Left/Right Futility

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During the Abbeville Institute’s week-long summer school a few weeks ago a student asked the Institute’s founder and director, Professor Don Livingston of Emory University, a question about the composition of "The Left" and "The Right" in American politics today. He wanted Professor Livingston’s opinion of the prospects for the success of "The Right" to get the country to move in a more conservative direction. Professor Livingston correctly pointed out that the premise of the question was all wrong.

The premise, of course, was that America’s highly centralized, monopolistic, imperialistic, federal government — the Lincolnite state — is desirable if not inevitable. Consequently, the route to greater freedom and prosperity is for "The Right" to control the federal Leviathan and use the levers of federal power to achieve its political ends.

It is true that, since the death of genuine federalism — sometimes called "states’ rights" — in 1865, this has indeed been the political game. But it is not inevitable. An alternative way of thinking of how to achieve a freer and more prosperous society is through the devolution of political power, as Professor Livingston responded. Therein lies the only hope of citizens ever being able to control their own government and becoming sovereign over it once again.

Forget about the fantasy of controlling the federal government. It has accumulated so much power and created so many vested interests in that power, that any genuine conservatives or libertarians who become a part of it are immediately targeted, sabotaged, worn down, smeared, and marginalized so that they have no influence whatsoever. The entire apparatus of the centralized state will always view this as its number one priority.

Libertarians were not always so naïve and uneducated about American history as to believe in the oxymoronic notion of "libertarian centralization," as do today’s advocates of a strengthened federal judiciary that will supposedly enhance individual liberty. Today’s libertarian centralizers have been educated/brainwashed by the New England version of history, which is essentially one long, tall tale of alleged super-achievements by the glorious, Lincolnite state, armed with its 14th Amendment, its activist Supreme Court, its military, and other alleged tools of "equal justice."

One can always cite a few examples where the central government actually promoted liberty, or where state and local governments behaved tyrannically, but in general monopolistic, centralized government has always been the natural enemy of liberty and prosperity and the indispensable tool of tyrants everywhere. The question is not whether we shall have a "perfect" system of government, which of course is impossible here on Earth. And no one — certainly not Jefferson, one of the founding fathers of the American system of states’ rights — ever argued that state and local politicians would not attempt to deprive citizens of their liberties, just as all politicians do. The "perfection" of state and local government is a red herring argument that was first put forth by Lincoln in his attacks on the Jeffersonian system of states’ rights and has been mindlessly repeated ever since by advocates of a more highly centralized state, especially the libertarian centralizers who complain about "grassroots tyranny" while arguing for a more powerful central government.

In short, the Jeffersonian ideal of a highly decentralized state, where whatever state power exists is held largely at the state and local levels, is more likely to produce a process that will be more conducive to liberty and prosperity than will the centralized, monopolistic, Lincolnite state that Americans now slave under.

Unlike today’s libertarian centralizers, Jefferson sought to weaken, not strengthen, the federal judiciary, which he described as “the corps of sappers & miners, steadily working to undermine the independent rights of the states” and to consolidate all power in the central government. It was of utmost importance to Jefferson that each state “might do for itself what concerns itself directly, and what it can so much better do than a distant authority.” Moreover, “Every state again is divided into counties, each to take care of what lies within its local bounds; each county again into townships or wards, to manage minuter details; and every ward into farms, to be governed each by its individual properietor. Were we directed from Washington when to sow, & when to reap, we should soon want bread” (see Merrill D. Peterson, Jefferson Writings, p. 74).

Under such a system of genuine federalism governments are forced to compete for population and businesses with moderate tax and spending policies; if they enact bad policies they at least do not subject the entire nation to them; people are free to "vote with their feet" and exit excessively oppressive governmental jurisdictions; and governments are much more likely to be controlled by the populace the closer they are to the people.

This is the essence of genuine federalism and was understood by the other American political tradition, the largely southern, Jeffersonian one that was eclipsed in the post-1865 era (see Felix Morley, Freedom and Federalism; James J. Kilpatrick, The Sovereign States; Forrest McDonald, States’ Rights and the Union; St. George Tucker, A View of the Constitution of the United States; Clyde Wilson, From Union to Empire; and William Watkins, Reclaiming the American Revolution). If "libertarian centralizers" (or "regime libertarians," as Lew Rockwell calls them) were not so obsessively preoccupied with being politically correct and "acceptable" to the Washington establishment, the "liberal" media, and the academic Left, they would take some time to educate themselves in this literature and on some relevant American history as well. With regard to the latter, a relevant publication is a book that Professor Clyde Wilson regards as the best book ever written on the subject of the "Civil War" and Reconstruction. It is North Against South: The American Iliad, 1848—1877, by Ludwell H. Johnson, professor emeritus of history at William and Mary College.

Professor Johnson argues that "The Confederate Constitution throws considerable light on the reasons for secession" (see Marshall DeRosa, The Confederate Constitution of 1861). Like the U.S. Constitution, it outlawed the African slave trade but declared slavery to be legal. (But unlike the U.S. Constitution, it permitted individual states to abolish slavery. At the exact same time this stipulation was being added to the Confederate Constitution, Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party were supporting a constitutional amendment that would have prohibited the federal government from ever ending slavery).

In addition, the Confederate Constitution restricted the powers of the central government much more than the U.S. Constitution did by abolishing the "General Welfare" Clause; explicitly declaring that the states were sovereign; "delegating" and not "granting" any powers to the central government; allowing constitutional amendments to only be initiated by the states; outlawing protectionist tariffs altogether; making all federal expenditures more difficult by requiring a two-thirds vote of Congress and giving the president a line-item veto; and more.

"These innovations," writes Professor Johnson, "can be summarized as an attempt to protect the rights of the states, to limit the power of the central government . . ." Southern secession can only be understood, says Professor Johnson, by realizing that "Underlying the Southern movement for independence was an abiding passion to be free from outside control and interference. This is a phenomenon with deep roots in Anglo-American history." More precisely:

Southern belief in a Northern determination to transform the United States into a consolidated nation, where the majority must always rule a central government endowed with large, indefinite implied powers, loomed as a grave threat to many Southerners’ most cherished ideals of society, of government, of life itself. When secessionists insisted that they left the union to preserve states’ rights, they meant exactly that. In the last analysis, they seceded for an idea, the idea that they would not meekly submit to Northern rule. If they were rebels, so be it. After all, it was the name their “patriot fathers bore.”

One nineteenth-century libertarian who understood this was Lord Acton, the great British historian of liberty who was a major intellectual force in Victorian England. Like most British opinion makers, Lord Acton believed Lincoln when he said that his purpose was not to end southern slavery but to "save the union." But Acton saw through Lincoln’s slick rhetoric and understood that "saving the union" meant destroying the founding fathers’ system of states’ rights and putting in its place a consolidated, monopolistic empire. In a November 4, 1866 letter to Robert E. Lee he wrote:

I saw in States’ 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 . . . . 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 (emphasis added).

Lee Responded in a December 15, 1866 letter in which he agreed, adding that "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."

Lee was prescient. Centralized government would become the scourge of humanity in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It was a natural prerequisite to the advance of communism, fascism, and totalitarianism in general (including welfare state totalitarianism). Americans now live under a regime where a single government agency — the Environmental Protection Agency — is a bigger bureaucracy than the entire government of the Soviet Union ever likely was. There will never be any hope of American citizens imposing any semblance of control over such bureaucratic monstrosities.

A conservative or libertarian takeover of the federal Leviathan state is the silliest of pipe dreams. The only hope for restoring a free society is the devolution of power and a complete overthrow of the Lincolnite ideology of government, with all its garish monuments to itself, its "civic religion" of centralized governmental power in pursuit of world domination; its brainwashing of the public through nationalized education; its army of myth-making court historians (a.k.a., "Lincoln scholars"); and its monstrous appetite for tax revenues, which now account for almost half of all national income — especially if one counts the implicit "tax" of the costs of government regulation. The devolution of power, combined with the destruction of all the Lincolnite superstitions, is the most hopeful means of emancipating America’s tax slaves.

Thomas J. DiLorenzo [send him mail] is the author of The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War, (Three Rivers Press/Random House). His latest book is How Capitalism Saved America: The Untold Story of Our Country’s History, from the Pilgrims to the Present (Crown Forum/Random House, August 2004).

Thomas DiLorenzo Archives at LRC

Thomas DiLorenzo Archives at Mises.org

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