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Spooner on the “natural right to labor” and to acquire all one honestly can (1846)

The American radical individualist Lysander Spooner (1808-1887) argued that a person could not exercise their “natural right to labor” unless they could also exercise their “natural right to make contracts” which more often than not was restricted by “arbitrary legislation”:

Each man has the natural right to acquire all he honestly can, and to enjoy and dispose of all that he honestly acquires; and the protection of these rights is all that any one has a right to ask of government in relation to them. It is all that he can have, consistently with the equal rights of others. If government give any individual more than this, it can do it only by taking it from others. It, therefore, in doing so, only robs one of a portion of his natural, just, and equal rights, in order to give to another more than his natural, just, and equal rights. To do this, is of the very essence of tyranny. And whether it be done by majorities, or minorities, by the sword, the statute, or the judicial decision, it is equally and purely usurpation, despotism, and oppression.

Labor is one of the means, which every man has a natural right to employ for the acquisition of property. But in order that a man may enjoy his natural right to labor, and to acquire all the property that he honestly can by it, it is indispensable that he enjoy fully and freely his natural right to make contracts; for it is only by contract that he can procure capital on which to bestow his labor. And in order that he may obtain capital on the best possible terms, it is indispensable that his natural right of contract be entirely unrestricted by any arbitrary legislation; also that all the contracts he makes be held obligatory fully to the extent, and only to the extent, to which, according to natural law, they can be binding.

Each man has the natural right to acquire all he honestly can, and to enjoy and dispose of all that he honestly acquires; and the protection of these rights is all that any one has a right to ask of government in relation to them. It is all that he can have, consistently with the equal rights of others. If government give any individual more than this, it can do it only by taking it from others. It, therefore, in doing so, only robs one of a portion of his natural, just, and equal rights, in order to give to another more than his natural, just, and equal rights. To do this, is of the very essence of tyranny. And whether it be done by majorities, or minorities, by the sword, the statute, or the judicial decision, it is equally and purely usurpation, despotism, and oppression.

Labor is one of the means, which every man has a natural right to employ for the acquisition of property. But in order that a man may enjoy his natural right to labor, and to acquire all the property that he honestly can by it, it is indispensable that he enjoy fully and freely his natural right to make contracts; for it is only by contract that he can procure capital on which to bestow his labor. And in order that he may obtain capital on the best possible terms, it is indispensable that his natural right of contract be entirely unrestricted by any arbitrary legislation; also that all the contracts he makes be held obligatory fully to the extent, and only to the extent, to which, according to natural law, they can be binding.

But nearly all the positive legislation, that has ever been had in this country, either on the part of the general or state governments, touching men’s right to labor, or their right to the fruits of their labor, or their rights of contract—whether such legislation has had reference directly to banks and banking, to the rates of interest, to insolvency and bankruptcy, to the distribution of the debtor’s effects among his creditors, or to the obligation or enforcement of contracts—nearly all has been merely an attempt to substitute arbitrary for natural laws; to abolish men’s natural rights of labor, property, and contract, and in their place establish monopolies and privileges; to create extremes in both wealth and poverty; to obliterate the eternal laws of justice and right, and set up the naked will of avarice and power; in short, to rob one portion of mankind of their labor, or the fruits of their labor, and give the plunder to the other portion.

Some of this legislation has probably been the result of an ignorance of natural law; but very much of it has undoubtedly been the result of deliberate design.

The system proposed would take men’s pecuniary interests, in a great measure, out of the hands of the legislative branch of the government, and leave them to rest upon immutable principles of natural law, to be ascertained by the judiciary. If this were accomplished, the “natural, inherent, and inalienable right of individuals to acquire, possess, and dispose of property,” would then have at least a semblance of reality in actual life; and would cease to be treated, as it now is, as a mere privilege to be enlarged, contracted, or utterly withholden, as those who administer the government may arbitrarily dictate. But so long as this right is admitted to be a subject of arbitrary legislation, so long it will be perpetually infringed, invaded, and denied, by innumerable legislative devices of the cunning and the strong, which a large portion of society, the ignorant, the weak, and the poor, can neither ferret out, nor resist.

About this Quotation:

In 19th century France there was a debate between socialists like Louis Blanc, who believed that “the right to work” (le droit àu travail, or right to a job) meant that the state had the duty and obligation to provide every willing worker with a job at a livable wage, and classical liberal economists like Frédéric Bastiat who believed that everybody had a natural right to engage in whatever work they chose (le droit du travail, or the right to engage in work) and to freely trade the products of their labor. In the U.S. a similar set of arguments to Bastiat’s was articulated by Spooner who went one step further in arguing that “le droit du travail” meant very little unless one also had the right to engage in contracts with others, whether to employ someone at a given wage or to buy a product at a given price. The greatest impediment, in Spooner’s view, to the proper functioning of a free system of labor and contracts was government legislation which gave privileges and benefits to some at the expense of others and was thus “merely an attempt to substitute arbitrary for natural laws.”

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