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This article is about the political position. For other uses, see Voluntarism.
A symbol commonly used by voluntaryists.[1]
The anarcho-capitalist flag, another symbol also widely used by voluntaryists.

Voluntaryism (/ˈvɒləntərɪˌɪzəm/;[2] sometimes voluntarism /ˈvɒləntəˌrɪzəm/[3]), is a libertarian philosophy which holds that all forms of human association should be voluntary.[4][better source needed] The principle most frequently used to support voluntaryism is the non-aggression principle (NAP). It is closely associated with, and sometimes used synonymously with, the anarcho-capitalist philosophy.

Many voluntaryists base their thinking on the ideas of voluntaryist philosophers Murray Rothbard and Robert LeFevre. Rothbard maintained, first, that every government "presumes to establish a compulsory monopoly of defense (police and courts) service over some geographical area. So that individual property owners who prefer to subscribe to another defense company within that area are not allowed to do so"; and, second, that every government obtains its income through taxation, what voluntaryists see as theft and coercion. "All governments, however limited they may be otherwise, commit at least these two fundamental crimes against liberty and property."[5]


Non-aggression principle[edit]

The non-aggression principle is the moral principle most frequently used to support voluntaryism.[citation needed]


The principle has been derived by various philosophical approaches, including:


The non-aggression principle has a long tradition but has been mostly popularized by libertarians.[9][10][11] Variations of it can be found in many different political, religious, and philosophical ideologies.[12]

Movements identifying as voluntaryist[edit]

Seventeenth century[edit]

Precursors to the voluntaryist movement had a long tradition in the English-speaking world, at least as far back as the Leveller movement of mid-seventeenth century England. The Leveller spokesmen John Lilburne (c. 1614–1657) and Richard Overton (c. 1600 – c. 1660s) who "clashed with the Presbyterian puritans, who wanted to preserve a state-church with coercive powers and to deny liberty of worship to the puritan sects."[13] The Levellers were nonconformist in religion and agitated for the separation of church and state. The church to their way of thinking was a voluntary associating of equals, and furnished a theoretical and practical model for the civil state. If it was proper for their church congregations to be based on consent, then it was proper to apply the same principle of consent to its secular counterpart. For example, the Leveller 'large' Petition of 1647 contained a proposal "that tythes and all other inforced maintenances, may be for ever abolished, and nothing in place thereof imposed, but that all Ministers may be payd only by those who voluntarily choose them, and contract with them for their labours."[13]

The Levellers also held to the idea of self-proprietorship. As Richard Overton wrote: "No man hath power over my rights and liberties, and I over no mans [sic]."[13] They realized that it was impossible to assert one's private right of judgment in religious matters (what we would call today liberty of conscience) without upholding the same right for everyone else, even the unregenerate. The existence of a State church in England caused friction since the time of the Levellers because there were always those who opposed its religious doctrine or their forced contributions towards its support.

Nineteenth century[edit]

In 1843, Parliament considered legislation which would require part-time compulsory attendance at school of those children working in factories. The effective control over these schools was to be placed in the hands of the established Church of England, and the schools were to be supported largely from funds raised out of local taxation. Nonconformists, mostly Baptists and Congregationalists, became alarmed. They had been under the ban of the law for more than a century. At one time or another they could not be married in their own churches, were compelled to pay church rates against their will, and had to teach their children underground for fear of arrest. They became known as voluntaryists because they consistently rejected all state aid and interference in education, just as they rejected the state in the religious sphere of their lives. Three of the most notable voluntaryists included the young Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), who published his first series of articles "The Proper Sphere of Government," beginning in 1842; Edward Baines, Jr., (1800–1890) editor and proprietor of the Leeds Mercury; and Edward Miall (1809–1881), Congregationalist minister, and founder-editor of The Nonconformist (1841), who wrote Views of the Voluntary Principle (1845).

The educational voluntaryists wanted free trade in education, just as they supported free trade in corn or cotton. Their concern for "liberty can scarcely be exaggerated." They believed that "government would employ education for its own ends" (teaching habits of obedience and indoctrination), and that government-controlled schools would ultimately teach children to rely on the State for all things. Baines, for example, noted that "[w]e cannot violate the principles of liberty in regard to education without furnishing at once a precedent and inducement to violate them in regard to other matters." Baines conceded that the then current system of education (both private and charitable) had deficiencies, but he argued that freedom should not be abridged on that account. Should freedom of the press be compromised because we have bad newspapers? "I maintain that Liberty is the chief cause of excellence; but it would cease to be Liberty if you proscribed everything inferior."[14] The Congregational Board of Education and the Baptist Voluntary Education Society are usually given pride of place among the Voluntaryists.[15]

In southern Africa, voluntaryism in religious matters was an important part of the liberal "Responsible Government" movement of the mid-19th century, along with support for multi-racial democracy and an opposition to British imperial control. The movement was driven by powerful local leaders such as Saul Solomon and John Molteno, and when it briefly gained power it disestablished the state-supported churches in 1875.[16][17]

Although there was never an explicitly voluntaryist movement in America until the late 20th century, earlier Americans did agitate for the disestablishment of government-supported churches in several of the original thirteen states. These conscientious objectors believed mere birth in a given geographic area did not mean that one consented to membership or automatically wished to support a state church. Their objection to taxation in support of the church was two-fold: taxation not only gave the state some right of control over the church; it also represented a way of coercing the non-member or the unbeliever into supporting the church. In New England, where both Massachusetts and Connecticut started out with state churches, many people believed that they needed to pay a tax for the general support of religion – for the same reasons they paid taxes to maintain the roads and the courts. It was simply inconceivable to many of them that society could long exist without state support of religion. Practically no one considered the idea that although governmentally supplied goods and services (such as roads, or schools, or churches) might be essential to human welfare, it was not necessary that they be provided by the government.[citation needed]

There were at least two well-known Americans who espoused voluntaryist causes during the mid-19th century. Henry David Thoreau's (1817–1862) first brush with the law in his home state of Massachusetts came in 1838, when he turned twenty-one. The State demanded that he pay the one dollar ministerial tax, in support of a clergyman, "whose preaching my father attended but never I myself."[18] When Thoreau refused to pay the tax, it was probably paid by one of his aunts. In order to avoid the ministerial tax in the future, Thoreau had to sign an affidavit attesting he was not a member of the church.

Thoreau's overnight imprisonment for his failure to pay another municipal tax, the poll tax, to the town of Concord was recorded in his essay, "Resistance to Civil Government," first published in 1849. It is often referred to as "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience," because in it he concluded that government was dependent on the cooperation of its citizens. While he was not a thoroughly consistent voluntaryist, he did write that he wished never to "rely on the protection of the state," and that he refused to tender it his allegiance so long as it supported slavery. He distinguished himself from "those who call[ed] themselves no-government men": "I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government," but this has been interpreted as a gradualist, rather than minarchist, stance[19] given that he also opened his essay by stating his belief that "That government is best which governs not at all," a point which all voluntaryists heartily embrace.[18]

One of those "no-government men" was William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879), famous abolitionist and publisher of The Liberator. Nearly all abolitionists identified with the self-ownership principle, that each person – as an individual – owned and should control his or her own mind and body free of outside coercive interference. The abolitionist called for the immediate and unconditional cessation of slavery because they saw slavery as man-stealing in its most direct and worst form. Slavery reflected the theft of a person's self-ownership rights. The slave was a chattel with no rights of its own. The abolitionists realized that each human being, without exception, was naturally invested with sovereignty over him or her self and that no one could exercise forcible control over another without breaching the self-ownership principle. Garrison, too, was not a pure voluntaryist for he supported the federal government's war against the States from 1861 to 1865.

Another one was Charles Lane (1800–1870). He was friendly with Amos Bronson Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Thoreau. Between January and June 1843 a series of nine letters he penned were published in such abolitionist’s papers as The Liberator and The Herald of Freedom. The title under which they were published was "A Voluntary Political Government," and in them Lane described the state in terms of institutionalized violence and referred to its "club law, its mere brigand right of a strong arm, [supported] by guns and bayonets." He saw the coercive state on par with "forced" Christianity. "Everyone can see that the church is wrong when it comes to men with the [B]ible in one hand, and the sword in the other." "Is it not equally diabolical for the state to do so?" Lane believed that governmental rule was only tolerated by public opinion because the fact was not yet recognized that all the true purposes of the state could be carried out on the voluntary principle, just as churches could be sustained voluntarily. Reliance on the voluntary principle could only come about through "kind, orderly, and moral means" that were consistent with the totally voluntary society he was advocating. "Let us have a voluntary State as well as a voluntary Church, and we may possibly then have some claim to the appeallation of free men."[20]

Modern era voluntaryists[edit]

Although use of the label "voluntaryist" waned after the death of Auberon Herbert in 1906, its use was renewed in 1982, when George H. Smith, Wendy McElroy, and Carl Watner began publishing The Voluntaryist magazine. George Smith suggested use of the term to identify those libertarians who believed that political action and political parties (especially the Libertarian Party) were antithetical to their ideas. In their "Statement of Purpose" in Neither Bullets nor Ballots: Essays on Voluntaryism (1983), Watner, Smith, and McElroy explained that voluntaryists were advocates of non-political strategies to achieve a free society. They rejected electoral politics "in theory and practice as incompatible with libertarian goals," and argued that political methods invariably strengthen the legitimacy of coercive governments. In concluding their "Statement of Purpose" they wrote: "Voluntaryists seek instead to delegitimize the State through education, and we advocate the withdrawal of the cooperation and tacit consent on which state power ultimately depends."

Voluntaryist philosopher John Zube is known for his support and advocacy of voluntaryism. He began writing a series of articles advocating voluntaryism in the 1980s.

Historical formulations of the non-aggression principle
Year Formulated by Formulation
300s BC Epicurus "Natural justice is a symbol or expression of usefullness, to prevent one person from harming or being harmed by another."[21]
20s – 30s Jesus Christ "Therefore whatever you desire for men to do to you, you shall also do to them; for this is the law and the prophets." – Jesus Christ (Matthew 7:12 WEB)
700s – 1100s Abu Mansur Al-Maturidi,
Ibn Qayyim Al-Jawziyya,
These Islamic theologians and philosophers wrote that man could rationally know that man had a right to life and property.[citation needed]
early 1200s Ibn Tufail In Hayy ibn Yaqdhan the Islamic philosopher discussed the life story of a baby living alone without prior knowledge who discovered natural law, and natural rights, which obliged man not to coerce against another's life or property. Ibn Tufail influenced Locke's notion of Tabula Rasa.[22]
1675 Baruch Spinoza In Political Treatise the Rationalist philosopher said "All laws which can be broken without any injury to another, are counted but a laughing-stock, and are so far from bridling the desires and lusts of men, that on the contrary they stimulate them." and "He is called just who has a constant will to render to every man his own, but he unjust who strives, on the contrary, to make his own that which belongs to another." effectively demonstrating how non-aggression is the most advantageous guiding principle of social structure.
1682 Samuel von Pufendorf In On the Duty of Man and Citizen he wrote "Among the absolute duties, i.e., of anybody to anybody, the first place belongs to this one: let no one injure another. For this is the broadest of all duties, embracing all men as such."[23]
1689 John Locke In Second Treatise on Government he wrote "Being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions."[24]
1722 William Wollaston In The Religion of Nature Delineated he formulated "No man can have a right to begin to interrupt the happiness of another." This formulation emphasized "begin" to distinguish aggressive disturbances from those in self-defense ("...yet every man has a right to defend himself and his against violence, to recover what is taken by force from him, and even to make reprisals, by all the means that truth and prudence permit.")
1790 Mary Wollstonecraft In "A Vindication of the Rights of Men" Mary Wollstonecraft states: "The birthright of man ... is such a degree of liberty, civil and religious, as is compatible with the liberty of every other individual with whom he is united in a social compact, and the continued existence of that compact."
1816 Thomas Jefferson "Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add 'within the limits of the law', because law is often but the tyrant's will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual." and "No man has a natural right to commit aggression on the equal rights of another, and this is all from which the laws ought to restrain him." (Thomas Jefferson to Francis Gilmer, 1816)
1851 Herbert Spencer The law of equal freedom: "Every man is free to do that which he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man." This notion of equal freedom goes back to earlier liberal thought.
1859 John Stuart Mill The harm principle formulated in On Liberty, states that "the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others".
1961 Ayn Rand In an essay called "Man's Rights" in the book The Virtue of Selfishness, she formulated, "The precondition of a civilized society is the barring of physical force from social relationships. ... In a civilized society, force may be used only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use."[25][26][27]
1963 Murray Rothbard "No one may threaten or commit violence ('aggress') against another man's person or property. Violence may be employed only against the man who commits such violence; that is, only defensively against the aggressive violence of another. In short, no violence may be employed against a nonaggressor. Here is the fundamental rule from which can be deduced the entire corpus of libertarian theory." Cited from "War, Peace, and the State" (1963) which appeared Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature and Other Essays[28]

The Voluntaryist magazine[edit]

The Voluntaryist magazine, which began in 1982, publishes articles and news about voluntarism topics.[29] Edited and published by Carl Watner since 1986, the most significant articles from the first 100 issues were anthologized in book-length form and published as Carl Watner, ed. (1999). I Must Speak Out: The Best of The Voluntaryist, 1982–1999. San Francisco: Fox & Wilkes. . Another voluntaryist anthology made a case for non-voting: Carl Watner with Wendy McElroy, ed. (2001). Dissenting Electorate: Those Who Refuse to Vote and the Legitimacy of Their Opposition. Jefferson: McFarland and Company. . The masthead of The Voluntaryist, perhaps, best epitomizes the voluntaryist outlook: "If one takes care of the means, the end will take care of itself." This statement penned by Mahatma Gandhi urges that the world can only be changed one person at a time, and then, only if that person wills it, making it appealing to many voluntaryists. The only thing that the individual can do, voluntaryists hold, "is present society with 'one improved unit'." Albert Jay Nock expressed this point as follows: "[A]ges of experience testify that the only way society can be improved is by the individualist method …, that is, the method of each 'one' doing his very best to improve 'one.'" Voluntaryists believe that this is the quiet, peaceful, patient way of changing society because it concentrates on bettering the character of men and women as individuals. The voluntaryist hope is that as the individual units change, the improvement of society will take care of itself. In other words, "if one take care of the means, the end will take care of itself."[30]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Niels L. V for Voluntary - property and cooperation: The Symbol. V for Voluntary. Retrieved on 2014-06-01.
  2. ^ "voluntaryism". Collins English Dictionary.
  3. ^ "voluntarism". Collins English Dictionary.
  4. ^ Watner, Carl. On the History of the Word "Voluntaryism". The Voluntaryist. Retrieved on 2009-04-01.
  5. ^ Murray Rothbard (May 1973). "Yes". Reason Magazine. pp. 19, 23–25 
  6. ^ Stephan Kinsella. "The relation between the non-aggression principle and property rights (Mises Economics Blog, October 4, 2011)". Retrieved 2011-11-25. 
  7. ^ Murray N. Rothbard. "Hoppephobia (2004 LewRockwell.com reprint from Liberty, Vol. 3 No. 4, March 1990, pp. 11–12.)". Retrieved 2012-01-05. 
  8. ^ Norman P. Barry. "Review Article: The New Liberalism (British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 13, No. 1, January 1983, pp. 93–123)". JSTOR 193781. 
  9. ^ US Libertarian Party. ""I certify that I oppose the initiation of force to achieve political or social goals" (US Libertarian Party Membership Form)". Retrieved 2011-11-24. 
  10. ^ Charles Murray, David Friedman, David Boaz, and R.W. Bradford. "Freedom: What's Right vs What Works (Liberty Magazine, January 2005, Vol 15 No 1, pp. 31–39)" (PDF). Retrieved 2011-11-15. 
  11. ^ Walter Block. "Jonah Goldberg and the Libertarian Axiom on Non-Aggression (LewRockwell.com, June 28, 2001)". Retrieved 2011-11-17. 
  12. ^ Murray N. Rothbard. "Libertarianism in Ancient China (Mises Daily, December 23, 2009)". Retrieved 2011-11-15. 
  13. ^ a b c G. E. Aylmer (ed.) (1975). "The Levellers in the English Revolution". Ithaca: Cornell University Press. pp. 68, 80 
  14. ^ George H. Smith (1982). "Nineteenth-Century Opponents of State Education". In Robert B. Everhart. The Public School Monopoly. Cambridge: Ballinger Publishing. pp. 109–144 at pp. 121–124 
  15. ^ EAG Clark (1982). "The Last of the Voluntaryists: The Ragged School Union in the School Board Era" (PDF). History of Education 
  16. ^ Molteno, P. A. The Life and Times of John Charles Molteno. Comprising a History of Representative Institutions and Responsible Government at the Cape. London: Smith, Elder & Co., Waterloo Place, 1900.
  17. ^ Solomon, W. E. C: Saul Solomon – the Member for Cape Town. Cape Town: Oxford University Press, 1948.
  18. ^ a b Henry David Thoreau (1960). "Walden, or Life in the Wood and On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, with an Afterword by Perry Miller". New York: New American Library (Twenty-first printing). pp. 33, 222–223, 232 
  19. ^ R Drinnon (1962). "Thoreau's Politics of the Upright Man". The Massachusetts Review 
  20. ^ Carl Watner, ed. (1982). A Voluntary Political Government: Letters from Charles Lane. St. Paul: Michael E. Coughlin, Publisher. p. 52 
  21. ^ Epicurus. "The Internet Classics Archives: Principal Doctrines (translated by Robert Drew Hicks)". Retrieved 2011-11-15. 
  22. ^ G.A. Russell (1994). The 'Arabick' interest of the natural philosophers in seventeenth-century England (Brill Publishers, 1994, ISBN 90-04-09459-8, pp. 224-239). ISBN 9789004098886. Retrieved 2011-11-15. 
  23. ^ Samuel von Pufendorf. "On the Duty of Man and Citizen According to the Natural Law (Cambridge University, 1682, Book I, Chapter VI)". Retrieved 2011-11-15. 
  24. ^ John Locke. "Second Treatise of Civil Government (1690, 1764)". Retrieved 2011-11-15. 
  25. ^ Ayn Rand. "The Nature of Government (December 1963, from The Virtue of Selfishness, 1961, 1964)" (PDF). Retrieved 2011-11-15. 
  26. ^ Ayn Rand. "The Roots of War (June 1966, excerpts)". Retrieved 2011-11-15. 
  27. ^ Ayn Rand. "Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World (1960, 1967, excerpts)". Retrieved 2011-11-15. 
  28. ^ Murray N. Rothbard. "War, Peace, and the State (April 1963)". Retrieved 2011-11-15. 
  29. ^ OCLC 17289474, 493519602 and 84822470
  30. ^ Albert Jay Nock (1943). Memoirs of a Superfluous Man. New York: Harper and Brothers. 

Further readling[edit]

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