Libertarians for Secession: Answering Michael Lind
September 2, 2011 10 Comments
It seemed every libertarian was up in arms this week over the rather silly piece attacking those of our persuasion penned by Michael Lind in Salon. Unsurprisingly, the old chestnut about Hayek and Freidman’s tenuous connections to Pinochet cropped up, along with fairly standard misrepresentations of the words of Ludwig von Mises on fascism, something very common nowadays among left-leaning hacks. The main focus seemed to be criticisms of democracy and majoritarian tyranny laid down by the brilliant libertarian scholar Han Hermann Hoppe and others. Over at the Adam Smith Institute blog, Sam Bowman addressed all this quite extensively.
I want to focus on Lind’s discomfort with libertarians who sympathise with the cause and struggle for Southern independence from 1861-65, as I happen to be such a person and associate with many others. Lind, let us not forget, was the man who warned us in Salon that “neo-Confederate” Tea Party “fanatics” are apparently attempting to “destroy America’s credit rating unless the federal government agrees to enact Dixie’s economic agenda”. It’s fairly clear Lind’s picture of his Southern countrymen is not an enlightened one. One can almost imagine Michael Lind gleefully day-dreaming of murdering thousands of Dixie’s residents while burning its crops and cities in the anti-Semitic General Sherman’s genocidal march through Georgia. All for human rights, of course.
Now Lind writes:
When it comes to American history, libertarians tend retrospectively to side with the Confederacy against the Union. Yes, yes, the South had slavery — but it also had low tariffs, while Abraham Lincoln’s free labor North was protectionist. Surely the tariff was a greater evil than slavery.
This is one of the most ignorant insults I have ever seen directed against libertarians who claim the War Between the States was a war that should never have been waged. I know absolutely zero libertarians that side with the Confederacy because of its tariff policies. Instead, it is the issue of secession that overwhelmingly dominates libertarian debate on the topic. Now, libertarians often point out the differences in the Confederate Constitution to the original document that still existed in the Union (despite Lincoln’s subsequent complete disregard for it by suspending habeas corpus, closing down hundreds of anti-war newspapers and locking up the Mayor of Baltimore and much of the Maryland legislature). Those differences being the Confederacy’s ban on protectionist tariffs, government subsidies to private enterprises and the requirement of a two-thirds legislative majority for any tax increase. Libertarians do this to demonstrate the strongholds of Jeffersonian limited-government that many Southern states were, compared with the Hamiltonian big-government North. When first running for office in Illinois in 1832, Lincoln, already a famous lawyer, proclaimed:
I presume you all know who I am. I am humble Abraham Lincoln. I have been solicited by my friends to become a candidate for the legislature. My politics are short and sweet, like the old woman’s dance. I am in favour of a national bank… in favour of internal improvements and a high protective tariff.
‘Internal improvements’ was the term at the time for large-scale spending programs on infrastructure, something I have written about here previously. Unsurprisingly, Lincoln carried no Southern state in the election of 1860, and very often did not even appear on the ballot. Lincoln was the most divisive electoral candidate in American history, even after guaranteeing the rights of slave-owners to keep their slaves throughout his campaign and First Inaugural Address.
Returning to Lind’s argument, it’s very difficult to see what libertarians he is talking about. That is, libertarians who would accept slavery for lower tariffs, as well those who induct “Jefferson Davis into the libertarian hall of fame”. The original and most well-known study of the War Between the States from a modern libertarian viewpoint is undoubtedly ‘Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War’ by Jeffrey Rogers Hummel. In this book Hummel happens to be fiercely critical of Jefferson Davis as well as Lincoln, and sees no inconsistency in supporting the right of secession while uncompromisingly opposing slavery. In fact, one of Hummel’s most interesting arguments is that secession would have helped defeat slavery, as it would have allowed the Union to repeal the fugitive slave laws, and thus have legally made the North a haven for escaped slaves. Other chattel slavery-based economies such as Brazil could not sustain the vile institution due to the problem of runaways. Conscious men, even in bondage, do not act like cattle or furniture. If you believe this is a radical original proposition, it is interesting to note that the abolitionist movement itself was fiercely split before the war due to this very point. In fact, the most famous abolitionist, the editor of The Liberator and social reformer William Lloyd Garrison, actually advocated long before as well as during the war that the Northern states should have seceded from the slave states for this to happen. Hummel estimates slavery would have collapsed in the Confederacy before the end of the century, possibly even in under five years.
All sane libertarians can agree that the death of slavery was a positive result of the war. The fierce Lincoln critic Tom DiLorenzo, of the Mises Institute, calls the end of slavery the “one unequivocal good” that came of it. However, libertarians also lament the loss of the right of secession, which is most relevant considering secession, not slavery, was the reason Lincoln launched his destructive war in the first place. Several states in the Union actually had slavery, and they were not affected by the Emancipation Proclamation (which only applied to “rebel-held territory”). Even the head of the Union Army, Ulysses S. Grant, was an overseer of slaves on his family’s Missouri plantation. Lincoln actually demanded in the early stages of the war that captured slaves be returned to their owners, until many figures in the Union Army persuaded him this was aiding the Confederate war effort, and that these slaves could be used for menial tasks around Federal army encampments.
Libertarians always prefer peaceful alternatives to war, even when it comes to ending the evil of slavery. Why not peaceful Emancipation, as occurred in every country except Haiti, over a war where more Americans would fall during one battle at Gettysburg than in all previous American wars combined? Buying the freedom of every slave, along with forty acres and a mule for each freed man would have cost a fraction of what the brutality of 1861-65 did. Libertarian critics of Lincoln simply argue non-violent options and less bellicose forms of persuasion should have been tried.
Lind seems shocked that Lord Acton wrote to Robert E. Lee to express support for his lost cause after the war. I find that as unsurprising as Karl Marx’s letters of congratulations to Lincoln and his ardent support for the Union war effort. I don’t know about you, but the letters of Acton and the gentleness in the response of Lee bring joy to the heart of this proud Neo-Confederate.
Acton to Lee, Nov. 1866:
I saw in State Rights the only availing check upon the absolutism of the sovereign will, and secession filled me with hope, not as the destruction but as the redemption of Democracy. The institutions of your Republic have not exercised on the old world the salutary and liberating influence which ought to have belonged to them, by reason of those defects and abuses of principle which the Confederate Constitution was expressly and wisely calculated to remedy. I believed that the example of that great Reform would have blessed all the races of mankind by establishing true freedom purged of the native dangers and disorders of Republics. Therefore I deemed that you were fighting the battles of our liberty, our progress, and our civilization; and I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo.
Lee’s response, Dec. 1866:
While I have considered the preservation of the constitutional power of the General Government to be the foundation of our peace and safety at home and abroad, I yet believe that the maintenance of the rights and authority reserved to the states and to the people, not only essential to the adjustment and balance of the general system, but the safeguard to the continuance of a free government. I consider it as the chief source of stability to our political system, whereas the consolidation of the states into one vast republic, sure to be aggressive abroad and despotic at home, will be the certain precursor of that ruin which has overwhelmed all those that have preceded it.
The full correspondence can be found here.