Liberty Vol. I, No. 7
October 29, 1881
The most serious calamity attendant upon false premises in the realm of thought is that the avowed and conscientious enemies of despotism are made to be persistent advocates and defenders of the pivotal agencies upon which it hinges. We do not make this assertion in a spirit of self-sufficiency and conceit, and are aware that those who differ from us will, of course, turn it against ourselves. Naturally, we feel very positive that the philosophy which shapes the teachings of Liberty is correct and unanswerable; but we are fallible, and, if the history of human opinions reaches anything, it is that nothing in this world is a finality.
But upon one thing all school of sociology will agree, - namely, that the very first step in all reasoning looking to human well-being is to fix upon a correct scientific basis of right and wrong. These terms are upon everybody's lips, from the prattling stripling to the hoary theologian and moralist, and yet the average man has no fixed conception of what it is that constitutes an action as right or wrong. At every step we find people disputing and arguing over the right and wrong of a thing, but arrest them in any instance, and ask them what constitutes right and wrong in nature and practice, and they are totally unable to answer. And yet the whole argument in every case is useless and worthless until this point is settled.
The chief mischief attending this lamentable absence of a true scientific standard of right grows out of the universally accepted inference that, as soon as one is convinced that a practice is what he calls wrong, it is his next and imperative duty to set about to interdict that practice by force. For instance, there is a very large constituency among the thinkers of to-day who are convinced usury is wrong. The "Irish World" is the most conspicuous reservoir in America of the protest growing out of that conviction. Yet the burden of the song of every protestant is that usury ought to be crushed out of existence by force. It has no right to live, it should be forbidden and punished, because it is wrong.
Now, assuming that the vague standard of right and wrong adopted by these people is a sort of utilitarian one, based in this instance on the theory that lending on usury in every case works more harm than good (i. e., more injury than benefit), they stand on untenable ground, and are liable to be dropped into a trap at any moment; for it would not be difficult to produce individual instances where the practice of lending on usury, so far from being an injury to anybody, is a practical benefit, not only to the individuals contracting, but to the community at large. By their own standard, then, lending on usury, in such a case, would not be wrong. But, if it be answered that, although lending on usury may often prove an mutual benefit to individuals, its ultimate result upon society at large are disastrous, and that therefor society at large should prevent individuals from doing what they can mutually agree to, then Liberty must, of course, demand an unconditional halt! For that is the very essence of despotism against which we protest, - namely, the right of society at large to interdict individuals by force.
And to fall back, in order to justify such a course, upon the phrase, "moral right," is both unscientific and pernicious. For moral right has no authoritative interpreter, and therefor should not be made, as it so easily can be, a weapon of tyranny. A thing must be right or wrong in accordance with some correct analysis of the natural domain of individual and associative actions. To say "moral right," in the sense above referred to, is to lumber up our conceptions with a mischievous term which has no scientific status.
We sometimes wish that the very terms themselves, right and wrong, were abolished; for, until they are made to have a true scientific meaning, they are a perpetual source of mischief and misdirection. But, until somebody shall give the word a correct scientific terminology, we must tolerate them as best we can, while endeavoring at every opportunity to so direct their application as to make them count for Liberty, instead of for despotism, as they generally do in society as at present governed.
Right and wrong are principles that must ever be defined, qualified, and circumscribed by the individual, in his associative capacity: defined, by a correct analysis of the natural domain of individual action; qualified, by the natural reflex action of other individuals; circumscribed, by the inflexible law that all action, individual and associate, shall be at the sole cost of the party or parties acting.
Under this law all individuals have a right to do anything and everything which they may cheese voluntarily to do at their own cost. Make this law universal, and keep the hands of Church, State, and every other arbitrary, coercive despot away from it, and perfect Liberty will result as naturally as all other things find their level in nature. The practice of usury is a sacred and inviolable prerogative of individuals who choose to contract for its payment. If the cost, in practice, ultimately falls upon the innocent and toiling masses, it is because this prerogative is forbidden to these proscribed slaves by the machine known as the State. Proudhon demonstrates as clearly as any theorem in mathematics could be demonstrated that, if the power to take usury were extended to all men, usury would devour itself, in its very nature. But this is exactly one of the chief purposes of the State, - namely, to cut off a great part of the race from the practice of usury, and confine it to the few, so that they may live in luxury on the toil of their artificially-created slaves.
The same is true of all the other prerogatives which attach to property. Whether property in land be, in itself, right or wrong, it is, in practice, a wrong only because the State is designed chiefly to see to it that property in land shall be vested in a minority instead of all. If the State could be made to declare to-morrow that hereafter property in land should be extended to all, and that all landlords must, in future, secure their holdings on their own merits instead of by force, property in land would cease to be evil. But the State that could be made to declare such a thing would cease to be a State.
We ask the reader to scrutinize carefully the law which we have italicized above, and then bear in mind the following melancholy facts which result from ignoring it, or not knowing it: -
1. Usury is practically wrong because the State creates and defends a monopoly in the practice of it.
2. Property in land is practically wrong because the State was created to defend a minority in the sole enjoyment of it.
3. Rent and interest (forms of usury) are practically wrong because the State necessarily confines the taking of rent and interest to classes endowed with monopoly.
Finally, the whole rang of transactions among individuals results in wrongs because the State assumes the right to stand despotically between individuals and their own mutual interests. The State is the chief curse of humanity, the mother of human wrongs.
"A free man is one who enjoys the use of his reason, and his faculties; who is neither blinded by passion, nor hindered or driven by oppression, nor deceived by erroneous opinions." -PROUDHON.