There is nothing like the filter of time. When a book from 1850 receives praise, you know its insight is timeless and its quality undeniable. This essay discusses what the law should be and shows the tragedy of what it has become. The content still relevant today, reminds us of how the more things change, the more they stay the same.

What is the law?

It is the collective organization of the individual right to his defense. Because every man has the right to defend, even by force, his person, his liberty, and his property, a group of men have the right to organize a common force to provide for this defense.

The collective right comes from the individual right. Since an individual cannot lawfully touch the person, liberty, or property of another individual; the common force cannot be lawfully used to destroy the person, the liberty, or the property of individuals.

The law does not impose upon people it negates, it restricts people from doing harm. The law violates neither the personality, nor the liberty, nor the property of people. It only guards the personality, the liberty, the property of others. It defends the equal rights of all.

When the law through the medium of its necessary agent, force, imposes anything; it is no longer negative. It acts positively upon men. It enforces the will of the legislator over the people’s will. People cease to be men, they lose their personality, their liberty, and their property.

What perverts the law?

Labor being in itself a pain, and man being naturally inclined to avoid pain, it follows that whenever plunder is less burdensome than labor, it prevails. Because the law cannot exist without the support of a preponderant force, which is in the hands of the legislator, and the tendency to plunder lives in the heart of men, the law perverts. Instead of being a check upon injustice, it becomes its most invincible instrument. The law becomes the tool of every kind of avarice, instead of being its check!

Under the pretense of organization, regulation, protection, or encouragement, the law takes from one party to give to another. It grabs the wealth acquired by all the classes to increase that of one class. In this case, there is no class which may not try, and with reason, to place its hands upon the law. As long as we allow the law to divert from its true mission, and admit that it may violate property instead of securing it, everybody will want to manufacture laws. Either to defend himself against plunder or to organize it for his profit.

Our misguided demands of the law

The prejudice of our time is that it isn’t enough that the law be just, it must be philanthropic. It is not sufficient that it guarantees to every citizen the free and inoffensive exercise of his faculties, applied to his physical, intellectual, and moral development. It demands to extend well-being, instruction, and morality directly over the nation.

These two missions of the law contradict each other. A citizen cannot at the same time be free and not free. Fraternity goes together with voluntary. Fraternity can’t be legally enforced, without liberty being legally destroyed and justice legally trampled under the foot. Legal plunder has two roots: one of them is human greed, and the other is in misconceived philanthropy.

How is it that the strange idea of making the law produce what it does not contain – prosperity, wealth, science, religion – should ever have gained ground in the political world?

What should we demand?

The union of all liberties, the liberty of conscience, of education, of association, of the press, of movement, of labor, and exchange. In other words, the free exercise, for all, of all the inoffensive faculties. The destruction of all despotism, even of legal despotism, and the reduction of law to its only rational sphere, which is to regulate the individual right of legitimate defense, or to repress injustice.

It is not the mission of the law to regulate our consciences, our ideas, our will, our education, our sentiments, our works, our exchanges, our gifts, our enjoyments. Its mission is to prevent the rights of one from interfering with those of another, in any one of these things.

It is a fascinating read, and well worth spending an evening to go over this essay. Yet as with any great work, you’ll invest more time revisiting it and your notes time and again. You can get the book from your favorite dealer. Mine is downloading it from Project Gutenberg .