Auberon Herbert on compulsory taxation as the “citadel” of state power (1885)

Auberon Herbert

The English radical individualist Auberon Herbert (1838-1906) argued that not only was the compulsory taking of other people’s property a violation of their natural rights but it was the “inner keep” or “citadel” of the modern state:

There can be no true condition of rest in society, there can be no perfect friendliness amongst men who differ in opinions, as long as either you or I can use our neighbor and his resources for the furtherance of our ideas and against his own. The present power to levy taxes compulsorily seems to me the inner keep, the citadel of the whole question of liberty; and until that stronghold is leveled to the ground, I do not think that men will ever clearly realize that to compel any human being to act against his own convictions is essentially a violation of the moral order, a cause of human unrest, and a grievous misdirection of human effort. Of the immediate ill effects, of the waste, of the extravagance, of the jobbery, that are all born of the compulsory taking of taxes, I will not speak here. The first and greatest question is whether to help oneself to one’s neighbor’s property by force is or is not morally right.

There emerged in England in the late 19th century a group of radical individualists who were inspired by the work of Herbert Spencer (1820-1903). They were active in the Liberty and Property Defence League (founded by Lord Wemyss) and believed in natural rights, a rigorous defence of individual liberty, opposition to the emerging welfare state, and opposition to war and empire. This group eventually disappeared by the outbreak of the First World War. Auberon Herbert was a member of this school of thought and wrote a number of popular appeals to the working class on the dangers of current government policy. Just before the quotation given here, Herbert sets out the steps the government needed to take in order to reduce the burden of taxation: the “Abolition and reduction of state departments, and officials. Abolition of pensions after life of the present holders. Abolition of all custom and excise duties and assessed taxes, and establishment of complete free trade in all things. All government revenues (whether central or local) to be derived from voluntary, not compulsory payments. Payment as early as possible of national debt by sale of all such ecclesiastical property as may be adjudged to belong equitably to the nation, by sale of other national property, and by special fund raised by voluntary contributions; with mortgage of remaining national property to holders of debt, until payment is completed.” Of course, no political party of his day ever offered this as their electoral platform.