Thursday, June 29, 2006


Lysander Spooner Hates Your Property

I took Jenna’s advice and I’ve been reading through Lysander Spooner’s No Treason. But there is one thing I’m not getting. Here’s an excerpt where Spooner explains why the Constitution has no authority.

“The Constitution has no inherent authority or obligation. It has no authority or obligation at all, unless as a contract between man and man. And it does not so much as even purport to be a contract between persons now existing. It purports, at most, to be only a contract between persons living eighty years ago. And it can be supposed to have been a contract then only between persons who had already come to years of discretion, so as to be competent to make reasonable and obligatory contracts. Furthermore, we know, historically, that only a small portion even of the people then existing were consulted on the subject, or asked, or permitted to express either their consent or dissent in any formal manner. Those persons, if any, who did give their consent formally, are all dead now. Most of them have been dead forty, fifty, sixty, or seventy years. And the constitution, so far as it was their contract, died with them.

How does this same argument NOT apply to contracts regarding property? For clarity let’s use an example. Suppose that two families, the Hatfields and McCoys, land on an uninhabited island. They both agree to divide the island in half and everyone in the family signs a contract to that affect. 80 years later, what should stop the ancestors of the McCoys from taking the land “owned” by the Hatfields? They didn’t sign the contract. As Spooner notes, the contract died with their ancestors. So why should they recognize the other half of the island as the “property” of the Hatfields? Generalizing from this example, why should I respect ANYONES "property”?

I’m sure the answer has something to do with believing in the magic of “natural rights”. But I’m still at a loss to explain what these “rights” are or where they come from. If someone can help me on this, I would be most appreciative.

I think Spooner's problem is that the piece of paper signed by a handful of men some 230 years ago, did not legitimize the coercive power of a government then, just like it still does not to this day.

The "right" to property comes into question in the intial transfer of ownership. After that you could legitimize the intergenerational transfers, with contracts and a non-coercive court system.

The one question that comes to mind, is where that court system and contracts get their authority and power over transactions and transfers of those "rights".

I think Spooner would disagree. He makes it clear in No Treason that you can't force your children to abide by a contract you signed.

Here is a quote:

"Suppose an agreement were entered into, in this form:

We, the people of Boston, agree to maintain a fort on Governor's Island, to protect ourselves and our posterity against invasion.

This agreement, as an agreement, would clearly bind nobody but the people then existing. Secondly, it would assert no right, power, or disposition, on their part, to compel, their "posterity" to maintain such a fort. It would only indicate that the supposed welfare of their posterity was one of the motives that induced the original parties to enter into the agreement."

Change the proper nouns around and the exact same argument could apply to contracts regarding property.
Beautiful! Contracts are only binding upon those who make them. Excellent. The constitution doesn't count. Perfect. There should be no government. Exactly. I think the founders were wrong in believing that there had to be some sort of government. The "If we don't set up a government, some tyrant will" argument stands outside the philosophy of liberty.
Who said there should be no government? Who challenged the secular and religious institutions of his time? Who established an identity for volunteers that stood outside of the traditional pagan statist model?

I think it was precisely that change in proper nouns that Spooner had the most concern about. For an individual to act and assume responsibility (potential loss or profit) is different than having a government or 'society' act this way on behalf of allegedly free individuals.

It does seem fair to not force your contracts upon your children. I'm just trying to think...What sort of contracts are imposed upon children?
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