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Not Reason

  • No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority by Lysander Spooner

Americans are being burdened by a historic expansion in the federal government. It has effectively nationalized much of banking, bailed out financial and car companies and arrogated the power to override bondholders' rights, fire corporate officers and control executive compensation. Health care "reform," will impose new taxes, fees, deficits, regulations, bureaucracies and price controls, and may mandate that individuals buy insurance as well. Massively expensive new environmental policies are next on Congress' agenda. And those are just the "highlights."

This metastasizing of government control has led to a great deal of public opposition and objection, from Joe Wilson's "You lie" to a massive march on Washington (illustrating how vain the hope of unity through government is).

Instead of addressing the real core issue behind such objections, the party in power and toadies in the media have tried to shift the focus onto the supposed rudeness of the objections and the lack of decorum it exhibits. This both misdirects our focus and introduces a false standard, as if at America's creation, decorum, rather than the rights that were being violated, was the most important issue.

The real issue is whether what the federal government is imposing is legitimate, not the civility of the objections. Since the only constraint involved seems to be what can command a bare majority in the current Congress, its acts clearly violate Americans' natural, inalienable rights to self-ownership, as described in the Declaration of Independence, and the enumerated limits on federal powers laid out in the Constitution.

Those who oppose the accelerated bloating of the federal government have tended to focus on analogies to a similar (but now dwarfed) expansion under FDR. While that is instructive, American history offers an even more dramatic case of the federal government imposing its will on an unwilling minority — the Civil War.

From the founding era on, there was widespread acceptance that states who found federal policies illegitimate, exceeding the power they had delegated to it in the Constitution, had the right to secede to defend their rights and that of their citizens. But under Lincoln and his successors, those willing to exercise that previously acknowledged right against the federal government were redefined as treasonous, to justify Union depredations during and after the Civil War.

In response to the redefinition of exercising the defensive right of secession as treason, perhaps the most important response was that of Lysander Spooner, who Murray Rothbard called "the last of the great natural rights theorists." In No Treason, Spooner derived the right to secede from both our natural right of self-ownership and a Constitution based on voluntary consent, both of which made government coercion of peaceful people illegitimate.

As Rothbard put it, "Spooner knew that … The State is far mightier than the individual, and if the individual cannot use the theory of justice as his armor against State oppression, then he has no solid basis from which to roll it back and defeat it.' As a result, "an action to be prohibited by the violence of law … should be confined strictly to the initiation of violence against the rights of person and property."

Since we are certainly no closer to that moral standard than when Spooner wrote, and seem to be rapidly accelerating in the opposite direction, it is even more important that we take him seriously today. So consider some of his argument from No Treason, and see if it doesn't speak directly to Americans' current circumstances:

That men may rightfully be compelled to submit to, and support, a government that they do not want…No principle … can be more self-evidently false than this; or more self-evidently fatal to all political freedom … a man, thus subjected to a government that he does not want, is a slave. And there is no difference, in principle — but only in degree — between political and chattel slavery. The former, no less than the latter, denies a man's ownership of himself and the products of his labor; and asserts that other men may own him, and dispose of him and his property, for their uses, and at their pleasure.

[T]he inconsistency between profession and conduct… to compel men to live under and support a government that they did not want…in behalf of the of the principle that government should rest on consent.

[G]overnments…formed simply by the consent or agreement of the strongest part…will act in concert in subjecting the weaker party to their dominion. And the despotism, and tyranny, and injustice of these governments consist in that very fact.

[T]wo men have no more natural right to exercise any kind of authority over one, than one has to exercise the same authority over two. A man's natural rights are his own, against the whole world; and any infringement of them is equally a crime, whether committed by one man, or by millions; whether committed by one man, calling himself a robber or by millions, calling themselves a government.

Our Constitution does not profess to have been established simply by the majority; but by 'the people;' the minority, as much as the majority.

If our fathers, in 1776, had acknowledged the principle that a majority had the right to rule the minority, we should never have become a nation; for they were in a small minority, as compared with those who claimed the right to rule over them.

Majorities, as such, afford no guarantees for justice… They [are] … likely to be equally — perhaps more than equally, because more boldly — rapacious, tyrannical and unprincipled, if entrusted with power. There is no more reason, then, why a man should either sustain, or submit to, the rule of the majority, than of a minority.

Majorities and minorities cannot rightfully be taken at all into account in deciding questions of justice. And all talk about them, in matters of government, is mere absurdity. Men are dunces for uniting to sustain any government, or any laws, except those in which they are all agreed. And nothing but force and fraud compel men to sustain any other.

To say that majorities, as such, have a right to rule minorities, is equivalent to saying that minorities have, and ought to have, no rights, except such as majorities please to allow them.

The principle that the majority have a right to rule the minority, practically resolves all government into a mere contest between two bodies of men, as to which of them shall be masters, and which of them slaves …

How does [a man] become subjected to the control of men like himself, who, by nature, had no authority over him; but who command him to do this, and forbid him to do that, as if they were his sovereigns, and he their subject; and as if their wills and their interests were the only standards of his duties and his rights; and who compel him to submission … this is the work of force, or fraud, or both.

[T]he whole Revolution turned upon … the right of each and every man, at his discretion, to release himself from the support of the government under which he had lived. And this principle was asserted…as a universal right of all men …

[U]nder the principle of individual consent, the little government that mankind need is not only practicable, but natural … the Constitution of the United States authorizes no government, except one depending wholly on voluntary support.

[W]ithout his consent having ever been asked, a man finds himself environed by a government that he cannot resist; a government that forces him to pay money, render service, and forego the exercise of many of his natural rights, under peril of weighty punishments… be finds himself, without his consent, so situated that, if he use the ballot, he may become a master; if he does not use it, he must become a slave.

One essential of a free government is that it rest wholly on voluntary support. And one certain proof that a government is not free is that it coerces … persons to support it, against their will … all governments … [are] tyrannies to that portion of the people — whether few or many — who are compelled to support them against their will.

Either 'taxation without consent is robbery,' or it is not. If it is not, then any number of men who choose may … call themselves a government; assume absolute authority over all weaker than themselves [and] plunder them at will …

[P]olitical liberty always means liberty for the weaker party. It is only the weaker party that is ever oppressed. The strong are always free by virtue of their superior strength. So long as government is a mere contest as to which of two parties shall rule the other, the weaker must always succumb.

The practical difficulty with our government has been that most of those who have administered it have taken it for granted that the Constitution, as it is written, was a thing of no importance; that it neither said what it meant, nor meant what it said…

[G]etting the actual consent of only so many as may be necessary to keep the rest in subjection by force. Such a government is a mere conspiracy of the strong against the weak … a presumption that the weaker party consent to be slaves.

As taxation is made compulsory on all … a large proportion of those who vote no doubt do so to prevent their own money being used against themselves; when, in fact, they would have gladly abstained from voting, if they could thereby have saved themselves from taxation alone, to say nothing of being saved from all the other usurpations and tyrannies of the government. To take a man's property without his consent, and then to infer his consent because he attempts, by voting, to prevent that property from being used to his injury, is a very insufficient proof of his consent…

The fact is that the government, like a highwayman, says to a man: 'Your money, or your life.' [But] The highwayman … 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…who…do not appreciate his peculiar system of protection…he does not, in addition to robbing you, attempt to make you either his dupe or his slave.

[W]hoever desires liberty, should understand…That every man who puts money into the hands of a 'government' (so called), puts into its hands a sword which will be used against him, to extort more money from him, and also to keep him in subjection to its arbitrary will. That those who will take his money, without his consent, in the first place, will use it for his further robbery…That the only security men can have for their political liberty consists in their keeping their money in their own pockets, until they have assurances, perfectly satisfactory to themselves, that it will be used as they wish it to be used, for their benefit, and not for their injury. That no government, so called, can reasonably be trusted for a moment, or reasonably be supposed to have honest purposes in view, any longer than it depends wholly upon voluntary support.

A man is none the less a slave because he is allowed to choose a new master once in a term of years.

If [Congress] own us as property, they are our masters, and their will is our law. If they do not own us as property, they are not our masters, and their will, as such, is of no authority over us.

No man can be my … representative, and be, at the same time, uncontrollable by me, and irresponsible to me for his acts…The only question is, what power did I put in his hands? Was it an absolute and irresponsible one? or a limited and responsible one?

On what ground can those who pretend to administer "[The Constitution] claim the right to seize men's property, to restrain them of their natural liberty of action, industry, and trade, and to kill all who deny their authority to dispose of men's properties, liberties, and lives at their pleasure or discretion?

A tacit understanding between A, B, and C, that they will, by ballot, depute D as their agent, to deprive me of my property, liberty, or life, cannot at all authorize D to do so. He is none the less a robber … as their agent…

[W]e are insane enough to call this liberty! To be a member of this secret band of robbers and murderers is esteemed a privilege and an honor! Without this privilege, a man is considered a slave; but with it a free man! … And this they call equal rights!

Murray Rothbard recognized Lysander Spooner's natural rights conception of justice, in which he followed our founders and founding documents, as "a great bulwark against the State's eternal invasion of rights," and he urged Americans to "recapture that once-great tradition of objectively grounded rights of the individual."

In an era where the tattered remains of our rights are threatened with accelerated evisceration, we should rediscover Spooner's insights. No Treason could have also been titled Not Reason, because he showed that reason cannot derive the requirement of coerced obedience from either our natural rights or our Constitution rights. That remains true today. In contrast, reason is only the only way to reestablish the individual rather than the ever-more-powerful State as the basis of social organization.


Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University. He is the author of The Apostle of Peace: The Radical Mind of Leonard Read.


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