Did Lysander Spooner Encourage Terrorism?

The following is an Amazon review of Spooner’s Number 6 essay, “No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority”. The reviewer by the name of “Greg G” gave a 1 star rating with the subject line of “A rationale for terrorism in the name of non-aggression”. What follows after his review were replies he got back from other users at Amazon. I then shared his review on Discord and got back replies. In order to separate the comments from Amazon, I gave the Discord replies a bluish gray background.

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Greg G
This slim volume, which dates to 1867, is considered one of the classics of anarchist political philosophy. Most interest in it today comes from anarcho-capitalists and Confederate sympathizers on Civil War issues.

No treason refers to Spooner’s opening argument. He points out that treason suggests betrayal. He goes on to insist that you cannot betray that which you never swore allegiance to in the first place. Therefore he argues that the secession of the southern states was not treason. This is entirely logical.

The problem is that language is, and always has been, based on convention, not logic. Ironically, this is the most anarchistic thing a language could be based on. Each person decides what the words they speak and hear mean to them. Conventions come to be in a bottom up emergent way that often has little to do with logic. That’s the thing about anarchy. You might not like the way it turns out in real life.

Spooner’s foundational argument is that no individual or government has the right to coerce anyone to do anything they don’t voluntarily agree to. Individuals have the right to self defense against any such coercion. At first glance this seems like it might be fairly innocuous. The problem is that it leads to, well, exactly what Spooner tells us it leads to.

Each individual has the right to determine if and when he is the victim of aggression. Spooner has decided that the American government (and likely all others) is an aggressor. Therefore all who support such a government “deserve to be hunted and killed” in his words. He specifically cites those who vote for, or lend money to, the government as deserving to be hunted and killed. Today this would license the killing of well over 100 million Americans.

Spooner complains that the secret ballot prevents us from knowing which Americans should be killed for voting wrong. He seems unaware that the secret ballot protects those who vote against the government from retaliation by the government. He also seems unaware that the modern democracies he hates so much are historically the only types of governments that haven’t routinely imprisoned or killed people who espoused ideas like these.

A generation after Spooner wrote, the world was rocked by a wave of anarchist terrorism inspired by ideas like these. This caused the deaths of a lot of innocent people and no expansion of liberty at all. In fact, if anything, liberty was contracted as over reactions of various types ensued. Today, as I write this, Pennsylvania State Police are searching for a sovereign citizen type who was inspired by this type of thinking. He ambushed and shot two state troopers he had never met.

Spooner is a problematic hero for anarcho-capitalists because he disliked capitalism and hated wage labor which is essential to it. He is a problematic hero for Confederate sympathizers because he would happily have seen the slaughter of the Civil War if the purpose had only been to end slavery. He was a big fan of John Brown. It was saving the union that spoiled the war for him and the fact that it was conducted by the state rather than individuals on their own.

So then, the main problem with this “moral” philosophy is that is that it both permits and encourages you to kill anyone and everyone who acts in support of our government. I should hasten to add it does not require you to do so. You can’t require someone to do something. That would be wrong.

naive theorist > Greg G
“the main problem with this “moral” philosophy is that is that it both permits and encourages you to kill anyone and everyone who acts in support of our government.”

this is a COMPLETE misunderstanding of Spooner’s thesis.

Greg G > naive theorist
From pages 66-67: “And the men who loan money to governments, so called, for the purpose of enabling the latter to rob, enslave, and murder their people, are among the greatest villains that the world has ever seen. And they as much deserve to be hunted and killed (if they cannot otherwise be got rid of) as any slave traders, robbers, or pirates that ever lived.”

From page 63 referring to those who vote for the existing U.S. government in a secret ballot: “all those who do vote so secretly (by secret ballot)…How shall we find these men? How shall we know them from others? How shall we defend ourselves and our property against them? Who, of our neighbors, are members of this secret band of robbers and murderers? How can we know which are their houses, that we may burn or demolish them? Which their property , that we may destroy it? Which their persons, that we may kill them, and rid the world and ourselves of such tyrants and monsters?”

RDSWY4 > Greg G
Although this gentleman took an excerpt from the book… it’s not a verified Amazon purchase and I am wondering if he has even read it. Not really a review of the book did he leave… but a rant. Once again, we see why America is so divided… there is no such thing as common ground or open minds. Just 2 sides of everything. I, for one, am getting sick of only having the choice of one side or another… because I like to think for myself and have my own ideals and principles. If Mr Spooner’s beliefs/philosophy adds to my current principles, changes them in some way or bolsters them in others… so-be-it. I plan to read with an expectation of learning something new about culture, government, etc. How can one completely disagree with the philosophy of another? It used to be that there was such a thing as mutual respect… I respect your ideals and principles as long as you don’t physically harm another and I expect the same in return. No one thinks twice about watching a rotten TV show or rigged sporting event where simulated “killing” literally takes place in front of our eyes… but, if someone dare use the act of killing to drive a point home that doesn’t jive with someone’s personal agenda then we are to reject them outright. I say it’s time for Americans to grow up and get a backbone again. I’m sick of government bombing and droning and killing people in my name with money that was stolen from my paycheck without my consent. In fact, I’m sick of all of the evil that governments all over the world are doing. And, guess what? It’s okay to be pissed about all of this and question the legitimacy of the state. It’s what real, thinking, reasoning individuals do.

Greg G > RDSWY4
Hello RDSWY4, “this gentleman” here. I did read the book, and when you have read it, we will be able to have a discussion based on both of us having read it.

You should read the book because, if you do, you will indeed find yourself “learning something new.”

If you do read it, you will find the quotes I have provided are entirely accurate. Spooner is not talking about “simulated killings.” He is claiming the right to kill real flesh and blood people based simply on the fact that they voted for a government he finds oppressive. That would include virtually all American voters since there are vanishingly few anarchist candidates. He also claims the right to kill non-voters who loan money to the government by buying government bonds.

I have respect for a very wide variety of views. I expect that we could agree on our disapproval of an aggressive American foreign policy and the War on Drugs for example. I do NOT respect the idea that the non-aggression principle could be used to justify killing tens of millions of Americans. This is not some trivial detail. This logic can be used, and has been used to kill many innocent people.

Luke Perkins > Greg G
“He also seems unaware that the modern democracies he hates so much are historically the only types of governments that haven’t routinely imprisoned or killed people who espoused ideas like these.”

This quote tells you all you need to know about this reviewer. Hitler was elected. Stalin held regular elections. Looks like “modern democracies” not only failed, but killed more people than every previous form of government. If you wish to engage in special pleading and claim these were not democracies, fine. The US Federal Government imprisoned thousands of Germans, Italians, Japanese during the world wars, imprisoned political dissidents, conducted forced sterilizations (and ruled them “constitutional”), engaged in non-voluntary human testing (injecting STDs into women’s eyes, &c), massacred American Indians after stealing their land, and tortured prisoners in violation of its own laws. So I suppose the US isn’t a “modern democracy” either.

Greg G > Luke Perkins
Luke,

Actually, there is a bit more you “need to know” about me and this issue. It takes more than an election to make a democracy.

It is not special pleading to use the conventional definition of “democracy.” Ironically, as I explained in the review, language is the most perfectly anarchistic of all human practices. Word meanings are established by countless individual free choices about how to use and interpret words. There is not some objectively correct language underlying conventional language. It is convention all the way down. This is why language is always evolving.

The prevailing bottom up emergent convention among English speakers is not to regard Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union under Stalin as democracies. And it is not to view Hitler and Stalin as having practiced or advocated democracy.

A vast number of injustices are possible under any conceivable political system including anarchy. The advantage of democracy is that it reduces these, not that it eliminates them. More people were killed in the 20th Century simply because there were vastly more people alive than in any previous historical era. Check out Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature” for an exhaustive compilation of evidence that the modern era including the 20th Century has been the least violent in human history on a per capita basis.

CareNotDude > Greg G
“And the men who loan money to governments, so called, for the purpose of enabling the latter to rob, enslave, and murder their people, are among the greatest villains that the world has ever seen. And they as much deserve to be hunted and killed (if they cannot otherwise be got rid of) as any slave traders, robbers, or pirates that ever lived.”

You took this out of context. You either didn’t read the book or you’re being dishonest. He is referring specifically to the Rothschild family and other families that use money to manipulate the government. He’s not talking about your average every day American who buys government bonds.

Greg G > CareNot Dude
It is true that Spooner names the Rothschilds as among those he is most eager to see killed for loaning money to governments. It is NOT true that he offers any formula for limiting the death warrants to a few families.

This is a book about principles, not personalities. The principle he invokes is that loaning money to governments facilitates governments aggressing against him and therefore licenses him to kill the lenders. There is not the slightest attempt to suggest a formula for determining some maximum acceptable level of lending to government.

Consider how much political power a person needs to wield for Spooner to claim the right to kill him for voting incorrectly. A single vote will do it. He is very clear on this. He says that anyone voting for a government that he sees as aggressing against him (which would include any of them) has given him a license to kill them…in the name of non-aggression of course. He goes into some length about how frustrating it is that the secret ballot makes it hard to know who to kill.

Alien > Greg G
First, I liked the review. Some of the responses to it are really nothing more than people lashing out because one of their heroes and/or their ideas have been criticized.

Now about this,

“the modern democracies he hates so much are historically the only types of governments that haven’t routinely imprisoned or killed people who espoused ideas like these.”

I think this is generally true. It seems to me that this is an historical fact, but as we witness a lot of mob behavior in the modern USA, I have a hard time believing Democracy is the actual cause. It seems to me like the rule of law and the ideas of limited power should be directly credited with respect for disparate political thought and speech. This should be addressed also.

“Consider how much political power a person needs to wield for Spooner to claim the right to kill him for voting incorrectly. A single vote will do it. He is very clear on this. He says that anyone voting for a government that he sees as aggressing against him”

Again, In modern times, we see voters perfectly willing to vote benefits for themselves at the expense of others. I’m not an anarchist by any means, but I have a definite problem with groups attacking other groups. It seems to me that Modern America is all about various groups using government power to wage war on each other. So while I wouldn’t advocate force, I think Spooner has a definite point.

Patrick > Greg G
Perhaps Spooner is wrong in justifying killing. If that is your point, I agree. However if you’re suggesting that because he personally comes to a wrong conclusion that his entire argument should be thrown out; with this I cannot agree. He absolutely devastates the idea of the social contract. He devastates the idea of taxation as just. He devastates the idea that we owe anything to this Constitution.

I guess you do the reader a service in pointing out they shouldn’t stop here. However It seems your objection to those incendiary comments about killing make you throw the whole thing out as 1-star trash. I think most readers will see his killing-conclusions as an overstep.

Greg G > Patrick
Patrick,

First of all, thanks for being one of vanishingly few Spooner fans willing to confront the fact that he says what he says – and means what he says – about claiming the right to kill anyone who votes for a government he disapproves of.

The problem for you is that the logic that drives inexorably to that conclusion is the same logic that supports the parts of his argument that you do like. All logical arguments rest on premises that are not fully spelled out in the argument. Destroy those premises and you destroy the whole logic of the argument, not just the parts you don’t like.

In Spooner’s case, the flawed premise is that all he needs to do is to show that the existence of government will lead to some people being coerced in order to justify the right to use violence against all who support that government in any meaningful way. That is a false premise. He actually needs to do more than that. He needs to show that such violence will not lead to even worse coercion and injustice. He doesn’t just fail to do this. He never attempts it.

The freest and most prosperous places in human history have all been constitutional democracies of the type he despises. In the absence of that we have always seen more, not less, authoritarian forms of government. When central governments have been absent we have seen tribal or kin based systems where the rights of the group trump the rights of the individual.

AMP3083 > Juan Galt Legal Bad Ass
Curious to know what you think of this review.

Juan Galt Legal Bad Ass > ⒶMP3083
His rationale seems reasonable.

ⒶMP3083 > Juan Galt Legal Bad Ass
You agree with everything he says there?

“A generation after Spooner wrote, the world was rocked by a wave of anarchist terrorism inspired by ideas like these. This caused the deaths of a lot of innocent people and no expansion of liberty at all. In fact, if anything, liberty was contracted as over reactions of various types ensued. Today, as I write this, Pennsylvania State Police are searching for a sovereign citizen type who was inspired by this type of thinking. He ambushed and shot two state troopers he had never met.”

Almost seems like he’s twisting things to make it seem like it’s Spooner’s fault, or perhaps the “ideas he espoused”. Doesn’t sound reasonable to me.

Juan Galt Legal Bad Ass > ⒶMP3083
I’m not agreeing with the conclusory statements. Look at the title of his posting again. His rationale for said statements, however, is reasonable.

Abdul > ⒶMP3083
I would require citation if Spooner really said we should hunt down and kill every statist.

Though in short, this statist reviewer is essentially pulling the “these ideas are dangerous” flag, and you know what that implies (censorship).

Government has definitely killed way more people than so called “anarchist terrorists” (which assuming their actions were fuelled by statist impositions, that’s yet another problem created by government/statism).

Also, he said modern democracies have never imprisoned or killed people who espoused ideas like these. Oh, they have killed and imprisoned people for far less, for example, not too long ago, a guy in Scotland literally got imprisoned for just making a joke… (and he wasn’t inciting violence or anything).

I haven’t properly read No Treason, so I can’t say much more about it, but I also get the feeling this guy is twisting things…

Juan Galt Legal Bad Ass
The author’s rationale is more along the lines of an explanation of his conclusory statements rather than an argument for said statements. The process for identifying rationales, rational reconstruction, can be confusing for some. I’ve experienced such confusion with many I have had discussions with in discord. My explanations are most always interpreted as arguments.

Eso > ⒶMP3083
I can tell that I’m going to love this based on the subject title.

“Ironically, this is the most anarchistic thing a language could be based on. Each person decides what the words they speak and hear mean to them. Conventions come to be in a bottom up emergent way that often has little to do with logic.”

Wow, first point and this is already one of the most frustratingly disingenuous things I’ve read in a long time. The argument here is nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to excuse woefully – and in my opinion, willfully inconsistent reasoning. Spooner as the author notes in his opening argument (at least the section being discussed) is referencing the specific axioms of ‘treason’ and ‘betrayal’. The author even acknowledges that Spooner’s argument is logically consistent.

Logic itself is a type of study which explains how conclusions emerge from principles/axioms. IE: No matter what words you use to describe what Spooner is arguing, what Spooner himself believed, time period, individual interpretation, or any other social factor you could take into consideration; what Spooner is arguing remains true.

So to bring up “conventions” is a total non sequitur. In fact, based on the title of this review and how the reviewer describes it as being ‘ironic’ that language is ‘Anarchistic’; I think this bumbling idiot is trying to insinuate that Spooner is being a hypocrite because he conforms to ‘rules’ as an Anarchist. In which case this person doesn’t know what the Hell they’re even talking about, and isn’t worth wasting my time on any further.

OH MY GOD! He’s conflating Antifa state agents with Spoonerite Libertarians.

“So then, the main problem with this “moral” philosophy is that is that it both permits and encourages you to kill anyone and everyone who acts in support of our government.”

Yeah, Boomer here is using the ‘mainstream politics’ style of debating, where you treat all discussion as a clash between ‘factions’ using the empty rhetoric they identify with,igoring any and all philosophical nuances, and presupposing what someone elses’ position is before you even engage with them then working backwards to justify their presuppositions as opposed to actually engaging them.

“he would happily have seen the slaughter of the Civil War if the purpose had only been to end slavery”

“Spooner wuz a Consequentialist” – That’s a fucking nuclear take

Juan Galt Legal Bad Ass
Looks like this “Eso” found an argument where there was none. Does no one know what rationale means anymore? Do they no longer teach about it? The process of identifying rational reconstruction is lost on this one. He’s having difficulty discerning that the reviewer is presenting an explanation rationale and not an argument rationale.

bbblackwell
That response to Spooner is largely founded upon the no rules misconception of anarchy.

He’s full of shit on an intent level and everyone knows it, including himself. It’s straw-manning in spirit, even if based on quotes.

He knows full-well that terrorism is not the point of Spooner’s work. It’s like arguing against Christians on the basis of their book condoning slavery, when that’s not how anyone involved in the conversation is applying it.

Anyone who understands morality knows what aggression and defense is all about. So yes, by one interpretation, this implies that we would be justified in using force against nearly everyone, since we’re living in Theftworld where imposing on each other has become a way of life.

Is that what Spooner did in his own life? Is encouraging others to this course the focus of his work? Are the people citing him suggesting this should happen?

Of course not. So STFU and focus on the unfathomably prolific actual harm that’s happening all day long because people don’t understand Spooner’s teachings, instead of concocting delusions about people who do. Casting fear and doubt on a man whose ideas (if widely adopted) could save the world, isn’t helping anybody.

The biggest lies are usually true. That’s what makes them so compelling.

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