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Samizdata quote of the day

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.

– Thomas Jefferson

18 comments to Samizdata quote of the day

  • guy herbert

    The second sentence is the important one, of course.

  • Superb. Quite superb.

  • Nasikabatrachus

    Great words, but they ring hollow for me. I agree with them, but it’s like listening to a mugger talk about the non-aggression principle. Hey, TJ, ya wanna release those slaves?

  • Midwesterner


    I suspect that it would have been a lot like trying to give away a mortgaged house that you had been missing the payments on. As long as the law considered them to be property, not persons, they would have been considered security for his debts.

    And he certainly tried hard enough to change the law to recognize them as free and independent persons.

  • JB

    Very profound. The ideas of the founders embody thousands of years of hard-earned lessons about humanity.

  • veryretired

    Ah yes, the inevitable demand for perfection from Mr Unpronounceble. Obviously well schooled in modern race/gender political thought, Mr U knows any idea from an imperfect source is contaminated and unfit for human consumption.

    So now I will wait for Mr U to tell us of:

    1) his own perfection, and intellectual achievements,

    and 2) the names of all the perfect people who have impressed him with their perfect thought, since only those thoughts are acceptable.

    Meanwhile, I will add that I agree with Pres Kennedy’s comment to the Nobel prize winners’ dinner group regarding Jefferson and his wide ranging genius.

  • CFM

    Jefferson had a King in mind. Today we face populist “democracy.”

    A related quote from the editorial page of today’s Orange County (California) Register:

    Tyranny of the multitude is multiplied tyranny.
    Edmund Burke

  • DocBud

    Or as John Stuart Mill put it:

    “Society can and does execute its own mandates; and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development and, if possible, prevent the formation of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence; and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs as protection against political despotism.”

    It seems so relevant to today, he could have been talking of today’s politicians and meddling NGOs, especially when he said:

    “That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. 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. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil, in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to someone else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”

    The latter should be read before every sitting of a democratic legislature.

  • Perfection? King? What the hell do these have to do with the quote?
    It is already perfect. It means what it says, nothing more, nothing less.
    Any attempt to insert a ‘context’ or infer meanings from other statements is entirely your problem, and is the result of an undisciplined mind.

  • Paul Marks

    The words of Thomas Jefferson are very good.

    And, of course, “the tyrant” can be many people (including a majority of people) not just one person.

    As for the lines of John Stuart Mill the words (as so often) look fine till one starts to examine them:

    The first paragraph confuses aggression (the penalties from the magistrate or the legislature against styles of life or opinions they do not like) with general shunning.

    Context IS important here. J.S. Mill was clearly thinking of the cold treatment he got for going around with another man’s wife.

    This is why the “HARM” principle is useless. It may have “harmed” Mill for other people to have been unfriendly, to have “paraded their disapproval” (it may have cost him writing jobs or whatever) but that is not aggression and it is not what liberty is about.

    The book is “On Liberty” (1859) and in the same text John Stuart Mill makes it quite clear that he does not include under liberty such things as selling goods and services.

    J.S. Mill says he might object on economic grounds to such regulations – but it has nothing to do with the “principle of liberty” he is talking about in this text.

    In short it is the “liberal” princple with which we are so familar today.

    “You can not fire me because you do not approve of my private life or my opinions, but if me and my friends pass a regulation to send you to jail if you violate a price control (or othersuch) that is not a violation of the princple of liberty”.

    The exact OPPOSITE of the libertarian point of view which holds that it is AGGRESSION not HARM that is the violation of liberty – and that it is not aggression to tell a person to get off your property (even if it is because you do not like his choice of shirts) and it IS aggression to tell people what price they can sell their property for.

    It is not the same thing as Jefferson and his slaves (or land grabs from Indians).

    Jefferson’s life may not have matched his thought (although Midwestener has a point), it is J.S. Mill’s THOUGHT that is no good.

    I wish libertarians would stop citing him.

  • Fascinating, Captain.
    But I would suggest that context serves only as an explanation for those who care, not an excuse or clarification; having said which, I tried(in vain) to obtain an original French copy of Cyrano, and read two entirely unrelated translations of Aristotles Ethics in order to play them off due to the renditions including license and approximations.

  • That was an excellent comment, Paul – thank you.

  • Nick M

    …and JS Mill couldn’t hold his drink!

    It seems to me that it isn’t so much about a distinction between “aggression” and “harm” as just about inalienable property rights. Your examples are all about the right of ownership and the free disposal or acquisition of property.

    The problem with modern “liberals” is they seem to have come to regard the ownership of property (and your right to do what you want with it – planning regs, listed buildings, sales restrictions etc.) as being “unclean” and requiring the intervention of the state (social responsibility?) to absolve them. I sold a coupla computers recently – my box of bits had enough bits to knock together a couple of systems. So a card in the newsagents window and bish-bash-bosh computers sold for cash. One real “liberal” guy I told this too was outraged. “But, but… are they compliant with this, up to such-and-such a standard, are you insured in case someone gets electrocuted…” This from someone who (quite rightly) wouldn’t think that consensual sexual acts between adults would require a docket in triplicate from the relevant government department.

    I was shocked. People have become so inured to the state sticking it’s oar into every aspect of property and commerce that they actively want this intervention or cannot even imagine the basic marketplace.

    I spent long enough as a kid getting my parents permission to do things that as an adult I will be damned if I’m doing the same with the state as an adult. Oh, there’s carrots as well as a stick. You can get lot’s of stuff from the likes of BusinessLink et al but you end up spending more time with that nonsense than you do actually trading. It’s very sad.

  • Tedd McHenry

    Jefferson had a King in mind. Today we face populist “democracy.”

    It’s important to know that Jefferson wrote these words in 1819. So it’s likely he was speaking of the tyranny of the majority, which he was keenly aware of, as much as or more than the tyranny of kings.

  • CFM

    Tedd I can’t make your link work, but given the date of the quote you’re no doubt correct.

    Whatever the date, Jefferson’s statement on tyrannical law is spot on. Our democratically-elected representatives (pietr’s tightly twisted knickers notwithstanding) propose ever more ludicrous laws, intending to control our every action and thought.

    And, I suspect the inevitable blathering about Jefferson’s slave-holding serves no other purpose but to obscure the validity of his writings.

  • Nasikabatrachus

    Ah yes, the inevitable demand for perfection from Mr Unpronounceble. Obviously well schooled in modern race/gender political thought, Mr U knows any idea from an imperfect source is contaminated and unfit for human consumption.

    So now I will wait for Mr U to tell us of:

    1) his own perfection, and intellectual achievements,

    and 2) the names of all the perfect people who have impressed him with their perfect thought, since only those thoughts are acceptable.

    Since veryretired seems to have directed his comment at my comment, I will just say that I neither reject his words for his character nor do I demand perfection from myself or others (in fact, I’m an anarcho-capitalist, so his words are pretty important to my own philosophy). Perfection, however, is as far away from the average as the average is far from evil, and evil no doubt includes the keeping of slaves.

  • dover_beach

    I don’t mean to quibble, alright I do, but Jefferson seems to confuse the idea of law with commands (not an uncommon confusion in the 19th and 20th C). And the context in which he uses ‘rights of the individual’ points to some sort of natural law theory rather then towards a mode of liberty/ life that had become the common property of most Americans, which they had inherited it from the English and modified to suit their own circumstances (and continue to modify it).

    Even so, I can’t help being impressed by Jefferson.

  • Paul Marks


    Yes there is always the danger of legal positivism, and yes I prefer “the student of the common law of England” to “the philosopher”.

    If “law” is just the command of the ruler (one man or a multitude) as “the philosopher” (Thomas Hobbes) would have it, then there is no moral reason to obey the law (it would be a matter of force and fear only).

    Nick M.

    Yes I am a “propertarian” (for want of a better word) as to me rightful property (over ones own body and other stuff) is the heart of the matter.

    If I own a house or a factory it is up to me who I allow in (but not who I allow out – no false imprisonment).

    For example, me saying “you can not come to my birthday party in a green shirt” is not a violation of liberty (however silly I may be for saying this), but telling me I must (or must not) wear a green shirt on my property, is a violation of liberty.

    Alisa – thank you for your kind words.


    Well being called “Captain” is not an insult (Captain Kirk?). On the point about translations:

    Well I do not have a Aristotle point for you (although, like you, I have read several different translations of his various works – this is because I can not read Greek).

    But I did find that different translations of Plato were, well, different.

    For example, the Cornford translation of “The Republic” was so different from the Lindsey (Everyman) or Bloom translations as to be a different work (the meaning was different in various matters).

    Still on J.S. Mill:

    Even if I had not given the context I would still have had to examine the text (because, when one examies it closely, it does not mean what it looks like it means at first glance) – I used context to save time (and lots of typing).

    J.S. Mill is perhaps the writer that libertarians get wrong more than any other.