Tucker on Right and Rights, 1882

There have been a series of discussions / arguments / pointless pissing contests in recent months, revolving around the question of just what sorts of property, and what sorts of actions, are authorized by mutualist theory. Mutualism begins—literally, in Proudhon’s What Is Property?—with a sense that “property” may be a problem without a really satisfactory solution. What, then, does that mean about the mutualist understanding of property relations, particularly in a setting where other property systems may be in place, or in competition. The short answer is probably that mutualism authorizes very little. If the best we can do is to determine workable conventions for the best title, it is not clear that we will always be able to clearly distinguish between competing systems on the grounds of equity and justice. In practice, the extension of rights is largely a matter of current convention. Of course, liberty, certainly the core value for any libertarian, will shape our practices in a very basic way—and sometimes it may shape them in unexpected ways. Benjamin Tucker, in all phases of his career, was sensitive to the ways in which even a “plumb-line” libertarian philosophy could set values at odds with one another, and pose problems in practice. In the essay that follows, he writes about the distinction between right and rights.

Benjamin R. Tucker, “Right and Individual Rights,” Liberty, 1, 12 (January 7, 1882), 3.

Right and Individual Rights.

Until somebody shall have formulated and demonstrated a correct science of Justice, the way is ever open to constant confusion as regards the subject of right and rights. The column of a newspaper are not the place to develop such a science; nevertheless, the matter is so important that we have determined, reconsidering our previously-announced purpose to drop it, to once more re-state our position. On several occasions our editorials have been sharply criticised by parties who are supposed to know something of the principles of Liberty; not that they would differ from us, if they carried in mind the distinction that must necessarily be kept in view in discussing the bearings of Liberty upon human acts but simply that they have got into the habit of carelessly defining acts without reference to the sphere of the individuals acting.

The right to do a thing and the abstract right of a thing involve two essentially different principles. For instance, we have defended the right of individuals to make contracts stipulating the payment of usury, and should strike at the very essence of Liberty if we did not; but this defense of individual right by no means carries with it the defence of usury as an equitable transaction per se. In defending the right to take usury, we do not defend the right of usury. He who cannot see this has not mastered the A B C of social analysis. One of our critics, who has twice challenged our defence of individuals who voluntarily choose to be parties to usury, strenuously defends “free rum.” Would he like to be accused of saying thereby that it is a right, as a matter of principle, to drink rum inordinately? No, he is a severe believer in the wrongfulness of excessive rum-drinking. But he believes that the rum-drinker and the rum-seller have the right to execute a contract involving a practice wrong in itself, and that no third party has the right to step between them by force and dictate the terms of their mutual and voluntary transactions. That is exactly, and no more than, what Liberty affirms with regard to usury. Wherein, then, have we so grievously sinned?

To say that it is absolutely right to do a thing is to say that to do it is to do that which will administer to the greatest possible good, when every possible element involved in the transaction is seen and weighed. But who possesses that sublime omniscience which can see and weigh every element, past, present, and future, that enters into a transaction? And even If one could, who I to vouch authoritatively that his weights, measures, and balances are correct? In this dilemma the theologians, of course, find an easy way out by setting up a pure fiction labelled “God” and stamped infallible. This trick, however, being “played out” with our critics, how do they propose to get at the absolute right of a thing? Is there, indeed, in practice, any absolute right?

Nor does it solve the matter at all to bring in the cost principle, and say that that is absolutely right which is done solely at the cost of the individual who act. There is no mentionable act, not even the dropping of a pin in the middle of the Desert of Sahara, of which It can infallibly be said that it is done solely at the cost of the individuals acting. The loss of that pin as a necessary surgical instrument to treat the disabled camel may cot its life and with t the lives of the whole party. We believe in the cost principle as a standard, and the best at our service, but its observance can never result in the universality of absolute right, since no man or set of men can over attain to the omniscience of foreseeing the entire bill of costs, or on which side of scales all the consequents will arrange themselves. In short, with our human limitations, absolute right practically has no existence.

The only way even to approximately solve the right and wrong of human acts is to leave every individual free to make such contracts with his fellows as to them seem good. The fact of how far given transactions are executed at the cost of others will soon be made evident in every case by the protest of those on whom the cost unjustly falls. If every individual is left free to make contracts and ever free to enter an effectual protest against transactions wherein the cast falls upon his shoulders without his consent, the consequent adjustments will reach the nearest possible approach to absolute justice. The monster that Liberty invites true reformers to help battle down and exterminate is the State, whoso purpose is, first, to enforce unjust contracts through forcible defence of monopoly, and, second, to make effectual protest impossible by defending ill-gotten properly from the natural retribution which attends tyranny and theft.

Liberty, therefore, must defend the right of individuals to make contracts involving usury, rum, marriage, prostitution, and many other things which it believes to be wrong in principle and opposed to human well-being. The right to do wrong involves the essence of all rights. Perfect liberty to contract for what is wrong is the shortest and surest way to abolish that wrong, provided the State can be made to step down and out and leave the wrong to it merits in a fair fight with no favors. The State, however, almost invariably takes sides with the wrong, and declares the advocates of a fair contest between right and wrong enemies of law and order. The right, losing its head in that most dangerous of superstitions known as patriotism, is stupid enough to take up arms against itself and everything goes to suit the oppressor.

Given the untrammelled right to take usury on the one hand, and the untrammelled right to protest that its cost shall not be shouldered by the innocent on the other, abolish all State interference, and then usury can work no harm to humanity. The minimum of its harm is measured by the total abolition of the State, and in the last analysis usury is wrong, in practice, solely because the State is suffered to exist. To those who cannot meet us on this ground as radical reformers we respectfully announce that we decline to waste any more time and type over their future shufflings.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2701 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.


  1. Shawn, great stuff! Question for you: Are Proudhon’s “What Is Property?” and “Theory of Property” consistent, inconsistent, an evolution, or what? I realize I need to read them, but quotes I’ve seen from them sound in conflict.

  2. There’s definitely an evolution, but mostly in terminology and in the precise form of Proudhon’s dialectical approach. I’ve replied to your question on the Leftlibertarian2 list, but I’ll try to follow up here some more as well.

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