John Beverley Robinson

Voluntary Organization




The overcoming of all privileges leads to the only possible rational form of organization, voluntary organization.

Source: Economics of Liberty, Minneapolis, 1916.



When privilege is abolished, and the worker retains all that he produces, then will come the powerful trend toward equality of material reward for labor that will produce substantial financial and social equality, instead of the mere political equality that now exists.

To bring about equality, it is unnecessary to use any artificial means for the distribution of products: it is only necessary to give free play to the natural forces that govern production and exchange.

And with equality will come fraternity: no longer the rich trampling on the poor; no longer prosperity for one, only at the price of impoverishment for the other; no longer the petty social strife for precedence.

Distinction and honor will be awarded to personal merit; as, even now, we honor an Agassiz, a Darwin, a Tolstoi and a Curie - names that will survive when all the famous financiers of the day are forgotten, or pilloried with those of buccaneers and assassins.

When the fathers of the American Republic had abolished titles of nobility, with primogeniture and entail, by which the land was given to the few; when they had established the rule of the majority and representative assemblies; they thought that they had abolished privilege.

The event shows that they had not. Democracy has had its day; and has proved its total inability to abolish or even to control privilege. On the contrary, in this democratic country, privilege grows and overruns all limits, grasping everything in sight, ignoring all claims of reason and humanity, far beyond anything it has attempted under the old monarchical systems of Europe.

Behind each political party stands a group of rich men who have been made rich by privilege, which secretly controls all political action. The great land owners - the railroads, and mining companies and oil companies - and, still more, the banking clique, which holds the money privilege, joined with the great manufacturers - the steel mills and woolen mills and cotton mills - which fatten on the tariff - all these have their representatives in every State legislature and in the Federal Congress, who see to it that no legislation is enacted hostile to their interests and privileges.

Without the permission of these men, not a candidate for office, from village constable to President, can be nominated, let alone elected. And if, by chance, a Liberal or Socialistic candidate slips past, he finds himself able to accomplish only petty reforms; he dares not, even if he were able, to strike at the foundations of privilege.

We boast that the majority can control, if it choose, through the ballot. Practically this is impossible. No man can give the time that is necessary to acquaint himself with the merits of the innumerable candidates, and have time left for carrying on his daily business. Often, too, it happens that the candidate of neither party is satisfactory, when voting for either becomes a farce.

Besides this, representative government is an impossibility in itself. No one man can represent another; still less can he represent a constituency of hundreds or thousands. He cannot know their collective interests, still less their individual interests. The result is that he devotes himself to what he does know - his own interests.

Thus the political control falls into the hands of men who make it their sole business - men who either hold office or hope to hold office or expect, in some indirect way, to profit by the results of elections. Some of these develop into political leaders or "bosses", who are in touch with the rich clique behind the scenes, that puts up the money needed for mass meetings, processions, campaign literature and all the legitimate expenses of an election, as well as the illegitimate expenses, terminating in direct bribery of both voters and of elected officials and representatives.

All attempts to establish a collectivist Socialistic scheme of society by governmental methods, are predestined to failure : they are sure to become mired in the slough of politics.

For the same reason, all the palliatives that from time to time are advanced - minority representation, direct primaries, the referendum, the initiative and the recall - all are nugatory, and can give no permanent relief. People cannot devote the necessary time to public affairs, if they are to attend properly to their private affairs.

We are urged to be "good citizens:' to take part in ward primaries, to vote at elections. It is impossible. Even at the elections of private clubs, as long as all runs smoothly, hardly one in ten of the members votes. If the management is not satisfactory, resignations pour in. But from the governmental club there is no possibility of resigning : we are forced to pay our dues, whether we like it or not.

Apart from such comparatively petty practical difficulties, the fundamental theoretical difficulty remains, that government, in all its forms, is based upon privilege - the privilege of taxation - and therefore cannot abolish privilege.

Even if we grant that all reforms are accomplished, that government has successfully overthrown the land privilege and the money privilege, we shall find that, in overthrowing these, we have but fortified the governmental privilege.

No governmental system of currency reform has ever been proposed that did not involve the monopoly of money by the government itself.

No scheme of land reform, not even the single tax proposition, can be carried out, without some plan for seizing abandoned land and again renting it; which means that government would become the supreme landlord.
Privilege can never overthrow privilege.

* * *

We are compelled, therefore, to discard all governmental, that is to say, compulsory, modes of organization, in our search for some way of abolishing privilege.

Privilege, by its very nature, means restriction. A privilege to do certain things cannot be granted to one, without prohibiting or restricting others from doing the same thing. What we seek to do away with, therefore, is not privilege directly, but the restriction upon action of some, that results in privilege to others.

You cannot grant to one man the privilege of holding land out of use, without prohibiting others from using the land so held. You cannot grant to one man the privilege of offering current promissory notes, without prohibiting others from a similar act.

We are in search, then, of a system of social organization that shall prevent anyone from restricting the acts of others; that shall insure to all freedom of individual action and freedom of contract with others, so that nothing shall be prohibited between individuals to which both parties consent.

Such freedom of action is what we mean when we speak of personal liberty; and in seeking a social organization that shall insure freedom of action, we seek for one that will uphold liberty.

Some form of social organization to defend liberty seems to be essential; otherwise the liberty of each individual would be at the mercy of any one stronger than he, or of any group of two or more who might unite to invade his liberty.

Moreover it is impossible for a man living with others to enjoy such absolute liberty as he might exercise, if he were the sole inhabitant of the world: he must make some concessions to harmonize his actions with those of others. Evidently the liberty that is to be defended is not the liberty to kill or rob.

What, then, are the limits of liberty in social life? What actions are to be permitted, and what prohibited? How can we prohibit anything, without thereby erecting privilege?

All actions may be classified under two heads, as non-invasive and invasive actions. Invasive actions are such as restrict liberty of action on the part of others; noninvasive actions are those which accomplish no such restriction.

To kill a man is to invade his liberty of action, as it completely cuts him off from the possibility of any action. To rob him invades his liberty, as it deprives him of the power of doing what he wants to do with his product. The robbery and murder on a grand scale, that are done by privilege, are equally invasive of liberty.
Privilege, indeed, is invasive action.

Evidently the actions to be prohibited are the invasive actions; and the actions to be permitted and defended are the noninvasive actions.

Complete individual liberty in social life means liberty to do anything that is not invasive of the liberty of others. As phrased by Herbert Spencer, in Social Statics, liberty means "that each shall do whatever it may please him to do, provided he infringes not the equal liberty of others."

The social organization of the future, then, will be an organization to defend liberty.
It must begin by offering its services, not by imposing them. The funds for its support it must obtain, not by taxation, but by voluntary subscription. It must offer to defend your liberty if you choose to pay for it; not compel you to be defended, whether you want to or not.

One case where this was done under present conditions happened to come under my observation. A small suburban settlement, too small to have even a village government, was exposed to the frequent depredations of burglars. An enterprising member established a private police force, and offered to protect houses from burglars for a moderate charge. Many subscribed and their houses. were carefully watched, while nonsubscribers took their chances. It is needless to say that if a burglary had occurred in one of the subscribers' houses, the subscriptions would have fallen off rapidly.

Under such a system, you pay for what you get, and you get what you pay for; or, if you don't get it, you don't pay for it. Objections innumerable may be urged by people who are incapable of grasping broad principles. Demands for a clear description of the future society in all its details, with information as to how it is to be brought about, will be made by others.

It is impossible to prophesy the future in particulars; still more impossible to foretell just how the change will come about; but there seems to be no serious reason why such a voluntary system should not be extended to all public affairs.

Courts would become arbitrators, with no power to enforce their decrees, save when the local Liberty Defence League might be called upon. Roads could be maintained by road building societies, local and general. Lighthouses by boards of trade and ship owners' societies.
Railroads, in the absence of dividends, would be in the hands of only such stockholders as had some personal interest in their management; or would revert entirely to the employees organized to carry them on.

Freedom of land for use would be asserted and maintained and freedom in the issuing of currency as well.
With the incubus of Privilege removed, producers would retain all their product. Wealth and poverty, and the ignorance and crime that poverty begets, would disappear. A new world would dawn upon us, where industry and comfort would be for all, and where joy and gladness would take the place of care and misery.

Just how this is to come about, no one can tell. Possibly thinking people, seeing the advantages, may increase in numbers sufficiently to refuse to pay rent and taxes, and to force from government the liberty to organize a free banking system.

More probably things will go on as they are, until a crash comes. The present system, pushed to its extreme, will fall in ruin. Hundreds of thousands of impoverished wretches will besiege the soup houses, and beg for shelter in the churches. Business will be prostrate. Banks will fail by the hundreds. Stocks will pay infinitesimal dividends. Bonds will fail to yield interest. The "reptile press", as John Swinton used to caIl it, will attribute everything to "lack of confidence".

Then a few of those who know will establish banks, which the government will be powerless to prohibit. Land, fallen into worthlessness as a rent producing power, will lie open for use.
Gradually the new society will build itself up, upon the pile of carcasses left by the expiring civilization.

In whatever way it may come, may it come quickly.


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