I had never heard of Lysander Spooner before I started surfing the web in 1996. I soon found a web site created by Niels Buhl that featured some fascinating works of political philosophy that I was completely unfamiliar with. One of the most important was No Treason No. VI: The Constitution of No Authority by Lysander Spooner.
A little background: I’d been a liberal for most of my life. As a very young man I’d fancied myself a communist, I even carried Mao’s Little Red Book around with me for a couple of years reading it like scripture. But as I settled into making a living I embraced a more typical and pedestrian American liberalism. I felt the proper function of government was to help people. I always voted a straight democratic ticket up until 1992. Clinton was the very first liberal I couldn’t bring myself to vote for, but that was only because I didn’t trust him.
The launching of the Clinton administration was punctuated by the fiasco in Waco. I initially supported the government’s role at Waco, but at the same time I was haunted by the sense that something was terribly wrong with this government. Not something that could be blamed on a scoundrel like Clinton but something much deeper. I didn’t know precisely what it was but I knew I wanted a whole lot less of it. By 1994 I was gleefully cheering Republicans on in their crusade to cut back government. By 1996 it was pretty clear to me that their crusade was a scam.
This is about the time I was introduced to Spooner’s work.
I’d been thinking quite a lot about what the proper function of government was. I studied the Constitution and other works of the founding fathers to understand what they thought. The founding principle of American government was that just government required the consent of the governed. But there was a nagging question that kept coming up: Who consented to this constitution, this government? I couldn’t figure it out. I heard legal scholars describe the Constitution as a form of contract. When asked how a contract could be binding on people who had not even been born, they’d brush off the question with the assurance that an explanation of how such a contract was valid was too technical for the layman to understand.
But how could they consent to what they did not understand?
This was by no means the focus of my inquiries into the proper function of government, it was just a nagging puzzle that wouldn’t go away. I assumed the Constitution was a valid contract for reasons I didn’t yet fully understand.
So Lysander Spooner’s writing hit me like a truck. A big truck.
Spooner revealed the dirty little secret: There is no contract. The Constitution is not a contract, in substance it’s nothing like a contract and it has no morally binding force on anyone.
It is plain, then, that on general principles of law and reason—such principles as we all act upon in courts of justice and in common life—the Constitution is no contract; that it binds nobody, and never did bind anybody; and that all those who pretend to act by its authority, are really acting without any legitimate authority at all; that, on general principles of law and reason, they are mere usurpers, and that everybody not only has the right, but is morally bound, to treat them as such.
If the people of this country wish to maintain such a government as the Constitution
describes, there is no reason in the world why they should not sign the instrument itself, and thus make known their wishes in an open, authentic manner; in such manner as the common sense and experience of mankind have shown to be reasonable and necessary in such cases; and in such manner as to make themselves (as they ought to do) individually responsible for the acts of the government. But the people have never been asked to sign it. And the only reason why they have never been asked to sign it, has been that it has been known that they never would sign it; that they were neither such fools nor knaves as they must needs have been to be willing to sign it; that (at least as it has been practically interpreted) it is not what any sensible and honest man wants for himself; nor such as he has any right to impose upon others. It is, to all moral intents and purposes, as destitute of obligations as the compacts which robbers and thieves and pirates enter into with each other, but never sign.
If any considerable number of the people believe the Constitution to be good, why do they not sign it themselves, and make laws for, and administer them upon, each other; leaving all other persons (who do not interfere with them) in peace? Until they have tried the experiment for themselves, how can they have the face to impose the Constitution upon, or even to recommend it to, others? Plainly the reason for absurd and inconsistent conduct is that they want the Constitution, not solely for any honest or legitimate use it can be of to themselves or others, but for the dishonest and illegitimate power it gives them over the persons and properties of others. But for this latter reason, all their eulogiums on the Constitution, all their exhortations, and all their expenditures of money and blood to sustain it, would be wanting.
This didn’t instantly turn me into an anarchist, that came a little later, but it crippled me as an advocate of government. Never again could I propose any government activity without knowing that I was advocating that it be forced upon others regardless of consent.
This journal is dedicated to the insight of Lysander Spooner. I would sum up his political philosophy this way: We are not born with any positive moral obligation to any state or agency or individuals, the only legitimate obligations we have are those to which we freely consent. To reject the obligations we are commonly supposed to have to the state, but to which we have not in fact freely consented, is No Treason.