Joseph Labadie

Liberty, and Why We Want It




Source: Liberty, May 30, 1896
PDF from ProQuest via University of Michigan Library.

Some passages that refer to a debate held on the pages of Liberty have been omitted.




As liberty can exist only by mutual agreement, I must give reasons which my fellows deem good before they will agree to grant my claim to liberty.


When I am asked to give reasons for the advocacy of Anarchy, among others I give this - that men will then be free to earn their living as they choose, without being dependent upon others. I try to show that interest on money, rent for land, and profit on labor and products are the three essential causes of poverty. There is no happiness in poverty. Therefore poverty should be abolished. Interest can be abolished by mutual banking, rent can be wiped out by making occupancy and use the sole title to land, and profit can be eliminated by unrestricted competition or voluntary cooperation. This reaches the understanding and sympathy of those who are inclined towards individualism. But, if those to whom I am speaking are Communists, I say there is no objection to their being Communists, if they do not compel others to be Communists, too, against their will.

They may be able to abolish interest, profit, and rent by having all things in common. Of course, Anarchists, whether Communist or individualist, cannot charge for the use of land, and the Communist cannot deny the right of any one to compete against him and his community in the production and sale of goods or services, because, as soon as he does, he becomes authoritarian. So long as he does not want his liberty for the purpose of invading my liberty, then I am perfectly willing every one should have all the liberty it is possible for him to enjoy.


But our reasons may differ very widely, and still be “good" reasons. What would be a good reason to one person may not be the reason for which the other wants his freedom ... One person may want his liberty to go to church and practise his religious faith. Another may want it to stay away from church and proclaim against all religions. Both are equally good reasons, and yet they are for the purpose of doing wholly unlike things.

One may want liberty to advance the interests of Communism, another to further the cause of individualism and voluntary cooperation.

If it can be shown to the satisfaction of the people (and it must be shown to them before they will accept it) that Anarchism will not dictate to them any explicit rules as to what they must do, but that it opens to them the opportunities of putting into practice their own ideas of enhancing their own happiness, then, it appears to me, real propagation of Anarchism has been made.

Comrade Tucker is right when he says the advocacy of liberty cannot be divorced from "economic" considerations, if the word is used to mean the science which treats of the production and distribution of wealth. But writers who differ very radically in their contentions are called "economists." Were the conclusions of some of these writers put into practice, I think the results would show extravagance instead of economy. The essence of “economics," however, is to learn the processes by which the greatest amount of wealth can be produced with a given amount of effort. These processes can he learned only by experiment.

The strongest point to me about Anarchism is that it permits every kind of experiment, not only in the field of "economics," but of every branch of social science. It invites competition in all things. It gives a fair field to all, and permits the best to win. I cannot say that the establishment of liberty will necessarily be followed by the universal application of mutual banks, competition, and private enterprise. And he is rash indeed who dogmatically insists that Communism will be universally applied under Anarchy. I believe the society of the future will be composed of every imaginable kind of associations for the betterment of mankind, and that the competition among them will lead to the survival of the fittest. Given equal freedom, the true need have no fear of being overcome by the false. Indeed, I believe the false contains the elements of its own correction. And this is especially so in “economics.”


At the risk of repetition, let me put this matter in still another way. Comrade Tucker says that Dr. Maryson [1]

"(1) thinks that those who want liberty for reasons that are totally opposite and contradictory should unite to obtain it, and (2) that in this union and in the prosecution of its work no one should undertake to point out what the results of liberty will be. I hold, on the other hand, (3) that on our ability to show, not to the smallest detail, but clearly and indubitably as to trend, what the results of liberty will be, depends our power to obtain liberty. (4) We shall never obtain liberty unless we can convince at least a considerable minority that liberty is a desirable thing, and no minority will ever believe liberty to be desirable, unless it is shown to them in what way it will benefit them."

I can see no good reason why they cannot unite to obtain liberty, unless, as I have already pointed out, one side wants it for the purpose of doing something that is positively detrimental to the other side.

I am willing to join hands with anybody that will help me to free the land from the grasp of the monopolist; that will permit me to trade wherever I choose; that will permit me to use whatever kind of money I want; that will keep his hands off me entirely, so long as I do not attempt an act of aggression.

Anybody is an Anarchist who will agree not to do my person violence, not to take my property without my knowledge and consent, and not to prevent me from doing whatever I choose, unless I choose to do him personal violence, or take his property without his knowledge and consent, or prevent him from doing whatever he chooses. And I ask the assistance of every such person to abolish every law and custom, and, where there is a fair probability of success, to resist every person, that stands in the way of the accomplishment of these aims.

Individualist Anarchist that I am, believing in the economic doctrines advocated by Comrade Tucker, I am ready to join with the Communists, the State Socialists, the Populists, the Democrats, the Republicans, or anybody else, whenever I see an opportunity to gain a larger degree of liberty.

You see, I am thoroughly utilitarian and opportunist. Let me give a practical illustration. Some years ago there was submitted to the voters of Michigan an amendment to the constitution prohibiting the manufacture and sale of intoxicating drinks. Notwithstanding the fact that I am a temperance man, believing the saloon is a bad element in society, that it leads to the excessive use of intoxicants, and that its influence is anything but elevating, I joined with the saloon keepers and others to defeat the amendment, and we were successful. The baneful effects of the saloon I did not consider as bad as the destruction of that much liberty. The prohibition amendment was invasive; the saloon, even with its evil influences, is not. Evidently, the majority of the voters thought it to their benefit to defeat prohibition; but the reasons for doing so were as conflicting and irreconcilable as you could imagine, and as thick as dandelions in the spring time.

The great majority of these voters were, of course, authoritarians. If, therefore, an Anarchist could, without violation of any fundamental principle, or without doing violence to anything for which he stands, join with Archists to advance liberty, what can seriously stand in the way of his uniting with other Anarchists who believe in Communism to get more liberty?

Each one must, it seems to me, to have any effect upon those to whom he is appealing, point out what in his opinion will be the results of liberty. To merely state that he wants liberty is to say nothing. The questions inevitably arise: What do you want liberty for? and, What will be the results of universal liberty?

People differ so widely in their notions as to what it would result were we to have universal liberty that Anarchists must, to win people to their principles, be able to show “clearly and indubitably " that it would not result in anything positively bad or injurious to society, and that it would be much better than under authority. This must be done to successfully overcome the contention that liberty would lead to murder, rape, robbery, and general retrogression. But there is not this contention between the individualist and Communist wings of Anarchism. There is nothing in either that aggresses the rights of the other.
Aggression is the heart of authority. In the sense that Anarchists must show that liberty will not result badly for society "depends our power to obtain liberty."

This is true. But, if the Communists convert a considerable number to Anarchism, and the individualists convert another goodly number to Anarchism, I can see nothing standing in the way of "pooling their issues" on Anarchism pure and simple, and let the economic results to each side take care of themselves.

Comrade Tucker puts his questions in several different ways, and I will answer in several different ways. He asks me to say "(1) whether, in struggling to get liberty, we should sink our differences as to the results of liberty and simply shout 'Give us liberty,' or (2) whether it is of high importance that those of us who think that liberty will work in a certain way should try to show that we are right, and that those who think that it would work in an opposite way are wrong. To take a specific case, (3) does he [Labadie] think it a matter of no consequence, as a method of propagandism, to convince the people that under liberty they will enjoy the benefits of an admirably-perfected tool of exchange free of the burden of interest, and (4) that those who claim that under liberty this tool of exchange will disappear or will bear interest do not understand the operations of free competition.”

(1) No; we should not sink our economic differences, any more than I sank my differences with the saloon-keepers while combatting the Prohibitionists.
(2) It is of high importance to be honest. To try to show that our way is the right one is certainly honest. But those whose views upon economics are opposed to ours may be as honest as we are, and it is just as important to them that they try to show that we are wrong. There are so many sides to the human mind that it takes many different kinds of arguments to reach it. What is reasonable to one seems unreasonable to another; what will convert one may not convert another.
(3) I think the financial question of the greatest importance, and I think it is of great consequence to show that under liberty those who so determine can, not will, enjoy an admirably-perfected tool of exchange free of the burden of interest.
(4) I think it absurd to claim that under liberty there will be no tool of exchange, or that interest is a necessary adjunct to it. Free competition or cooperation would divest it of its interest-producing power. Cost would be the limit of its price. It is, therefore, important to show this. But this would have no weight with a Communist. What need has he of a medium of exchange? In a Communistic society the individual has nothing to exchange; hence, there is no need of money. But those who do not go into Communism will certainly need a medium of exchange, and I believe the mutual bank offers the correct way of making it.




[1] Dr. Jacob Maryson (1866-1941) General practitioner, translator and author of many anarchist pamphlets. He took part in many debates on the pages of Liberty.


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