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

Lysander Spooner

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.

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.”