The following is an excerpt from Matt Zwolinski’s blog post over at Libertarianism.org on the life and thought of radical abolitionist, anarchist, entrepreneur, advocate of women’s suffrage and libertarian Lysander Spooner.
Spooner wrote about a variety of topics – from slavery to intellectual property to his own proposed system of free banking. And of course a single essay cannot possible do justice to the range and depth of Spooner’s ideas on these topics. What I hope to do instead is highlight one crucially important theme that ran consistently throughout Spooner’s life. From his earliest essays straight through to his very last, and in many of the causes that drove him to move beyond writing to social activism, Spooner expressed the idea that state power is a tool that is almost always used to benefit the powerful at the expense of the poor and marginalized. What those groups need, therefore, is not more state power, but less. What they need is liberty.
You can see this idea in the most celebrated episode in Spooner’s life – his effort to compete against the United States Post Office with his own private alternative, the American Letter Mail Company. Competing with the US government in this arena was illegal, of course, and Spooner hoped the government would try to shut him down so that he might argue the unconstitutionality of the government’s monopoly before the Supreme Court. But Spooner saw in that monopoly more than just an unjust restriction of people’s economic liberty. It was that, to be sure. But it was also a way for the government to confer privileges upon an economically and politically powerful group of citizens at the expense of another, less powerful group. A government monopoly on mail made it possible to subsidize delivery in the rural South, where low volume and large distances made business relatively unprofitable, by charging higher rates in the urban North. But why should a factory worker in Chicago be forced to pay higher rates for postage merely in order that a wealthy landowner in Virginia might pay less? As Spooner saw it, the postal monopoly was doubly immoral. It furthered the unworthy goal of regressive redistribution, by the unjust means of restrictions on individuals’ freedom of labor and contract.”]