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May 25, 2016

Joshua King Ingalls: Socialist, or Libertarian?

Though he was misled by the labor theory of value, much of Ingalls’s thought is right at home in the libertarian tradition.

Joshua King Ingalls was born on a farm in Swansea, Massachusetts, a small town bordering Rhode Island, in 1816. Raised in relative poverty and without his father from the age of four years, Ingalls early learned self-sufficiency and honed an aptitude for spotting the inconsistencies of the adults in his life. In his memoir, he recalls, “The first impression I remember, that things needed reforming occurred when I was about five years of age.” Thus naturally disposed to philosophical and religious inquiry, Ingalls was destined for a career as a radical thinker. In addition to his various roles as a libertarian labor and social reformer, Ingalls was active in the spiritualist community, inclined, like so many mid-nineteenth century radicals, to explore the connection between spiritual or religious awakening and reform. A Universalist minister by training, Ingalls received his seminary education from the reverend William S. Balch, notable for his egalitarian ideals and for precipitating controversy in the ecclesiastical community. Following his mentor, Balch, Ingalls was decidedly unorthodox in his religious views and was not to remain in the frock for long. His advanced thinking did not endear him to his denomination’s leadership, and, after a minor controversy, his years in the clergy came to an end. Still, Ingalls’s time as a pastor was not without its fruits. His years as a Universalist preacher endowed him with the conviction that nature’s laws “act with exceptionless uniformity,” bending not even for Jesus Christ. This belief, though controversial when applied to questions of faith, energized Ingalls’s radicalism, his search for the true source of social problems and aversion to superficial remedies. Ingalls became more active in radical circles and, in May of 1848, became the editor of the short-lived reform journal The Landmark. His work paid particular attention to the land question. Land monopoly was, to Ingalls’s mind, the foremost obstacle to social progress, the foundation upon which the entire system of exploitation stood. Most defenders of private property, he argued, had “failed to distinguish between its use and its abuse,” thus confusing defenses of individual rights with violations of them. Ingalls’s proposed solution was the abolition of private property in land, though this simplified statement of the solution hides its nuances. Ingalls argued that the right of private property, while important and socially beneficial, must be tempered by a recognition of the law of equal freedom. We should, therefore, “supplement the right of private property with the recognition of the general truth that individual effort is of limited extent.” This, to Ingalls, meant limiting the individual’s property holding to a parcel that could be personally occupied and used, a homesteading standard designed to prevent the monopoly of land that so troubled him.

Like other similar thinkers (e.g., William B. Greene, Benjamin R. Tucker, and Henry Meulen, to name a few), the combination of ideas that Ingalls’s work presents appears an anachronism today: in his own words, he preferred socialism to capitalism, yet consistently trumpeted the need for free, competitive markets, damning compelled collectivism and statism.1 Ingalls regularly argued that political economists and other scholars maintained the pretense of teaching laissez-faire while their institutions were “supported and upheld by the very opposite practice,” dedicated, in fact, to the defense of existing anti-market privileges. Ingalls railed against this disconnect—the theory of free markets and equality before the law on one hand, and the practice of class laws, protectionism, and privilege on the other. Beguiled by the classical labor theory of value (the general framework for which was articulated in the work of Adam Smith and David Ricardo), Ingalls and other individualist anarchists believed that the labor side of the employment relationship was not fairly compensated for its contributions. Ingalls argued that the employing classes—holders of capital, that is, capitalists—were unjustly protected by legal impediments to genuine competition; these protections gave capital a “power of increase,” the right to gratuitous streams of income without corresponding labor, the perceived crimes of rent on real property, interest on money lent, and profit in exchange. These mistaken economic ideas, premised on the notion that labor inputs are the true measure of value, are the crux of Ingalls’s socialism and, correspondingly, his negative view of capitalism.

We might nevertheless see Ingalls and his contributions to political economy as aligned more closely with today’s libertarians than contemporary socialists. “[T]rue Socialism,” he wrote in November 1882, “must be voluntary — not coerced. Even in the most complete system of society we can conceive the individual must still have rights and property.” Ingalls, then, explicitly rejects the ideas that today we would consider socialism’s defining features: centralized government planning of the economy and the abolition of private property (its collectivization in the hands of the state). And like Proudhon before him and Tucker after, Ingalls did not desire to see the “trinity of usury” proscribed by law. Remove privilege, at last inaugurate the much-trumpeted free market, and then see if rent, interest, and profit survive: “If the right of unearned increase is truly an economic principle, … then in the absence of fostering legislation it will be all the more likely to make its claim good … .” Ingalls, then, was a principled libertarian, prioritizing economic liberty over equality of material conditions.

Individualists like Ingalls (and Tucker, for example) were probably using the term socialist in a nonstandard way, even for their time. Among nineteenth century libertarians with substantively similar views, “socialism” receives uneven treatment; they often vacillate between the negative use, as a shorthand for collectivism and state socialism, and the positive one, as a general name for the idea that labor should be paid with its product. Notwithstanding ambiguity surrounding that term, Ingalls was, together with many of his early individualist anarchist confreres, a member of the International Workingmen’s Association (the First International) and a lifelong labor advocate. Even this characterization, however, is somewhat misleading, for it seems to imply a certain level of political participation. Ingalls was politically disinclined, even explicitly anti-political, spurning efforts at legislative reform and activism in favor of attempts to win hearts and minds. Like other individualist or “philosophical” anarchists,2 Ingalls believed that political power “is itself the source of privilege, the creator of class rule,” that is, the problem and not the solution. Much as today’s libertarians, he often juxtaposed positive law with natural law and thought “it inexpedient to invoke legislation to do anything but take itself out of the way of social progress.” Ingalls believed that the original violent character of the state had been preserved, and that this could be altered neither by superficial legislative reforms nor by any political bouleversement. Instead, a free and equitable society could result only from the process of evolutionary refinement, admittedly slow but without an alternative. Steady absorption of libertarian ideas, with the attendant understanding of their connectedness, widen the space available for individual initiative until finally the apparatuses of authority disappear.

For Ingalls, economics could not be considered properly and in its completeness without appeal to political philosophy, to the study of natural law. He regularly admonished economists, whom he saw as shortsightedly confining their inquiries to the study of value and exchange as they exist as a matter of fact, that is, within a structure of plutocratic injustice. The economists, Ingalls argued, had articulated and announced the correct principles—open competition, free trade, etc.—yet failed to follow those principles to their logical conclusions, content merely to form apologies for, in Ingalls’s words, “the inequalities of present division.” Ingalls says that the economists simply assume “that existing conditions and inequalities obtain from the operation of the laws of trade. Nothing could be further from the fact.” Thus was he among the first to identify the twin errors that Roderick Long has since labeled left-conflationism and right-conflationism. The former is the mistake of damning free markets in the abstract for the bad results of the corporatist economy obtaining today, riddled with special privileges, protections, and subsidies. The latter begins with the identical error of conflating free markets and state corporatism, but heaps praise on the big-business victors; if today’s economy is essentially a free market, then the corporate titans of the global economy have won fair and square, and we needn’t really question, for example, existing distributions of wealth. Ingalls rejected this entire paradigm, aware of the fact that the economy of his day was no free market; the socialist movement was generally justified in its indignation (at inequalities of wealth, working conditions, etc.), even while the political economists were correct in their endorsements of free trade and private property.


  1. Ingalls’s political philosophy, like the mutualism of Proudhon, emphasizes the balance yielded by the interaction of opposites. In his Social Wealth, he writes, “The progress of the human race is effected by the operation of two forces which correspond in most respects to what in physics are often called, for want of better terms, the centripetal and centrifugal forces. These are the forces of convergence and divergence, the one tending to concentration of powers and properties, and the other to their separateness or the independence of parts. Socialism and Individualism are to appearance conflicting, though in reality complemental, in their relations to the societary movement.”
  2. A terminological note: in contemporary academic philosophy, the term “philosophical anarchism” means something different from the denotation it held for libertarians such as Ingalls and Tucker. In academic philosophy, a philosophical anarchist is generally one who, in Michael Huemer’s words, adopts “the view that there are no political obligations” and needn’t necessarily believe that the state ought to be abolished.