Vol. I, No. 12
January 7, 1882
Until someone shall have formulated and demonstrated a correct science of justice, the way is ever open to constant confusion as regards the subject of right and rights. The columns of a newspaper are not the place to develop such a science; nevertheless, the matter is so important that we have determined, reconsidering our previously-announced purpose to drop it, to once more re-state our position. On several occasions our editorials have been sharply criticized by parties who are supposed to know something of the principles of Liberty; not that they would differ from us, if they carried in mind the distinction that must necessarily be kept in view in discussing the bearing of Liberty upon human acts, but simply that they have got into the habit of carelessly defining acts without reference to the sphere of the individuals acting.
The right to do a thing and the abstract right of a thing involve two essential different principles. For instance, we have defended the right of individuals to make contracts stipulating the payment of usury, and should strike at the very essence of Liberty if we did not; but this defense of individual right by no means carries with it the defense of usury as an equitable transaction per se. In defending the right to take usury, we do not defend the right of usury. He who cannot see this has not mastered the A B C of social analysis. One of our critics, who has twice challenged our defense of individuals who voluntarily choose to be parties to usury, strenuously defends "free rum." Would he like to be accused of saying thereby that it is right, as a matter of principle, to drink rum inordinately? No, he is a sever believer in the wrongfulness of excessive rum-drinking. But he believes that the rum-drinker and the rum-seller have the right to execute a contract involving a practice wrong in itself, and that no third party has the right to step between them by force and dictate the terms of their mutual and voluntary transaction. This is exactly, and no more than, what Liberty affirms with regard to usury. Wherein, then, have we so grievously sinned?
To say that it is absolutely right to do a thing is to say that to do it is to do that which will administer the greatest possible good, when every possible element of transaction is seen and weighed. But who possesses that sublime omniscience which can see and weigh every element, past, present, and future, that enters into a transaction? And even if one could, who is to vouch authoritatively that his weights, measures, and balance are correct? In this dilemma the theologians, of course, find an easy way by setting up a pure fiction labelled "God" and stamped infallible. This trick, however, being "played out" with our critics, how do they propose to get at the absolute right of a thing? Is there, indeed, in practice, any absolute right?
Nor does it solve the matter at all to bring in the cost principle, and say that it is absolutely right which is done and solely at the cost of the individuals who act. There is no mentionable act, not even the dropping of a pin in the middle of the Desert of Sahara, of which it can infallibly be said that it is done solely at the cost of the individuals acting. The loss of that pin as a necessary surgical instrument to treat the disabled camel may cost its life, and with it the lives of the whole party. We believe in the cost principle as a standard, and the best at our service, but its observance can never result in the universality of absolute right, since no man or set of men can ever attain the omniscience of foreseeing the entire bill of costs, or on which side of the scales all the consequents will range themselves. In short, with our human limitations, absolute right practically has no existence.
The only way even to approximately solve the right and wrong of human acts is to leave every individual free to make such contracts with his fellows as to them seem good. The fact of how far given transactions are executed at the cost of others will soon be made evident in every case by the protest of those on whom the cost unjustly falls. If every individual is left free to make contracts and ever free to enter an effectual protest against transactions wherein the cost falls upon his shoulders without his consent, the consequent adjustments will reach the nearest possible approach to absolute justice. The monster that Liberty invites true reformers to help battle down and exterminate is the State, whose purpose is, first, to enforce unjust contracts through forcible defense of monopoly, and, second, to make effectual protect impossible by defending ill-gotten property from natural redistribution which attends tyranny and theft.
Liberty, therefore, must defend the right of individuals to make contracts involving usury, rum, marriage, prostitution, and many other things which it believes to be wrong in principle and opposed to human well-being. The right to do involves the essence of all rights. Perfect liberty to contract for what is wrong is the shortest and surest way to abolish the wrong, provided the State can be made to step down and out and leave the wrong to its merits in a fair fight with no favors. The State, however, almost invariable takes sides with the wrong, and declares the advocates of a fair contest between right and wrong enemies of law and order. The right, losing its head in that most dangerous of superstitions known as patriotism, is stupid enough to take up arms against itself, and everything goes to suit the oppressor.
Given the untrammelled right to take usury on the one hand, and the untrammelled right to protest that its cost shall not be shouldered by the innocent on the other, abolish all State interference, and then usury can work no harm to humanity. The minimum of its harm is measured by the total abolition of the state, and in the last analysis usury is wrong, in practice, solely because the State is suffered to exist. To those who cannot meet us on this ground as radical reformers we respectfully announce that we decline to waste any more time and type over their future shufflings.