Henry Salt Archive

Henry Salt (1853-1939) was the author of the Life of Henry David Thoreau, Animals Rights and A Plea for Vegetarianism which inspired Gandhi for follow a vegetarian diet.

Social Liberty

by Henry S. Salt

There are some words whose very sound seems to possess a peculiar charm and to exercise a magical influence over the minds of men, although the various ideas of the thing itself are often indistinct or even contradictory. The names of “faith” and “patriotism” are instances of this. No man likes to be called faithless or unpatriotic, although few are agreed as to the definition of the qualities themselves, and still fewer as to their practical application in any given case. But of all such watch-words—the theme of so many praises in name, and the cause of such wide disagreement in reality—there is none so remarkable, none that has been such a power in history of nations and individuals as the word liberty. Liberty is a goddess who is invoked by all men but understood by few. We Englishmen, proud of our “free England,” claim to be her special votaries and admirers; but I fear a close examination will prove our worship, if not absolutely erroneous, to be at least as imperfect and inconsistent as that of other nations.

The strict definition of liberty is well given by Locke. “In this, then, consists freedom—viz., in our being able to act or not to act, according as we shall choose or will.” That is liberty in its abstract definition; but a very slight practical acquaintance with life is sufficient to teach us that this pure ideal liberty is never attainable by man, either in his relations to the laws of the universe or the conditions of the society of his fellow-men. Accordingly we find that some thinkers, notably Mr. Ruskin, have spoken of “liberty” as a mere ignis fatuus and delusion. “How suit of that treacherous phantom which men call liberty—most treacherous indeed of all phantoms—for the feeblest ray of reason might surely show us that not only its attainment, but its being was impossible. There is no such thing in the universe. There never can be.” This solution of a different question has the merit of being at any rate simple and expeditious. But it is hard to reconcile this conclusion with the fact that the yearning after “liberty” (whatever we may mean by the name) has been a mighty power in the history of every age; it is impossible, I think, to believe that the “liberty” which has so often been the aspiration of the noblest nations and the wisest me, has been nothing more than a mischievous hallucination. The fact is, that by “liberty” men do not mean that absolute freedom as defined by Locke, which implies a complete immunity from all external control. The attainment of such liberty is of course impossible and inconceivable; but there is another kind of “liberty,” which, though difficult to define precisely, is a very real and powerful factor in any scheme of human welfare. It is this conventional liberty to which we almost invariably allude when we use the name, and it is this that Mill treats of in his famous “Essay on Liberty.” The principle he there lays down is this, that “the sole end for which mankind are warranted in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection.” “To prevent harm to others” is the one and only justification of interference with individual freedom. Such restriction, rightly viewed, is not antagonistic to a state of liberty. On all hands it is accepted as entirely natural and necessary; and there is no man who is so foolish and unreasonable as to claim for himself the right of acting in manner which is obviously injurious to his fellow-men. The real difficulty consists, and must ever consist, in this: how to determine in each case whether there is any danger of “harm to others,” and what measure of “self-defence” may be rightly adopted by society. It is evident that no fixed rule or definition of this can be possible; no conceivable doctrine of rights can be framed, so as to limit once for all the power of society over the individual; each case must be judged on its own merits and determined accordingly. But here again I believe that Mill is taking up an unassailable position when he says that utility is the safest criterion on all such questions. Utility, experience—call it what you will—proves the wisdom of non-interference in certain personal matters which concern the individual more than they concern society; but it also proves that a restriction may successfully be put upon the individual in other matters which are of more importance to society. The most ardent and uncompromising lovers of liberty will submit cheerfully and unhesitatingly to certain laws of society, which are felt to be so palpably just and desirable as to be no infringement of individual freedom. There are other restrictions which have been attempted by governments in all ages, and have in all ages provoked the strongest resistance and hostility; others, again, stand on the borderland between just and unjust interference, and have met with varying success according to the temper of the people on whom they have been imposed. Utility, as I have already said, is the safest guide and criterion; and it will be found in the main that nations and individuals assert their liberty and claim complete independence in all such matters as relate to their own private concerns; the nation refusing to acquiesce in any external control as regards its religion, government and general self-organisation; the individual demanding perfect freedom of thought, discussion and personal life, and a fair representation in the government of his country.

The immediate object of this paper is to dwell on the use and abuse of the name “liberty” in reference to certain social questions which are now every day more and more recognised as being of pressing and primary importance. But I cannot pass over the subject of national and political liberty, and, still more important that of freedom of thought, without remarking that the English people has by no means arrived at that state of blissful perfection with regard to these matters, on which it is often fondly congratulated by certain well-meaning but very foolish “patriots.” Englishmen are indeed regarded with just envy by some other nations on account of their freedom from foreign control, and pride themselves on being not only free themselves, but zealous promoters of the liberty of others. It is true that in the present century England has shown a noble sympathy with Greece, Italy, and Poland when struggling to regain their freedom; but alas! when we consider our conduct in regard to Ireland (not to mention certain questionable doings in more distant countries, euphemistically entitled our “foreign possessions,”) we see at once how inconsistent and insufficient is the mere sentiment of liberty, unless it be based on some solid knowledge of what we really mean by the name. So too in the case of political liberty. In this respect England undoubtedly enjoys far greater freedom than most nations; but though we have gained much, much yet remains to be accomplished. An assembly such as the House of Lords is directly antagonistic to the people’s liberty, and the same must be said of that much be-praised institution, a “limited monarchy;” for a free people should surely be able to elect and remove the officers who preside over its own government. Universal suffrage also is obviously an essential condition of true political liberty, for government cannot by any possibility be considered to be enjoying the privileges of freemen. Again, in the matter of freedom of thought, it is obvious that England has yet much to learn. The manner and methods of persecution are indeed changed, and as religion gradually shifts her ground under the pressure of science, it is evident that the wrath of her votaries will not always fall on the same class of unbelievers; yet the spirit of intolerance is in all ages the same, and can always be recognised as the direct opposite of the spirit of liberty. “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience above all liberties,” says Milton in his “Areopagitica,” that most noble vindication of freedom of speech. I think it can hardly be seriously asserted that Englishmen understand and possess this most precious of all liberties. To refute such an assertion it is only necessary to refer to the treatment of Mr. Bradlaugh by the “Liberal” House of Commons, and the sentence passed on the editor of the Freethinker by Mr. “Justice” North.

But I must now pass on to the main subject of this paper, the question of social liberty. It is the proud boast of Englishmen that “slavery” was for ever abolished throughout the British dominions by the emancipation of the negroes; and truly it would be hard in all history to point to a nobler act of national morality and wisdom. But are we to limit the meaning of the word “slavery” to that iniquitous ownership of men? Can we seriously assert that out laboring population is “free.” To do so would be a mere trifling and quibbling with words, for if slavery is the opposite of liberty, there will have to be another and more important emancipation of slaves before England can be rightly called a free nation. In that chapter of “Progress and Poverty” entitled “Enfranchisement of Laborers,” Mr. George has shown very clearly that our land system is to all intents and purposes a system of slavery. The labourer does not receive nearly the just value of his work, and is forced to accept any terms this landlord may dictate. “Laborers,” he says, “no matter what they produce, will be reduced to a bare living, and the free competition among them, where land is monopolised, will force them to a condition which, though they may be mocked with the titles and insignia of freedom, will be virtually that of slavery.” Nor is this only the case with the agricultural labourer; precisely the same is going on in all our manufacturing towns, where the working man is practically the slave of the capitalist, to whom he is obliged to sell his labor at starvation price.

“What is essential to the idea of a slave?” says Mr. Herbert Spencer. “We primarily think of him as one who is owned by another. To be more than nominal, however, the ownership must be shown by control of the slave’s actions—a control which is habitually for the benefit of the controller. That which fundamentally distinguishes the slave is that he labors under coercion to satisfy another’s desire.”

This is exactly the condition of the large majority of English working men; they are nominally freemen, but they are in reality the slaves of the landlord and the capitalist. It is a different kind of slavery from that of the African negro, for our English slaves have sometimes the chance of choosing starvation in preference to any master at all. I have often found it an interesting exercise for the mind to try to determine which of these two forms of slavery would be the more tolerable; whether it would be better to be the bodily chattel of some slave-holder who, for his own interests, might possibly feed and treat one decently, but from whose service there would be no possibility of escape, or to work for some employer of labor who would treat one without the smallest consideration of decency or humanity, but to whom one would not be personally and permanently bound. It is a question of sentiment, on which we should not all think alike; but there is one point which really seems to leave little room for variety of opinion. The “liberty” which is supposed to be the inalienable birthright of the humblest Englishman is a very shadowy and intangible privilege under the present system of society. It is extremely difficult to understand how they will ever be otherwise until laborers are enabled to treat with employers on more independent terms.

The fact is that, of all mistaken ideas of liberty, the most fatal one is that which sees in so-called “individualism” an essential condition of a state of freedom. Liberty is like the eagle which is wounded by the shaft winged with its own plume. Its own name is taken and used as a catch-word by which men may be deceived and hoodwinked, and drawn away from the true liberty to the false. “Freedom of contract” is in the present day the most popular of a host of sounding phrases, the object of which is to praise liberty in name but to render it impossible in reality. We are told by political economists that any State interference between the laborer and the capitalist is inadvisable, because it would violate freedom of contract. Yet in such a case the very phrase “freedom of contract” is utterly meaningless and ridiculous; for what “freedom” can there be in a contract which is only made under the direct pressure of imminent starvation? When a traveller hands over his purse to a highwayman who accosts him with the alternative of “your money or your life,” is there freedom of contract in that transaction? Yet such is in literal truth the alternative presented by the capitalist to the laborer; he is quite free in free England to refuse the terms offered him—only if he does so he will starve. Such is the result of the doctrine of individualism as preached by the popular political economists of the day. It gives us little but nominal freedom, for the liberty of “moving on” is not of much value to those who have no whither to move, while it robs us of the substance of liberty which we might otherwise possess. “Personal liberty—that is to say the liberty to move about,” says Mr. George, “is everywhere conceded. But the great cause of inequality remains, and is manifesting itself in the unequal distribution of wealth.”

The name of liberty, as I said above, is used as a catch-word to tickle the ears of the unwary and to postpone the realisation of true social freedom; and we are constantly told that if we sanction this or that change we shall be violating the principle of liberty. I have already alluded to some of our laws and institutions which are incompatible with a state of true liberty; let me now refer to one remarkable instance where the spectre of Liberty is invoked by the opponents of proposed reforms, but where, as it seems to me, there would be no real violation of personal freedom.

Wherever any legislation is proposed, of the kind commonly described as Socialistic, we are sure to hear much of the sacredness of liberty. A good instance of this may be seen in Mr. Herbert Spencer’s article on “The Coming Slavery,” in the April number of the Contemporary Review, from which I have already quoted. Nationalisation of the land and means of production is often condemned on the ground that any assistance given by the State would only demoralise and pauperise our working population, by undermining that sense of personal responsibility which at present is fostered and exercised by freedom of contract. But to this it may be answered that, in the first place, our workmen are not really free under the present system, as I have attempted to show above; and, secondly, that as the State assistance would come as a right, and not a charity, there would be no sort of degradation in accepting it. There cannot possibly be any loss of liberty in being put in a position to enjoy the fruits of one’s own labor; on the contrary there is complete loss of liberty in being ousted from it. It is clear then that as far as our laborers are concerned there is no fear of their freedom being injured by Socialistic legislation. On the other hand, if it be argued that such measures would be an encroachment on the rights of wealthy non-workers, and therefore antagonistic to liberty, I reply that idlers have no rights; there should be no such thing in a civilised community as the liberty to be idle. When Mill says that idleness “cannot without tyranny be made a subject of legal punishment,” he must surely have forgotten that an idle man lives by the sweat and toil of others, and that idleness is not a merely personal predilection but a direct injury to the community. According to the principle laid down by Mill himself, the State must therefore be justified on the ground of self-protection in forcing an idler to work, and there is no real sacrifice of liberty in such an act, but precisely the reverse. Of course the term “idler” must here include not only those who do not work at all, but also those who under our present social system gain more wealth than that which is really produced by their own labor, and who are therefore partly living by the toil of others. I maintain that not only is it no violation of liberty to interfere with such persons, but that the only hope of converting England into a free country is in such interference. England can never be free until property (in the true and literal sense of the word, that which is one’s own) is secure; that is until everyone is able to enjoy the fruits of his own labor. Under our present system, all the talk about “freedom of contract,” “free completion,” and the rest of it, is mere hyprocritical nonsense, the only object of which is to throw dust in the eyes of Radical reformers. Socialistic theories may, or may not, be as absurd as political economists would have them appear, but they certainly are not antagonistic to individual liberty.

We have seen that much of our boasted English freedom is illusory or imperfect; but nevertheless we may reasonably hope and believe that a time will come when our nation will be really free. I cannot think that there is anything fanciful or Utopian in the belief that hereafter Englishmen, and indeed all civilised men, will not only assert their own national liberty, but will respect the independence of other races; that all oppressive institutions and tyrannical laws will be abolished; that Freethought instead of being a term of reproach, will be recognised as the only sound basis of morality; and finally that labor will no longer be the slave of capital, but that each man will enjoy the property which his own work has created.

Published: Progress, June 1884