There’s an article in the Washington Post on the… divergence of views and attitudes among libertarians with respect to the Civil War. Our own Steve Horwitz is quoted. There’s a news hook having to do with a Rand Paul staffer, but the topic is sufficiently evergreen that that hardly matters. See also Jason Kuznicki and Conor Friedersdorf.
In the article’s terms, I’m of course a liberaltarian (an ugly word I nonetheless prefer to BHL) and a cosmotarian (a word that amuses me, and, I think, everyone to whom it is applied.) I’m a longtime baiter of the people the article refers to as neo-Confederates and whom I unlovingly call Confederatistas. Indeed, I talked about this stuff in my very first post here.
Mike Riggs from Reason tweeted about the new uproar about Paul’s Confederatista staffer “Paradox: Libertarianism is too small to afford infighting, also too small to afford people like Hunter becoming representative.” Steve’s quoted comment is similar: ‘“I think it’s to our advantage to try to keep as large a tent as we can, but I think at some point you have to say, that set of ideas is not okay,” said Steve Horwitz, an economist at St. Lawrence University. “Where that lies on this issue is very tricky.”’
I’m actually not concerned about the big tent here; these issues stand out for me in that sense. They’re matters of historical interpretation and historical-tribal affiliation more than they are pressing questions of public policy (although see “not even past,” passim; one’s understanding of the Civil War and Reconstruction continues to matter for genuinely contemporary questions about, say, the interpretation of the 15th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act.) There are self-identified libertarians who, for example oppose liberalizing immigration (one of the issues that leads them to call us “cosmotarians”), and I certainly believe that human welfare, liberty, and dignity are more harmed in 2013 by immigration restrictions than they are by the Stars and Bars. So why do I get more agitated about the Civil War questions?
Being anti-immigration in any broad way is simply, clearly incompatible with libertarianism. It’s easy, it’s straightforward. If I’m going to write about the evils of immigration restriction, it’s not going to be aimed at the people who fail to see that; it’s going to be aimed at people who don’t care about libertarianism as such one way or the other. It’s not an internecine fight I’m going to pick. The libertarian restrictionsist think I’m wrong on the issue, but I don’t see any reason to care about that; they’re not the source of public opposition to immigration, and don’t have anything especially interesting or different to say about it.
There are fringe causes and weird ideas that get entangled with parts of the libertarian movement, too: 9/11 Trutherism, for example. In that case, unlike in the immigration case, I do think there’s a disproportion: Committed libertarians may be more likely to be Truthers than members of the general population. Again, I think they’re wrong; again, I’m not going to worry about it too much. The psychology and sociology of the cultic milieu plagues small movements, kind of unavoidably. If you hold a very unpopular opinion, and you come to think that you know enough to see the ways in which the establishment and official institutions and the flagship media organizations are unfair to your opinion or skew public information or otherwise stack the deck, that predisposes you to believe that it could be true in other cases, too. You think you’re a brave, unorthodox, independent mind– and it might even be true!– and when someone approaches you with another unorthodox minority view that they say has been misrepresented or suppressed, well, you sense a like mind. You’re necessarily less disposed than other people are to treating the weight of received opinion as authoritative. That’s both good and bad; you’ve (presumably) invested some intellectual work and effort in arriving at your own initial unorthodox view, but information and time are scarce and you’re not going to do that every time. Your new predisposition may deprive you of some of the informational advantages of conventional wisdom in areas where you aren’t investing that effort. But, c’est la vie; and there are sometimes advantages to the mindset, too. Anyway: not going to bother arguing about Trutherism. (See also: transhumanism, about which I don’t have a clear view that it’s false the way I do with Trutherism so much as a lack of any views or interest at all.)
So: why bother with the Confederatistas?
Unlike immigration restrictionists, Confederatistas aren’t ignoring libertarian principles or classical liberal arguments altogether. They’re (IMHO, of course– sprinkle imputed “IMHOs” as liberally through this post as you like, since I’m talking about my own priorities and not about the world) misusing them, abusing them, drawing the wrong lessons from them, prioritizing them badly. And they’re doing so in a way that runs deep in American political culture and history, not in an irrelevant fringy way.
Respecting established property ownership is important. It is less important than the principle that human beings are self-owners and not owned by others– absolutely, lexically, hierarchically less important. But it’s a genuine value. The southern antebellum slaveholding class used a language of respect for property rights (among many other languages) to defend their false right to own slaves; they posed as defenders of liberty against an overreaching state that might expropriate their goods without compensation.
Limitations on the power of the central government and defenses of federalism are important. They’re, on net, instrumentally valuable toward the protection and promotion of freedom. The southern states– before, during, and long after the Civil War– hypocritically and opportunistically used those ideas to defend slavery and apartheid. (Hypocritically: cf the Fugitive Slave Act; Dred Scott; the CSA Constitution; Woodrow Wilson’s federalization of Jim Crow; the New Deal and the FHA; when the federal government supported white dominance, their federalist principles always vanished. ) They did so for so long and so successfully that “federalism= state’s rights=the untrammeled power of local white majorities over local black minorities” became a very ready shorthand in American political life. And even a good-faith federalist classical liberal who understood slavery to be wrong, Lord Acton, could be taken in, believing the south’s pretense of federalism and respect for property and prioritizing those values over the wrong of slavery.
Freedom of private association is important. As southern apartheid finally came under belated assault by the federal judiciary and Congress, it became a veil to get thrown over Jim Crow institutions that had been created and upheld by affirmative state power as well as by officially sanctioned terrorist violence for decades. “The 14th Amendment prohibits racial discrimination in public schools? Oh, look, no public schools around here any more; we just switched to a system of private academies in the same buildings and employing the same teachers and receiving the same taxpayer funding…” By the end, breaking the apartheid system required overriding the normal freedom of private association. The entanglement of state racial power and private racial power had gone on for too long and been engineered too deliberately for equality before the law to coexist with the normal extent of that freedom.
None of this means that property ownership, federalism, and freedom of association aren’t real values. Some of it means that they’re means that can’t be prioritized over the ends that they serve; some of it means that they were falsely used to dress up the cause of racial dominance– but in a way that eventually shaped the public meaning those concepts have in American political life.
It all means that the link between those concepts and that cause isn’t a fringe problem. It’s not a set of marginal cases. In my view the Confederatistas perpetuate the white southerners’ two-century-long scam of dressing up the cause of racial dominance in classical liberal clothes, perverting the goal of liberty into the project of slavery. This has been a defining fact of American political life; it has served to discredit some of those classical liberal values and institutions, while also perpetuating a story in which the freedom of African-Americans (postbellum as well as antebellum) lies somehow outside the calculus of American liberty. These weren’t uniquely southern problems; they were problems in and of the American Revolution and Founding. (Samuel Johnson on the Americans: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” See also Adam Smith’s prescient analysis of the problems of herrenvolk democracy, and why monarchies were better bets than republics for the abolition of slavery.) But they became especially and enduringly southern problems, and the rival views about how to think about the Civil War are rival views about the meaning of classical liberal/ libertarian ideas in American political life. Are those values that have been especially strongly associated with the states of the old Confederacy, making southern white pride an attractive source of energy for libertarianism today? Or are they values that were both misused and publicly discredited by that association, and that need to be rescued from it?
Libertarians are rightly quick to say “that Che t-shirt you’re wearing stands for the entanglement between your socialist ideas and murderous totalitarian Communism.” There are social democratic and democratic socialist traditions that were opposed to totalitarian Communism and continue to be so, and those who belong to those traditions are (at their best) thoughtful and attentive about the problem posed by that entanglement. The fact that Communism used socialist ideas doesn’t discredit those ideas utterly and forever; but neither is it something to brush aside and pretend to be irrelevant, and certainly it’s not something to playfully flirt with (coughZizekcough). It’s a live problem about the publicly understood meaning of socialist ideas and about their actual inner logic, and the social democratic thinkers I admire don’t shy away from that problem, and definitely don’t treat nostalgia for Stalinism as being a charming bit of egalitarian energy to draw on for support. The Confederatistas’ romanticization of apartheid and continued conflation of libertarian ideas with southern nostalgia is a live problem in a similar way, and isn’t just a disagreement to paper over in search of a big tent for our little team to huddle under together. (Your Stars & Bars t-shirt isn’t any cuter than the other guy’s Che t-shirt.) The Confederatistas think that means that people like me are picking fights with them as a signalling device to curry favor with left-liberals; but the fact that they think so is itself a symptom of the fact that they don’t think the history of southern white racial dominance and terror is an especially important part of the history of American unfreedom. For those of us who think otherwise– or, well, at least for me, as someone who thinks otherwise– this isn’t a difference that can be papered over.