Spooner on the difference between a government and a highwayman (1870)

Lysander Spooner

The legal theorist, abolitionist, and radical individualist Lysander Spooner (1808-1887) applied the same moral principles to the actions of an organization as he did to a single individual. This lead him to make some harsh criticisms of the government as this quotation reveals:

But this theory of our government is wholly different from the practical fact. The fact is that the government, like a highwayman, says to a man: Your money, or your life. And many, if not most, taxes are paid under the compulsion of that threat.

The government does not, indeed, waylay a man in a lonely place, spring upon him from the road side, and, holding a pistol to his head, proceed to rifle his pockets. But the robbery is none the less a robbery on that account; and it is far more dastardly and shameful.

The highwayman takes solely upon himself the responsibility, danger, and crime of his own act. He does not pretend that he has any rightful claim to your money, or that he intends to use it for your own benefit. He does not pretend to be anything but a robber. He has not acquired impudence enough to profess to be merely a “protector,” and that he takes men’s money against their will, merely to enable him to “protect” those infatuated travellers, who feel perfectly able to protect themselves, or do not appreciate his peculiar system of protection. He is too sensible a man to make such professions as these. Furthermore, having taken your money, he leaves you, as you wish him to do. He does not persist in following you on the road, against your will; assuming to be your rightful “sovereign,” on account of the “protection” he affords you. He does not keep “protecting” you, by commanding you to bow down and serve him; by requiring you to do this, and forbidding you to do that; by robbing you of more money as often as he finds it for his interest or pleasure to do so; and by branding you as a rebel, a traitor, and an enemy to your country, and shooting you down without mercy, if you dispute his authority, or resist his demands. He is too much of a gentleman to be guilty of such impostures, and insults, and villanies as these. In short, he does not, in addition to robbing you, attempt to make you either his dupe or his slave.

Spooner’s radical individualism was grounded firmly in a theory of natural rights, a theory which in turn was founded on the principle of self-ownership which every individual had in themselves. From this flowed Spooner’s opposition to slavery (it violated the right of self-ownership the slave had in his own person and granted that property right by means of violence to the slave owner). The government played a crucial role in this violation of the slave’s right to self-ownership as it maintained a system of police and law courts which vigorously defended the interests of slave owners at the expence of the slaves' life, liberty and property in themselves. Thus it was not much of jump for Spooner to go from this radical anti-slavery position to his anti-tax position as this quotation indicates. In the former, the government was seen as a “man-stealer”; in the latter it was seen as a “highwayman”.