Last Christmas I got a Barnes & Noble gift card that I used to buy Brian Doherty’s book Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement. Although it’s a great book, I’m still working on it since it will often sit unmolested on my nightstand for weeks on end. Periodicals always seem more pressing and, given my work schedule, my pillow usually seems more alluring than the book.
Doherty is a senior editor at Reason magazine and also the author of This Is Burning Man: The Rise of a New American Underground and Gun Control on Trial: Inside the Supreme Court Battle Over the Second Amendment. In Radicals for Capitalism, Doherty traces the philosophical evolution of the libertarian movement and provides brief biographies of many of its influential thinkers.
One of these early proto-libertarians was Lysander Spooner. Spooner (1808-1887) was an American anarchist (before allegations of bomb-throwing nuts ruined the term) and a staunch abolitionist. He is best known for illegally starting his own postal service, the American Letter Mail Company, to compete against the USPS.
In one of my favorite quotes, Spooner explains the difference between a highwayman (robber) and the government:
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 has not acquired impudence enough to profess to be merely a ‘protector[.]’ Furthermore, having taken your money, he leaves you[.] He does not persist in following you on the road, against your will; assuming to be your rightful ‘sovereign,’ on account of the ‘protection’ he affords you. He does not keep ‘protecting’ you, by commanding you to bow down and serve him; by requiring you to do this, and forbidding you to do that; by robbing you of more money as often as he finds it for his interest or pleasure to do so; and by branding you as a rebel, a traitor, [and] shooting you down without mercy, if you dispute his authority, or resist his demands. He is too much of a gentleman to be guilty of such impostures, and insults, and villainies as these. In short, he does not, in addition to robbing you, attempt to make you either his dupe or his slave.
Another influential libertarian was Isabel Paterson (1886-1961). Paterson was a journalist, novelist, and a leading literary critic. Her 1943 book The God of the Machine featured a chapter titled “The Humanitarian with the Guillotine.” (You can read the entire chapter here.) In it she includes a warning about those who demand to “help” their fellow man, even those who don’t want to be helped (which then usually requires the coercive force of government):
If the primary objective of the philanthropist, his justification for living, is to help others, his ultimate good requires that others shall be in want. His happiness is the obverse of their misery. If he wishes to help “humanity,” the whole of humanity must be in need. The humanitarian wishes to be a prime mover in the lives of others. He cannot admit either the divine or the natural order, by which men have the power to help themselves. The humanitarian puts himself in the place of God.
I look forward to reading more little pearls of wisdom like these in Radicals for Capitalism. Hopefully I’ll have it all read by Christmas… next year.
[Addendum- 12/17/2010: In my own defense I should add that I did get a few other books last Christmas that I did finish reading and that I didn’t use the gift certificate to get Radicals for Capitalism until awhile after Christmas. Whew! I feel better getting that off my chest.]