Thomas Spence: A Radical Libertarian

A Forerunner to Geolibertarianism and Anarchism

Progress & Conservationđź”°
8 min readMay 2, 2024

“There are but two ways of inheriting the earth agreeable to justice and the rights of man: the first is in the patriarchal and Indian manner by using it as a common grazing pasture and hunting park, as was done by Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, and Esau and Ishmael. The second is by letting out in farms and tenements for cultivation and habitation as at present, but reserving the rents to the people of the district in lieu of their rights of pasturage, and hunting.” — Thomas Spence (The Restorer of Society to Its Natural State)

The Triumph of Thomas Spence, generated using AI

Thomas Spence (1750–1814) is greatly underappreciated, in my opinion. He should be remembered as a great precursor to both geolibertarianism and anarchism. On the one hand, he envisions a system where land is communally owned and the revenue from rents are shared equally by all (geolibertarianism), but Spence also prefigures the ideas of anarchism. He argues that land ought to be owned by local “parishes” (communes or municipalities) and the revenue should be used to fund public works, with all excess revenue going to a dividend, in equal amounts to all citizens.

“Convinced that political rights alone, however extensive, could never prevent the rich from dominating the poor, he wanted to put what he regarded as the source of all real power — the land — into the hands of all citizens; men, women and children alike. Spence insisted that all private property had been secured by the few by means of force, fraud or theft. Its reclamation was therefore a simple act of justice to the majority whose rights had been usurped. Justice could be best achieved if the inhabitants of each parish in the country formed themselves into parochial corporations and took over all the land within each parish boundary. All the land in the country would then be owned not by the state, but by large numbers of small parochial corporations. The local inhabitants, not the central government, would own and control, not merely administer, the land.” — H. T. Dickinson (Introduction to The Political Works of Thomas Spence)

He never says “federation” but it’s clear he wanted a very loose confederation, with the local democratic parish being the primary organizational unit. Spence’s vision resembles the mutualist and federalist ideas of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the father of modern anarchism, as espoused in General Idea of the Revolution in the 19th Century and in The Principle of Federation. (A similar vision can be found in Thomas Jefferson’s “ward republic,” Fred Foldvary’s “cellular democracy,” and Murray Bookchin’s “democratic confederalism.”) Spence’s vision, however, seems much more “down to Earth” and less utopian than Proudhon’s, while at the same time being decidedly more egalitarian.

“Therefore a day appointed on which the inhabitants of each parish meet, in their respective parishes, to take their long-lost rights into possession, and to form themselves into corporations. So then each parish becomes a corporation, and all men who are inhabitants become members or burghers. The land, with all that appertains to it, is in every parish made the property of the corporation or parish, with as ample power to let, repair, or alter all or any part thereof as a lord of the manor enjoys over his lands, houses, etc,; but the power of alienating the least morsel, in any manner, from the parish either at this or any time hereafter is denied. For it is solemnly agreed to, by the whole nation, that a parish that shall either sell or give away any part of its landed property, shall be looked upon with as much horror and detestation, and used by them as if they had sold all their children to be slaves, or massacred them with their own hands. Thus are there no more nor other lands in the whole country than the parishes; and each of them is sovereign lord of its own territories.” — Thomas Spence (The Real Rights of Man)

“So to do justice to ourselves and posterity we intend to have no landlords but the parishes, and to make every parish a corporation, and every man a parishioner, or member of that parish, and that only, he last dwelt a full year in, notwithstanding from what other parish, country, or nation, he might come prior to such settlement. A small rent or rate, shall, according to the determination of the parishioners, be paid by every person, suitable to the valuation of the housen and land he possesses, to the parish treasury to be put to such uses as the majority please; and each parish shall have all the uncontrollable power that can possibly be made good use of by a corporation, and be connected only by a parliament for the common strength and welfare of the whole….
“The landlords the parishes, pay all the taxes here. The expences of the state, which the parliament regulates, are divided among them according to their abilities, and they send their shares at the time appointed, and so it is done; and thus our nation has no occasion to run in debt. The parish treasuries are supplied as said before, by the rate they lay on the houses, lands, mines. etc. according to their valuation, as well as by the sale of wood. etc. and there is neither toll nor tax beside.” — Thomas Spence (
A Supplement to the History of Robinson Crusoe, Being the History of Crusonia, or Robinson Crusoe’s Island)

Within the framework of the Spencean parish system, there would be free competition and all monopolies would be abolished. (Spence saw the land monopoly as the root of all other monopolies.) Poverty would be completely eliminated by the dividend from the rents. Additionally, colleges, roads, and hospitals would be publically funded by “county rates” that the county would collect from the parishes and which would ultimately come from the land rents. Healthcare would be free at the point of service. Even though many public works would be carried out within the Spencean parish system, the people would always be diligent to ensure that they minimize government waste.

“Answer. Public works and expences, as well as an encreased population may certainly affect the people’s dividends: But as public expences would be entirely under their own controul, they would take care they would neither be enormous nor wasteful. And whatsoever casualties should arise, yet I am confident that at the worst their rentals would not only be amply sufficient for all public exigencies, but leave a considerable surplus, to be dealt back again among the people.” — Thomas Spence (The Constitution of a Perfect Commonwealth)

“The people will be vigilant and watchful over the public expenditure, knowing that the more there is saved their dividends will be the larger.” — Thomas Spence (The Rights of Infants)

“Thus, after deducting the land tax for support of the state, and all local contingent expences, the residue of the rents ought to be equally divided among all living inhabitants of every age and sex having right by residence.” — Thomas Spence (The Constitution of a Perfect Commonwealth)

Under the Spencean system, all taxes would be abolished (replaced by the parish rents) and land would be leased by individuals from the parish. However, since the parish would be under democratic control, Spence held that the system would naturally lead to small local farms and widely distributed property.

“Secondly, Of the farmers, merchants, and master mechanics. — We know that if these have any landed property, their possessions would be sunk in the common stock of which they and their families would become joint proprietors, and it would in general be a change to their advantage. The universal abolition of taxes and the regular returns of their family dividends would also be an eternal prop and spur to their industry, and enable them to sell their respective produce, wares and manufactures at such low rates as to insure both a very extensive foreign and domestic trade. — Commerce would then be so steady and permanent, that bankruptcies would rarely, if ever, happen and jails and extreme misery could never, as now, be the consequence of innocent inability to pay. Would not these reflections be a source of great consolation and remove from the minds of tradesmen a gloomy cloud of black apprehensions?
Thirdly, The labouring class, whether in agriculture or mechanical occupations, would be far from suffering by the change. The abolition of the taxes which penetrate through and through, and thus enormously enhance the price of every article they purchase, would certainly never hurt them! All things would be on that account incalculably cheaper. They would also receive the dividends of rents according to the number of their households. Hereby they would be enabled now and then to be hospitable to one another, to entertain a friend, to relax a little now and then from incessant labour, to appear clean and decent in apparel, and comfortable in their habitations, to educate their children, and in a word, to be respectable and happy citizens. Such also as aspired to become masters would have an opportunity of saving money for that purpose. It would not be as now, once down and aye down. No, there would then be a possibility of rising again.” — Thomas Spence (
The Constitution of a Perfect Commonwealth)

“As nothing attracts my attention more at present than the hue and cry raised everywhere against monopolisers and forestallers on account of this artificial famine, let us see whether such a scene of villainy could be transacted under such a constitution of things as I hinted at in my first letter. You remember that I there gave the land to the parishes, by which means I broke the monopoly of land which is the mother of all other monopolies. Other monopolies cannot subsist after the fall of that, for the following reasons, viz.: First, because the inhabitants of every parish being the proprietors of all the soil within their respective parishes, they will take care that the farms shall be of such size, and let on such terms, and leases as shall appear to be most for the public good. In consequence of this, we may suppose that farms would be so small, that the farmers would hardly be rich enough to hoard much, neither would they be so few in number as easily to combine to raise the price of their produce.” — Thomas Spence (The Restorer of Society to Its Natural State)

In conclusion, Thomas Spence’s ideas resonate deeply with both geolibertarianism and anarchism, presenting a vision of a society where land is communally owned and managed by local parishes. His advocacy for the equitable distribution of land rents among all citizens reflects a commitment to social justice and egalitarianism. Spence’s proposals for democratic control over resources and public works highlight his belief in the power of grassroots governance and community empowerment. While his ideas may have been ahead of his time, they continue to inspire discussions on alternative economic and political systems, offering valuable insights into the pursuit of a fairer and more equitable society.

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Progress & Conservationđź”°

Buddhist; Daoist, Stoic; Atheist, Darwinist; Mystic, Critical Rationalist; advocate of basic income, land value tax, and universal healthcare.