Spooner on the “knaves,” the “dupes,” and “do-nothings” among government supporters (1870)

Lysander Spooner

The American abolitionist and legal theorist Lysander Spooner (1808-1887) argued that supporters of the government are divided into three groups - the “knaves” who stand to benefit from the government, the “dupes” who think they are free because they can vote, and those who can see the true situation but can’t or won’t do anything to change it:

The ostensible supporters of the Constitution, like the ostensible supporters of most other governments, are made up of three classes, viz.: 1. Knaves, a numerous and active class, who see in the government an instrument which they can use for their own aggrandizement or wealth. 2. Dupes—a large class, no doubt—each of whom, because he is allowed one voice out of millions in deciding what he may do with his own person and his own property, and because he is permitted to have the same voice in robbing, enslaving, and murdering others, that others have in robbing, enslaving, and murdering himself, is stupid enough to imagine that he is a “free man,” a “sovereign”; that this is “a free government”; “a government of equal rights,” “the best government on earth,” and such like absurdities. 3. A class who have some appreciation of the evils of government, but either do not see how to get rid of them, or do not choose to so far sacrifice their private interests as to give themselves seriously and earnestly to the work of making a change.

Spooner liked to use blunt language and this makes reading his works entertaining. The use of the word “knave” is a good example of the colorful language he sometimes used against his opponents. He often uses it in combination with other words such as “knaves and blockheads” who believe in victimless crimes; “knaves and liars” when discussing the miracles of Jesus; and “fools and knaves” when talking about who would ever agree to sign the constitution. In this quote he uses the word “knave” in a more complex, tripartite “class analysis” of American society in which the “knaves” are clearly an exploitative group who plan to benefit from the actions of the government. He contrasts this group with the “dupes” who think they live in a free society just because they are allowed to vote, and the “do-nothings” (my term, not Spooner’s) who know what is going on but can’t or won’t do anything to change the current situation.