The Right to Ignore the State

by Herbert Spencer


Herbert Spencer was an incredible prophet and a magnificent defender of laissez-faire. Among his numerous works is The Man Versus The State, first published in 1884. That book launched one of the most spirited attacks on statism ever written. He ridiculed the idea that government intervention of any kind "will work as it is intended to work, which it never does." He drew on his tremendous knowledge of history, citing one dramatic case after another of price controls, usury laws, slum clearance laws, and myriad other laws which, touted as compassionate policies, intensified human misery. Below is one of his essays that explores the principles of self-government, which Henry David Thoreau defended in his seminal essay, Civil Disobedience.

The Right to Ignore the State

1. The Right to Voluntary Outlawry

As a corollary to the proposition that all institutions must be subordinated to the law of equal freedom, we cannot choose but admit the right of the citizen to adopt a condition of voluntary outlawry. If every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man, then he is free to drop connection with the state — to relinquish its protection, and to refuse paying toward its support. It is self-evident that in so behaving he in no way trenches upon the liberty of others; for his position is a passive one; and whilst passive he cannot become an aggressor. It is equally self-evident that he cannot be compelled to continue one of a political corporation, without a breach of the moral law, seeing that citizenship involves payment of taxes; and the taking away of a man's property against his will, is an infringement of his rights. Government being simply an agent employed in common by a number of individuals to secure to them certain advantages, the very nature of the connection implies that it is for each to say whether he will employ such an agent or not. If any one of them determines to ignore this mutual-safety confederation, nothing can be said except that he loses all claim to its good offices, and exposes himself to the danger of maltreatment — a thing he is quite at liberty to do if he likes. He cannot be coerced into political combination without a breach of the law of equal freedom; he can withdraw from it without committing any such breach; and he has therefore a right so to withdraw.

2. The Immorality of the State

"No human laws are of any validity if contrary to the law of nature; and such of them as are valid derive all their force and all their authority mediately or immediately from this original." Thus writes Blackstone[1], to whom let all honour be given for having so far outseen the ideas of his time; and, indeed, we may say of our time. A good antidote, this, for those political superstitions which so widely prevail. A good check upon that sentiment of power-worship which still misleads us by magnifying the prerogatives of constitutional governments as it once did those of monarchs. Let men learn that a legislature is not "our God upon earth," though, by the authority they ascribe to it, and the things they expect from it, they would seem to think it is. Let them learn rather that it is an institution serving a purely temporary purpose, whose power, when not stolen, is at the best borrowed.

Nay, indeed, have we not seen that government is essentially immoral? Is it not the offspring of evil, bearing about it all the marks of its parentage? Does it not exist because crime exists? Is it not strong, or as we say, despotic, when crime is great? Is there not more liberty, that is, less government, as crime diminishes? And must not government cease when crime ceases, for very lack of objects on which to perform its function? Not only does magisterial power exist because of evil; but it exists by evil. Violence is employed to maintain it; and all violence involves criminality. Soldiers, policemen, and gaolers; swords, batons, and fetters, are instruments for inflicting pain; and all infliction of pain is in the abstract wrong. The state employs evil weapons to subjugate evil, and is alike contaminated by the objects with which it deals, and the means by which it works. Morality cannot recognize it; for morality, being simply a statement of the perfect law can give no countenance to any thing growing out of, and living by, breaches of that law. Wherefore, legislative authority can never be ethical_must always be conventional merely.

Hence, there is a certain inconsistency in the attempt to determine the right position, structure, and conduct of a government by appeal to the first principles of rectitude. For, as just pointed out, the acts of an institution which is in both nature and origin imperfect, cannot be made to square with the perfect law. All that we can do is to ascertain, firstly, in what attitude a legislature must stand to the community to avoid being by its mere existence an embodied wrong; — secondly, in what manner it must be constituted so as to exhibit the least incongruity with the moral law; — and thirdly, to what sphere its actions must be limited to prevent it from multiplying those breaches of equity it is set up to prevent.

The first condition to be conformed to before a legislature can be established without violating the law of equal freedom, is the acknowledgment of the right now under discussion — the right to ignore the state.[2]

3. The People as the Source of Power

Upholders of pure despotism may fitly believe state-control to be unlimited and unconditional. They who assert that men are made for governments and not governments for men, may consistently hold that no one can remove himself beyond the pale of political organization. But they who maintain that the people are the only legitimate source of power — that legislative authority is not original, but deputed — cannot deny the right to ignore the state without entangling themselves in an absurdity.

For, if legislative authority is deputed, it follows that those from whom it proceeds are the masters of those on whom it is conferred: it follows further, that as masters they confer the said authority voluntarily: and this implies that they may give or withhold it as they please. To call that deputed which is wrenched from men whether they will or not, is nonsense. But what is here true of all collectively is equally true of each separately. As a government can rightly act for the people, only when empowered by them, so also can it rightly act for the individual, only when empowered by him. If A, B, and C, debate whether they shall employ an agent to perform for them a certain service, and if whilst A and B agree to do so, C dissents, C cannot equitably be made a party to the agreement in spite of himself. And this must be equally true of thirty as of three: and if of thirty, why not of three hundred, or three thousand, or three millions?

4. Subordination of Government Authority

Of the political superstitions lately alluded to, none is so universally diffused as the notion that majorities are omnipotent. Under the impression that the preservation of order will ever require power to be wielded by some party, the moral sense of our time feels that such power cannot rightly be conferred on any but the largest moiety of society. It interprets literally the saying that "the voice of the people is the voice of God," and transferring to the one the sacredness attached to the other, it concludes that from the will of the people, that is of the majority, there can be no appeal. Yet is this belief entirely erroneous.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that, struck by some Malthusian panic, a legislature duly representing public opinion were to enact that all children born during the next ten years should be drowned. Does any one think such an enactment would be warrantable? If not, there is evidently a limit to the power of a majority. Suppose, again, that of two races living together — Celts and Saxons, for example — the most numerous determined to make the others their slaves. Would the authority of the greatest number be in such case valid? If not, there is something to which its authority must be subordinate. Suppose, once more, that all men having incomes under 50 pounds a year were to resolve upon reducing every income above that amount to their own standard, and appropriating the excess for public purposes. Could their resolution be justified? If not, it must be a third time confessed that there is a law to which the popular voice must defer. What, then, is that law, if not the law of pure equity — the law of equal freedom? These restraints, which all would put to the will of the majority, are exactly the restraints set up by that law. We deny the right of a majority to murder, to enslave, or to rob, simply because murder, enslaving, and robbery are violations of that law — violations too gross to be overlooked. But if great violations of it are wrong, so also are smaller ones. If the will of the many cannot supersede the first principle of morality in these cases, neither can it in any. So that, however insignificant the minority, and however trifling the proposed trespass against their rights, no such trespass is permissible.

When we have made our constitution purely democratic, thinks to himself the earnest reformer, we shall have brought government into harmony with absolute justice. Such a faith, though perhaps needful for this age, is a very erroneous one. By no process can coercion be made equitable. The freest form of government is only the least objectional form. The rule of the many by the few we call tyranny: the rule of the few by the many is tyranny also; only of a less intense kind. "You shall do as we will, and not as you will," is in either case the declaration: and if the hundred make it to the ninety-nine, instead of the ninety-nine to the hundred, it is only a fraction less immoral. Of two such parties, whichever fulfils this declaration necessarily breaks the law of equal freedom: the only difference being that by the one it is broken in the persons of ninety-nine, whilst by the other it is broken in the persons of a hundred. And the merit of the democratic form of government consists solely in this, that it trespasses against the smallest number.

The very existence of majorities and minorities is indicative of an immoral state. The man whose character harmonizes with the moral law, we found to be one who can obtain complete happiness without diminishing the happiness of his fellows. But the enactment of public arrangements by vote implies a society consisting of men otherwise constituted — implies that the desires of some cannot be satisfied without sacrificing the desires of others — implies that in the pursuit of their happiness the majority inflict a certain amount of unhappiness on the minority — implies, therefore, organic immorality. Thus, from another point of view, we again perceive that even in its most equitable form it is impossible for government to dissociate itself from evil; and further, that unless the right to ignore the state is recognized, its acts must be essentially criminal.

5. The Limits of Taxation

That a man is free to abandon the benefits and throw off the burdens of citizenship, may indeed be inferred from the admissions of existing authorities and of current opinion. Unprepared as they probably are for so extreme a doctrine as the one here maintained, the radicals of our day yet unwittingly profess their belief in a maxim which obviously embodies this doctrine. Do we not continually hear them quote Blackstone's assertion that "no subject of England can be constrained to pay any aids or taxes even for the defence of the realm or the support of government, but such as are imposed by his own consent, or that of his representative in parliament?" And what does this mean? It means, say they, that every man should have a vote. True: but it means much more. If there is any sense in words it is a distinct enunciation of the very right now contended for. In affirming that a man may not be taxed unless he has directly or indirectly given his consent, it affirms that he may refuse to be so taxed; and to refuse to be taxed, is to cut all connection with the state. Perhaps it will be said that this consent is not a specific, but a general one, and that the citizen is understood to have assented to every thing his representative may do, when he voted for him. But suppose he did not vote for him; and on the contrary did all in his power to get elected some one holding opposite views — what them? The reply will probably be that, by taking part in such an election, he tacitly agreed to abide by the decision of the majority. And how if he did not vote at all? Why then he cannot justly complain of any tax, seeing that he made no protest against its imposition. So, curiously enough, it seems that he gave his consent in whatever way he acted — whether he said yes, whether he said no, or whether he remained neuter! A rather awkward doctrine this. Here stands an unfortunate citizen who is asked if he will pay money for a certain proffered advantage; and whether he employs the only means of expressing his refusal or does not employ it, we are told that he practically agrees; if only the number of others who agree is greater than the number of those who dissent. And thus we are introduced to the novel principle that A's consent to a thing is not determined by what A says, but by what B may happen to say!

It is for those who quote Blackstone to choose between this absurdity and the doctrine above set forth. Either his maxim implies the right to ignore the state, or it is sheer nonsense.

6. On Civil and Religious Liberty

There is a strange heterogeneity in our political faiths. Systems that have had their day, and are beginning here and there to let the daylight through, are patched with modern notions utterly unlike in quality and colour; and men gravely display these systems, wear them, and walk about in them, quite unconscious of their grotesqueness. This transition state of ours, partaking as it does equally of the past and the future, breeds hybrid theories exhibiting the oddest union of bygone despotism and coming freedom. Here are types of the old organization curiously disguised by germs of the new — peculiarities showing adaptation to a preceding state modified by rudiments that prophesy of something to come — making altogether so chaotic a mixture of relationships that there is no saying to what class these births of the age should be referred.

As ideas must of necessity bear the stamp of the time, it is useless to lament the contentment with which these incongruous beliefs are held. Otherwise it would seem unfortunate that men do not pursue to the end the trains of reasoning which have led to these partial modifications. In the present case, for example, consistency would force them to admit that, on other points besides the one just noticed, they hold opinions and use arguments in which the right to ignore the state is involved.

For what is the meaning of Dissent? The time was when a man's faith and his mode of worship were as much determinable by law as his secular acts; and, according to provisions extant in our statute-book, are so still. Thanks to the growth of a Protestant spirit, however, we have ignored the state in this matter — wholly in theory, and partly in practice. But how have we done so? By assuming an attitude which, if consistently maintained, implies a right to ignore the state entirely. Observe the positions of the two parties. "This is your creed," says the legislator; "you must believe and openly profess what is here set down for you." "I shall not do any thing of the kind," answers the non-conformist, "I will go to prison rather." "Your religious ordinances," pursues the legislator, "shall be such as we have prescribed. You shall attend the churches we have endowed, and adopt the ceremonies used in them." "Nothing shall induce me to do so," is the reply; "I altogether deny your power to dictate to me in such matters, and mean to resist to the uttermost." "Lastly," adds the legislator, "we shall require you to pay such sums of money toward the support of these religious institutions, as we may see fit to ask." "Not a farthing will you have from me," exclaims our sturdy Independent: "even did I believe in the doctrines of your church (which I do not), I should still rebel against your interference; and if you take my property, it shall be by force and under protest."

What now does this proceeding amount to when regarded in the abstract? It amounts to an assertion by the individual of the right to exercise one of his faculties — the religious sentiment — without let or hindrance, and with no limit save that set up by the equal claims of others. And what is meant by ignoring the state? Simply an assertion of the right similarly to exercise all the faculties. The one is just an expansion of the other — rests on the same footing with the other — must stand or fall with the other. Men do indeed speak of civil and religious liberty as different things; but the distinction is quite arbitrary. They are parts of the same whole and cannot philosophically be separated.

"Yes they can," interposes an objector; "assertion of the one is imperative as being a religious duty. The liberty to worship God in the way that seems to him right, is a liberty without which a man cannot fulfil what he believes to be Divine commands, and therefore conscience requires him to maintain it." True enough; but how if the same can be asserted of all other liberty? How if maintenance of this also turns out to be a matter of conscience? Have we not seen that human happiness is the Divine will — that only by exercising our faculties is this happiness obtainable — and that it is impossible to exercise them without freedom? And if this freedom for the exercise of faculties is a condition without which the Divine will cannot be fulfilled, the preservation of it is, by our objector's own showing, a duty. Or, in other words, it appears not only that the maintenance of liberty of action may be a point of conscience, but that it ought to be one. And thus we are clearly shown that the claims to ignore the state in religious and in secular matters are in essence identical.

The other reason commonly assigned for nonconformity, admits of similar treatment. Besides resisting state dictation in the abstract, the dissenter resists it from disapprobation of the doctrines taught. No legislative injunction will make him adopt what he considers an erroneous belief; and, bearing in mind his duty toward his fellow-men, he refuses to help through the medium of his purse in disseminating this erroneous belief. The position is perfectly intelligible. But it is one which either commits its adherents to civil nonconformity also, or leaves them in a dilemma. For why do they refuse to be instrumental in spreading error? Because error is adverse to human happiness. And on what ground is any piece of secular legislation disapproved? For the same reason — because thought adverse to human happiness. How then can it be shown that the state ought to be resisted in the one case and not in the other? Will any one deliberately assert that if a government demands money from us to aid in teaching what we think will produce evil, we ought to refuse it; but that if the money is for the purpose of doing what we think will produce evil, we ought not to refuse it? Yet such is the hopeful proposition which those have to maintain who recognize the right to ignore the state in religious matters, but deny it in civil matters.

7. Progress Hindered by Lack of Social Morality

The substance of the essay once more reminds us of the incongruity between a perfect law and an imperfect state. The practicability of the principle here laid down varies directly as social morality. In a thoroughly vicious community its admission would be productive of anarchy. In a completely virtuous one its admission will be both innocuous and inevitable. Progress toward a condition of social health — a condition, that is, in which the remedial measures of legislation will no longer be needed, is progress toward a condition in which those remedial measures will be cast aside, and the authority prescribing them disregarded. The two changes are of necessity coordinate. That moral sense whose supremacy will make society harmonious and government unnecessary, is the same moral sense which will then make each man assert his freedom even to the extent of ignoring the state — is the same moral sense which, by deterring the majority from coercing the minority, will eventually render government impossible. And as what are merely different manifestations of the same sentiment must bear a constant ratio to each other, the tendency to repudiate governments will increase only at the same rate that governments become needless.

Let not any be alarmed, therefore, at the promulgation of the foregoing doctrine. There are many changes yet to be passed through before it can begin to exercise much influence. Probably a long time will elapse before the right to ignore the State will be generally admitted, even in theory. It will be still longer before it receives legislative recognition. And even then there will be plenty of checks upon the premature exercise of it. A sharp experience will sufficiently instruct those who may too soon abandon legal protection. Whilst, in the majority of men, there is such a love of tried arrangements, and so great a dread of experiments, that they will probably not act upon this right until long after it is safe to do so.

8. The Coming Decay of the State

It is a mistake to assume that government must necessarily last forever. The institution marks a certain stage of civilization — is natural to a particular phase of human development. It is not essential, but incidental. As amongst the Bushmen we find a state antecedent to government, so may there be one in which it shall have become extinct. Already has it lost something of its importance. The time was when the history of a people was but the history of its government. It is otherwise now. The once universal despotism was but a manifestation of the extreme necessity of restraint. Feudalism, serfdom, slavery, all tyrannical institutions, are merely the most vigorous kinds of rule, springing out of, and necessary to, a bad state of man. The progress from these is in all cases the same — less government. Constitutional forms means this. Political freedom means this. Democracy means this. In societies, associations, joint-stock companies, we have new agencies occupying big fields filled in less advanced times and countries by the State. With us the legislature is dwarfed by newer and greater powers — is no longer master, but slave. "Pressure from without" has come to be acknowledged as ultimate ruler. The triumph of the Anti-Corn Law League is simply the most marked instance yet of the new style of government, that of opinion, overcoming the old style, that of force. It bids fair to become a trite remark that the law-maker is but the servant of the thinker. Daily is Statecraft held in less repute. Even the "Times" can see that "the social changes thickening around us establish a truth sufficiently humiliating to legislative bodies," and that "the great stages of our progress are determined rather by the spontaneous workings of society, connected as they are with the progress of art and science, the operation of nature, and other such unpolitical causes, than by the proposition of a bill, the passing of an act, or any other event of politics or of State." Thus, as civilization advances, does government decay. To the bad it is essential; to the good, not. It is the check which national wickedness makes to itself, and exists only to the same degree. Its continuance is proof of still-existing barbarism. What a cage is to the wild beast, law is to the selfish man. Restraint is for the savage, the rapacious, the violent; not for the just, the gentle, the benevolent. All necessity for external force implies a morbid state. Dungeons for the felon; a strait jacket for the maniac; crutches for the lame; stays for the weak-backed; for the infirm of purpose a master; for the foolish a guide; but for the sound mind in a sound body none of these. Were there no thieves and murderers, prisons would be unnecessary. It is only because tyranny is yet rife in the world that we have armies. Barristers, judges, juries, all the instruments of law, exist simply because knavery exists. Magisterial force is the sequence of social vice, and the policeman is but the complement of the criminal. Therefore it is that we call government "a necessary evil."

What then must be thought of a morality which chooses this probationary institution for its basis, builds a vast fabric of conclusions upon its assumed permanence, selects acts of parliament for its materials, and employs the statesman for its architect? The expediency-philosopher does this. It takes government into partnership, assigns to it entire control of its affairs, enjoins all to defer to its judgment, makes it, in short, the vital principle, the very soul, of its system. When Paley teaches that "the interest of the whole society is binding upon every part of it," he implies the existence of some supreme power by which "that interest of the whole society" is to be determined. And elsewhere he more explicitly tells us that for the attainment of a national advantage the private will of the subject is to give way, and that "the proof of this advantage lies with the legislature." Still more decisive is Bentham when he says that "the happiness of the individuals of whom a community is composed — that is, their pleasures and their security — is the sole end which the legislator ought to have in view, the sole standard in conformity with which each individual ought, as far as depends upon the legislature, to be made to fashion his behavior." These positions, be it remembered, are not voluntarily assumed; they are necessitated by the premises. If, as its propounder tells us, "expediency" means the benefit of the mass, not of the individual, — of the future as much as of the present, — it presupposes some one to judge of what will most conduce to that benefit. Upon the "utility" of this or that measure the views are so various as to render an umpire essential. Whether protective duties, or established religions, or capital punishments, or poor-laws, do or do not minister to the "general good" are questions concerning which there is such difference of opinion that, were nothing to be done till all agreed upon them, we might stand still to the end of time. If each man carried out, independently of a State power, his own notions of what would best secure "the greatest happiness of the greatest number," society would quickly lapse into confusion. Clearly, therefore, a morality established upon a maxim of which the practical interpretation is questionable involves the existence of some authority whose decisions respecting it shall be final, — that is, a legislature. And without that authority such a morality must ever remain inoperative.

See here, then, the predicament, a system of moral philosophy professes to be a code of correct rules for the control of human beings — fitted for the regulation of the best as well as the worst members of the race — applicable, if true, to the guidance of humanity in its highest conceivable perfection. Government, however, is an institution originating in man's imperfection; an institution confessedly begotten by necessity out of evil; one which might be dispensed with were the world peopled with the unselfish, the conscientious, the philanthropic; one, in short, inconsistent with this same "highest conceivable perfection." How, then, can that be a true system of morality which adopts government as one of its premises?

Author's Endnotes

1 Sir William Blackstone (1723-1780) was the most renowned of English jurists.

2 Hence may be drawn an argument for direct taxation; seeing that only when taxation is direct does repudiation of state burdens become possible.