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essays

Jun 1, 1975

Sprading, “Liberty and the Great Libertarians”

Robert LeFevre on the long history of libertarianism.

Students of liberty can justifiably rejoice at the republishing of this collection of essays gathered by Charles T. Sprading. The original 1913 compilation reissued in 1972 without an alteration is a classic and a must.

Those who are serious in their pursuit of understanding within the libertarian/individualist framework would do well to begin their perusal with Sprading’s excellent introduction to his own gleanings from the individualist vineyard. Without this guide, it might be difficult to justify some of his selections as indicative of the thinking of the great libertarians. What Sprading has done is to set down his own particular viewpoint and then choose essays by more than two-score writers which help to sustain and flesh out his position.

Writing in the opening years of the twentieth century, Sprading is filled with optimism concerning the inevitable triumph of libertarian principles. He sees the nineteenth century as a time of struggle and anticipates the twentieth as one of peace and fulfillment. The collection, published a year before the opening guns of World War I, is filled with bright promise, on the assumption that the logic and rightness of individualism and liberty will inevitably pervade the minds of thinking men and that we are (circa 1913) on the threshold of a libertarian century. Ironically, one is reminded that libertarians, however right they may be in principle, have been but indifferent seers. To date, this century has been the bloodiest and perhaps the costliest in terms of lost liberty of all the centuries for which records have been compiled.

Sprading makes another sweeping assumption. It is that by common consent all “economists are agreed that there are four methods by which wealth is acquired by those who do not produce it. These are interest, profit, rent, and taxes, each of which is based upon special privilege, and all are gross violations of the principle of equal liberty.”

Modern scholars are not so certain that economists have agreed in this case or, for that matter, in any other. There are a number of libertarian scholars who see taxes as a privilege but who recognize profits, rents, and interest as arising from the voluntary actions of customers or those who enter into contracts volitionally.

If the reader will hurdle the misplaced optimism which haloes the twentieth century and the bland agreement with Marx concerning the villainy of those who accept profits, rents, and interest, he will find a rich harvest of ideas and arguments useful to the libertarian position as it seems presently to be.

Consider these splendid examples:

“An appeal to the majority is a resort to force and not an appeal to intelligence; the majority is always ignorant and by increasing the majority, we multiply ignorance….” “Liberty leads to peace, while authority necessarily leads to war.” (Sprading)

“Liberty for the few is not liberty. Liberty for me and slavery for you means slavery for both.” (Samuel M. Jones)

“War never can be the interest of a trading nation any more than quarreling can be profitable to a man in business. But to make war with those who trade is like setting a bulldog upon a customer at the shop-door.” “Society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.” (Thomas Paine)

“A general concurrence of opinion seems to authorize us to say it [the Constitution] has some defects. I am one of those who think it a defect, that the important rights not placed in security by the frame of the Constitution itself were not explicitly secured by a supplementary declaration.” “Every constitution, then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of thirty-four years [the average life].” (Thomas Jefferson)

“Our judgment will always suspect those weapons that can be used with equal chance of success on both sides. Therefore we should regard all force with aversion.” (William Godwin)

“Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of everyone of its members.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

“When I look at these crowded thousands, and see them trample on their consciences and the rights of their fellowmen at the bidding of a piece of parchment, I say, my curse be on the Constitution of the United States.” (William Lloyd Garrison)

“How does it become a man to behave toward this American government today? I answer, that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it.” (Henry David Thoreau)

There is much, much more here, from the pens of Herbert Spencer, Stephen Pearl Andrews, Lysander Spooner, Robert G. Ingersoll, Benjamin Tucker, Auberon Herbert, Maria Montessori, and more than twice that number, which sustains the individualist or libertarian position in one or another manner.

Liberty and the Great Libertarians is a pivotal book; it belongs in every free man’s library. In the attractive hardcover edition now available, those who cherish liberty can find courage as well as ably turned phrases by means of which to advance their cause. Reviewed by Robert LeFevre /Political Philosophy-Libertarianism (540 pages) / LR Price $23