The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism

Herbert, Auberon (1838-1906)

Auberon Herbert was a British writer and political theorist. He was the most consistent advocate of libertarian doctrines writing in late Victorian Britain. Among his systematic works on the role of politics in society were A Politician in Trouble about His Soul (1883–1884), The Right and Wrong of Compulsion by the State (1885), and The Voluntaryist Creed (1908). Herbert also played an important role in public life. He was a Liberal member of the House of Commons from 1870 to 1874 and from the 1880s onward strove to create a host of libertarian political associations. He organized public opinion against British intervention in Russia, Egypt, and southern Africa. Between 1890 and 1901, he published Free Life, a weekly, later monthly, journal subtitled “The Organ of Voluntary Taxation and the Voluntary State.”

Herbert’s moral and political views were largely inspired by the work of Herbert Spencer. However, they diverged at the foundational level and with respect to a number of policy recommendations. Spencer embraced the utilitarian principle of the greatest good of the greatest number as the bedrock standard of morality. He then argued that this standard required compliance with the law of equal freedom and implied equal rights. In contrast, Herbert regarded utilitarianism (i.e., the doctrine of convenience) to be inherently antithetical to the law of equal liberty and the rights of self-ownership. Herbert offered two main arguments for the proposition that each person possessed rights over his own person, faculties, and energy. First, each person should pursue happiness and moral development. To do so, each person must be left free to devote his faculties and energies as he judges will best promote that happiness and development. It was therefore crucial for each individual to enjoy a right to exercise his own faculties and direct his own energies. It follows, he argued, that no one can correctly ascribe this right of self-ownership to himself and not also ascribe it to everyone else. According to the second argument, morality must include some ascription of fundamental rights. The alternative is the unacceptable belief that no norms are sacred and that everything is merely a matter of convenience. These ascribed fundamental rights must be either rights of self-ownership or rights of mutual ownership. There are, however, deep incoherencies in the idea of rights of mutual ownership. Hence, our fundamental rights must be rights of self-ownership.

Herbert defended property rights as extensions of the individual’s rights of self-ownership. To deny an individual the right to the product of his faculties and energies is to deny him the right to those faculties and energies. Cultivated land is as much the product of one’s labor as the crops that are cultivated. So, contrary to Herbert Spencer, rights to a certain portion of land are as well established as the rights to the crops that issue from that land. Individuals may not be deprived of their rightful possessions without their consent. For this reason, they may not be subject to force or fraud. An individual (or his agent) may use force only to resist the initial use of force (or fraud). Even the defensive use of force is morally problematic, but the necessity of self-preservation makes it “a justified usurpation.”

Herbert regarded it as essential that one distinguish between true “direct” force and the “indirect” force that is involved when A takes advantage of B’s situation by making B an offer that B “finds he cannot” refuse. If B finds himself in a difficult situation and A is not responsible for that situation, but merely offers B some way of improving on his current condition—by, say, becoming A’s employee—B benefits from the interaction and cannot properly be said to be coerced by A. In contrast, genuine direct force is involved if A is forbidden to deal with B or if A is required to ameliorate B’s difficult position. Impermissible direct force also is involved in governmental attempts to protect individuals from their own mistakes or vices. Moreover, any such use of force undermines the natural processes of discovery and moral self-improvement.

At the core of Herbert’s position was the view he shared with Spencer and J. S. Mill—that individual autonomous judgment is the source and realization of what is most valuable in life. Any attempt to do good by circumventing or suppressing independent judgment will almost certainly be counterproductive. Herbert also pointedly criticized the neo-Hegelian trend in late Victorian thought that denied the ultimate reality and importance of the individual. He argued that this neo-Hegelian critique of individualism confused the simple fact that individuals continually influence one another’s lives with the falsehood that only the collectivity is real.

Herbert maintained that all compulsory taxation involves morally unacceptable force. Thus, only voluntary taxation (i.e., fees that individuals freely agreed to pay in exchange for the service of having their rights protected) was permissible. Individuals should be free to purchase—or not to purchase—a rights-protection service from any vendor. Here Herbert endorsed the view of the young Herbert Spencer that each person has a right to ignore the state. However, Herbert distinguished his position from that of the “reasonable” individualist anarchists, such as Lysander Spooner and Benjamin Tucker, in that he held that individuals should and would freely converge on a single supplier of rights protection.


Further Readings

Harris, S. Hutchison. Auberon Herbert: Crusader for Liberty. London: Williams & Norgate, 1943.

Herbert, Auberon. The Right and Wrong of Compulsion by the State and Other Essays. Eric Mack, ed. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Classics, 1978.

Mack, Eric. “Voluntaryism: The Political Thought of Auberon Herbert.” The Journal of Libertarian Studies 2 no. 4 (Winter1978): 299–309.

Originally published .