Liberty and Aggression

Liberty and Aggression

My dear Mr. Tucker:(19 ¶ 1)

Liberty has done me a great service in carrying me from the metaphysical speculations in which I was formerly interested into a vein of practical thought which is more than a mere overflow of humanitarianism; which is as closely logical and strictly scientific as any other practical investigation. In spite of certain small criticisms which it would be petty to dwell upon, it is the most advanced and most intellectual paper that I have seen. I esteem it most highly.(19 ¶ 2)

The particular matter upon which we have exchanged letters—the question of non-resistance—is still in my mind, but it is hard for me to find time to write anything for publication. Perhaps it is even premature.(19 ¶ 3)

Of course I see very clearly that economically Anarchism is complete without including any question as to force or no-force at all: but the importance of preaching one or the other as a means of obtaining or perpetuating Anarchy has not diminished in my mind.(19 ¶ 4)

People invariably feel, if they do not ask: How are you going to accomplish it? And I think the question is valid.(19 ¶ 5)

In every definition of liberty, or of aggression, there is a reference to a certain limit beyond which liberty becomes aggression. How this limit is certainly determinable I have never seen any one attempt to show. As a matter of fact, the history of liberty has been a record of the continual widening of this limit. Once there was a time when religious heterodoxy was regarded as an aggression, not vainly I think you will admit when you remember how much our actions are influenced by our predisposing theories. When it was commonly thought, even by transgressors themselves, that nothing but the acceptance of certain dogmas prevented all men from becoming transgressors, it was not unreasonable to resist the beginnings.(19 ¶ 6)

So now when multitudes of good people regard the maintenance of the State as essential to the preservation of security, it is no wonder that they should easily be inflamed against those who openly antagonize the State. Formerly to think heterodoxy was regarded as an aggression. Afterwards thought was freed, but speech was limited. To speak of the forbidden thing was then an aggression, and still is to some extent.(19 ¶ 7)

What is the line? Where is the limit? Thought and speech can both be absolutely free. Thinking or talking cannot really hurt anybody.(19 ¶ 8)

But when we come to actions, where are we to stop?(19 ¶ 9)

That this line which separates liberty from aggression should be drawn seems to me essential to the working of the Anarchistic principle in actual practice. As an illustration, you and Egoist in the last issue of Liberty consider each the other an aggressor in a certain case.(19 ¶ 10)

Is not government really a bungling attempt, but perhaps the best we could do up to this time, to settle the question, roughly and arbitrarily, between parties who each regarded themselves as within their right and the other as the aggressor?(19 ¶ 11)

So it would appear to me. Even the land laws and other laws which seem primary are, I think, only secondary. I am not profoundly versed in the history of law, but I am inclined to think that statutes and the generalizations of common law have sprung from the collocation of many individual decisions, each decision being the best that could be arrived at under the circumstances of the time.(19 ¶ 12)

If this is at all a fair description of what is,—that is, if law is a rough attempt to draw the line between liberty and aggression, and not a conscious deliberate fraud committed by the privileged upon the oppressed (and I think the notion of the State being a conspiracy is as empty as the parallel notion of some of our secularist friends that the Church is a conspiracy of priests),—if the State is the result of attempts to determine the limit of liberty, no theory that dispenses with the State is complete unless it otherwise defines that limit.(19 ¶ 13)

The essence of aggression, the reason that it is forbidden, is that it causes pain. Pain, even when caused by, or a concomitant of, properly limited liberty, is in itself a wrong,—an antagonist of personal or social progress. If aggression were uniformly pleasant, it would be regarded as commendable.(19 ¶ 14)

So that if in the exercise of my liberty I give pain to anybody, in so far as I give pain I am committing an aggression. If I bathe naked before one who is shocked by such exhibition, doubtless his prudery is unjustifiable; that, however, does not alter the fact that I have deliberately injured him,—I have committed an aggression.(19 ¶ 15)

In trying to logically define this limit, I have cast about in various directions. At one time it seemed that individual liberty included a right to all non-action. That is, that people have a right to say to any one: You are injuring us by your proceedings; you must stop; that they have no right to say: It is essential to our happiness that you should do this or that.(19 ¶ 16)

I am not sure that this is not a correct idea, but the statement lacks precision, and I have not so far been able to attenuate it.(19 ¶ 17)

The best thought that I have yet had is that what is called non-resistance is the true guide. A better word would be non-retaliation, yet even that is not quite right.(19 ¶ 18)

At the bottom there is a feeling that no one attacks another nowadays for fun. If a man attacks me, I immediately conclude that I have injured him, or that he thinks that I have injured him. If I could paralyze him by a glance or otherwise resist him without injuring him, I should hardly call it resistance. Usually, however, there are but two courses open. One a timely apology: the other a counter attack. If I adopt the latter and disable or kill him, the question of who first aggressed is undetermined. I have assumed an aristocratic attitude of impeccability; sociality does not exist.(19 ¶ 19)

As for those who take pleasure in aggression, it is an evanescent type. They are hospital subjects, reversions to an ancestral type, certainly not responsible individuals.(19 ¶ 20)

Briefly, the question of what constitutes aggression can be settled only by compact between individuals. In order to arrive at an understanding and form the compact, the opinion of the one that thinks he is encroached upon must be final if it cannot be removed by argument,—that is, by changing his convictions.(19 ¶ 21)

If any action is persisted in which any one conceives to be an aggression upon him, it virtually is an aggression; and the friend of liberty is compelled to recognize it as such and to recede, rather than to inflict injury in continuing his course.(19 ¶ 22)

I trust that you will seize my idea. I do not regard this as final, but I think some clearly logical demarcation essential.(19 ¶ 23)

Sincerely yours,

John Beverly Robinson.

67 Liberty Street, New York, January 25, 1889.

While I should like to see the line between liberty and aggression drawn with scientific exactness, I cannot admit that such rigor of definition is essential to the realization of Anarchism. If, in spite of the lack of such a definition, the history of liberty has been, as Mr. Robinson truly says, a record of the continual widening of this limit, there is no reasoning why this widening process should not go on until Anarchy becomes a fact. It is perfectly thinkable that, after the last inch of debatable ground shall have been adjudged to one side or the other, it may still be found impossible to scientifically formulate the rule by which this decision and its predecessors were arrived at.(19 ¶ 24)

The chief influence in narrowing the strip of debatable land is not so much the increasing exactness of the knowledge of what constitutes aggression as the growing conception that aggression is an evil to be avoided and that liberty is the condition of progress. The moment one abandons the idea that he was born to discover what is right and enforce it upon the rest of the world, he begins to feel an increasing disposition to let others alone and to refrain even from retaliation or resistance except in those emergencies which immediately and imperatively require it. This remains true even if aggression be defined in the extremely broad sense of the infliction of pain; for the individual who traces the connection between liberty and the general welfare will be pained by few things so much as by the consciousness that his neighbors are curtailing their liberties out of consideration for his feelings, and such a man will never say to his neighbors, This far and no farther, until they commit acts of direct and indubitable interference and trespass. The man who feels more pained at seeing his neighbor bathe naked than he would at the knowledge that he refrained from doing so in spite of his preference is invariably the man who believes in aggression and government as the basis of society and has not learned the lesson that liberty is the mother of order.(19 ¶ 25)

This lesson, then, rather than an exact definition of aggression, is the essential condition of the development of Anarchism. Liberty has steadily taught this lesson, but has never professed an ability to define aggression, except in a very general way. We must trust to experience and the conclusions therefrom for the settlement of all doubtful cases.(19 ¶ 26)

As for States and Churches, I think there is more foundation than Mr. Robinson sees for the claim that they are conspiracies. Not that I fail to realize as fully as he that there are many good men in both whose intent is not at all to oppress or aggress. Doubtless there are many good and earnest priests whose sole aim is to teach religious truth as they see it and elevate human life, but has not Dr. McGlynn conclusively shown that the real power of control in the Church is always invested in an unscrupulous machine? That the State originated in aggression Herbert Spencer has proved. If it now pretends to exist for purposes of defence, it is because the advance of sociology has made such a pretence necessary to its preservation. Mistaking this pretence for reality, many good men enlist in the work of the State. But the fact remains that the State exist mainly to do the will of capital and secure it all the privileges that it demands, and I cannot see that the combination of capitalists who employ lobbyists to buy legislators deserve any milder title than conspirators, or that the term conspiracy inaccurately expresses the nature of their machine, the State.(19 ¶ 27)