Letter Four

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    Letter IV        April 17, 1843

SIR: Many readers probably will think that so long a note as my last was not needful to prove the positions claimed in it. But these friends may keep in mind that fact that there is a larger portion of society that does not yet see how easy [is] the transition from despotism to freedom, from monstrous to humane government. Almost a priori it might be asserted that all the operations which are limited to the township might be committed at once to the voluntary principle; therefore no very strong arguments are needed for its proof. If the neighborhood will not take care of itself, either on the ground of selfish regard, or on the superior principle of the common good, there must certainly be so great a defect of heart and head that such individuals might not longer to be trusted with the management of their own affairs; and still less should they be permitted to a participation of authority over men.

But as respects the collective body of towns, or that association which forms the State, a different course of reasoning may be considered necessary. Not that this is so very certain, for it might be concluded that if each township provided for its separate wants, the wants of the whole would be provided for, and no further steps need be taken. And why this should not be done, and the whole costly and immoral machinery at once be swept away, by a godlike reliance on man, I know not. If gold may be bought too dearly, that is to say at a greater outlay of gold than you afterwards have in hand, so may State protection be purchased at a greater outlay of moral life and social security than you have remaining after all the labor.

In order that we may meet the questions fairly, and see, step by step, what is the value, if any, which the present political machinery can boast, we should with fairness trace it throughout. In the first place we have to choose a man as a delegate to construct laws for us; to determine what actions shall be criminal, and what consequences shall result from them upon the actors; to regulate the cutting of canals, the construction of wharves, rail roads, lunatic hospitals, armies, navies; and to regulate intercourse with neighborhood nations. To the selection of such a man what a number of doubtful or objectionable steps are taken. What a canvassing, what finesse, what intrigues. What a loss of money, time and temper. And then the antagonism of parties; that old, hollow, but still successful means of stepping into office. – The mischief that all countries, adopting the representative system, have suffered by party is scarcely exceeded by that of the feudal system which it supplanted. To name only one of the serious disadvantages of this system of giving up our own government, the perception now is almost universal that the best neighbors seldom or never are chosen. The best men are not party men, and never can be, and none but a man espousing, or rather chained to one party or other, has any chance of appointment. The best man cannot be selected for another reason also, that the law is so well and freely made, according to its own principles, that the mass or majority of voters are faithfully represented. – The representative is an exact reflex of the power which makes him. But the mass is not the best, and it is impossible that at any time they should be. The very integrity and presumed perfection of the representative system therefore precludes the admission of the best man to those offices which depend on the voice of the mass.

It is not to be denied that men of considerable talent are chosen, as well as many of moral integrity; but it is admitted every where in private that we shall in vain seek progressive and wisely inspired souls in legislative halls. What remedy can be found for this misfortune consistent with the purity of the representative system, it is not easy to divine. Government by the best is an aristocracy. That is the literal meaning of this Greek term. But we do not desire an aristocracy in either the common view of a set of hereditary legislators, or in the literal interpretation of the best and purest selected men. The people desire persons to make their laws who are most like themselves. Idle schoolboys if left to choose their own teachers would make a selection on the same principle as grasping and selfish men choose a representative.

Let us suppose all the unworthy and unpleasant processes of election to be passed. The men are fairly chosen. In due time they are collected in the metropolis, and proceed to business. First, however, comes an adjustment of parties. Intrigue, finesse, and ill-will, commenced at the town house are repeated on a magnified scale at the state house. Business delayed, time dissipated, temper destroyed, wealth wasted there for a day or two, are here extended to months. In the Massachusetts legislature, during the session just closed, how many days, how many thousand dollars, were absolutely wasted, according, not to my assertion merely but by evidence of the members of the representative body, may be seen by any one who will take the trouble to search the records, or to read the newspaper reports. I believe it would not be too much to say the choice of Speaker alone cost 15,000 dollars. And to supply these funds, sane and honest men are to be sent to jail, terrified, coerced or cajoled, for the amusement of a gaping nation, the satisfaction of party, or the corruption of place hunters. But these, it may be said, are accidental evils, and not necessarily parts of the system. They have, however, clung so closely to representation ever since parliaments were invented that it is pretty evident they are essentially vices in the representative plan. “If you would have your work done, do it; if you would not have it done, set some one else about it,” is an adage as applicable to nations as to individual men of business. On calm investigation it will be found as fatal to moral justice to thus make a profession of hireling statesmen as it is deathful to religious love to set up the profession of hireling priest. Nations and people have been unhappily under the representative system, not on account of the defects in its several modes, but because itself is one huge defect. It is actually a defection from the principle of self-government, or conscience government, or God government in the human soul. These are but three expressions for one fact, which, while men, as religionists, profess to uphold, they as statesmen practically subvert. Ideally they set up a goal, but they are determined it shall be no more than talked about, for they put the greatest obstacles in the way of its actual attainment, and denounce any one who seems likely to get over them.

Supposing, however, all these disagreeables, which at least they are, to be overcome, or that they are accidents, let us see what the legislative body actually does. Like the town assembly, the apology for much of what they do is only to be found in their meeting to do it. Like a poor, benighted, oppressed negro servant who in his ignorance and simplicity, makes as much work as he does, these simpleton people are themselves the main occasion for their services. Having run up an account of 15,000 dollars, they must pass enactments to raise the money. But their charges do not end here. Other payments are contrived, and altogether a large sum, say perhaps 50,00 dollars has to be levied. – People do not like to pay so much in addition to their local taxes. Well, then, some indirect contrivance must be adopted which will work easier at the moment, though it will entail heavy consequences. They proceed therefore to pawn the State to the money-mongers, who in the form of banks extract from the people, by the license thus obtained, at least twice as much as they pay over in the shape of taxes, which are apparently imposed upon themselves, but really on the people; the banks being merely the tax-gatherers at the moderate rate of 100 per cent commission. Another most ingenious contrivance for involving the people is that of public works. This is a most consummate gloss. It looks so praiseworthy to promote manufacturing industry, it is so scientific, so civilizing. Canals, bridges, railways and the like, are such progressive, useful, honorable works, that they dazzle or delude easily. So the State encourages these for the common good; and, while the legislators are on one hand borrowing money to meet their own exigencies, they lend money to railway companies on the other. If private adventurers cannot be found willing to undertake these works, it is pretty good evidence against their profitableness. Capitalists are as ready as laborers to lay out their means to the best advantage; and as soon as these works are really wanted they will be erected on private speculation as ships and large ware-houses are built without the especial interference of the State. But these expedients are adopted, like education of children by the town assembly, as a purifying and popular sanction to the existence of the state assembly: with this further motive, that sources of personal income are created by members of influential talent. My feelings upon the subject of these so called improvements is that they are no real advantage to human welfare. I see that if science could enable us in one month, to compass all the sea and land on the globe, we should compass no more virtue or happiness. On the contrary, in most countries the march of manufacturing and travelling skill has been the march of misery. However, it is needful to meet the popular opinion where it is, and I must therefore show that these public works could be erected and maintained without a forced government. Suppose it should be deemed desirable by parties interested that a railway should be constructed over a given space, and further, that they have convinced the capitalists their money might be advantageously laid out thereon, there-then remains nothing but to persuade the land-holders to sell portions of their land for a fair equivalent. If they will not consent, the road may take another direction, where the proprietors are willing, or the execution may be deferred until reasoning or the opinion of their neighbors has accomplished their consent. If the work is clearly a public advantage there will be no dissention, or, if one should be churlish, public opinion will sustain the project against him, and justify as it does now the proceeding of the company. To this ordeal every disputed point on such questions has now to be brought, and it would be as efficacious without the government as with it. In many cases, a legislative enactment, by tying down a public company to certain forms is found so fettering that its protection is a hindrance, and the capitalists prefer to be without it. So in an enlightened community, would it be felt for even the largest public works. As to any assistance which the State should give to specific speculations, America, I think, has had experience enough. It will be many years before the United States can recover the wealth and credit they have lost by thus going out of their way. The fact that national assistance is needed to accomplish any public work is proof absolute that capitalists think it will not give them so good a return for the outlay as other uses of their money. Why, then, should we be taxed, or exposed to taxation, when the first principles of these very political economists are against them? The argument is briefly this; if the work is desirable, it will as surely be done as any other voluntary association is formed. One feels here to be rather combatting against no body; and that the real difficulty lies in finding reasons why the nation should interfere, and not why it should leave alone.

I know of no other legislative acts which present more difficulties to my position than this of a railway, laid down a long line passing through many private properties, many townships, and several States. Lunatic Asylums, Schools, and all establishments of a moral nature should be left to moral control. In some countries you are aware that not a book or a newspaper can be published without the revisal and approbation of the government. A proceeding which to us appears outrageous. Yet we seem to be bound by customs scarcely less absurd. Banking is another amusement which governments play at; and for this game the people have to pay the piper more than once. – Some simple contrivance is loudly called for here. But it is too wide a subject to be now discussed. I may however be allowed to say that if no voluntary association can be contrived for all the honest banking that is required, neither does the present system afford a greater degree of security than obtains in ordinary transactions amongst men, in which no specific government regulation interferes.

The postage of letters and papers is made a national business, and a very great convenience, nay, luxury, it is. But there is no more necessity to take this occupation out of individual hands than that of transmitting large parcels, or the coaching of passengers. Why does not the government force all freightage and passage in the State into its own hands? Men’s lives and bodies are at least as important as education and letters; yet we are left at the care of the stage driver without other guardianship than character. We know that private adventurers would post for us at a cheaper rate, for the government derives a considerable surplus revenue, although they pay their sorters and clerks more highly, because more by favorteism, than individuals would if exposed to competition. Furthermore, we know that such adventurers would serve us quicker, for they do so now, expediting their dispatches with such celerity as to excel the government. In fidelity and trustworthiness I believe also private speculators do, and ever would, eclipse the government, whose servants often purloin money letters; for persons have to earn and to maintain a reputation, about which governments existing by force are much less regardful. If legislators are disposed to try how unimportant they are to us let them give up the post office, and Harnden will convince them.

Most of these particulars are however of an entirely national character. They pertain to the State in respect to its own internal affairs, and may therefore be allowed to be comparatively easy of voluntary arrangement, as the business confined to the town is still easier of unenforced settlement. But we now come to the more difficult question of international harmony, and the method of intercourse with the whole world. Commerce is the sole purpose to be served in this intercourse so far as the State is concerned. Objects of a moral character being out of its reach and cognizance, I say commerce seems to be the sole purpose in foreign communications; for the maintenance of peace, or the carrying on of war are subordinate to commerce. So long as people imagine it is advantageous for them to carry on trade, some regulations seem to be needed. – What are they? First, we have the custom house. Some one, it will be said, must collect the duties; and smuggling must be prevented. But surely all this parade of difficulty may be at once got over by having no custom house, and no tariff to maintain. Why should not a ship be as free to bring her freight of goods to the wharf, and unload without molestation, as a tradesman is to enter any town, and open a store? Why raise a revenue from the goods of one and not from those of the other? To which it will be replied, one is native and the other foreign. Which is a poor answer; for the buyer in both cases is a native citizen, and as a consumer, he, and not the seller, pays the tax. It seems mightily absurd to subject men to hindering forms and rules who come to us with ship loads of wealth. If commerce is good, why shackle it. If bad, why expend so much to maintain it. For all these paraphernalia of State, the Governor, the President, the Ambassador, the Consul, and the many more, are costly articles. It was only for the purpose of making money by this country that England wished to keep it in a subjugated colony; just as that power has been murdering the Chinese. – Our arms were used for political and personal freedom; the British only wanted to shoot us into well-behaved, slavish, hard-working customers who would pay for their wares a hundred per cent more than the articles were worth. We ought to understand that the pretense for this heavy load of a forceful government arises wholly out of our personal appetite for foreign luxuries of diet and dress. If we subsisted and clothed ourselves as we easily could, by native products, we should not be plunged into this difficulty. Ships of war need not be kept afloat to protect merchant vessels for a pure and simple people, who are contented with the products of their own land, avoiding slavery to their own base appetites, and the infliction of slavery on other men. Protection of the mercantile navy has not shown much regard for men when it has protected merchants in carrying over sea whole cargoes of human beings to be sold to interminable slavery. Why, Sir, piracy is not much worse than this. Who will assent that it is so base? It were better we should be without the advantages which commerce is supposed to bestow than secure them at such a price as this. Let piracy no more be committed on the innocent by us; but let us expose ourselves to piracy by our equals, by, in fact, some of us, the white race, and we shall know how to meet it greatly. What have nations to fear by leaving their frontiers open to assault? Nothing certainly from respectable nations. Nothing from the inroads of armies, of books, or of opinions. Let all such come to find what they want. The armed system does not protect the weak against the strong; but the strong defer to the common sense of justice, which even in the most ignorant nations will not suffer governors to go to war wantonly; for, after all, men are forced to be men, and necessarily to have hearts in their bosoms. Nations will not attack notions without a motive; and disguised as it may have been heretofore, we now very well know that wealth was the object. Aggrandisement, by territorial, commercial or some other form of riches has been the impulse to all war. For a sort season, perhaps, the first nation that adopt[s] the principle of non-resistance might experience some inconveniences, just as the first persons who adopted that principle in regard to their own coercive government are now suffering. But suffering and self-denial are the steps to the true triumph. It seems to me quite laughable to talk of a nation being attacked because it left its shores unguarded. A universal proclamation of peace brings not enemies, but friends. The enemy now comes upon us in a much quieter and surer manner. We have no more reason to expect visitations of hostile armies and navies than of giants from fairy land. Even the old monarchies maintain standing armies for the sole purpose of keeping their own subjects in awe, or very little else. Public opinion has at least frowned down aggressive war, though it still permits diplomatic swindling and commercial chicanery.

I have not in this letter met objections on the highest moral ground, because the remark is common that such a position is a mere attraction, and might do well for a condition of man altogether different to the present, but does not suit the case. My endeavor therefore has been to meet the public world where it now stands, and to show that on principles even no better than those now recognised, the world could go on very well without a government forced on every man whether he be willing or not.

Yours hopefully,
Concord, Mass.

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