The Futility of Quashing Dissent

This is part 2 of a multi-part reproduction of Auberon Herbert’s A Plea for Voluntaryism. Part 1 is here.

Herbert identifies the common ground between religious and non-religious voluntaryists: principled opposition to the substitution of force for reason. He then goes on to show the futility of suppressing opinion with force. It stunts the progress of thought by denying to those on the correct side of a question the opportunity to air out the arguments against those on the wrong side of a question. Thus, even when force happens – by accident – to be employed in the “correct” direction, that is, to the suppression of an incorrect view, it still cannot help but obstruct human progress.

There are some who reject the doctrine of soul and would not, therefore, base their resistance to State power on any religious ground. But apart from this great difference that may exist between us, we are united by the same detestation of State power, and by the same perception of the evils that flow from it.

Dore – Destruction of Leviathan

We both see alike that placing unlimited power — as we do now — in the hands of the State means degrading men from their true rank. It means the narrowing of their intelligence, the encouragement of intolerance and contempt for each other, and therefore the encouragement of sullen, bitter strife, the tricks of the clever tongue, practised on both the poor and rich crowd, and the evil arts of flattery and self-abasement in order to conciliate votes and possess power. It means the excessive and dangerous power of a very able press, which keeps parties together, and too often thinks for most of us, the repression of all those healthy individual differences that make the life and vigour of a nation, the blind following of blind leaders, the reckless rushing into national follies, like the unnecessary Boer War–that might have been avoided, as many of us believe, with a moderate amount of prudence, patience and good temper–just because the individuals of the nation have lost the habit of thinking and acting for themselves, have lost control over their own actions, and are bound together by party-ties into two great child-like crowds. It means also the piling up of intolerable burdens of debt and taxation — the constant and rather mean endeavour to place the heaviest of these burdens on others, whoever the others may be — the carelessness, the high-handedness, the insolence of those who spend money compulsorily taken, the flocking together of the evil vultures of many kinds where the feast is spread, the deep poisonous corruption, such as is written in broad characters over the government of some of the large towns in the United States–a country bound to us by so many ties of friendship and affection, and in which there is so much to admire; a corruption, that in a lesser degree has soiled the reputation of some of the large cities of the Continent, and is already to be found here and there sporadically existing amongst us in our own country. And it only too surely means at the end of it all the setting up of some absolute form of government, to which men fly in their despair, as a refuge from the intolerable evils they have brought upon themselves; a refuge that after a short while is found to be wholly useless and impotent, and is then violently broken up, perhaps amidst storm and bloodshed, to be once more succeeded by the long train of returning evils, from which men had sought to escape in the vain hope that more power would heal the evils that power had brought upon them.

“Deny human rights, and you will find yourself abjectly kneeling at the feet of that old-world god Force–that grimmest and ugliest of gods…”

Such are the fruits of power and the strife for power. It must be so. Set men up to rule their fellow men, to treat them as mere soulless material with which they may deal as they please, and the consequence is that you sweep away every moral landmark and turn this world into a place of selfish striving, hopeless confusion, trickery and violence, a mere scrambling-ground for the strongest or the most cunning or the most numerous.

Once more we repeat–don’t be deluded by the careless, everyday talk about majorities. The vote of a majority is a far lesser evil than the edict of an autocrat, for you can appeal to a majority to repent of its sins and to undo its mistakes, but numbers — though they were as the grains of sand on the seashore — cannot take away the rights of a single individual, cannot turn man or woman into stuff for the politician to play with, or over-rule the great principles which mark out our relations to each other.

These principles are rooted in the very nature of our being, and have nothing to do with minorities and majorities. Arithmetic is a very excellent thing in its place, but it can neither give nor take away rights. Because you can collect three men on one side, and only two on the other side, that can offer no reason–no shadow of a reason–why the three men should dispose of the lives and property of the two men, should settle for them what they are to do, and what they are to be. Mere rule of numbers can never justify the turning of the two men into slaves, and the three men into slaveowners.

There is one and only one principle, on which you can build a true, rightful, enduring and progressive civilization, which can give peace and friendliness and contentment to all differing groups and sects into which we are divided – and that principle is that every man and woman should be held by us all sacredly and religiously to be the one true owner of his or her faculties, of his or her body and mind, and of all property, inherited or–honestly acquired. There is no other possible foundation–seek it wherever you will-on which you can build, if you honestly mean to make this world a place of peace and friendship, where progress of every kind, like a full river fed by its many streams, may flow on its happy fertilizing course, with ever broadening and deepening volume.

Humiliation of Emperor Valerian

Deny that principle, and we become at once like travelers who leave the one sure and beaten path and wander hopelessly in a trackless desert. Deny that self-ownership, that self-guidance of the individual, and however fine our professed motives may be, we must sooner or later, in a world without rights, become like the animals, that prey on each other. Deny human rights, and however little you may wish to do so, you will find yourself abjectly kneeling at the feet of that old-world god Force–that grimmest and ugliest of gods that men have ever carved for themselves out of the lusts of their hearts. You will find yourselves hating and dreading all other men who differ from you; you will find yourselves obliged by the law of the conflict into which you have plunged, to use every means in your power to crush them before they are able to crush you. You will find yourselves day by day growing more unscrupulous and intolerant, more and more compelled by the fear of those opposed to you, to commit harsh and violent actions, of which you would once have said, “Is thy servant a dog that he should do these things?”

You will find yourselves clinging to and welcoming Force, as the one and only form of protection left to you, when you have once destroyed the rule of the great principles. When once you have plunged into the strife for power, it is the fear of those who are seeking for power over you that so easily persuades to all the great crimes. Who shall count up the evil brood that is born from power–the pitiful fear, the madness, the despair, the overpowering craving for revenge, the treachery, the unmeasured cruelty? It is liberty alone, broad as the sky above our heads, and planted deep and strong as the great mountains, that allows the better and higher part of our nature to rule in us, and subdues those passions that we share with the animals.

“How can we answer or reason with those who speak and write no word in public, and only teach and make new recruits in secret and in the dark?”

We ask you then to limit and restrain power, as you would restrain a wild and dangerous beast. Make everything subservient to liberty. Use State force only for one purpose–to prevent and restrain the use of force amongst ourselves, and that which may be described as the twin-brother of force, wearing a mask over its features, the fraud, which by cunning sets aside the consent of the individual, as force sets it aside openly and violently.

Restrain by simple and efficient machinery the force and fraud that some men are always ready to employ against other men. For whether it is the State that employs force against a part of the citizens, or one citizen who employs force or fraud against another citizen, in both cases it is equally an aggression upon the rights, upon the self-ownership of the individual. It is equally in both cases the act of the stronger who in virtue of his strength preys upon the weaker.

Safeguard therefore the lives and the property of every citizen against the force or the cunning of Bill Sykes and all his tribe. Make of our world a fair, open field where we may all act according to our own choice, individually, or in co-operation, for every unaggressive purpose, and where good of every kind will fight its own, open unrestrained fight with evil of every kind.

Don’t believe in suppressing by force any form of evil–always excepting the direct attacks upon person and property. An evil suppressed by force is only driven out of sight under the surface, there to fester in safety and to take new and more dangerous forms. Remember that striking story of the German liberals, when Bismarck had directed his foolish and useless weapon of repressive laws against the Socialists. “You have driven the Socialists into silence”, they said, “you have forbidden their meetings and confiscated their papers. Yet, for all that, the movement goes on more actively than ever underground and hidden from sight. And we who are opposed to Socialism are also silenced. We have now no enemy to attack. The enemy has vanished out of our sight and out of our reach. How can we answer or reason with those who speak and write no word in public, and only teach and make new recruits in secret and in the dark?”

So it is always. You strike blindly, like a child in its passion, with your weapons of force at some vice, at some social habit, at some teaching you consider dangerous, and you disarm your own friends who would fight your battle for you — were they allowed to do so — in the one true way of discussion and persuasion and example. You prevent discussion, and the expression of all healthier opinion, you disarm the reformers and paralyze their energies — the reformers who, if left to themselves, would strive to move the minds of men and to win their hearts, but who now resign themselves to sleep and to indifference, fondly believing that you with your force have fought and won their battle for them, and that nothing now remains for them to do.

“What persecution has in the end altered the course of human belief? “

But in truth you have done nothing. You have helped the enemy. You may have made the outside of things more respectable to the careless eye, you may have taught men to believe in the things that seem, and in reality are not. But you have left the poisonous sore underneath to work its own evil undisturbed, in its own way and measure. The evil, whatever it was, was the result of perverted intelligence or perverted nature. Your systems of force have left that intelligence and that nature unchanged. You have done that most dangerous of all things, you have strengthened the general belief in the rightfulness and usefulness of employing force.

Do you not see that of all weapons that men can take into their hands force is the vainest, the weakest? In the long dark history of the world, what real, what permanent good has ever come from the force which men have never hesitated to use against each other? By force the great empires have been built up, only in due time to be broken into pieces, and to leave mere ruins of stones to tell their story. By force, the rulers have compelled nations to accept a religion only in the end to provoke that revolt of men’s minds which always in in its own time sweeps away the work of the sword, of the hangman and the torture-table.

Foter / Public Domain Mark 1.0

What persecution has in the end altered the course of human belief? What army, used for ambitious and aggressive purposes, has not at last become as a broken tool? What claim of a Church to exercise authority and to own the souls of men has not destroyed its own influence and brought certain decay on itself? Is it not the same to-day, as it has been in all the centuries of the past? Has not the real prosperity, the happiness, the peace of a nation increased just in proportion as it has broken all the bonds and disabilities that impeded its life, just in proportion as it has let liberty replace force; just in proportion as it has chosen and established for itself all rights of opinion, of meeting, of discussion, rights of free trade, rights of the free use of faculties, rights of self-ownership as against the wrongs of subjection?

theirhistory / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

And do you think that these new bonds and restrictions in which the nations of to-day have allowed themselves to be entangled, these modern systems, though they are more veiled, more subtle, less frank and brutal than the systems of the older governments, though the poison in them is more thickly smeared with the coating of sugar, will bear different fruit, will work less evil amongst us all, will endure longer than those other broken and discredited attempts, which men again and again in their madness and presumption have made to possess themselves of and to rule the bodies and minds of others? Consider the conscription which sends men out to fight, consenting or not consenting, which treats them as any other war-material, as the guns and the rifles dispatched in batches to do their work; or the great systems of taxation, which make of the individual mere tax-material, as conscription makes of him mere war-material; or the great systems of compulsory education, under which the State on its own, unavowed interest tries to exert more and more of its own influence and authority over the minds of the children, tries — as we see specially in other countries — to mould and to shape those young minds for its own ends — “Something of religion will be useful — school-made patriotism will be useful — drilling will be useful” — so preparing from the start docile and obedient State-material, ready-made for taxation, ready-made for conscription, ready-made for the ambitious aims and ends of the rulers.

No, one and all they belong to the same evil family. They are all part of the same conspiracy against the true greatness of human nature. They are all marked broad across the forehead with the same old curse. And they will all end in the same shameful and sorrowful ending. Over us all is the great unchanging law, ever the same, unchanged and unchanging, regardless of all our follies and delusions, that come and go, that we are not to take possession of and rule the body and mind of others; that we are not to take away from our fellow-beings their own intelligence, their own choice, their own conscience and free will; that we are not to allow any ruler, be it autocrat, emperor, parliament or voting crowd, to take from any human being his own true rank, making of him the degraded State-material that others use for their own purposes.

“But”, some of your friends may say, “look well at the advantages of this State-force. See how many good things come to you by taking money out of the pockets of others. Would the rich man continue to serve your needs, if you had not got your hands upon him, and held him powerless under your taxation system? No! He would be only too glad to find an escape from it. Keep then your close grips upon him, now that you once hold him in it, and by more and more skilful and searching measures relieve him of what you want so much, and what is merely superfluous to him. Why spare your beast of burden? What is the use of your numbers, of your organizations, of the all-powerful vote, that can alone equalize conditions, making the poor man rich, and the rich man poor, if you are tempted to lay the useful weapon of force aside?

“Force in the old days was used against you. It is your turn now to use force, and spare not. Think well of what the vote can do for you. There lies the true magician’s wand. You want pensions, provision for old age and sickness, land, houses, a minimum wage, lots and lots of education, breakfast and dinner for the children who go to school, scholarships for the clever pupils, libraries, museums, public halls, national operas, amusements and recreations of all kinds, and many another good thing which you will easily enough discover when you once begin to help yourselves. For, as the French say, the appetite comes with the eating. And there stand the richer classes with their laden pockets, only encumbered with the wealth that, if they knew it, they would be better without, defenseless, comparatively few and weak, with no power to stand against the resistless vote, if you once turn your strength to good account and learn how to organize your numbers for the great victory. Of course they will give you excellent reasons why you should keep your hands off them, and let them go free. Don’t be fooled any longer by mere words. Force rules everything in this world. And to-day it is at last your turn to use force, and enter into possession of all that the world has to offer.”

“Our work is to make this life of ours prosperous, happy and beautiful for all who share in it, working with the instruments of liberty, of peace, and of friendship.”

We answer that all such language is the language of passionate unthinking children, who, regardless of right or wrong, with no questions of conscience, no perception of consequences, snatch at the first glittering thing that they see before them; that those who once listen to these counsels of violence would be changed in their nature from the reasonable man to the unreasonable beast. We answer that all such counsels mean revolt against the great principles, against the honest and true methods that alone can redeem this world of ours, which, if faithfully followed, will in the end make a society happy, prosperous and progressive in its every part, ever leveling up, ever peacefully redistributing wealth, ever turning the waste places of life into the fruitful garden.

But in violence and force there is no redemption. Force — whether disguised or not under the forms of voting — has but one meaning. It means universal confusion and strife. It means flinging the sword — that has never yet helped any of us — into the scale and preparing the way for the utterly wasted and useless shedding of much blood.

Even if these good things, and many more of the same kind, lay within your grasp, waiting for your hand to close upon them, you have no right to take them by force, no right to make war upon any part of your fellow citizens, and to treat them as mere material to serve your interests. The rich man may no more be the beast of burden of the poor man, than the poor may be the beast of burden of the rich.

Force rests on no moral foundations. You cannot justify it. It rests on no moral basis. You cannot reconcile it with reason and conscience and the higher nature of men. It lies apart in its own evil sphere, separated by the deepest gulf from all that makes for the real good of life — a mere devil’s instrument. Even if force, to-morrow, could lay at your feet all the material gifts which you rightly desire, you may not, you dare not, for the sake of the greater good, for the sake of the higher nature that is in all of us, for the sake of the great purposes and the nobler meanings of life, accept what it offers. Our work is to make this life of ours prosperous, happy and beautiful for all who share in it, working with the instruments of liberty, of peace, and of friendship. These and these only are the instruments which we may rightly take in our hands, these are the only instruments that can do our work for us.

Those who bid you use force are merely using language of the same kind as every blood-stained ruler has used in the past, the language of those who paid their troops by pillage, the language of the war-loving German general, who in old days looked down from the heights surrounding Paris, and whispered with a gentle sigh, “What a city to sack!” It is the language of those who through all the past history of the world have believed in the right of conquering, in the right of making slaves, who have set up force as their god, who have tried to do by the violent hand whatever smiled to their own desires, and who only brought curses upon themselves, and a deluge of blood and tears upon the world.

“Resist the blind and sordid appeal to your interests of the moment, and take your place once and for good on the side of the true liberty”

Force — whatever forms it takes — can do nothing for you. It can redeem nothing. it can give you nothing that is worth the having, nothing that will endure. It cannot even give you material prosperity. There is no salvation for you or for any living man to be won by the force that narrows rights, and always leaves men lower and more brutal in character than it found them. It is, and ever has been the evil genius of our race. It calls out the reckless, violent, cruel part of our nature, it wastes precious human effort in setting men to strive one against the other; it turns us into mere fighting animals. And it ends when men at last become sick of the useless strife and universal confusion, in “the man on the black horse” who calls himself and is greeted as “the saviour of society.”

Make the truer, the nobler choice. Resist the blind and sordid appeal to your interests of the moment, and take your place once and for good on the side of the true liberty, that calls out all the better and higher part of our nature, and knows no difference between rulers and ruled, majorities and minorities, rich and poor. Declare once and for good that all men and women are the only true owners of their faculties, of their mind and body, of the property that belongs to them; that you will only build the new society on the one true foundation of self-ownership, self-rule, and self-guidance. Declare that you turn away from and renounce utterly all this mischievous, foolish and corrupt business of compelling each other, of placing burdens upon each other, of making force, and the hateful trickery that always goes with it into our guiding principles, of treating first one set of men and then another set of men as beasts of burden, whose lot in life it is to serve the purposes of others.

True it is that there are many and many things good in themselves which you do not yet possess, and which you rightly desire, things which the believers in force are generous enough to offer you in any profusion at the expense of others. But they are merely cheating you with vain hopes, dangling before your eyes the mocking shows of things that can never be. Force never yet made a nation prosperous. It has destroyed nation after nation but never yet built up an enduring prosperity.

“You have in yourselves the great qualities — though still undeveloped — for supplying in your own free groups the growing wants of your lives.”

It is through your own free efforts, not through the gifts of those who have no right to give them, that all these good things can come to you. For, great is the essential difference between the gift — whether rightly or wrongly given — and the thing won by free effort. That which you have won has made you stronger in yourselves, has taught you to know your own power and resources, has prepared you to win more and more victories. The gift flung to you has left you dependent upon others, distrustful and dispirited in yourselves.

Why turn to your governments as if you were helpless in yourselves? What power lies in a government, that does not lie also in you? They are only men like you — men, in many ways disadvantaged, overweighted by the excessive burdens they have taken on themselves, seldom able to give concentrated attention to any one subject, however important; necessarily much under the influence of subordinates, from whom they must gather the information on which they have to act; often turned from their own course by the dissensions and differences of their followers; always obliged to plan and manoeuvre in order to keep their party together, and then losing their own guiding purpose, and tempted into misleading and unworthy courses; often deciding the weightiest matters in a hurry, as in the case of the famous “Ten Minutes Reform Bill”; and physically leading a life which over-taxes health and endurance with the call made upon it, by the cares of their own office, their attendance far into the night at the House, their social occupations, the necessity to follow carefully all that is passing in the great theatre of European politics, and of studying the questions which each week brings with it.

Think carefully, and you will feel that all these rash attempts of the handful of men, that we call a government, to nurse a nation are a mere delusion. You can’t throw the cares and the wants and the hopes of a whole people on some sixteen or eighteen over-burdened workers. You might as well try to put the sea into a quart pot. A handful of men can’t either think or act for you. Their task is impossible. If they try to do so, they can only be as blind guides who lead blind followers into the ditch. It all ends in scramble and confusion, in something being done in order to have something to show, in great expectations and woeful disappointments, in rash action and grievous mistakes, resulting from hurry and over-pressure and insufficient knowledge, which lead the nation in wrong directions, and bring their long train of evil consequences.

Why place your fortunes, all that you have, and all that you are, in other hands? You have in yourselves the great qualities — though still undeveloped — for supplying in your own free groups the growing wants of your lives. You are the children of the men who did so much for themselves, the men who broke the absolute power; who planted the colonies of our race in distant lands, who created our manufactures, and carried our trade to every part of the world; who established your co-operative and benefit societies, your Trade Unions, who built and supported your Nonconformist Churches. In you is the same stuff, the same power to do, as there was in them. And if only you let their spirit breathe again in you, and tread in their footsteps, you may add to their triumphs and successes tenfold and a hundredfold. As the French well say, “Ou les pères on passé, passeront bientôt les enfants” (Where the fathers passed, there soon shall the children pass). To this point — the work to be undertaken in your own free groups, without any compulsion and subjection of others — we will return later.

Continued in part 3.

Auberon Herbert -

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3 thoughts on “The Futility of Quashing Dissent

  1. [...] (To be continued in part 2) [...]

  2. [...] This is part 3 of a multi-part reproduction of Auberon Herbert’s A Plea for Voluntaryism. Part 2 is here. [...]

  3. [...] final part of a multi-part reproduction of Auberon Herbert’s A Plea for Voluntaryism. Part 1, Part 2, Part [...]

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