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Voluntaryism (UK: //, US: /--/; sometimes voluntarism //) is a philosophy that holds that all forms of human association should be voluntary, a term coined in this usage by Auberon Herbert in the 19th century, and gaining renewed use since the late 20th century, especially among libertarian anarchists. Its principal beliefs stem from the principles of self-ownership and non-aggression.
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." The Levellers were nonconformist in religion and advocated 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." The Levellers also held to the idea of self-proprietorship.
In 1843, Parliament considered legislation that 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. Some 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; his supporter Auberon Herbert, who coined the modern usage of "Voluntaryist" and established its current definition; 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." The Congregational Board of Education and the Baptist Voluntary Education Society are usually given pride of place among the Voluntaryists.
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.
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.
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." 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 given that he also opened his essay by stating his belief that "That government is best which governs not at all," a point that all voluntaryists heartily embrace.
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."
From the French world, there was Frédéric Bastiat (1801–1850) whose book The Law argued that for a free society, a government must only concern itself with maintaining the individual's right to defend his life, liberty and property, and that if a government pursues anything more than that, such as is common with philanthropy, then it will inevitably encroach those rights, rescinding freedom.
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".
Russian-American novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand (1905–1982) wrote the novel Atlas Shrugged, which describes the formation of a secret voluntary society that emerged from the trials and tribulations of its members.
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