May 29, 2012 essays

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Thomas Hodgskin: Libertarian Extraordinaire, Part 1

The Englishman Thomas Hodgskin was born December 12, 1787. His spendthrift father, despite making decent money as a storekeeper at the Chatham naval stockyard, managed to keep his family in dire financial straits, so he sent Thomas (who was barely twelve) to serve as a cadet aboard a British warship.

Although he served with distinction during the Copenhagen expedition and rose to the rank of lieutenant, Hodgskin detested his twelve years as a sailor. For one thing, it deprived him of an education. His access to books was limited, so he could do little more than “reflect in the midnight watch, on the solitary deck, on the wide ocean, amidst the wildest or the most peaceable scenes of nature…before I had acquired a sufficient stock of material.”

Hodgkin’s independent spirit, his intense dislike of unjust authority, and his determination “to make a powerful resistance to oppression every time I was its victim” were not well suited to the rigors and harsh discipline of naval life. Thus, when it became clear that he would be passed over for promotion, Hodgskin complained “of the injury done to me, by a commander-in-chief, to himself, in the language that I thought it merited.” This of course only made matters worse. Hodgskin, at age twenty-five, was forced into retirement at half-pay, after which he wrote An Essay on Naval Discipline (1813), a scathing indictment of conscription and the brutal conditions endured by British sailors.

Hodgskin’s experience with the horrific punishments inflicted on British sailors for even minor offenses caused him to question both the justice and utility of the supposed “right” to punish. British sailors, who typically hailed from lower-class backgrounds, were frequently pressed into service against their wills, and their officers tended to view them as brutes who could be controlled only by the lash.

Hodgskin, who by this time had read John Locke, William Paley, and other moral philosophers, had a different opinion. Humans, created by God with “similar passions,” are “everywhere made alike.” Many individual differences are caused by different social and political environments. If the English tended to be happier and more virtuous than people from other nations, this was largely because they were less governed than other nations. And if English sailors appeared more brutish than other Englishmen, this was owing not to any inherent defects in their natures but to the barbarous conditions of naval life.

In short, if you treat men like brutes, they will behave like brutes. Press gangs and conscription, according to Hodgskin, should be abolished and replaced by voluntary, short-term enlistments; pay should be increased so that sailors can afford a decent standard of living; and the draconian penal laws of the navy — which were applied arbitrarily, without recourse to due process — should be eliminated. If there must be punishment, then the navy should follow the example of the civilian courts in England, which “do not punish the innocent” and which are administered according to impartial laws, not by the whims of superiors.

As Hodgskin (who was remarkably frank about his motivations) would later note, his Essay on Naval Discipline was an emotional reaction to his unjust treatment by superior officers: “I was angry at being punished when I thought I was doing the duty of a good man and a good citizen.” Hodgskin used his anger to spur further investigations into the right of punishment:

This anger made me read books on the subject, and I sought in vain. I sought and still seek in the writings of celebrated authors for any justification of the right to punish, and the result of that was a system of opinion which, as far as I have read, may be called on the whole peculiar.

Hodgskin would later elaborate upon these “peculiar” opinions in the pages of The Economist, after he became senior editor of that journal (the same one published today) in 1846—a position he would hold for eleven years. Hodgkin’s many articles for The Economist made it one of the most interesting and provocative libertarian periodicals of its time. In addition to supporting laissez-faire, voluntary education, and other (classical) liberal causes, Hodgskin also opposed capital punishment and questioned the traditional wisdom about the efficacy of punishment as a deterrent to crime.

According to Hodgskin, most crimes are motivated by a desire to escape intolerable poverty, and such poverty is often the consequence of taxes, economic regulations, and other governmental restrictions of free-market activities. If people were allowed to pursue their own interests through voluntary interaction with others, and if they were allowed to keep the fruits of their own labor rather than having much of it expropriated by government, then a good deal of poverty—along with a major motive for criminal acts—would be eliminated.

Around 1815, Thomas Hodgskin became friends with Francis Place, the famous tailor and working class radical of Charing Cross Road. This friendship gave Hodgskin access to London libertarians—including Jeremy Bentham, his Scottish protégé James Mill (the father of John Stuart Mill), and an elderly William Godwin, who had created a sensation with the first systematic defense of philosophical anarchism, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793).

Hodgskin felt that his age and other obstacles would make it difficult to embark on a new career. Medicine would require that he learn Latin, whereas law would require that he smother his love of justice—so, given that peace had returned to Europe in 1815, Hodgskin decided to take the grand tour and write a book based on his experiences. The result was his first major work, Travels in the North of Germany, published in two volumes in 1820.

These volumes combined interesting observations with political commentary on “the much governed countries of Germany.” Hodgskin emphasized the inefficiency and waste of government projects. For example, he commented on the inferior quality of state-financed roads in Germany, contrasting them with the privately financed roads in England, and he even suggested that police functions should be placed in private hands. As Hodgskin put it, “the real business of men, what promotes their prosperity, is always better done by themselves than by any few separate and distinct individuals, acting as a government in the name of the whole.”

When it is remarked, that the prosperity of every nation is in an inverse proportion to the power and to the interference of its government, we may be almost tempted to believe the common opinion, that governments are necessary and beneficial, is one of those general prejudices which men have inherited from an ignorant and barbarous age, and which more extensive knowledge and greater civilization will show to be an error full of evil.

The hundreds of German principalities were the consequence of artificial political divisions, but the solution was not to unite them under a single conqueror or central government. Hodgskin deplored the “stupid veneration” of great men, who mask their personal ambition and self-interest in the rhetoric of the public good. Instead, the Germans need only “chase away their different masters to make them all sensible that their interest is everywhere the same.”

Thus did Hodgskin defend the spontaneous social order that emerges from private property, voluntary exchange, and the natural harmony of interests (as explained by Adam Smith and other political economists), while excoriating the “square, mechanical” unity of despotism and economic regulations that transfer wealth from the productive class of laborers to the unproductive class of rulers.

Hodgskin did not recommend a parliamentary system, such as that found in England, as the cure for Germany’s problems. The key to England’s prosperity lay not in its parliament but in a vigilant public and a free press that acted as a continuous check on the abuse of power. “The evils of society cannot be remedied by acts of parliament.” Even public assistance laws and proposals for agrarian reform, however well intentioned, will not accomplish their intended purposes; such measures merely create the illusion of reform while placing more power in the hands of legislators. “The simple means of making the race frugal is to supply the wants of no man and to leave every man the produce of his own labour.”

The Germans, like many Europeans, had a false conception of political economy, according to which prosperity can be promoted by means of government. In truth, prosperity can come about only through human labor and voluntary exchange, and “those social regulations ought to be exposed to censure, which have inflicted on us so much poverty and distress.”

Hodgskin was living in Edinburgh when Travels was published, and this city had long been a center of liberal agitation. While his wife (whom he had met on his travels) was giving German lessons to supplement the family income, Hodgskin was doing his part by writing articles for the Edinburgh Review and other liberal journals. He wrote to Francis Place:

Undoubtedly the abolition of all restrictions of whatever kind is the great point to be aimed at. We want a destroying legislature whose great business would be to do away with the enactments of their predecessors.

Although at this time Hodgskin had a good deal in common with other liberal reformers, his anarchistic tendencies often gave his opinions a radical edge that alienated other liberals. This tension became evident in his reaction to the “Peterloo Massacre” of August 16, 1819.

After a coalition of middle and working class reformers organized a mass meeting at St. Peter’s Field in Manchester to call for parliamentary reform, the crowd was attacked by mounted soldiers who killed 11 people and wounded around 400 others, including 100 women. Although this incident was universally condemned by liberals, they typically focused on its supposed illegality and condemned it as a violation of the British constitution. Thus, as Hodgskin saw the matter, liberals, while explicitly criticizing the government, were implicitly supporting the system of unjust law on which the government depended for its legitimacy. As he explained to Place:

The horrid violation of the laws at Manchester seems only now to be a cry and a watchword to support them. Productive as it has been of miseries, it is our miserable constitution we are now told we must defend and support. I am heartily sick of such nonsense. I should like to know the single law that is worth an honest man’s struggle…. I do not know one that of itself is worth supporting, but all men seem to think it is better to be sabred by hussars or shut up in Bastilles according to rule than trust their fellow men. They seem to think it better to be fleeced according to rule than run the most remote possibility of living according to reason.

In an article which he submitted to the Scotsman in January 1820, Hodsgkin praised Smith, Malthus, Bentham other political economists who “had shown the absurdity of almost every regulation and, as a necessary consequence, had weakened the respect of all men for the authority from which these absurdities had emanated.” But the Scotsman declined to publish this article, probably because Hodgskin pushed his critique of law into an anarchistic direction that few liberals could accept.

Whereas Jeremy Bentham and his followers had criticized bad laws as the consequence of “sinister interests” (i.e., the landed aristocracy), Hodgskin extended this perspective to all governmental laws, while contrasting them with the natural laws of social interaction. All governmental laws are designed by ruling oligarchies to further their own private interests, and these laws conflict with those natural laws of society that serve the general interests of the people. This recurring theme would later receive an extensive treatment in Hodgskin’s most important book, The Natural and Artificial Right of Property Contrasted (1832).

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