presence of all men, always inviting attack. The wider it is spread amongst an intelligent people, the more probable it becomes that if not true in itself, the experience of some person or other will provide the weapon for its destruction. Unless, as some persons believe, the human race is born to err, it is as nearly certain as can be that the doom of refutation sooner or later will descend upon any false first principle that has been exalted into a law of conduct.
We must also remember that in seeking for a guide for conduct, we have not really the choice of either consistently following general principles, or being guided in each case by special knowledge. Few men can have special knowledge on many subjects, and what are those to do who are not amongst the happy few? Follow the specialists? but generally the specialists are divided. The more carefully we examine the springs which move those who reject the guidance of general principles, the more clearly we shall see that either they are swayed by general principles, which they have never examined, and are scarcely conscious of, and which in such a case are degenerated into mere prejudices (prejudice being I think a general principle that has never been submitted to the examination of reason), and therefore that they are likely to select that specialist as their guide who most agrees with their ordinary way of thinking; or else that they leave themselves at the mercy of that chapter of accidents, popular excitement, private interest, advantage of party, contagion of emotion, or whatever it may be which is responsible for so many of our actions, and which explains why our actions so often present startling contrasts between themselves.
Last, it must be said, that those who object to general principles in politics and disclaim their supremacy, are themselves betrayed by their incautious caution—nimium premendo littus iniquum—into making a generalization of a very wide and rash character. Those like effects which follow from like causes—that unbroken interdependence of every group of facts with every other group of facts—that order and that arrangement which prevail everywhere else in the world—these things are suddenly and miraculously to be suspended in the political world, here alone in the whole realm of nature, for the benefit of the politician who wishes to have no further embarrassment than those of the present time, and to fulfill from hour to hour of his shifting course, the maxim “sufficient for the day is the evil thereof.” This is the startling general principle to which we find ourselves committed in our vain attempt to discover a region behind the north wind. I have spent much of your time today in trying to show that our great work in politics, as in every other science, is to bring facts into groups, or to use the more common expression, under law, to connect these groups with each other, until from them we establish the great principles which are to be the guides of our action. I believe until this is done, whatever work of reform we undertake for special objects is in a great measure wasted. You break off today with infinite labor the chains that fasten one limb, to find tomorrow that chains of the same kind have been placed on another limb. At present in England no reform can be attempted until the part affected is in an acute state of suffering and the effects are visible to all men. No reform has the least chance of success which appeals to abstract justice, and which simply says, “Evil must follow, because the primary laws are broken.” I do not wish to undervalue the fair-mindedness of Englishmen; we have some small measure of that quality which is scarcely as yet at all developed amongst civilized men, the power of being convinced; but I wish to attack the self-complacency with which Englishmen regard their present state of mental disorder, and their satisfaction at placing their convictions at the mercy of the chapter of accidents. Half the evils in politics arise from our being obliged, whenever and wherever a reform is needed, to show that the immediate (and I may say the lower) interests of some class are involved in the matter; until at last, thanks to such constant appeals, the feeling arises in those classes that their immediate interest is the right standpoint from which to view every political question. If, instead of such appeals, we stood on those great and primary principles which underlie every group of political facts, then there would be an ennobling and transforming influence in politics, because the sense of direct personal interest would be put on one side, and men would seek to interpret rightly in each case the universal law. The universal law cannot be disregarded without injury to every part of society, and it is a truer method to regard political questions from this point of view, than to attempt to balance the loss or profit which will accrue to some special class.
And now, if there be great primary laws controlling the intercourse of men and regulating their relations with each other; if order prevails in human science as it does in every other science, can we yet speak confidently as to what these laws are? Mr. Herbert Spencer, to whom in all this matter we owe largely, to whom I am convinced the world owes a debt which it will some day much more fully recognize than it has yet done, to whom personally I owe directly or indirectly every belief for which this paper contends, has expressed the law which binds men in their relations to each other. We can suppose no other object to be placed before ourselves but happiness, though we may differently interpret the word, in a higher or in a lower sense. We are then entitled to pursue happiness in that way in which it can be shown we are most likely to find it, and as each man can be the only judge of his own happiness, it follows that each man must be left free so to exercise his faculties and so to direct his energies as he may think fittest to produce happiness;—with one most important limitation, which must always be understood as accompanying the liberty of which I speak. His freedom in this pursuit of happiness must not interfere with the exactly corresponding freedom of others. Neither by force nor by fraud may he restrain the same free use of faculties enjoyed by every other man. This then, the widest possible liberty, is the great primary law on which all human intercourse must be founded if it is to be happy, peaceful, and progressive. Perfect obedience to it will produce constant advance in our capabilities for happiness, in our feelings of kindliness and good will toward each other, in our intellectual acquisitions. Just as I believe this to be the master-principle of good in human affairs, so do I believe that old desire which is so firmly planted in the breasts of men—the desire to exercise force over each other—to be the master-principle of evil. Where liberty is to be bounded by liberty, it is necessary for us to define liberty and to restrain all aggressions upon it. In this one case force acquires its true sanction, that of being employed in the immediate defense of liberty, but except in this case physical force has no place or part in civilized life, and represents the antiprogressive power that still exists amongst us. If this principle be true—and I believe that the more it is examined and subjected to attacks, the more clearly will it be seen to be true—then how sure and how simple is the guide which we possess in political life, and how mischievous though well intentioned are all those efforts of the reformer or the philanthropist who believes in his own special method of coercion and restraint, and has never learned to believe in the all-healing method of liberty. I do not ask that the principle of liberty should be accepted by any man until he has most carefully and most anxiously viewed it in its every bearing, and has examined every group of political facts with the purpose of ascertaining whether mischievous results, like in kind, do not, sooner or later, follow wherever there is a neglect or contempt of liberty. If the principle be true we shall be able, with increasing knowledge and better methods of examination, to vindicate it at every point. Of all the serious steps in life, that is the most serious when a man chooses the guiding principle of his actions. I think, therefore, we ought to search out for ourselves and to listen to all that can be said against the principle of liberty. Let us hear all the counter evidence possible before we finally exalt it as our rule and guide, though, perhaps, when we have once done so, we shall be as much inclined to smile when it is impatiently proposed to disregard it for the sake of some passing evil, as the Astronomer Royal would be if some new group of facts were to be hastily explained in disregard of the influence of gravitation. Nor must we assign to liberty qualities which it does not possess, and which, if we were in a mood of unreasoning enthusiasm to attribute to it, would only lead to our disappointment. Like other great beneficent forces in nature, such as natural selection, there is a sternness in it, and its direct effects are often accompanied with pain. It is, as I believe, the great all-healer, but healing must sometimes be a painful process.
Now let me point out to you that we have not arrived simply at an abstract result, but that this question of liberty as against force will be found to enter into all the great questions of the day. It is the only one real and permanent dividing line between opinions. Whatever party names we may give ourselves, this is the question always waiting for an answer, Do you believe in force and authority, or do you believe in liberty? Hesitations, inconsistencies there may be—men shading off from each side into that third party which in critical and decisive times has become a proverb of weakness—but the two great masses of the thinking world are ever ranged on the one side or the other, supporters of authority, believers in liberty.
What, then, is the creed of liberty, and to what, in accepting it, are we committed? We have seen that there exists a great primary right that as men are placed here for happiness (we need not dispute as to the meaning of the term), so each man must be held to be the judge of his own happiness. No man, or body of men, has the right to wrest this judgment away from their fellow man. It is impossible to deny this, for no man can have rights over another man unless he first have rights over himself. He cannot possess the right to direct the happiness of another man, unless he possess rights to direct his own happiness: and if we grant him the latter right, this is at once fatal to the former right. Indeed to deny this right, or to abridge anything from it, is to reduce the moral world to complete disorder. Deny this right and you have no foundation left for rights of any kind—for justice, political freedom, or political equality—you have established the reign of force, and whatever gloss of civilization you may place over it, you have brought men once more to the “good old plan” on which our fathers stood.
This I believe to be the plain truth. There is this one strong simple foundation, or there is nothing. We may accustom our minds to Houses of Parliament, to majorities in the House, or majorities in the nation; we may talk our political jargon and push forward our party schemes, but this great truth remains unaltered through all our sayings and doings. It is true that here, as elsewhere in nature, we may live in disregard of the law, but here, as elsewhere, there is no escape from the consequences. All the partialities and privileges—all the bitter envyings and hostilities which exist amongst us—all the craving for power—all the painful unrest and blind efforts—all the wild and dangerous remedies—all the clinging to old forms, and the want of faith and courage to choose the new—all these will be found in an ultimate analysis to be amongst the consequences—and serious enough they are—of not recognizing and obeying the law on which our intercourse with each other is founded.
In very few words I will point out what are the derivatives from this law of liberty. Granted that a man is to be judge of his own happiness, and to direct his exertions in whatever manner he will, he is entitled to receive the full reward of those exertions. Except for the defense of liberty itself,1 which defense is necessary to ensure the receiving of this full reward, no man or body of men may rightfully step in and intercept any part of that reward. We know as a fact that governments—who are the last to recognize rights—are not encumbered with scruples in this matter, and that they do not hesitate to help themselves out of the resources of their subjects, as largely as they consider necessary for the furtherance of any and every kind of object, which they either consider is desired by some influential part of the nation, or which they have personal motives for desiring themselves. But few men will contend that the actions of governments are founded on right; and few men amongst those who look for the foundations of right below existing customs and current expressions, will accept the will of a majority as a sanction for taking from a man what he has won by his own exertions. It may be inconvenient, and it is often highly so in politics, to recognize the truth; but there the truth is, that if a man possesses rights—I mean primary rights, rights belonging to human existence, not created by any majority of his fellow men—neither that majority nor any other majority outside that man can dispossess him of those rights. To do so is to abolish the very word “rights” from any place in civilized language.
To resume the argument, once let this right be granted —this right of free action and full enjoyment—and what follows? By it all those attempts of government to restrain people for their own good, are condemned. The man is to be his own judge, and you are not to tell him in what fashion he is to follow his religion, pursue his trade, enjoy his amusements, or in a word, live any part of his life. Neither are you to protect him in either body or mind. To protect one man you must take from the resources of another man—you must abridge the amount which the latter by his exertions has earned for himself. It is impossible to protect any one man save by diminishing the result of what the perfect enjoyment of liberty—that is the free use of his own faculties—has brought to another man, and therefore without taking into consideration here the weakening and destroying effects of protection upon the person protected, all protection equally with all restraint by force of government, must be held as a diminution from perfect liberty. It comes then to this, that except to protect the liberty of one man from the aggression of another man, that is, to repel force and fraud, which latter is force in disguise, you cannot justify the interferences of government in the affairs of the people, however benevolent or philanthropic may be the cloak you throw over them. That there may be certain cases which, from their very nature, are not cases to which the law applies, and which require special consideration, such, for example, as the management of property, wisely or unwisely placed in the hands of a government, I at once admit; into these I need not here enter. But bearing in mind that which Mr. Spencer has pointed out, the imperfection of all human definitions, and that at the boundary of every division into which we place existences of any kind, whether physical or mental, there is a point where it is impossible to say on which side of the line the thing in question lies; remembering that nature has not divided plant or animal, qualities of the mind, or even those ancient opposites, good and bad, into black and white squares, like those of a chessboard; but that, however complete and manifest may be their differences today, in virtue of that common root which existed in the ages of long ago, they still melt into each other by gradations too delicate for any point of separation to be fixed; remembering this, and making such allowance for it as is necessary, we may still say, and say truly, that the law knows no exception. You must accept human liberty whole or entire, or you must give up all cogency of reasoning by which to defend any part of it. Either it is a right, as sacred in one part as in another, an intelligible and demonstrable right, from which political justice and political equality intelligibly and demonstrably descend, or else it only exists in the world as a political luxury, a passing fashion, a convenience for obtaining certain economical advantages, which today is and tomorrow is not. Either you must treat men as self-responsible, as bearing their own burdens, and making their own lives, as free in thought, word and action, or you must treat them as so much political matter, which any government that can get into power may protect, restrain and fashion as it likes. In this case it all becomes subject matter for experiment, and Tory or Communist are alike free to work out their theories upon it, if they can only once count hands enough to transfer the magic possession of power to themselves. It is easy to perceive how long the reign of force has lasted in the world, how withering to conscience and to intellect has been its influence, when we find the great mass of men practically supporting such a creed. Out belief in force, our readiness to use it, and our obedience yielded to it, are but forms of fetish worship still left amongst us. Written in almost every heart, though unknown to the owner of it, are the words “force makes right.” Those who wish to escape from this baneful superstition, who wish to destroy its altar and cut down its groves, can only do so by taking their stand on plain, intelligible principle; can only do so by recognizing that there are moral laws standing above our human dealings with each other, laws which we cannot depart from, which we cannot recognize at one moment and ignore at the next to suit our party conveniences. No detached effort, no rising of a few people against some special wrong which personally affects them, will ever alter the world's present way of thinking. It must be the battle of principles—the principle of liberty against the principle of force. With slight alterations we may take the words of Lowell, and read our own meaning in them:
This article appeared in the Fortnightly Review for July 1850.
[]* This “defense of liberty” involves the administration of civil and criminal law. If liberty is a human right, its applications to human matters must be defined, and it must be protected by such arrangements as are necessary, otherwise it is a right which cannot be enjoyed. The state, therefore, is armed with certain powers, but it simply derives these powers from this principle of liberty; it is completely subordinate to the latter, and its powers over those who are its members end as soon as these arrangements in defense of liberty are made.