Auberon Herbert

By Wendy McElroy
[First published in Freedom Daily, February and March 2011. See the Future of Freedom Foundation website]

In his periodical Liberty (May 23, 1885), the quintessential American individualist-anarchist Benjamin Tucker wrote of his British counterpart Auberon Herbert, “I know of no more inspiring spectacle in England than that of this man of exceptionally high social position doing battle almost single-handed with the giant monster, government, and showing in it a mental rigor and vigor and a wealth of moral fervor rarely equaled in any cause.”

Auberon Edward William Molyneux Herbert (1838–1906) was born into the ruling class. As the son of the 3rd Earl of Carnarvon and brother to the 4th earl, Herbert attended both Eton College, which has traditionally been called “the chief nurse of England’s statesmen and St. John’s College, Oxford. He ran unsuccessfully for Parliament as a Conservative and later served as a Liberal in the House of Commons for Nottingham in the early 1870s. There, his sympathy for working people was evident through the support he rendered to fellow-politician Joseph Arch in the goal of forming the National Agricultural Labourers Union. Upon meeting the individualist philosopher Herbert Spencer in 1873, however, Herbert became cemented in his decision not to seek re-election. In an essay posthumously published in his book The Voluntaryist Creed (Oxford University Press, 1908), Herbert explained Spencer’s impact upon him:

    As I read and thought over what he taught, a new window was opened in my mind. I lost my faith in the great machine [government]; I saw that thinking and acting for others had always hindered not helped the real progress; that all forms of compulsion deadened the living forces in a nation; that every evil violently stamped out still persisted, almost always in a worse form, when driven out of sight, and festered under the surface. I no longer believed that the handful of us however well-intentioned we might be spending our nights in the House, 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.

Herbert fully embraced the radical individualism Spencer expressed in his brief work The Man versus the State (1884). In the Illustrated London News (February 15, 1936) English author G.K. Chesterton wrote,

    Herbert Spencer really went as far as he could in the direction of Individualism…. He left only the gallant and eccentric Auberon Herbert to go one step further; and practically propose that we should abolish the police; and merely insure ourselves against thieves and assassins, as against fire and accident.

Herbert also began to argue vigorously against the privileges of his own class. His book A Politician in Trouble about his Soul (1884), issued by the prestigious Chapman and Hall, who also published Charles Dickens, was dedicated to “The Workmen of Nottingham,” In the dedication, he wrote,

    May the day come, for us and for every other nation, when the politician, as we know him at present, shall be numbered amongst the fossils of the past, when we shall cease to desire to rule each other either by force or by trick, when we shall dread for the sake of our own selves the possession of power, when we shall recognize that there are such things as universal rights….

Published by mainstream periodicals such as Nineteenth Century, The Humanitarian, and Fortnightly Review, Herbert became the most influential British libertarian of his time. Today, however, he is perhaps best remembered for popularizing Voluntaryism – a political tradition maintaining that all human interaction should be voluntary and rejecting the initiation of force. The only justification for force is self-defense, including the defense of property.

The role of government

To the extent there is debate about Herbert’s beliefs, the focus is generally upon whether he was
an anarchist. He consistently rejected the label. He wrote,

    My charge against Anarchism is that it sees many forms of crime existing in the world, and it refuses to come to any settled opinion as to what it will do in the matter. If it says it will do nothing, then we must live under the reign of the murderer…; if it says it will have some form of local jury, then we are back into government again at once.

By contrast, “[in] voluntaryism the state employs force only to repel force – to protect the person and the property of the individual against force and fraud; under voluntaryism the state would defend the rights of liberty, never aggress upon them.”

In short, Herbert believed defensive force and the protection of property were legitimate roles for government or “a central agency.” The government would be financed solely by a “voluntary tax.” Payees would gain the privilege of voting; nonpayees would not have the franchise but could set up their own associations. Herbert doubted they would do so because the benefits of a “central agency” would be apparent to all. Thus, he called himself a “governmentalist” and, in 1879, once more attempted to join the House of Commons but failed.

The focus on the anarchism question loses the true importance of the man. During decades of toil for liberty, Herbert was one of the most influential anti-war voices in England; he was an eloquent and unique advocate of the working man; he acted as a foil to the emerging power of socialism; and, he argued against the worst aspects of 19th-century American libertarianism, including its rejection of capitalism, especially in the form of rent and interest. Although it is speculation, Herbert’s presence at the head of British libertarianism may have been what kept that movement on course in terms of embracing sound economic theory.

The foundation of Herbert’s political convictions was “the rights of self-ownership” which “express the limits of rightful and wrongful action.” These were the natural rights that a person had over his own body and the products thereof (property) against which no one else could properly aggress. Since they were based in man’s nature, these rights were possessed in equal measure by every man. Herbert declared, “If we are self-owners (and it is absurd, it is doing violence to reason, to suppose that we are not), neither an individual, nor a majority, nor a government can have rights of ownership in other men.”

“The way of force and strife”

Herbert argued with particular vigor against the idea of majority rule, saying that “what one man cannot morally do, a million men cannot morally do, and government, representing many millions of men, cannot do.” Regarding the phrase “the good of the greatest number,” Herbert exclaimed,

      There never was invented a more specious and misleading phrase. The Devil was in his most subtle and ingenious mood when he slipped this phrase into the brains of


    men…. It assumes that there are two opposed “goods,” and that the one good is to be sacrificed to the other good – but … liberty is the one good, open to all, and requiring no sacrifice of others; this false opposition (where no real opposition exists) of two different goods means perpetual war between men – the larger number being for ever incited to trample on the smaller number. I can only ask: Why are 2 men to be sacrificed to 3 men? We all agree that the 3 men are not to be sacrificed to the 2 men; but why – as a matter of moral right – are we to do what is almost as bad and immoral and shortsighted – sacrifice the 2 men to the 3 men?… [Liberty] does away with all necessity of sacrifice.” (Free Life, July 1898)

Herbert expressed his rejection of majority rule and “tribalism” through his active opposition to war. In the introduction to the 1978 edition of The Right and Wrong of Compulsion by the State, the philosopher Eric Mack observed,

      Following Spencer’s distinction between industrial and militant societies, Herbert continually emphasized the differences between two basic modes of interpersonal coordination. There is the “way of peace and cooperation” founded upon respect for self-ownership and the demand for only voluntary association. And there is the “way of force and strife” founded upon either the belief in the ownership of some by others or the simple reverence of brute force.


War was the pure expression of “the way of force and strife.” Herbert’s anti-war sentiments had a long history. Like many British aristocrats, he had held commissions in the army and served in India; in letters home, he criticized the British occupation.

During the Prusso-Danish war (1864), he spent time observing action near the front line and was subsequently decorated by the Danish government for rendering aid to the wounded. He also directly observed the American Civil War (1861–1865), of which he wrote, “I am very glad that slavery is done away with, but I think the manner is very bad and wrong.”

In the 1870s, “jingoism” swept England in reaction to the Russo-Turkish War. Jingoism is extreme patriotism coupled with an aggressive foreign policy. The term came from the chorus of a popular
pub song: “We don’t want to fight but by Jingo if we do/We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the money too/We’ve fought the Bear before, and while we’re Britons true/The Russians shall not have Constantinople.”

When the jingoists organized anti-Russia rallies in Hyde Park, Herbert became a driving force in organizing anti-jingoist ones. His anti-war stance was not only visceral from having witnessed the savagery of war, but also ideological. Mack explained,

    Herbert repeatedly took anti-imperialist stands. He consistently called for Irish self-determination. In the early 1880s, he opposed British intervention in Egypt as a use of the power of the nation to guarantee the results of particular speculations. And, later, he opposed the Boer War.

Herbert was also cognizant that wars benefited the ruling class at the expense of common men, who were overwhelmingly the ones to fight and die.

Herbert and the working man

On other issues, Auberon Herbert predictably sided with working people. In 1869, he acted as one of the presidents of the first national Co-operative Congress. As its name suggests, the Co-operative movement focused on establishing cooperative societies and arrangements, such as mutual insurance agencies.

When Herbert’s Right and Wrong of Compulsion by the State first appeared, Benjamin Tucker reviewed it in Liberty (May 23, 1885). The book, he explained, “consists of a series of papers written for Joseph Cowen’s paper, the Newcastle Chronicle, supplemented by a letter to the London Times on the English factory acts. Dedicated to Mr. Cowen’s constituents, ‘The Workmen of Tyneside,’ it appeals with equal force to workmen the world over, and their welfare and their children’s will depend upon the readiness with which they accept and the bravery with which they adhere to its all-important counsel.”

In 1877, as an outward manifestation of his support of labor, Herbert founded the Personal Rights and Self-Help Association that opposed the increasingly popular socialist “solution” to labor. Whereas the socialists called for more laws, especially factory legislation, the Personal Rights Association advocated the repeal of laws and called for free trade as the way to empower labor. The “Self-Help” aspect of the Association referred to the working man’s need to protect himself through voluntary association rather than authority. In advocating free trade, Herbert went so far as to defend sweatshop owners (sweaters), who were almost universally reviled by the co-operative movement. He wrote,

    The sweater may or may not be a very evil person, but he has no power to compel those he employs to accept his terms. He is not a user of force. You have therefore no moral right to employ force against him…. But apart from the moral argument, it is stupid in such a case to use force…. [It] is the circumstances that compel those in the sweater’s employment to accept the hard conditions. Is there not then something very left-handed in employing force against the sweater himself, who, as is confessed, is not the cause of the evil? The cause of the evil is in the circumstances, and it is in the circumstances that a remedy must be found. (Free Life, July 1898)

At podiums across England and in prominent publications, Herbert argued against other core ideas of socialism. For example, he dissected the concept of the state or society as being an independent organism in which individuals functioned as limbs or muscle; in essence, the socialists were denying the independent existence of individuals. In an early expression of methodological individualism, Herbert claimed the opposite was true.

      The State is created by the individuals. It is fashioned and re-fashioned by them at their own will and pleasure … for their use and service, and when it does not satisfy their requirements, they pull it to pieces and reconstruct it. Men throughout their lives are included in many wholes…. Schools, colleges, clubs, associations, joint stock companies, co-operative companies, political parties, village or town organisations, and then lastly comes national organisation or the State; but in all these cases, the organisation is created by the individuals themselves…. [How] is it possible for any constructed and reconstructed things to be greater than those who construct it and reconstruct it? To indulge in any such imagination is to imitate the carver of idols, who, when with his own hands he has fashioned the log of wood, falls on his knees before it and calls it his god. (Free Life, July 1898)


Objections to Herbert

Prominent socialists struck back. The economist and democratic socialist J.A. Hobson wrote a harsh critique of Herbert in the Humanitarian, entitled “A Rich Man’s Anarchism,” echoing the
accusation of anarchism and attacking Herbert’s defense of private property as a ploy to enslave the poor to the rich. During the 1890s, both Hobson and the socialist E. Belfort Bax engaged in lengthy published debates with Herbert, returning again and again to attacks based on Herbert’s advocacy of private property and to ad hominems accusing him of anarchism.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Tucker agreed with the “accusation” of anarchism but praised Herbert for it. The matter on which he took Herbert to task was his embrace of laissez-faire capitalism. Along with most other 19th-century American libertarians, Tucker accepted the labor theory of value, which claims that the value of a good results solely from the labor and the basic costs required to produce it. If a capitalist subsequently takes the good and sells it for twice what he pays the laborer, then the resulting profit is a form of theft. Tucker also considered charging interest on money to be usury. He believed the remedy was free banking and the elimination of all state support for business, including monopoly privileges. He opposed the charging of rent on the grounds that people did not rightfully own property they did not occupy.

To Herbert, selling goods for profit and charging interest on money were naturally occurring market phenomena that would exist whether or not the state did. The practice of collecting rent was an extension of ownership, which did not require constant use or occupation to be legitimate. Interesting enough, although Herbert was baited repeatedly on that issue within Liberty, especially by the periodical’s sometimes co-editor
Victor Yarros, Herbert – usually an ardent debater – chose not to respond.

After a fire destroyed Tucker’s offices in 1907, he left for Europe, and an era of America libertarianism ended. The same can be said of British libertarianism with the death of Herbert in 1906.

Shortly before his death, Herbert declared, “I venture to prophesy that there lies before us a bitter and an evil time.” He spoke not merely of the rapid rise of socialism. An avid observer of military matters, Herbert undoubtedly saw the early stirrings of World War I, which would erupt in 1914. It would sweep away the last remnants of classical liberalism in England and devastate a generation of young men. Herbert’s focus on the terrible impact that violence has upon those who commit it meant there could be no victors emerging from such a conflict.

Referring to the “victory” of three men who use force against two others, Herbert wrote,

    Nothing can be worse for the 3 men. To be told that for your convenience the rights of others are not to count must corrupt and make a beast of you, It is an untrue exaltation of yourself that human nature cannot withstand…. That is mere paganism – the paganism of numbers; and from it we must extricate ourselves as quickly as may be, if our people are not to live blindly worshiping force, and with as much peace and harmony in their lives as there is for two cats cruelly and wickedly tied together by their tails. (Free Life, July 1898)

Today, with wars and hate-mongering rampant, Herbert’s psychological insights on the brutalizing
nature of force upon all involved are particularly poignant. If we spotlight only his unique anti-war arguments, a Herbert revival is merited.

Herbert himself must bear some responsibility for his current obscurity, however. He neglected to organize his philosophy into a systematic expression. Indeed, much of his writing occurred in an ephemeral periodical entitled Free Life, which he published – at first weekly and then monthly – from 1890 to 1901. Although an anthology of Herbert’s work, The Right and Wrong of Compulsion by the State and Other Essays, was published in 1978, much more is needed to restore the legacy of this thinker, whom the Austrian economist Richard M. Ebeling once called “one of the most important and articulate advocates of liberty in the last 200 years.”

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