Auberon Herbert

Auberon Herbert books and biography

Auberon Herbert

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Auberon Edward William Molyneux Herbert (Highclere, June 18, 1838—November 5, 1906) was a writer, theorist, philosopher, and member of the British parliament, son of the 3rd Earl of Carnarvon, brother of Henry Herbert, and father of the 9th Baron Lucas. He promoted a libertarian philosophy and took the ideas of Herbert Spencer a stage further by advocating voluntary-funded "government" that only uses force only in defense of individual liberty and property. He is known as the originator of Voluntaryism.

Government, he argued, should never initiate force but be "strictly limited to its legitimate duties in defense of self-ownership and individual rights", and to be consistent in not initiating force they should maintain themselves only through "voluntary taxation." He stressed that "we are governmentalists . . . formally constituted by the nation, employing in this matter of force the majority method" --however, using this force only in a defensive mode. He strongly opposed the idea that initiation of force may somehow become legitimate merely by constituting a majority, reasoning that "If we are self-owners (and it is absurd, it is doing violence to reason,2 to suppose that we are not), neither an individual, nor a majority, nor a government can have rights of ownership in other men." [1]

Herbert recommends a "central agency" to defend liberty and property that is funded by a "voluntary tax," calling it "government." In his essay "A Politician in Sight of Haven," Herbert does discuss the franchise, stating it would be limited to those who paid a voluntary "income tax," anyone "paying it would have the right to vote; those who did not pay it would be -- as is just -- without the franchise. There would be no other tax." The law would be strictly limited, of course, and the "government . . . must confine itself simply to the defense of life and property, whether as regards internal or external defense."

Herbert says that in "voluntaryism the state employs force only to repel force—to protect the person and the property of the individual against force and fraud; under voluntaryism the state would defend the rights of liberty, never aggress upon them."

A collection of Herbert's work, The Right and Wrong of Compulsion by the State and Other Essays, was published by Liberty Classics in 1978.


Herbert and Anarchism

In an announcement of Herbert's death, Benjamin Tucker said: "Auberon Herbert is dead. He was a true anarchist in everything but name. How much better (and how much rarer) to be an anarchist in everything but name than to be an anarchist in name only!"[2] Tucker praised Herbert's work as "a magnificent assault on the majority idea, a searching exposure of the inherent evil of State systems, and a glorious assertion of the inestimable benefits of voluntary action and free competition..." while admonishing him for his support of profit in trade (but believes, unlike Herbert himself, that Herbert's system would result in an economy without profit).[3] According to Eric Mack, Herbert felt that people who "like Tucker, favored the free establishment of defensive associations and juridical institutions were simply making a verbal error in calling themselves "anarchists"."[4] Mack says "Herbert was also regarded as an anarchist by serious and reasonably well-informed prostate critics like J. A. Hobson and T. H. Huxley"[5]

Herbert explicitly rejected the label "anarchist" for his ideas. He argued that anarchy was a "contradiction," and that the Voluntaryists "reject the anarchist creed." They "believe in a national government, voluntary supported . . . and only entrusted with force for protection of person and property." He called his system of a national government funded by non-coerced contributions "the Voluntary State." ("A Voluntaryist Appeal", Herbert Spencer and the Limits of the State, p. 239 and p. 228)

According to Chris Tame, "He refused to accept the label of 'anarchist', largely because of a semantic decision whereby he labelled the defensive use of force (which, naturally, he accepted) as "government."[6] Richard Sylvan, points out that "a variety of political arrangements and organization, including governments of certain sorts, are entirely compatible with anarchy." Rather, anarchists oppose the state or "coercive government."[7] Sean Sheehan points out, "A distinction that is relevant to the anarchist ideal is the difference between the government, referring to the state, and government, referring to the administration of a political system. Anarchists, like everyone, tend to use the word government as a synonym for state, but what is rejected by anarchism's a priori opposition to the state is not the concept of government as such but the idea of a sovereign order that claims and demand obedience, and if necessary the lives, of its subjects."[8] Few anarchists would agree with such a position, noting that (at the minimum) anarchy means "no government."

Anarchist William R. McKercher notes that Herbert "was often mistakenly taken as an anarchist" but "a reading of Herbert's work will show that he was not an anarchist." (Freedom and Authority, p. 199 and and p. 73) The leading British anarchist journal of the time noted that the "Auberon Herbertites in England are sometimes called Anarchists by outsiders, but they are willing to compromise with the inequity of government to maintain private property." (Freedom, Vol. II, No. 17, 1888)

Since the development of anarcho-capitalism in the 1950s, at least one anarcho-capitalist, Hans-Hermann Hoppe, believes that Herbert "develops the Spencerian idea of equal freedom to its logically consistent anarcho-capitalist end" as noted in a bibliography.[9]However, anarcho-capitalist Murray Rothbard disagreed and called Herbert a "near-anarchist."[10]


Individualist anarchist, Victor Yarros, noted whate he believed to be a key flaw in Herbert's ideology, namely economic inequality. In an article called "Private Property and Freedom," Yarros argued that Herbert:

"believes in allowing people to retain all their possessions, no matter how unjustly and basely acquired, while getting them, so to speak, to swear off stealing and usurping and to promise to behave well in the future. We, on the other hand, while insisting on the principle of private property, in wealth honestly obtained under the reign of liberty, do not think it either unjust or unwise to dispossess the landlords who have monopolized natural wealth by force and fraud. We hold that the poor and disinherited toilers would be justified in expropriating, not alone the landlords, who notoriously have no equitable titles to their lands, but all the financial lords and rulers, all the millionaires and very wealthy individuals. . . . Almost all possessors of great wealth enjoy neither what they nor their ancestors rightfully acquired (and if Mr. Herbert wishes to challenge the correctness of this statement, we are ready to go with him into a full discussion of the subject). . . . If he holds that the landlords are justly entitled to their lands, let him make a defense of the landlords or an attack on our unjust proposal." [11]

According to Carl Watner "Herbert never defended his position in Liberty."

Anarchist-communist Peter Kropotkin echoed Yarros and argued that the "modern Individualism initiated by Herbert Spencer is . . . a powerful indictment against the dangers and wrongs of government, but its practical solution of the social problem is miserable -- so miserable as to lead us to inquire if the talk of 'No force' be merely an excuse for supporting landlord and capitalist domination." (Act For Yourselves, Freedom Press, London, 1987, p. 98)

J. A. Hobson, a left-wing liberal, echoed the anarchist critique in his essay on Herbert, "A Rich Man’s Anarchism" (Humanitarian, no 12, 1898, pp. 390-7). He argued that Herbert’s support for exclusive private property would result in the poor being enslaved to the rich. Herbert, "by allowing first comers to monopolise without restriction the best natural supplies" would allow them "to thwart and restrict the similar freedom of those who come after." Hobson gave the "extreme instance" of an island "the whole of which is annexed by a few individuals, who use the rights of exclusive property and transmission . . . to establish primogeniture." In such a situation, the bulk of the population would be denied the right to exercise their faculties or to enjoy the fruits of their labour, which Herbert claimed to be the inalienable rights of all. Hobson concluded: "It is thus that the ‘freedom’ of a few (in Herbert’s sense) involves the ‘slavery’ of the many." (p. 394). Hobson’s argument reflected Proudhon’s critique of private property in “What is Property?”

Scholar M. W. Taylor notes that "of all the points Hobson raised . . . this argument was his most effective, and Herbert was unable to provide a satisfactory response." (Men Versus the State, Clarendon Press, 1992, p. 249)


  2. ^ Tucker, Benjamin .Liberty, vol. 15, no. 6, p. 16
  3. ^ Tucker, Benjamin. Auberon Herbert and His Work, Liberty, Vol. 3, No. 10, Saturday, May 23 1885, Whole No. 62
  4. ^ Mack, Eric. Voluntaryism: The Political Thought of Auberon Herbert
  5. ^ Mack, Eric (editor). Introduction to The Right and Wrong of Compulsion by the State, and Other Essays, Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1978
  6. ^ Tame, Chris R. The libertarian tradition No 1: Auberon Herbert, The Journal of the Libertarian Alliance, Vol. 1, No.2, Spring 1980
  7. ^ Slyvan, Richard. Anarchism. A Companion to Contemprary Political Philosophy, editors Goodin, Robert E. and Pettit, Philip. Blackwell Publishing, 1995, p.293.
  8. ^ Sheehan, Sean. Anarchism, Reaktion Books 2004, p. 25-26
  9. ^ Anarcho-Capitalism: An Annotated Bibliography, 2002. Retrieved from
  10. ^ Rothbard, Murray. Confessions of a Right-Wing Liberal, Ramparts, VI, 4, June 15, 1968, copyright 2005 Mises Institute. Obtained from
  11. ^ Yarros, Liberty 171 (1890): 4-5, quoted by Carl Watner in The English Individualists As They Appear in Liberty

See also

  • Voluntaryism
  • Anarcho-capitalism
  • Individualist anarchism
  • Anarchism and anarcho-capitalism

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