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After Nestor: Ergo!, Presto!–Socialism!

Instead of a Book, By a Man Too Busy to Write One

Tucker addresses (and disenchants) the magic leaps some libertarians make from individualism to socialism.

Instead of a Book, By a Man Too Busy to Write One

Part Two: The Individual, Society, and the State


Ergo and Presto. 

(first published in Liberty, July 7, 1888)

In Henry George may be seen a pronounced type of the not uncommon combination of philosopher and juggler. He possesses in a marked degree the faculty of luminous exposition of a fundamental principle, but this faculty he supplements with another no less developed,—that of so obscuring the connection between his fundamental principle and the false applications thereof which he attempts that only a mind accustomed to analysis can detect the flaw and the fraud. We see this in the numerous instances in which he has made a magnificent defence of the principle of individual liberty in theory, only to straightway deny it in practice, while at the same time palming off his denial upon an admiring following as a practical affirmation. Freedom of trade is the surest guarantee of prosperity; ergo, there must be perfect liberty of banking; presto! there shall be no issue of money save by the government. Here, by the sly divorce of money-issuing from banking, he seems to justify the most ruinous of monopolies by the principle of liberty. And this is but an abridgement of the road by which he reaches very many of his practical conclusions. His simplicity and clearness as a philosopher so win the confidence of his disciples that he can successfully play the rôle of a prestidigitator before their very eyes. They do not notice the transformation from logic to legerdemain. For a certain distance he proceeds carefully, surely, and straightforwardly by the method of ergo; and then, when the minds of his followers are no longer on the alert, presto! he suddenly shouts, and in a twinkling they are switched off upon the track of error without a suspicion that they are not still bound direct for truth. It is this power to prostitute a principle to the furtherance of its opposite, to use truth as a tool of falsehood, that makes Mr. George one of the most dangerous men among all those now posing as public teachers.

One of the latest and craftiest of his offences in this direction was committed in the Standard of June 23, in a discussion of the copyright problem. A correspondent having raised the question of property in ideas, Mr. George discusses it elaborately. Taking his stand upon the principle that productive labor is the true basis of the right to property, he argues through three columns, with all the consummate ability for which credit is given him above, to the triumphant vindication of the position that there can rightfully be no such thing as the exclusive ownership of an idea.

No man, he says, “can justly claim ownership in natural laws, nor in any of the relations which may be perceived by the human mind, nor in any of the potentialities which nature holds for it…. Ownership comes from production. It cannot come from discovery. Discovery can give no right of ownership…. No man can discover anything which, so to speak, was not put there to be discovered, and which some one else might not in time have discovered. If he finds it, it was not lost. It, or its potentiality, existed before he came. It was there to be found…. In the production of any material thing—a machine, for instance—there are two separable parts,—the abstract idea or principle, which may be usually expressed by drawing, by writing, or by word of mouth; and the concrete form of the particular machine itself, which is produced by bringing together in certain relations certain quantities and qualities of matter, such as wood, steel, brass, brick, rubber, cloth, etc. There are two modes in which labor goes to the making of the machine,—the one in ascertaining the principle on which such machines can be made to work; the other in obtaining from their natural reservoirs and bringing together and fashioning into shape the quantities and qualities of matter which in their combination constitute the concrete machine. In the first mode labor is expended in discovery. In the second mode it is expended in production. The work of discovery may be done once for all, as in the case of the discovery in prehistoric time of the principle or idea of the wheelbarrow. But the work of production is required afresh in the case of each particular thing. No matter how many thousand millions of wheelbarrows have been produced, it requires fresh labor of production to make another one…. The natural reward of labor expended in discovery is in the use that can be made of the discovery without interference with the right of any one else to use it. But to this natural reward our patent laws endeavor to add an artificial reward. Although the effect of giving to the discoverers of useful devices or processes an absolute right to their exclusive use would be to burden all industry with most grievous monopolies, and to greatly retard, if not put a stop to, further inventions, yet the theory of our patent laws is that we can stimulate discoveries by giving a modified right of ownership in their use for a term of years. In this we seek by special laws to give a special reward to labor expended in discovery, which does not belong to it of natural right, and is of the nature of a bounty. But as for labor expended in the second of these modes,—in the production of the machine by the bringing together in certain relations of certain quantities and qualities of matter,—we need no special laws to reward that. Absolute ownership attaches to the results of such labor, not by special law, but by common law. And if all human laws were abolished, men would still hold that, whether it were a wheelbarrow or a phonograph, the concrete thing belonged to the man who produced it. And this, not for a term of years, but in perpetuity. It would pass at his death to his heirs or to those to whom he devised it.”

The whole of the preceding paragraph is quoted from Mr. George’s article. I regard it as conclusive, unanswerable. It proceeds, it will be noticed, entirely by the method of ergo. But it is time for the philosopher to disappear. He has done his part of the work, which was the demolition of patents. Now it is the prestidigitator’s turn. It remains for him to justify copyright,—that is, property, not in the ideas set forth in a book, but in the manner of expressing them. So juggler George steps upon the scene. Presto! he exclaims: “Over and above any ‘labor of discovery’ expended in thinking out what to say, is the ‘labor of production’ expended on how to say it.” Observe how cunningly it is taken for granted here that the task of giving literary expression to an idea is labor of production rather than labor of discovery. But is it so? Right here comes in the juggler’s trick; we will subject it to the philosopher’s test. The latter has already been quoted “The work of discovery may be done once for all … but the work of production is required afresh in the case of each particular thing.” Can anything be plainer than that he who does the work of combining words for the expression of an idea saves just that amount of labor to all who thereafter choose to use the same words in the same order to express the same idea, and that this work, not being required afresh in each particular case, is not work of production, and that, not being work of production, it gives no right of property? In quoting Mr. George above I did not have to expend any labor on “how to say” what he had already said. He had saved me that trouble. I simply had to write and print the words on fresh sheets of paper. These sheets of paper belong to me, just as the sheets on which he wrote and printed belong to him. But the particular combination of words belongs to neither of us. He discovered it, it is true, but that fact gives him no right to it. Why not? Because, to use his own phrases, this combination of words “existed potentially before he came”; “it was there to be found”; and if he had not found it, some one else would or might have done so. The work of copying or printing books is analogous to the production of wheelbarrows, but the original work of the author, whether in thinking or composing, is analogous to the invention of the wheelbarrow; and the same argument that demolishes the right of the inventor demolishes the right of the author. The method of expressing an idea is itself an idea, and therefore not appropriable.

The exposure is complete. But will Mr. George acknowledge it? Not he. He will ignore it, as he has ignored similar exposures in these columns of his juggling with the questions of rent, interest, and money. The juggler never admits an exposure. It would be ruinous to his business. He lies low till the excitement has subsided, and then “bobs up serenely” and suavely to hoodwink another crowd of greenhorns with the same old tricks. Such has been juggler George’s policy heretofore; such it will be hereafter.


The Right of Ownership. 

(first published in Liberty, August 2, 1890)

To the Editor of Liberty:

Will you permit me to ask you for the definition, from an Anarchistic standpoint, of the Right of Ownership? What do you mean to convey when you say that a certain thing belongs to a certain person?

Before directing my attention to the study of the social question, I had a rather confused notion of the meaning of this term. Ownership appeared to me a kind of amalgamation of wealth with the individual. This conception could, of course, not be sustained in an analysis of the social question and the distribution of wealth. For some time I could not obtain a clear notion as to what the term, as popularly used, really signifies, nor could I find a satisfactory definition in any of the books I had at command. The writers of dictionaries content themselves with quoting a number of synonyms which throw no light on the subject, and the writers on Political Economy seem not to bother themselves about such trifles. They need no solid foundations for their theories since they build their castles in the air. It is said that ownership is the exclusive right of possession, but this explanation fails to meet the inquiry of him who can nowhere find a satisfactory explanation of the import of the term right.

It is clear that a radical distinction exists between possession and ownership, though these concepts are in a measure related to each other. It seems reasonable, therefore, to expect to find a clue by examining the distinction that exists between the possessor and the owner of a thing. And this examination is not difficult. The owner of a thing which for some reason is in the possession of some one else may demand its return, and, if it is not returned willingly, the aid of the law can be invoked. This leads to the conclusion that the right of ownership is that relation between a thing and a person created by the social promise to guarantee possession.

This is the only definition that appears satisfactory to me. But it implies the existence of a social organization, however crude it may be. It implies that a supreme power will enforce the command: Thou shalt not steal. And in the measure in which this social organization gains stability and in which this social power gains a more universal supremacy, the right of ownership will assume a more definite existence.

Now I can perhaps repeat my question in a way to be better understood. Has Anarchism a different conception of the right of ownership, or is this right altogether repudiated, or is it assumed that out of the ruins of government another social organization, wielding a supreme power, will arise? I can at present see no other alternative.

                Hugo Bilgram.

In discussing such a question as this, it is necessary at the start to put aside, as Mr. Bilgram doubtless does put aside, the intuitive idea of right, the conception of right as a standard which we are expected to observe from motives supposed to be superior to the consideration of our interests. When I speak of the “right of ownership,” I do not use the word “right” in that sense at all. In the thought that I take to be fundamental in Mr. Bilgram’s argument—namely, that there is no right, from the standpoint of society, other than social expediency—I fully concur. But I am equally certain that the standard of social expediency—that is to say, the facts as to what really is socially expedient, and the generalizations from those facts which we may call the laws of social expediency—exists apart from the decree of any social power whatever. In accordance with this view, the Anarchistic definition of the right of ownership, while closely related to Mr. Bilgram’s, is such a modification of his that it does not carry the implication which his carries and which he points out. From an Anarchistic standpoint, the right of ownership is that control of a thing by a person which will receive either social sanction, or else unanimous individual sanction, when the laws of social expediency shall have been finally discovered. (Of course I might go farther and explain that Anarchism considers the greatest amount of liberty compatible with equality of liberty the fundamental law of social expediency, and that nearly all Anarchists consider labor to be the only basis of the right of ownership in harmony with that law; but this is not essential to the definition, or to the refutation of Mr. Bilgram’s point against Anarchism.)

It will be seen that the Anarchistic definition just given does not imply necessarily the existence of an organized or instituted social power to enforce the right of ownership. It contemplates a time when social sanction shall be superseded by unanimous individual sanction, thus rendering enforcement needless. But in such an event, by Mr. Bilgram’s definition, the right of ownership would cease to exist. In other words, he seems to think that, if all men were to agree upon a property standard and should voluntarily observe it, property would then have no existence simply because of the absence of any institution to protect it. Now, in the view of the Anarchists, property would then exist in its perfection.

So I would answer Mr. Bilgram’s question, as put in his concluding paragraph, as follows: Anarchism does not repudiate the right of ownership, but it has a conception thereof sufficiently different from Mr. Bilgram’s to include the possibility of an end of that social organization which will arise, not out of the ruins of government, but out of the transformation of government into voluntary association for defence.


Individual Sovereignty Our Goal. 

(first published in Liberty, June 7, 1890)

In an unsigned article in the Open Court (written, I suspect by the editor) I find the following:

When Anarchists teach the sovereignty of the individual, we have to inform them that society is an organized whole. The individual is what he is through the community only, and he must obey the laws that govern the growth of communal life. The more voluntary this obedience is, the better it is for the community as well as for the individual himself. But if the individual does not voluntarily obey the laws of the community, society has a right to enforce them. There is no such thing as sovereignty of the individual.

True, there is no such thing; and we Anarchists mean that there shall be such a thing. The criticism of the Open Court writer is doubtless valid against those Anarchists who premise the sovereignty of the individual as a natural right to which society has no right to do violence. But I cannot understand its force at all when offered, as it is, in comment on the declaration of “a leading Anarchist of Chicago” that the goal of progress is individual sovereignty.

Anarchism of the “natural right” type is out of date. The Anarchism of to-day affirms the right of society to coerce the individual and of the individual to coerce society so far as either has the requisite power. It is ready to admit all that the Open Court writer claims in behalf of society, and then go so far beyond him that it will take his breath away.

But, while admitting and affirming all this, Anarchism also maintains (and this is its special mission) that an increasing familiarity with sociology will convince both society and the individual that practical individual sovereignty—that is, the greatest amount of liberty compatible with equality of liberty—is the law of social life, the only condition upon which human beings can live in harmony. When this truth is ascertained and acted upon, then we shall have individual sovereignty in reality,—not as sacred natural right vindicated, but as a social expedient agreed upon, or we will even say as a privilege conferred, if the Open Court writer prefers the word as tending to tickle the vanity of his god, Society. It is in this sense that Liberty champions individual sovereignty. The motto on our flag is not “Liberty a Natural Right,” but “Liberty the Mother of Order.”

It is to be hoped that the Open Court writer will note this before again giving voice to the commonplace twaddle about Nationalism and Anarchism as extreme opposites both of which are right and both wrong. Anarchism is exactly as extreme, exactly as right, and exactly as wrong, as that “ideal state of society” which the Open Court writer pictures,—“a state in which there is as much order as possible and at the same time as much individual liberty as possible.” In fact, Anarchism finds itself exactly coextensive with the idea which its critic thus expresses: “Wherever a nation is developing in the line of progress, we shall always notice an increasing realization of these two apparently antagonistic principles,—liberty and order.”


New Abolition and Its Nine Demands. 

(first published in Liberty, January 25, 1890)

The New Abolition Party, nominally of the United States, but really limited at present (pending by the time when it is to “sweep the country like a wave”) by the walls of the Individualist office at Denver, started out with eight demands; and, taken as a whole, very good demands they were. Lately it has added a ninth; just why, I don’t know, unless New Abolition was jealous of Liberalism and bound to have as many demands. This explanation seems hardly reasonable, because in the case of Liberalism nine does not seem to have proved a magic number for demand purposes. However this may be, it is certain that the ninth demand is a square contradiction of some of the most important of its eight other demands, notably the fifth and the seventh. The ninth demand is for “collective maintenance and control of all public highways, waterways, railways, canals, ditches, reservoirs, telegraphs, telephones, ferries, bridges, water works, gas works, parks, electric plants, etc., to be operated in the interest of the people.” The seventh demand is for “immediate and unconditional repeal of all forms of compulsory taxation.” The fifth demand is for “immediate and unconditional repeal of all statutes that in any way interfere with free trade between individuals of the same or of different countries.” Suppose that Mr. Stuart (the father of New Abolition) and I live on the same side of a river. I have a boat; Mr. Stuart has none. Mr. Stuart comes to me and says: “How much will you charge to row me across the river?” “Ten cents,” I answer. “It is a bargain,” says Mr. Stuart, and he steps into the boat. But up steps at the same time the New Abolition party in the shape of a policeman (and it will have to take that shape, because in these matters a demand without a blue coat on its back and a club in its hand is an ineffective demand) and says to me: “See here! stop that! Don’t you know that the New Abolition party, which at the last election ‘swept the country like a wave,’ inundated your row-boat with the rest by instituting the ‘collective maintenance and control of all ferries’? If you attempt to row Mr. Stuart across the river, I shall confiscate your boat in the name of the law.” And then, addressing Mr. Stuart, the policeman adds: “So you may as well get out of that boat and take the ferry-boat which the New Abolitionists have already provided.” “Officer, you are exceeding your duty,” hotly replies Mr. Stuart; “I have made a bargain with Mr. Tucker, and, if you were at all qualified for your post, you would know that the New Abolition party demanded, in the platform upon which it ‘swept the country like a wave,’ the ‘immediate and unconditional repeal of all statutes that in any way interfere with free trade.’” “Yes,” I say, hastening to put in my oar (I use the word metaphorically, not referring to my boat-oar), “and you would know too that this same triumphant party demanded the ‘immediate and unconditional repeal of all forms of compulsory taxation.’ So I should like to see you confiscate my boat.” “Oh! you’re a couple of tom-noodles, way behind the times,” retorts the policeman; “the demands of which you speak were numbered five and seven; but the demand in regard to ferries was a ninth and later demand, which invalidated all previous demands that conflicted with it.” Mr. Stuart, being a law abiding citizen and not one of those “Boston Anarchists” who do not believe in the State, sorrowfully steps from the boat inwardly cursing his political offspring, takes the government ferry-boat an hour later, and gets across the river just in time to lose the benefit of a lecture by a “Boston Anarchist” on “The Fate of an Individualist Who Threw a Sop to the Socialistic Cerberus.”

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