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Lysander Spooner

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Lysander Spooner
Lysander Spooner
Born January 19, 1808
Athol, Massachusetts, USA
Died May 14, 1887
New York, USA

Lysander Spooner (1808 - 1887) was an American individualist anarchist political activist and legal theorist of the 19th century.


Spooner was born on a farm in Athol, Massachusetts, on January 19, 1808, and died "at one o'clock in the afternoon of Saturday, May 14, 1887 in his little room at 109 Myrtle Street, surrounded by trunks and chests bursting with the books, manuscripts, and pamphlets which he had gathered about him in his active pamphleteer's warfare over half a century long." -- from Our Nestor Taken From Us by Benjamin Tucker

Later known as an early individualist anarchist, Spooner advocated what he called Natural Law — or the Science of Justice — wherein acts of actual coercion against individuals were considered "illegal" but the so-called criminal acts that violated only man-made legislation were not.

His activism began with his career as a lawyer, which itself violated local Massachusetts law. Spooner had studied law under the prominent lawyers and politicians, John Davis and Charles Allen, but he had never attended college. According to the laws of the state, college graduates were required to study with an attorney for three years, while non-graduates were required to do so for five years.

With the encouragement of his legal mentors, Spooner set up his practice in Worcester after only three years, openly defying the courts. He saw the two-year privilege for college graduates as a state-sponsored discrimination against the poor. He argued that such discrimination was "so monstrous a principle as that the rich ought to be protected by law from the competition of the poor." In 1836, the legislature abolished the restriction.

After a disappointing legal career — for which his radical writing seemed to have kept away potential clients — and a failed career in real estate speculation in Ohio, Spooner returned to his father's farm in 1840.

Postal rates were notoriously high in the 1840s, and in 1844, Spooner founded the American Letter Mail Company to contest the United States Postal Service's monopoly.

As he had done when challenging the rules of the Massachusetts bar, he published a pamphlet entitled, "The Unconstitutionality of the Laws of Congress Prohibiting Private Mails".

(As an advocate of Natural Law Theory and an opponent of government and legislation, Spooner considered the Constitution itself to be unlawful, but he nevertheless used it to argue that the government was breaking its own laws, first in the case of the Postal Monopoly, and later arguing for the Unconstitutionality of Slavery.)

Although Spooner had finally found commercial success with his mail company, legal challenges by the government eventually exhausted his financial resources. He closed up shop without ever having had the opportunity to fully litigate his constitutional claims.

He wrote and published extensively, producing works such as "Natural Law or The Science of Justice" and "The Unconstitutionality of Slavery." Spooner is perhaps best known for his essays No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority and "Trial By Jury." In No Treason, he argued that the Constitution of the United States could not legitimately bind citizens who refused to acknowledge its authority; in "Trial By Jury" he defended the doctrine of "Jury Nullification," which holds that in a free society a trial jury not only has the authority to rule on the facts of the case, but also on the legitimacy of the law under which the case is tried, and which would allow juries to refuse to convict if they regard the law they are asked to convict under as illegitimate.

Lysander Spooner died in 1887 at the age of 79. He had influenced a generation of abolitionists and anarchists, including Benjamin Tucker who published Spooner's obituary in the journal Liberty.

Lysander Spooner: right-Libertarian or libertarian socialist?[edit]

Murray Rothbard and others on the libertarian right have argued that Lysander Spooner is another individualist anarchist whose ideas support anarcho-capitalism's claim to be part of the anarchist tradition. As will be shown below, however, this claim is untrue, since it is clear that Spooner was a left libertarian who was firmly opposed to capitalism.

That Spooner was against capitalism can be seen in his opposition to wage labour, which he wished to eliminate by turning capital over to those who work it. Like Benjamin Tucker, he wanted to create a society of associated producers -- self-employed farmers, artisans and co-operating workers -- rather than wage-slaves and capitalists. For example, in his Letter to Cleveland Spooner writes: "All the great establishments, of every kind, now in the hands of a few proprietors, but employing a great number of wage labourers, would be broken up; for few or no persons, who could hire capital and do business for themselves would consent to labour for wages for another." [quoted by Eunice Minette Schuster, Native American Anarchism, p. 148]

This preference for a system based on simple commodity production in which capitalists and wage slaves are replaced by self-employed and co-operating workers puts Spooner squarely in the anti-capitalist camp with other individualist anarchists, like Tucker. And, we may add, the rough egalitarianism he expected to result from his system indicates the left-libertarian nature of his ideas, turning the present "wheel of fortune" into "extended surface, varied somewhat by inequalities, but still exhibiting a general level, affording a safe position for all, and creating no necessity, for either force or fraud, on the part of anyone, to enable him to secure his standing." [Spooner quoted by Peter Marshall in Demanding the Impossible, pp. 388-9]

Right libertarians have perhaps mistaken Spooner for a capitalist because of his claim that a "free market in credit" would lead to low interest on loans or his "foolish" (to use Tucker's expression) ideas on intellectual property. But, as noted, markets are not the defining feature of capitalism. There were markets long before capitalism existed. So the fact that Spooner retained the concept of markets does not necessarily make him a capitalist. In fact, far from seeing his "free market in credit" in capitalist terms, he believed (again like Tucker) that competition between mutual banks would make credit cheap and easily available, and that this would lead to the elimination of capitalism! In this respect, both Spooner and Tucker follow Proudhon, who maintained that "reduction of interest rates to vanishing point is itself a revolutionary act, because it is destructive of capitalism" [cited in Edward Hyams, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon: His Revolutionary Life, Mind and Works, Taplinger, 1979]. Whether this belief is correct is, of course, another question; we have suggested that it is not, and that capitalism cannot be "reformed away" by mutual banking, particularly by competitive mutual banking.

Further evidence of Spooner's anti-capitalism can be found his book Poverty: Its Illegal Causes and Legal Cure, where he notes that under capitalism the labourer does not receive "all the fruits of his own labour" because the capitalist lives off of workers' "honest industry." Thus: ". . . almost all fortunes are made out of the capital and labour of other men than those who realise them. Indeed, except by his sponging capital and labour from others." [quoted by Martin J. James, Men Against the State, p. 173f] Spooner's statement that capitalists deny workers "all the fruits" (i.e. the full value) of their labour presupposes the labour theory of value, which is the basis of the socialist demonstration that capitalism is exploitative (see <a href="secCcon.html">section C</a>).

This interpretation of Spooner's social and economic views is supported by various studies in which his ideas are analysed. As these works also give an idea of Spooner's ideal world, they are worth quoting :

"Spooner envisioned a society of pre-industrial times in which small property owners gathered together voluntarily and were assured by their mutual honesty of full payment of their labour." [Corinne Jackson, The Black Flag of Anarchy, p. 87]

Spooner considered that "it was necessary that every man be his own employer or work for himself in a direct way, since working for another resulted in a portion being diverted to the employer. To be one's own employer, it was necessary for one to have access to one's own capital." [James J. Martin, Men Against the State, p. 172]

Spooner "recommends that every man should be his own employer, and he depicts an ideal society of independent farmers and entrepreneurs who have access to easy credit. If every person received the fruits of his own labour, the just and equal distribution of wealth would result." [Peter Marshall, Demanding the Impossible, p. 389]

"Spooner would destroy the factory system, wage labour [and the business cycle]. . . by making every individual a small capitalist [sic!], an independent producer." [Eunice Minette Schuster, Native American Anarchism, p. 151]

It is quite apparent, then, that Spooner was against wage labour, and therefore was no capitalist. Hence we must agree with Marshall, who classifies Spooner as a left libertarian with ideas very close to Proudhon's mutualism. Whether such ideas are relevant now, given the vast amount of capital needed to start companies in established sectors of the economy, is another question. As noted above, similar doubts may be raised about Spooner's claims about the virtues of a free market in credit. But one thing is clear: Spooner was opposed to the way America was developing in the mid 1800's. He viewed the rise of capitalism with disgust and suggested a way for non-exploitative and non-oppressive economic relationships to become the norm again in US society, a way based on eliminating the root cause of capitalism -- wage-labour -- through a system of easy credit, which he believed would enable artisans and peasants to obtain their own means of production. This is confirmed by an analysis of his famous works Natural Law and No Treason.

Spooner's support of "Natural Law" has also been taken as "evidence" that Spooner was a proto-right-libertarian (which ignores the fact that support for "Natural Law" is not limited to right libertarians). Of course, most anarchists do not find theories of "natural law," be they those of right-Libertarians, fascists or whatever, to be particularly compelling. Certainly the ideas of "Natural Law" and "Natural Rights," as existing independently of human beings in the sense of the ideal Platonic Forms, are difficult for anarchists to accept per se, because such ideas are inherently authoritarian (as highlighted in section <a href="secF7.html">F.7</a>). Most anarchists would agree with Tucker when he called such concepts "religious."

Spooner, unfortunately, did subscribe to the cult of "immutable and universal" Natural Laws and is so subject to all the problems we highlight in section <a href="secF7.html">F.7</a>. If we look at his "defence" of Natural Law we can see how weak (and indeed silly) it is. Replacing the word "rights" with the word "clothes" in the following passage shows the inherent weakness of his argument:

"if there be no such principle as justice, or natural law, then every human being came into the world utterly destitute of rights; and coming so into the world destitute of rights, he must forever remain so. For if no one brings any rights with him into the world, clearly no one can ever have any rights of his own, or give any to another. And the consequence would be that mankind could never have any rights; and for them to talk of any such things as their rights, would be to talk of things that had, never will, and never can have any existence." [Natural Law]

And, we add, unlike the "Natural Laws" of "gravitation, . . .of light, the principles of mathematics" to which Spooner compares them, he is perfectly aware that his "Natural Law" can be "trampled upon" by other humans. However, unlike gravity (which does not need enforcing) its obvious that Spooner's "Natural Law" has to be enforced by human beings as it is within human nature to steal. In other words, it is a moral code, not a "Natural Law" like gravity.

Interestingly, Spooner did come close to a rational, non-religious source for rights when he points out that "Men living in contact with each other, and having intercourse together, cannot avoid learning natural law." [Ibid.] This indicates the social nature of rights, of our sense of right and wrong, and so rights can exist without believing in religious concepts as "Natural Law."

In addition, we can say that his support for juries indicates an unconscious recognition of the social nature (and so evolution) of any concepts of human rights. In other words, by arguing strongly for juries to judge human conflict, he implicitly recognises that the concepts of right and wrong in society are not indelibly inscribed in law tomes as the "true law," but instead change and develop as society does (as reflected in the decisions of the juries). In addition, he states that "Honesty, justice, natural law, is usually a very plain and simple matter, . . . made up of a few simple elementary principles, of the truth and justice of which every ordinary mind has an almost intuitive perception," thus indicating that what is right and wrong exists in "ordinary people" and not in "prosperous judges" or any other small group claiming to speak on behalf of "truth."

As can be seen, Spooner's account of how "natural law" will be administered is radically different from, say, Murray Rothbard's, and indicates a strong egalitarian context foreign to right-libertarianism.

As far as "anarcho"-capitalism goes, one wonders how Spooner would regard the "anarcho"-capitalist "protection firm," given his comment in No Treason that "[a]ny number of scoundrels, having money enough to start with, can establish themselves as a 'government'; because, with money, they can hire soldiers, and with soldiers extort more money; and also compel general obedience to their will." Compare this to Spooner's description of his voluntary justice associations:

"it is evidently desirable that men should associate, so far as they freely and voluntarily can do so, for the maintenance of justice among themselves, and for mutual protection against other wrong-doers. It is also in the highest degree desirable that they should agree upon some plan or system of judicial proceedings" [Natural Law]

At first glance, one may be tempted to interpret Spooner's justice organisations as a subscription to "anarcho"-capitalist style protection firms. A more careful reading suggests that Spooner's actual conception is more based on the concept of mutual aid, whereby people provide such services for themselves and for others rather than buying them on a fee-per-service basis. A very different concept.

These comments are particularly important when we consider Spooner's criticisms of finance capitalists, like the Rothschilds. Here he departs even more strikingly from all "Libertarian" positions. For he believes that sheer wealth has intrinsic power, even to the extent of allowing the wealthy to coerce the government into behaving at their behest. For Spooner, governments are "the merest hangers on, the servile, obsequious, fawning dependents and tools of these blood-money loan-mongers, on whom they rely for the means to carry on their crimes. These loan-mongers, like the Rothschilds, [can]. . . unmake them [governments]. . .the moment they refuse to commit any crime" that finance capital requires of them. Indeed, Spooner considers "these soulless blood-money loan-mongers" as "the real rulers," not the government (who are their agents). [No Treason].

If one grants that highly concentrated wealth has intrinsic power and may be used in such a Machiavellian manner as Spooner claims, then simple opposition to the state is not sufficient. Logically, any political theory claiming to promote liberty should also seek to limit or abolish the institutions that facilitate large concentrations of wealth. As shown above, Spooner regarded wage labour under capitalism as one of these institutions, because without it "large fortunes could rarely be made at all by one individual." Hence for Spooner, as for social anarchists, to be anti-statist also necessitates being anti-capitalist.

This can be clearly seen for his analysis of history, where he states: "Why is it that [Natural Law] has not, ages ago, been established throughout the world as the one only law that any man, or all men, could rightfully be compelled to obey?" Spooner's answer is given in his interpretation of how the State evolved, where he postulates that the State was formed through the initial ascendancy of a land-holding, slave-holding class by military conquest and oppressive enslavement of a subsistence-farming peasantry.

"These tyrants, living solely on plunder, and on the labour of their slaves, and applying all their energies to the seizure of still more plunder, and the enslavement of still other defenceless persons; increasing, too, their numbers, perfecting their organisations, and multiplying their weapons of war, they extend their conquests until, in order to hold what they have already got, it becomes necessary for them to act systematically, and cooperage with each other in holding their slaves in subjection.

"But all this they can do only by establishing what they call a government, and making what they call laws. ...

"Thus substantially all the legislation of the world has had its origin in the desires of one class of persons to plunder and enslave others, and hold them as property." [Natural Law]

Nothing too provocative here; simply Spooner's view of government as a tool of the wealth-holding, slave-owning class. What is more interesting is Spooner's view of the subsequent development of (post-slavery) socio-economic systems. Spooner writes:

"In process of time, the robber, or slaveholding, class -- who had seized all the lands, and held all the means of creating wealth -- began to discover that the easiest mode of managing their slaves, and making them profitable, was not for each slaveholder to hold his specified number of slaves, as he had done before, and as he would hold so many cattle, but to give them so much liberty as would throw upon themselves (the slaves) the responsibility of their own subsistence, and yet compel them to sell their labour to the land-holding class -- their former owners -- for just what the latter might choose to give them." [Ibid.]

Here Spooner echoes the standard anarchist critique of capitalism. Note that he is no longer talking about slavery but rather about economic relations between a wealth-holding class and a 'freed' class of workers/labourers/tenant farmers. Clearly he does not view this relation --wage labour -- as a voluntary association, because the former slaves have little option but to be employed by members of the wealth-owning class.

Spooner points out that by monopolising the means of wealth creation while at the same time requiring the newly 'liberated' slaves to provide for themselves, the robber class thus continues to receive the benefits of the labour of the former slaves while accepting none of the responsibility for their welfare.

Spooner continues:

"Of course, these liberated slaves, as some have erroneously called them, having no lands, or other property, and no means of obtaining an independent subsistence, had no alternative -- to save themselves from starvation -- but to sell their labour to the landholders, in exchange only for the coarsest necessaries of life; not always for so much even as that." [Ibid.]

Thus while technically "free," the liberated working/labouring class lack the ability to provide for their own needs and hence remain dependent on the wealth-owning class. This echoes not right-libertarian analysis of capitalism, but left-libertarian and other socialist viewpoints.

"These liberated slaves, as they were called, were now scarcely less slaves than they were before. Their means of subsistence were perhaps even more precarious than when each had his own owner, who had an interest to preserve his life." [Ibid.]

This is an interesting comment. Spooner suggests that the liberated slave class were perhaps better off as slaves. Most anarchists would not go so far, although we would agree that employees are subject to the power of those who employ them and so are no long self-governing individuals -- in other words, that capitalist social relationships deny self-ownership and freedom.

"They were liable, at the caprice or interest of the landholders, to be thrown out of home, employment, and the opportunity of even earning a subsistence by their labour." [Ibid.]

Lest the reader doubt that Spooner is actually discussing employment here (and not slavery), he explicitly includes being made unemployed as an example of the arbitrary nature of wage labour.

"They were, therefore, in large numbers, driven to the necessity of begging, stealing, or starving; and became, of course, dangerous to the property and quiet of their late masters." [Ibid.]

And thus:

"The consequence was, that these late owners found it necessary, for their own safety and the safety of their property, to organise themselves more perfectly as a government and make laws for keeping these dangerous people in subjection. . . . " [Ibid.]

In other words, the robber class creates legislation which will protect its power, namely its property, against the dispossessed. Hence we see the creation of "law code" by the wealthy which serves to protect their interests while effectively making attempts to change the status quo illegal. This process is in effect similar to the right-libertarian concept of a "general libertarian law code" which exercises a monopoly over a given area and which exists to defend the "rights" of property against "initiation of force," i.e. attempts to change the system into a new one.

Spooner goes on:

"The purpose and effect of these laws have been to maintain, in the hands of robber, or slave holding class, a monopoly of all lands, and, as far as possible, of all other means of creating wealth; and thus to keep the great body of labourers in such a state of poverty and dependence, as would compel them to sell their labour to their tyrants for the lowest prices at which life could be sustained." [Ibid.]

Thus Spooner identifies the underlying basis for legislation (as well as the source of much misery, exploitation and oppression throughout history) as the result of the monopolisation of the means of wealth creation by an elite class. We doubt he would have considered that calling these laws "libertarian" would in any change their oppressive and class-based nature.

"Thus the whole business of legislation, which has now grown to such gigantic proportions, had its origin in the conspiracies, which have always existed among the few, for the purpose of holding the many in subjection, and extorting from them their labour, and all the profits of their labour." [Ibid.]

Characterising employment as extortion may seem rather extreme, but it makes sense given the exploitative nature of profit under capitalism, as left libertarians have long recognised (see <a href="secCcon.html">section C</a>).

In summary, as can be seen, there is a great deal of commonality between Spooner's ideas and those of social anarchists. Spooner perceives the same sources of exploitation and oppression inherent in monopolistic control of the means of production by a wealth-owning class as do social anarchists. His solutions may differ, but he observes exactly the same problems. In other words, Spooner is a left libertarian, and his individualist anarchism is just as anti-capitalist as the ideas of, say, Bakunin, Kropotkin or Chomsky.

Spooner was no more a capitalist than Rothbard was an anarchist.

References and external links[edit]

Project Gutenberg[edit]


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