Auberon Herbert: Advocate of Reason, Individual Rights, and Limited Government - The Objective Standard

Auberon Herbert (1838–1906) was a 19th-century British political philosopher and member of Parliament, who recognized that each individual has inalienable rights to direct his own mind and body, and to keep and use the product of his own effort. In defense of these rights, Herbert advocated a strictly limited, voluntarily funded, rights-protecting government. This social system, which Herbert called “voluntaryism,” is what is known today as laissez-faire capitalism.

Herbert’s writings are available in several books, including A Politician in Trouble About His Soul (London: Chapman and Hall, 1884; available as a reprint by Forgotten Books); The Right and Wrong of Compulsion by the State, and Other Essays, a compilation of Herbert’s essays, edited by Eric Mack (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1978); Taxation and Anarchism: A Discussion Between the Hon. Auberon Herbert and J. H. Levy (London: Personal Rights Association, 1912; available as a reprint by the University of Michigan); and Herbert Spencer and the Limits of the State (Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 1996). All are worth reading.

Unlike the vast majority of thinkers who have sought to advocate liberty, Herbert thought and wrote in moral terms—in terms of individual rights and moral rights, and in terms of the evil of initiatory force and the necessity of selfishness. Yes, selfishness.

Image: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Image: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Although Herbert did not speak of the principle of rights as being grounded in the moral propriety of selfishness, he did express a remarkably positive view of selfishness. Bear in mind while reading the following passage that Herbert lived and wrote several decades before Ayn Rand developed Objectivism. So, it was before the formation of the principle that being selfish is the essence of being moral and that being genuinely selfish entails respecting the rights of others; before the formation of the principle that concepts are not to be integrated in disregard of necessity; before the identification of the fallacy of package dealing; and so on. With that in mind, here’s a passage from Herbert in which he grapples with two senses of “selfishness”:

Selfishness, in one sense, is and always will be an integral part and a necessary part of our nature. I must take care of and provide for myself before I can do so for others. Nothing could be so topsy-turvy [as] . . . everybody caring only for somebody else, and nobody for himself.

The selfishness that makes a man care for himself is right and necessary for the good of the whole; only, observe, it must be limited and checked everywhere, not only by his own moral feelings, but by the same selfishness in others, if we are to use this word—which is perhaps not very fit—to describe the care which everybody has to take of his own interests.

But this useful selfishness of each man in caring for himself must not be confounded with the aggressive selfishness of those who possess power, and who would disable all others who stand in their way—be they the many or the few—by restrictions and disqualifications in order to better the position of themselves. The one selfishness is the true, right, and proper care of a man's own interests in his own fashion; the other selfishness is the treading under foot of the rights of others because they have succeeded better than we ourselves have, and because their success is inconvenient to us. The one selfishness belongs to the system of liberty, the other to the system of socialism and all its political imitations.

See clearly the difference. . . . Men are selfish and must be selfish in first caring for themselves. Restrict that selfishness by the establishment of universal rights, and it then works for the good of the world, each man doing his best for himself in his own way and according to his own faculties. Enlarge that selfishness by giving to a majority power over a minority, and it springs at once into overweening proportions, and becomes the most deadly plague of the human race.1

Given that Herbert appears to have had some but certainly not a full understanding of the moral propriety of selfishness, what did he regard as the moral foundation for individual rights? He regarded rights as grounded in, arising from, and in service of “self-ownership”—by which he meant essentially the same thing Rand meant in saying “man [is] a sovereign individual who owns his person, his mind, his life, his work and its products”; “man is the owner of his own life”; and “your life belongs to you.”2 As Herbert put it: “The self-owner is owner of his own mind and body and his own property.” He elaborated:

[E]very individual, who lives within the sphere of his own rights, as a self-owner, and has not himself first aggressed upon others by employing force or fraud in his dealings with them [and thus deprived himself of his own rights of self-ownership by aggressing upon these same rights of others], is the only one true owner of his own faculties, and his own property. . . .

[T]he individual is not only the one true owner of his faculties, but also of his property, because property is directly or indirectly the product of faculties, is inseparable from faculties, and therefore must rest on the same moral basis, and fall under the same moral law, as faculties. Personal ownership of our own selves and of our own faculties, necessarily includes personal ownership of property. As property is created by faculties, it would be idle, it would be a mere illusion, to speak of an individual as owner of his own faculties, and at same time to withhold from him the fullest and most perfect rights over his property, if such property has been rightfully acquired (by “rightfully” we mean acquired without force or fraud), or inherited from those who have rightfully acquired it. . . .

[T]he one and only one true basis of society is the frank recognition of these rights of self-ownership; that is to say, of the rights of control and direction by the individual, as he himself chooses, over his own mind, his own body, and his own property, always provided, that he respects the same universal rights in others. We hold that so long as he lives within the sphere of his own rights, so long as he respects these rights in others, not aggressing by force or fraud upon the person or property of his neighbors, he cannot be made subject, apart from his own consent, to the control and direction of others, and he cannot be rightfully compelled under any public pretext, by the force of others, to perform any services, to pay any contributions, or to act or not to act in any manner contrary to his own desires or to his own sense of right. He is by moral right a free man, self-owning and self-directing; and has done nothing which justifies others, for any convenience of their own, in taking from him any part, small or great, of his self-ownership.3

Auberon Herbert Portrait by Matt Sissel

Auberon Herbert Portrait by Matt Sissel

That’s remarkably good philosophy coming from a man who thought and wrote several decades before the publication of Atlas Shrugged.

Although Herbert focused primarily on politics, his political thinking did not float at the political level; it was grounded in his understanding of the nature of man, the vital importance of reason, and the correspondingly evil nature of force. He recognized that the use of reason is the essence of moral action; that force and reason are opposites; that to the extent force is used against a person, it stops him from acting on his rational judgment; and that when a person (or government) initiates force against an individual, he (or it) treats that individual not as a human being but as a subhuman animal. In Herbert’s words:

You cannot see too clearly that force and reason—which last is the essence of the moral act—are at the two opposite poles. When you act by reason you are not acting under the compulsion of other men; when you act under compulsion you are not acting under the guidance of reason. The one is a force within you and the other a force without. Moreover, physical force in a man's hand is an instrument of such a brutal character that its very nature destroys and excludes the kindlier or better qualities of human nature. The man who compels his neighbor is not the man who reasons with and convinces him, who seeks to influence him by example, who rouses him to make exertions to save himself. He takes upon himself to treat him, not as a being with reason, but as an animal in whom reason is not.4

Given Herbert’s reverence for reason and contempt for force, it is perhaps unsurprising that he saw crucial similarities between socialism and Catholicism (if not religion as such). For instance:

Socialism is but Catholicism addressing itself not to the soul but to the senses of men. Accept authority, accept the force which it employs, resign yourself to all-powerful managers and infallible schemers, give up the free choice and the free act, the burden of responsibility and the rewards that come to each man according to his own exertions, deny the reason and the self that are in you, place these in the keeping of others, and a world of ease and comfort shall be yours. It is a creed even more degrading than Catholicism, but it offers more tangible bribes for its acceptance.5


What form of slavery can be more debasing than that which a man undergoes when he allows either a party or a church to lead him to and fro when he is in no real agreement with it? Truth to your own self or faithful service to your party? Can you hesitate about the choice?6

Although some people claim Herbert was an anarchist, he emphatically was not. He explicitly opposed all forms of anarchy, which he saw as “merely one more creed of force” and frequently chided for being inherently contradictory. For instance:

My charge against Anarchism is that it sees many forms of crime existing in the world, and it refuses to come to any settled opinion as to what it will do in the matter. If it says it will do nothing, then we must live under the reign of the murderer . . . ; if it says it will have some form of local jury, then we are back into government again at once.7

Herbert thoroughly rejected anarchism and advocated a “central and regularly constituted government” dedicated to the protection of individual rights. A proper government, he held, is one that uses force only against those who initiate its use. In his words:

The forces of government can only be rightly directed against one class of persons; that is against those who are “aggressives” upon others; never against the “nonaggressives.” We ought not to direct our attacks—as the anarchists do—against all government . . . [or] against government strictly limited to its legitimate duties in defense of self-ownership and individual rights, but only against the overgrown, the exaggerated, the insolent, unreasonable and indefensible forms of government . . . under which, those who govern, usurp powers of all kinds, that do not and cannot belong to them, laboring under the ludicrous mistake that they are owners of the nation, owners of the bodies and minds of those very individuals, who called them into existence.8

Herbert thought deeply and broadly about the need for and foundation of freedom and about the proper purpose and scope of government, and he wrote with an eloquence as rare as it is beautiful. In closing, consider and enjoy this sweeping integration:

There is one and only one principle, on which you can build a true, rightful, enduring and progressive civilization, which can give peace and friendliness and contentment to all differing groups and sects into which we are divided—and that principle is that every man and woman should be held by us all sacredly and religiously to be the one true owner of his or her faculties, of his or her body and mind, and of all property, inherited or—honestly acquired. There is no other possible foundation. . . .

Force rests on no moral foundations; you cannot justify it; it rests on no moral basis; you cannot reconcile it with reason and conscience and the higher nature of men. It lies apart in its own evil sphere, separated by the deepest gulf from all that makes for the real good of life—a mere devil's instrument.9

To be sure, Objectivists and today’s radical capitalists will quibble with a few statements here and there in Herbert’s works. But with the exception of Rand, they will not find a greater intellectual advocate and defender of individual rights, freedom, and properly limited government than Auberon Herbert.

If you want to deepen and expand your ability to advocate liberty, read Herbert’s works and employ his powerful ideas and eloquent formulations. You will find gems on practically every page.


1. Auberon Herbert, A Politician in Trouble About His Soul, pp. 214–16 (paragraphing added).

2. Ayn Rand, “What is Capitalism” in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (New York: Signet, 1967), p. 18; Objectively Speaking: Ayn Rand Interviewed, edited by Marlene Podritske and Peter Schwartz (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2009), p. 47; For the New Intellectual (New York: Signet, 1963), p. 120.

3. Auberon Herbert, The Right and Wrong of Compulsion by the State, pp. 369–71 (paragraphing added).

4. Herbert, The Right and Wrong of Compulsion, p. 91.

5. Herbert, The Right and Wrong of Compulsion, pp. 119–20.

6. Herbert, The Right and Wrong of Compulsion, p. 82.

7. Auberon Herbert, Taxation and Anarchism, p. 52.

8. Herbert, The Right and Wrong of Compulsion, pp. 375–76.

9. Herbert, The Right and Wrong of Compulsion, pp. 327, 335.


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