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essays

Mar 9, 1880

Free Action and Full Enjoyment

In this excerpt from an 1880 speech, Herbert argues that each of us is the judge of our own happiness and is entitled to the full reward of our exertions.

Granted that a man is to be judge of his own happiness, and to direct his exertions in whatever manner he will, he is entitled to receive the full reward of those exertions. Except for the defense of liberty itself, which defense is necessary to ensure the receiving of this full reward, no man or body of men may rightfully step in and intercept any part of that reward. We know as a fact that governments—who are the last to recognize rights—are not encumbered with scruples in this matter, and that they do not hesitate to help themselves out of the resources of their subjects, as largely as they consider necessary for the furtherance of any and every kind of object, which they either consider is desired by some influential part of the nation, or which they have personal motives for desiring themselves. But few men will contend that the actions of governments are founded on right; and few men amongst those who look for the foundations of right below existing customs and current expressions, will accept the will of a majority as a sanction for taking from a man what he has won by his own exertions. It may be inconvenient, and it is often highly so in politics, to recognize the truth; but there the truth is, that if a man possesses rights—I mean primary rights, rights belonging to human existence, not created by any majority of his fellow men—neither that majority nor any other majority outside that man can dispossess him of those rights. To do so is to abolish the very word “rights” from any place in civilized language.

To resume the argument, once let this right be granted—this right of free action and full enjoyment—and what follows? By it all those attempts of government to restrain people for their own good, are condemned. The man is to be his own judge, and you are not to tell him in what fashion he is to follow his religion, pursue his trade, enjoy his amusements, or in a word, live any part of his life. Neither are you to protect him in either body or mind. To protect one man you must take from the resources of another man—you must abridge the amount which the latter by his exertions has earned for himself. It is impossible to protect any one man save by diminishing the result of what the perfect enjoyment of liberty—that is the free use of his own faculties—has brought to another man, and therefore without taking into consideration here the weakening and destroying effects of protection upon the person protected, all protection equally with all restraint by force of government, must be held as a diminution from perfect liberty. It comes then to this, that except to protect the liberty of one man from the aggression of another man, that is, to repel force and fraud, which latter is force in disguise, you cannot justify the interferences of government in the affairs of the people, however benevolent or philanthropic may be the cloak you throw over them. That there may be certain cases which, from their very nature, are not cases to which the law applies, and which require special consideration, such, for example, as the management of property, wisely or unwisely placed in the hands of a government, I at once admit; into these I need not here enter. But bearing in mind that which Mr. Spencer has pointed out, the imperfection of all human definitions, and that at the boundary of every division into which we place existences of any kind, whether physical or mental, there is a point where it is impossible to say on which side of the line the thing in question lies; remembering that nature has not divided plant or animal, qualities of the mind, or even those ancient opposites, good and bad, into black and white squares, like those of a chessboard; but that, however complete and manifest may be their differences today, in virtue of that common root which existed in the ages of long ago, they still melt into each other by gradations too delicate for any point of separation to be fixed; remembering this, and making such allowance for it as is necessary, we may still say, and say truly, that the law knows no exception. You must accept human liberty whole or entire, or you must give up all cogency of reasoning by which to defend any part of it. Either it is a right, as sacred in one part as in another, an intelligible and demonstrable right, from which political justice and political equality intelligibly and demonstrably descend, or else it only exists in the world as a political luxury, a passing fashion, a convenience for obtaining certain economical advantages, which today is and tomorrow is not. Either you must treat men as self-responsible, as bearing their own burdens, and making their own lives, as free in thought, word and action, or you must treat them as so much political matter, which any government that can get into power may protect, restrain and fashion as it likes. In this case it all becomes subject matter for experiment, and Tory or Communist are alike free to work out their theories upon it, if they can only once count hands enough to transfer the magic possession of power to themselves. It is easy to perceive how long the reign of force has lasted in the world, how withering to conscience and to intellect has been its influence, when we find the great mass of men practically supporting such a creed. Out belief in force, our readiness to use it, and our obedience yielded to it, are but forms of fetish worship still left amongst us. Written in almost every heart, though unknown to the owner of it, are the words “force makes right.” Those who wish to escape from this baneful superstition, who wish to destroy its altar and cut down its groves, can only do so by taking their stand on plain, intelligible principle; can only do so by recognizing that there are moral laws standing above our human dealings with each other, laws which we cannot depart from, which we cannot recognize at one moment and ignore at the next to suit our party conveniences. No detached effort, no rising of a few people against some special wrong which personally affects them, will ever alter the world’s present way of thinking. It must be the battle of principles—the principle of liberty against the principle of force. With slight alterations we may take the words of Lowell, and read our own meaning in them:

Not this man up and that man down,
But rights for all, say we;
For rich and poor, for great and small—
Now what is your idee?
God means to make this land, John,
Clear through from sea to sea,
Believe and understand, John,
The worth of being free.
Old Uncle S., sez he, I guess
God’s price is high, sez he,
But nothing else than what He sells
Wears long; and that J. B.
May learn, like you and me.


Excerpted from “The Choices Between Personal Freedom and State Protection,” an address given by Herbert to the Vigilance Association for the Defense of Personal Rights in London on March 9, 1880.