Those of my readers who have never read any of Lysander Spooner’s publications and who are familiar with his work largely through my lengthy discussion of The Unconstitutionality of Slavery (published in two parts, 1845 and 1847) may wonder what all the fuss is about. Spooner is widely praised as one of the greatest libertarian writers ever, but The Unconstitutionality of Slavery is a dense book, not easy to read; and its conclusion—that the original Constitution was antislavery—is difficult to accept. Moreover, the book is rarely read any longer, even by libertarians, so it cannot be the source of Spooner’s exalted reputation in the libertarian community. And Spooner published numerous tracts on money with which libertarians schooled in Austrian economics will not agree.
Spooner’s reputation derives mainly from his three‐part tract, No Treason. These are numbered parts I (1867), II (1867), and VI (1870). Spooner planned to publish three additional parts (III, IV, V) but never wrote them. Or if he did write the missing parts, they were destroyed, along with his other unpublished manuscripts, in the fire that gutted Benjamin Tucker’s warehouse in 1908.
This essay has nothing to do with abolitionism, so it is a digression from the theme of the current series. But I feel it would be helpful to those readers who may be unfamiliar with Spooner’s writings to indicate why he has achieved an iconic status in the modern movement. Although his writings may appear dry and forbidding, especially when they deal with legal matters, some are lively and occasionally humorous; and they are as relevant today as they were in the nineteenth century. The best example in the latter category appears in No Treason, especially Part VI. I shall therefore quote extensively from that tract in this essay.
The fundamental purpose of No Treason is to show that the southern states had a right to secede from the Union and that they were not “traitors” for doing so. Spooner knew, as did every abolitionist, that Lincoln did not wage war to free the slaves, even if this was its ultimate outcome. Rather, Spooner believed that the war came about largely from economic causes. I shall explore this feature of Spooner’s reasoning in a later essay, but for now I wish to stress that Spooner’s defense of the right of secession did not entail sympathy for the belief of many Southerners that they were fighting to protect the institution of slavery. He indicated this clearly in Part II, where he wrote that the war was “carried on, upon one side, for chattel slavery, and on the other for political slavery; upon neither for liberty, justice, or truth.” Nevertheless, despite this condemnation of both sides in the Civil War, Spooner believed it important to determine which side had natural right on its side, and here he had no doubt that the South had the right to secede.
After carefully dissecting the claim that Americans had somehow expressly consented to the Constitution or to the U.S. government, Spooner took up, in Part VI, two common arguments for tacit consent. The first was the argument that voting qualifies as consent; the second dealt with the argument that paying taxes signifies consent. The most famous passages that Spooner ever wrote appear in his discussion of taxation. In my judgment, this is most brilliant critique of taxation ever written, so let’s let Spooner speak for himself.
It is true that the theory of our Constitution is, that all taxes are paid voluntarily; that our government is a mutual insurance company, voluntarily entered into by the people with each other; that each man makes a free and purely voluntary contract with all others who are parties to the Constitution, to pay so much money for so much protection, the same as he does with any other insurance company; and that he is just as free not to be protected, and not to pay any tax, as he is to pay a tax, and be protected.
But this theory of our government is wholly different from the practical fact. The fact is that the government, like a highwayman, says to a man: Your money, or your life. And many, if not most, taxes are paid under the compulsion of that threat.
The government does not, indeed, waylay a man in a lonely place, spring upon him from the road side, and, holding a pistol to his head, proceed to rifle his pockets. But the robbery is none the less a robbery on that account; and it is far more dastardly and shameful.
The highwayman takes solely upon himself the responsibility, danger, and crime of his own act. He does not pretend that he has any rightful claim to your money, or that he intends to use it for your own benefit. He does not pretend to be anything but a robber. He has not acquired impudence enough to profess to be merely a “protector,” and that he takes men’s money against their will, merely to enable him to “protect” those infatuated travellers, who feel perfectly able to protect themselves, or do not appreciate his peculiar system of protection. He is too sensible a man to make such professions as these. Furthermore, having taken your money, he leaves you, as you wish him to do. He does not persist in following you on the road, against your will; assuming to be your rightful “sovereign,” on account of the “protection” he affords you. He does not keep “protecting” you, by commanding you to bow down and serve him; by requiring you to do this, and forbidding you to do that; by robbing you of more money as often as he finds it for his interest or pleasure to do so; and by branding you as a rebel, a traitor, and an enemy to your country, and shooting you down without mercy, if you dispute his authority, or resist his demands. He is too much of a gentleman to be guilty of such impostures, and insults, and villanies as these. In short, he does not, in addition to robbing you, attempt to make you either his dupe or his slave.
Spooner continued his analysis as follows:
The proceedings of those robbers and murderers, who call themselves “the government,” are directly the opposite of these of the single highwayman.
In the first place, they do not, like him, make themselves individually known; or, consequently, take upon themselves personally the responsibility of their acts. On the contrary, they secretly (by secret ballot) designate some one of their number Edition: current; Page: to commit the robbery in their behalf, while they keep themselves practically concealed. They say to the person thus designated:
Go to A— B—, and say to him that “the government” has need of money to meet the expenses of protecting him and his property. If he presumes to say that he has never contracted with us to protect him, and that he wants none of our protection, say to him that that is our business, and not his; that we choose to protect him, whether he desires us to do so or not; and that we demand pay, too, for protecting him. If he dares to inquire who the individuals are, who have thus taken upon themselves the title of “the government,” and who assume to protect him, and demand payment of him, without his having ever made any contract with them, say to him that that, too, is our business, and not his; that we do not choose to make ourselves individually known to him; that we have secretly (by secret ballot) appointed you our agent to give him notice of our demands, and, if he complies with them, to give him, in our name, a receipt that will protect him against any similar demand for the present year. If he refuses to comply, seize and sell enough of his property to pay not only our demands, but all your own expenses and trouble beside. If he resists the seizure of his property, call upon the bystanders to help you (doubtless some of them will prove to be members of our band). If, in defending his property, he should kill any of our band who are assisting you, capture him at all hazards; charge him (in one of our courts) with murder, convict him, and hang him. If he should call upon his neighbors, or any others who, like him, may be disposed to resist our demands, and they should come in large numbers to his assistance, cry out that they are all rebels and traitors; that “our country” is in danger; call upon the commander of our hired murderers; tell him to quell the rebellion and “save the country,” cost what it may. Tell him to kill all who resist, though they should be hundreds of thousands; Edition: current; Page: and thus strike terror into all others similarly disposed. See that the work of murder is thoroughly done, that we may have no further trouble of this kind hereafter. When these traitors shall have thus been taught our strength and our determination, they will be good loyal citizens for many years, and pay their taxes without a why or a wherefore.
It is under such compulsion as this that taxes, so called, are paid. And how much proof the payment of taxes affords, that the people consent to support “the government,” it needs no further argument to show.
If a better critique of taxation has ever been written, I have yet to see it.