Auberon Herbert was born into a wealthy English aristocratic family and started his political career. But after witnessing the horrors of war through Europe and America and witnessing the incompetence of parliament, he lost faith in the abilities of the state. Inspired by the writing of Herbert Spencer Auberon set out to articulate a political philosophy emphasizing the importance of consent and the voluntary state, which is strictly limited to the protection of our natural and self‐evident rights.
The word idealist these days is rarely used as a compliment. In fact, it is often a pejorative way to demean someone’s ideas of how the world ought to be by implying they are naive or over‐simplistic. We believe we can imagine and what we can achieve are very different things especially when this maxim is applied to the dreary field of politics. The person I am talking about today would not view themselves as an idealist, instead, they would describe themselves as consistent. If Auberon Herbert was anything, it was consistent. His political philosophy was one which celebrated freedom in all forms. Our natural ownership of ourselves gives us a moral right to pursue our own life, but also the corresponding duty to allow others to do the same.
This means a coercive state is out of the question. The unlimited ability through coercion to encroach upon the natural rights of others means that the coercive state is a constant threat to liberty. But this encroachment spews over into other areas stifling creativity, individuality, and progress. This can only be solved in Auberon’s opinions by applying the system of Voluntaryism, a system of politics centring around the importance of consent and emphasizing the values of liberty, peace, and friendliness.
But I am getting ahead of myself, best to start with Auberon’s life and see how he came to his conclusions on the nature of the state.
Auberon Edward William Molyneux Herbert was born in London in 1838. If you couldn’t guess from his name he was born into a wealthy aristocratic family and was the youngest son of the third earl of Carnarvon. When he was 21 he served as a lieutenant in the British army for two years. After returning from his lieutenantship he attended Oxford for a bachelorship in civil law. By 1865 he completed his studies and gained his doctorate.
Auberon started his political journey as a conservative. In Oxford, he founded two debating societies, wrote for conservative outlets, and even ran as a Conservative MP in a general election in 1865. But Herbert’s conservatism waned quickly. By 1870 he was running as an MP for the liberal party and was successful in being elected. Acting as a liberal member until the dissolving of the party in 1874 Auberon used his platform to articulate what was then radical policies at the time including female suffrage, the unionisation of agricultural workers and non‐sectarian education.
Throughout his time in both education and politics, Auberon observed a number of conflicts. In his time as a lieutenant, Auberon witnessed the aftermath of a failed Indian mutiny giving him an insight into life under a colonial government. In 1864 he visited the locus of the Prusso‐Danish war. He took part in a skirmish as a non‐combatant volunteering with a stretcher and retrieving wounded soldiers under fire. For his selfless bravery, he was awarded a knightship. In the same year, he also observed the American Civil War and accompanied the Union army. In 1871 he completed his military odyssey with the Franco‐Prussian war. in which Herbert was affiliated with the Red Cross.
Herbert found himself drifting away from traditional politics and towards a system he would come to call Voluntaryism. His experience of international conflict, his career as a politician, and his introduction to the thought of Herbert Spencer were three pivotal moments in the development of his thought. Herbert’s exposure to the increasing levels of conflict in Europe brought with it an aversion to violence and jingoism. Because of this, Auberon would go on to treat war a large scale crime which was nothing more than “a mischievous folly.”
Auberon’s time in politics further contributed to a developing cynicism around the state. The late 19th‐century in England was a time of rapidly increasing rates of state intervention into the ins and outs of Victorian life. The doctrines of Laissez‐Faire advocates were waning and starting to become closely tied to the conservative political establishment. Auberon described the political establishment of his day the “Great Machine” which he believed was a slaughterhouse where ideals of justice and equity went to die. The state was not facilitating progress it was hampering its flourishing. Even with well‐intentioned politicians Auberon no longer believed the “Great Machine” could “manufacture the life of a nation, could endow it out of hand with happiness, wisdom and prosperity, and clothe it in all the virtues.” In Auberon’s eyes, the state was nothing more than smoke and mirrors, restraint, compulsion, and gifts of public money to interest groups were the tools of the state. These tools of state efficiency were, in Auberon’s eyes, constantly failing to achieve their intended ends. As state efforts increasingly became more complex and large‐scale a new class of administrative professionals came to the forefront, an entrenched bureaucracy had taken root in England, one which Auberon loathed.
Herbert Spencer was one of the foremost political thinkers of the Victorian Era. Influenced deeply by the writings of Charles Darwin on evolution, Spencer devised a theory of human progress which used evolution as it’s guiding principle. Evolution requires experimentation in numerous different directions with often unforeseeable consequences. The state was not an essential institution for human progress and in fact, it was often at odds with progress. Spencer’s radicalism slowly deteriorated into crusty conservatism with smatterings of pessimism to top it all off. But Auberon was captivated by Spencer’s earlier approach to politics. Spencer had fleshed out the sociological and scientific underpinnings of the desirability of freedom, Auberon felt it was now his duty to sketch the moral argument. Auberon’s mixed assessment of the state radically altered and he began to lose all faith in it as a viable institution.
Recounting his awakening when reading Spencer he explained that he “lost … faith in the great machine” and “saw that thinking and acting for others had always hindered, not helped, the real progress; that all forms of compulsion deadened the living forces within a nation.”
Changing His Views
Auberon’s experience with war, politics, and his introduction to Herbert Spencer showed him there was an alternative to the state, he did not have to sit miserably twiddling his thumbs over the futility it all. Instead, Auberon decided to dedicate himself to expounding the principles of a free society built upon what he called Voluntaryism. He prolifically wrote and spoke at a variety of venues to spread his ideas. But Auberon was by no means an armchair activist who sat locked away in a study. In 1877 Auberon organized The Personal Rights and Self‐Help Association and in 1877 he was a chief organizer in the anti‐war rallies in Hyde Park against the brewing war with Russia. He deeply opposed British colonialism, a rare thing for a man of an aristocratic background to do. Auberon opposed intervention in foreign countries such as Egypt and called for self‐determination in colonies such as Ireland. On top of all of this, he published a first weekly but then monthly paper entitled Free Life which was a publication which sought to assess the ills of society by looking at their root cause, namely the state which is “a mere perpetuation of slavery under new names, against which the reason and moral sense of the civilized world have to be called into rebellion.”
Auberon’s political thought was never fully and systematically written down in all one place but was instead spread out through a number of essays, pamphlets, and speeches the foremost of which in my mind is the right and Wring of Compulsion by the State. Despite the lack of a particular magnum opus fully delving into his though Auberon was consistent throughout his writings always evoking the same foundational principles for every argument he made, that coercion was limited to the protection of one’s rights and could not be justifiably used for any other purpose without destroying the axiomatic rights of others.
Auberon’s theory begins with the intuitive axiom that we own ourselves mind, our mind, body and, labour irrevocably belong to us. Men such as John Locke had couched their political arguments in the language of self‐ownership however by the late 19th‐century natural rights arguments were waning in favour of more scientifically oriented utilitarianism pioneered by Jeremy Bentham. Utilitarianism is an ethical theory which aligns what is right with what is best for the largest number of people’s happiness. Auberon found utilitarianism an unsatisfactory doctrine of “the convenience of the larger crowd dictating to the smaller crowd.”
Auberon believed that everyone owned themselves and because of this, they had the right to do what they wished with their minds, bodies or property they had justly acquired. For Auberon, “every man and woman should be held by us all sacredly and religiously to be the one true owner of his or her faculties.” This was not an ambiguous topic in Auberon’s mind, he states that “Pure critical reason obliges us to believe in Self‐ ownership.” But the self‐ownership we have over ourselves is not an unlimited license to do anything we please, the rights of others must be respected. Coercion being used by one against another is unacceptable as it substitutes the preferences and conscience of one with another. Auberon reasoned “no man can have rights over another man unless he first have rights over himself. He cannot possess the rights to direct the happiness of another man, unless he possess rights to direct his own happiness: if we grant him the latter right, this is at once fatal to the former.” This moral law is the precondition for a civilized life. Even if paternalistic intervention might help some people in certain situations it undermines their fundamental dignity and replaces the “free life” with the “bound life.” In Auberon’s own words “the rights of Self‐ownership are…supreme moral rights” which come before all else.
To do anything regarding another person we must first have their consent, it must be voluntary, thus the name Voluntaryism. Force and fraud are out of the question, no one has any right to command another person as if they were not the master of their own faculties. Fraud is merely the cunning cousin of force, stealing from another person or using fake money has the same outcome, the ignoring of another person’s consent and forcing them to be merely a pawn in your own schemes. We cannot force people to bend to our wills for our plans no matter how grand or wonderful as they might be, persuasion is the tool of the rational person. On the other hand, Auberon described “direct compulsion, by whomsoever exercised, is only a remnant of that barbarous state when emperors and dominant churches used men according to their own ideas.
Role of the State
But if intervening in people’s lives is a fundamentally unjust endeavour, what role is there for the state to provide services and goods? Auberon’s answer is that the state’s role should be strictly limited. Auberon believed that there was no wholly justifiable reason for the state to exist but when restricted to a limited role it could be described as “a justifiable usurpation.” The state’s proper role was to defend rights and property. All too often Auberon believed the state was attempting to solve issues of indirect force.
In Auberon’s mind, there are two kinds of force direct force and indirect force. Direct force is quite simple, I threaten you with force to get what I want. Indirect force is a more complex situation. Auberon gives the example of an employee and an employer. “The employer may be indirectly forced to accept the workman’s offer, or the workman may he indirectly forced to accept the employer’s offer; but before either does so, it is necessary that they should consent.” Indirect force can be described as necessity, I need shelter, food, water etc these are facts of life no matter how difficult they may be. We work jobs we do not like to earn a living, we would rather not do certain things but indirect force makes certain actions a necessity. Auberon believed often the state is employed to solve issues of indirect force by using direct force. Auberon argues that usually, due to the limited creativity of state action would not succeed and would merely add direct force to the problem of indirect forces. He advised that we use “the brute force of laws simply to restrain violence and certain coarse forms of fraud, and trust to Voluntaryism‐the true instrument of civilization‐for all other things.”
Akin to Herber Spencer, Auberon was a keen advocate of progress, all humans have a duty to better themselves and the world around them, but how do we best carry out this task? Auberon’s answer was by leaving people alone. Government for Auberon creatively limited machine, it had the means but no real ideas of it own. Government policies replace the collective imagination and problem‐solving skills of millions through their actions. Before we might have had thousands of minds working to solve an issue but government intervention replaced them all with “great universal systems.” Wherever the state touches it strips away creativity, ingenuity, and diversity, the prerequisite for progress. Auberon believed progress could only be achieved by humanity at large being free to experiment and try new things on their own dime and effort, the states reserve of near‐unlimited funds through debt and forced taxation means it has no reason to innovate or fix issues in any creative manner instead more money could be forced into the coffers to hopefully revitalize the process.
But Auberon’s most venomous criticism is reserved for those in power mainly the wealthy those he grew up around. The aristocratic political class in Auberon’s mind had a desire to win the “great game” of politics. Seeing parliament first hand he believed that “almost all hearts were filled with the old corrupting desire to possess that evil mocking gift of power, and to use it in their own imagined interest.” Politicians could not possibly represent the people who elected them, electorates are not monoliths of opinion, they are individual people with their own concerns. Knowing this, politicians gain the favour of special groups and promise them the fruits of the state if they offer their support. In short, politics is merely a game of power and subversion played by rich people with too much time on their hands.
The greatest crime of government was taxation which he described as ”very citadel of compulsion, the chief instrument by which every encroachment is carried out.” Taxation is always backed by the threat of coercion which is the complete opposite of consent which was to be the mark of a peaceful society. Taxation makes us look at our fellow neighbours as a means to an end, not dignified human beings worthy of respect. But beyond this taxes have numerous practical issues. Taxes tend to hit smaller businesses harder than larger corporations. The increasing complexity of Victorian England meant that tax laws were also filled to the brim with exemptions, exceptions, and special cases which were all decided arbitrarily to favour some products at the expense of others. Increases in taxes also lead to increases in evasion resulting in a “war of evasions and reprisals between the public and a huge army of officials.” Forced taxation also made it easier to wage war. If only those who agreed to the war raised the cash Auberon believed we would then “have the strongest guarantee for the preservation of peace.” In short for all the reasons Auberon listed forced taxation is the “great typical enemy of voluntary action.”
Despite how anarchist this might sound Auberon was no anarchist as he repeatedly pointed out he was a Voluntaryist. He was constantly considered by many both critical and sympathetic that he was an anarchist when in his own words he was in favour of a state, albeit a greatly limited one. Auberon’s state would be funded not through force but by voluntary taxation. This at first sounds like a joke, who would voluntarily pay their taxes? But Auberon argued that “under that voluntary system alone can a nation live in peace and friendship and work together happily and profitably for common ends.” Without the force of the state, people would fund projects, services and initiatives not only for their own benefit but as a point of pride in their civic virtue. The state could propose plans and people could contribute with what they agreed with and avoid what the disliked.
Under voluntary taxation, people would provide for undertakings they felt were important to them personally whether that consists of funding the arts or providing relief for the local poor. Most importantly, voluntary taxation would change people’s way of viewing the state and politics in general. ‘Our great object’, Auberon explained, ‘must be wholly to change the attitude of the State towards the people, and with it our own feelings towards the State.” True civic duty and charity would emerge once coercion has been minimized in any society, anyone who helped their fellow man would so out of their own kindness not due to the will of another. Patriotism does not consist in blindly submitting to a nation but instead contributing alongside your fellow citizens for the common good.
Creativity Filling the Gap
But the state does so much if Auberon thought the state was overbearing in his day today the government is in charge of legislating, regulating, and providing all kinds of goods and services. How could we ever imagine a prosperous life without the state? Auberon believed the state first and foremost protected rights and property and would play an important role in sanitation, environmental issues, and education, but apart from these areas, voluntary associations either through markets, unions, associations, clubs, friendly societies, charities, and cooperatives could all fill the void left by the formerly coercive state. Human creativity would be unleashed, the uniformity of government programs would be a forgotten memory. Anything the state did would compete and cooperate with private institutions. For Auberon, the state was the main obstacle in the way of providing the vital things we need for a happy prosperous life. The voluntary state “will leave a nation of free men and free women to make their own experiments, to gather their own experiences, to thrash out their differences by reason and discussion.” Experimentation, cooperation, and competition would all exist among a society of moral equals who respect one another. The unlimited potential of free people in Auberon’s opinion could easily tackle the great struggles we face.
All too often libertarians can sound like cranky old men who just want to be left alone. Auberon is the opposite of this caricature. He did not want a society of atomized individuals living in bubbles, instead, he believed that “Our work is to make this life of ours prosperous, happy and beautiful for all who share in it, working with the instruments of liberty, peace and friendship.” Auberon was excited and optimistic about the future of humanity.
Auberon was an eccentric and brilliant man and I want to briefly touch on this point. His expounding of voluntaryism was not his only project though it was his main interest). He was an avid cyclist who believed bikes would allow the poor to travel more than before. His love for nature is enshrined by a rare law he enacted in parliament protecting certain birds during mating season and his conservation work in relation to countryside forests. His love of nature was so strong he refused to take part in his families animal shooting events which would have been big gatherings for aristocrats. This one might sound odd but Auberon was even an early advocate of pyjamas and looser linen clothing for health purposes. On top of all of this, he wrote a children’s book under a pseudonym. Unlike his original inspiration Spencer, Auberon never lost sight of his idealism and love of life in all its wonder, variety, and beauty.
Auberon’s essays are easily available online and I do recommend that you read them; they provide an imaginative and polemic argument for replacing the state. What Auberon called the way of force was to be substituted for the way of peace. In this short episode, I haven’t even scraped the surface of Auberon’s thought, he offers original thoughts on sanitation, education, and international affairs. If you are looking somewhere to start you should check out his creative essay The Ethics of Dynamite which I won’t spoil here. Auberon had faith in human creativity and moral progress under a regime of equals
Decorators of libertarianism tend to accuse libertarians of being callous people who wish to usher in regimes of atomized people without a sense of solidarity leading to a greedy society of ruthless exploitation and the endless hunt for profits. Auberon Herbert did not want a world or atomized individuals ruthlessly competing for scraps of profit. He believed it was in fact the state that was obstructing the path to harmonious cooperation, solidarity, and prosperity. Worse still is that the forceful hand of the state distorts moral values by using force. Forced patriotism through wars, forced moderation through paternalistic policies, and forced piety through state supported religion and so on. Virtue can only be practiced by free people Auberon was one of the foremost libertarians authors in his day, but by now his name, while not forgotten, is rarely evoked. But his arguments are timeless and his thoughts are just applicable today as they were in Victorian England and possibly even more relevant to our modern world infested with bureaucracies, excessive regulation, paternalistic policies, harsh punishments for victimless crimes. I think there is something for everyone in the joy of reading Auberon and I hope I have convinced you today to give him a go!