Lysander Spooner: Libertarian Pietist

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Day 15
of Robert Wenzel’s 30-day
reading list
that will lead you to become a knowledgeable
libertarian, this article is excerpted from Murray Rothbard’s
introduction to Vices
are Not Crimes: A Vindication of Moral Liberty
by Lysander
Spooner. It is also available
in PDF
along with the full Spooner essay.

We are all
indebted to Carl Watner for uncovering an unknown work by the great
Lysander Spooner, one that managed to escape the editor of Spooner’s

Both the title
and the substance of Vices
are not Crimes
highlight the unique role that morality and
moral principle had for Spooner among the anarchists and libertarians
of his day. For Spooner was the last of the great natural rights
theorists among anarchists, classical liberals, or moral theorists
generally; the doughty old heir of the natural
law-natural rights tradition
of the 17th and 18th centuries
was fighting a rearguard battle against the collapse of the idea
of a scientific or rational morality, or of the science of justice
or of individual right.

Not only had
natural law and natural rights given way throughout society to the
arbitrary rule of utilitarian calculation or nihilistic whim; but
the same degenerative process had occurred among libertarians and
anarchists as well. Spooner knew that the foundation for individual
rights and liberty was tinsel if all values and ethics were arbitrary
and subjective.

Yet, even in
his own anarchist movement Spooner was the last of the Old Guard
believers in natural rights; his successors in the individualist-anarchist
movement, led by Benjamin R. Tucker, all proclaimed arbitrary whim
and might-makes-right as the foundation of libertarian moral theory.
And yet, Spooner knew that this was no foundation at all; for the
State is far mightier than any individual, and if the individual
cannot use a theory of justice as his armor against State oppression,
then he has no solid base from which to roll back and defeat it.

With his emphasis
on cognitive moral principles and natural rights, Spooner must have
looked hopelessly old-fashioned to Tucker and the young anarchists
of the 1870s and 1880s. And yet now, a century later, it is the
latters’ once fashionable nihilism and tough amoralism that strike
us as being empty and destructive of the very liberty they all tried
hard to bring about. We are now beginning to recapture the once-great
tradition of an objectively grounded rights of the individual. In
philosophy, in economics, in social analysis, we are beginning to
see that the tossing aside of moral rights was not the brave new
world it once seemed – but rather a long and disastrous detour
in political philosophy that is now fortunately drawing to a close.

Opponents of
the idea of an objective morality commonly charge that moral theory
functions as a tyranny over the individual. This, of course, happens
with many theories of morality, but it cannot happen when the moral
theory makes a sharp and clear distinction between the “immoral”
and the “illegal”, or, in Spooner’s words, between “vices” and “crimes.”
The immoral or the “vicious” may consist of a myriad of human actions,
from matters of vital importance down to being nasty to one’s neighbor
or to willful failure to take one’s vitamins. But none of them should
be confused with an action that should be “illegal,” that is, an
action to be prohibited by the violence of law. The latter, in Spooner’s
libertarian view, should be confined strictly to the initiation
of violence against the rights of person and property.

Other moral
theories attempt to apply the law – the engine of socially
legitimated violence – to compelling obedience to various norms
of behavior; in contrast, libertarian moral theory asserts the immorality
and injustice of interfering with any man’s (or rather, any noncriminal
man’s) right to run his own life and property without interference.
For the natural rights libertarian, then, his cognitive theory of
justice is a great bulwark against the State’s eternal invasion
of rights – in contrast to other moral theories which attempt
to employ the State to combat immorality.

It is instructive
to consider Spooner and his essay in the light of the fascinating
insights into 19th century American politics provided in recent
years by the “new political history.” While this new history has
been applied for most of the 19th century, the best work has been
done for the Midwest after the Civil War, in particular the brilliant
study by Paul Kleppner, The
Cross of Culture

What Kleppner
and others have shown is that the political ideas of Americans can
be reduced, with almost remarkable precision, back to their religious
attitudes and beliefs. In particular, their political and economic
views depend on the degree to which they conform to the two basic
poles of Christian belief: pietistic, or liturgical (although the
latter might be amended to liturgical plus doctrinal.) Pietistic,
by the 19th century, meant all groups of Protestants except Episcopalian,
High Church Lutheran, and orthodox Calvinist; liturgical meant the
latter plus Roman Catholic. (And “pietistic” attitudes, often included
deist and atheist.)

the pietist tends to hold that to be truly religious, a person must
experience an emotional conversion; the convert, in what has been
called “the baptism of the Holy Spirit”, has a direct relationship
to God or to Jesus. The liturgical, on the other hand, is interested
in either doctrinal belief or the following of prescribed church
ritual as the key to salvation.

Now, it might
seem as if the pietistic emphasis on the individual might lead to
a political individualism, to the belief that the State may not
interfere in each individual’s moral choices and actions. In 17th
century pietism, it often meant just that. But by the 19th century,
unfortunately, such was not the case. Most pietists took the following
view: Since we can’t gauge an individual’s morality by his following
rituals or even by his professed adherence to creed, we must watch
his actions and see if he is really moral.

From there
the pietists concluded that it was everyone’s moral duty to his
own salvation to see to it that his fellow men as well as himself
are kept out of temptation’s path. That is, it was supposed to be
the State’s business to enforce compulsory morality, to create the
proper moral climate for maximizing salvation. In short, instead
of an individualist, the pietist now tended to become a pest, a
busybody, a moral watchdog for his fellow man, and a compulsory
moralist using the State to outlaw “vice” as well as crime.

The liturgicals,
on the other hand, took the view that morality and salvation were
to be achieved by following the creed and the rituals of their church.
The experts on those church beliefs and practices were, of course,
not the State but the priests or bishops of the church (or, in the
case of the few orthodox Calvinists, the ministers.) The liturgicals,
secure in their church teachings and practices, simply wanted to
be left alone to follow the counsel of their priests; they were
not interested in pestering or forcing their fellow human beings
into being saved. And they believed profoundly that morality was
not the business of the State, but only of their own church mentors.

From the 1850s
to the 1890s the Republican Party was almost exclusively the pietist
party, known commonly as the “party of great moral ideas”; the Democratic
Party, on the other hand, was almost exclusively the liturgical
party, and was known widely as the “party of personal liberty.”

after the Civil War there were three interconnected local struggles
that kept reappearing throughout America; in each case, the Republicans
and Democrats played out this contrasting role. These were: the
attempt by pietist groups (almost always Republican) to enforce
prohibition; the attempt by the same groups to enforce Sunday blue
laws; and the attempt by the selfsame pietists to enforce compulsory
attendance in the public schools, in order to use these schools
to “Christianize” the Catholics.

What of the
political and economic struggles that historians have, until recently,
focused on almost exclusively: sound money vs. fiat money or silver
inflation; free trade vs. a protective tariff; free markets vs.
government regulation; small vs. large government spending? It is
true that these were fought out repeatedly, but these were on the
national level, and generally remote from the concerns of the average
person. I have long wondered how it was that the 19th century saw
the mass of the public get highly excited about such recondite matters
as the tariff, bank credits, or the currency. How could that happen
when it is almost impossible to interest the mass of the public
in these matters today?

Kleppner and
the others have provided the missing link, the middle term between
these abstract economic issues and the gut social issues close to
the hearts and lives of the public. Specifically, the Democrats,
who (at least until 1896) favored the free-market libertarian position
on all these economic issues, linked them (and properly so) in the
minds of their liturgical supporters, with their opposition to prohibition,
blue laws, etc. The Democrats pointed out that all these statist
economic measures – including inflation – were “paternalistic”
in the same way as the hated pietistic invasions of their personal
liberty. In that way, the Democrat leaders were able to “raise the
consciousness” of their followers from their local and personal
concerns to wider and more abstract economic issues, and to take
the libertarian position on all of them.

The pietist
Republicans did similarly for their mass base, pointing out that
big government should regulate and control economic matters as it
should control morality. In this stance, the Republicans followed
in the footsteps of their predecessors, the Whigs, who for example
were generally the fathers of the public
school system
in their local areas.

the “mind your own business” liturgicals almost instinctively took
the libertarian position on every question. But there was of course
one area – before the Civil War – where pestering and
hectoring were needed to right a monstrous injustice: slavery. Here
the typical pietistic concern with universal moral principles and
seeing them put into action brought us the abolitionist and antislavery
movements. Slavery was the great flaw in the American system in
more senses than one: for it was also the flaw in the instinctive
liturgical resentment against great moral crusades.

To return now
to Lysander Spooner. Spooner, born in the New England pietist tradition,
began his distinguished ideological career as an all-out abolitionist.
Despite differences over interpretation of the US Constitution,
Spooner was basically in the anarchistic, “no-government” Garrisonian
wing of the abolitionist movement – the wing that sought the
abolition of slavery not through the use of the central government
(which was in any case dominated by the South), but by a combination
of moral fervor and slave rebellion. Far from being fervent supporters
of the Union, the Garrisonians held that the northern states should
secede from a pro-slaveholding United States of America.

So far, Spooner
and the Garrisonians took the proper libertarian approach toward
slavery. But the tragic betrayal came when the Union went to war
with the Southern states over the issue of their declared independence.
Garrison and his former “no-government” movement forgot their anarchistic
principles in their enthusiasm for militarism, mass murder, and
centralized statism on behalf of what they correctly figured would
be a war against slavery.

Only Lysander
Spooner and a very few others stood foursquare against this betrayal;
only Spooner realized that it would be compounding crime and error
to try to use government to right the wrongs committed by another
government. And so, among his pietistic and moralizing antislavery
colleagues, only Spooner was able to see with shining clarity, despite
all temptations, the stark difference between vice and crime. He
saw that it was correct to denounce the crimes of governments, but
that it was only compounding those crimes to maximize government
power as an attempted remedy. Spooner never followed other pietists
in endorsing crime or in trying to outlaw vice.

Spooner’s anarchism
was, like his abolitionism, another valuable part of his pietist
legacy. For, here again, his pietistic concern for universal principles
– in this case, as in the case of slavery, for the complete
triumph of justice and the elimination of injustice – brought
him to a consistent and courageous application of libertarian principles
where it was not socially convenient (to put it mildly) to have
the question raised.

While the liturgicals
proved to be far more libertarian that the pietists during the second
half of the 19th century, a pietistic spirit is always important
in libertarianism to emphasize a tireless determination to eradicate
crime and injustice. Surely it is no accident that Spooner’s greatest
and most fervent anarchistic tracts were directed in dialogue against
the Democrats Cleveland and Bayard; he did not bother with the openly
statist Republicans. A pietistic leaven in the quasi-libertarian
liturgical lump?

But it takes
firmness in libertarian principle to make sure to confine one’s
pietistic moral crusade to crime (e.g., slavery, statism), and not
have it spill over to what anyone might designate as “vice.” Fortunately,
we have the immortal Lysander Spooner, in his life and in his works,
to guide us along the correct path.


Paul Kleppner, The
Cross of Culture: A Social Analysis of Midwestern Politics
1850–1900 (New York: Free Press, 1970). Also see Richard
Jensen, The
Winning of the Midwest: Social and Political Conflicts, 1888–1896

(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971).

2012 by the Ludwig von Mises Institute.
Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided
full credit is given.

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