Recently by Bob Murphy: Rise of the Free-Market Zombies
Any LRC reader who's not been holed up in Guantanamo has by now read all about Ron Paul's historic opening hearing in his new role as head of the subcommittee that oversees the Federal Reserve. In my navet, I am still shocked at the laziness of Dr. Paul's critics.
In this particular case, the critics directed their fire at Tom DiLorenzo, one of Paul's witnesses. Tom has already answered their general charges here, but I think it will be useful to go through and dissect this Washington Post article by Dana Milbank, since it so beautifully epitomizes the half-hour hatchet job in these affairs. (Full disclosure: Tom is a personal friend.)
DiLorenzo Hiding His True Views?
Right off the bat, Milbank implies that DiLorenzo was trying to sneak his anti-Lincoln views under the subcommittee's radar:
The Republican takeover of the House put a chairman’s gavel in the hands of Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, the gadfly GOP presidential candidate with a cult following. On Wednesday, he used that gavel for the first time – to remarkable effect.
The hearing itself was lively – based on Paul’s desire to abolish the Federal Reserve and bring back the gold standard – but what really stood out was Chairman Paul’s leadoff witness: a Southern secessionist.
The “short bio” the witness provided with his testimony omitted salient pieces of his resume, including his 2006 book, “Lincoln Unmasked: What You’re Not Supposed to Know About Dishonest Abe.” But the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, William Lacy Clay (Mo.) did some homework and learned more about the witness, Thomas DiLorenzo of Loyola University Maryland.
Milbank certainly gives the impression that DiLorenzo had taken all of his "nutjob" Lincoln stuff out of his bio, and perhaps left in only his doctoral dissertation and some other academic pieces — hoping against hope that the lazy congressmen wouldn't find out about the dark side of DiLorenzo the bomb-thrower.
But anybody who knows Tom, knows that he is hardly squeamish about his views. So I asked Tom to send me a copy of the "short bio" he sent to the subcommittee. It contains this:
Dr. DiLorenzo's major research and publication interests are economic history, industrial organization, and political economy. He is the author or co-author of fourteen books, including The Real Lincoln and How Capitalism Saved America: The Untold History of Our Country, From the Pilgrims to the Present. His latest book is Hamilton's Curse: How Jefferson's Archenemy Betrayed The American Revolution — And What It Mean for America Today. Among his other books (co-authored with James T. Bennett) are Official Lies: How Washington Misleads Us; Underground Government: The Off-Budget Public Sector; The Food and Drink Police: America's Nannies, Busybodies, and Petty Tyrants; and Destroying Democracy: How Government Funds Partisan Politics. Barron's magazine labeled The Real Lincoln as its "top pick" of books with economic themes for 2002.
Does the above look like somebody who is trying to pass himself off as a moderate Republican bean counter? It's true, the title "The Real Lincoln" by itself could suggest a book explaining what a great and religious man Honest Abe was. But in the context of all those other incendiary titles? I hardly think DiLorenzo was looking to avoid raising eyebrows.
Guilt By Association
After implying dishonesty in DiLorenzo's representation of his views, Milbank then moves in for the kill:
DiLorenzo, the congressman told the committee, had called Lincoln “the first dictator” and a “mass murderer” and decreed that “Hitler was a Lincolnite.” Worse, Clay charged, “you work* for a Southern nationalist organization.” “The League of the South is a neo-Confederate group that advocates for a second southern secession and a society dominated by European Americans.”
At the witness table, DiLorenzo scoffed and waved his hand dismissively at Clay. But neither he nor Paul attempted to refute Clay’s allegations.
Approached after the hearing, the witness said: “I gave a couple of a lectures to a group of college students 15 years ago that are associated with this thing called League of the South.”
As it turns out, “this thing” called the League of the South Institute was listing DiLorenzo on its Web site as recently as 2008 as an “affiliated scholar.” A secessionist Web site, DumpDC, identified DiLorenzo the same way last year when it published an interview with DiLorenzo in which he is quoted as saying “secession is not only possible but necessary if any part of America is ever to be considered ‘the land of the free’ in any meaningful sense.”
And there you have it: DiLorenzo had the chutzpah to say a guy who was directly responsible for a war that left over 600,000 people dead, was a "mass murderer." (For those questioning Lincoln's responsibility, keep in mind that (a) the Confederate states didn't want to take over the entire United States, they simply wanted to secede and (b) things like Sherman's March were war crimes, if that term is to mean anything.)
As far as DiLorenzo's affiliation with the League of the South: I realize Dana Milbank may not be familiar with how academia and non-profit relationships work, but there is nothing contradictory in DiLorenzo saying he merely gave some talks to a group, and then that group still listing him as an "affiliated scholar" years later.
At this point we can wonder what Milbank's point is. Don't worry, he tells us:
DiLorenzo, a self-proclaimed historical revisionist, is entitled to say whatever he likes. But it raises doubts about Ron Paul and his causes if this is the best he can come up with for his first act as chairman of the Financial Services Committee’s monetary policy subcommittee.
I have gone back and re-read the previous paragraphs in Milbank's article. I confess I still don't see what DiLorenzo's views on the necessity of secession have to do with Ron Paul's agenda with respect to auditing the Fed or bringing back the gold standard. Milbank certainly did nothing to refute DiLorenzo's claim that only secession could restore freedom to parts of America.
Milbank pauses in his article to deploy his hatchet on Ron Paul and Richard Vedder. Milbank first accuses Paul of bad math, though here Paul probably meant dividing total Fed bailouts by the number of unemployed (rather than the whole population of the United States), in which case the "error" disappears.
As far as Vedder, yes he fell into a cross-examination trap. He had said that the Federal Reserve fosters bubbles, but declined to speculate on where the next bubble would arise. Vedder went so far as to say, "Economists who make predictions are foolish."
This then opened him up to a Democratic critic (Al Green of Texas) who asked him if the gold standard would be better for America, and then when Vedder said yes, Green brought up Vedder's earlier disdain for predictions. Okay, very nice, but that hardly disqualifies Vedder's general position that (a) we can be confident that a central bank will screw up the economy without (b) being able to predict beforehand exactly the form the screw up will next take. (By the same token, I could "predict" to the leaders of North Korea that pure capitalism would greatly enrich their people, but I would have no idea how many shopping malls would be in Pyongyang two years after the reforms.)
The Peculiar Institution
In his final paragraphs, Milbank moves the crosshairs back to DiLorenzo:
DiLorenzo went so far as to say there is no need for the government to guarantee bank deposits. “I’m not sure before we had an FDIC you could make a case bank runs were worse,” he argued.
“We had the Great Depression,” Green pointed out.
“Well, yes, for a few short periods,” the witness allowed.
It was peculiar to portray the Depression as “short.” Then again, it was peculiar of DiLorenzo to say last year that “I saw it as my duty to spread the truth about what a horrific tyrant Lincoln was.” And it was peculiar of DiLorenzo to write in 2005 that “the League of the South advocates peace and prosperity in the tradition of a George Washington or a Thomas Jefferson.”
As far as the FDIC issue, obviously Tom DiLorenzo was not saying the entire Great Depression was short. What he was saying is that there were a few years of bank runs during the Great Depression, but that this was not sufficient to make the case for FDIC. (DiLorenzo was contrasting taxpayer-guaranteed bailouts of irresponsible banks, with the earlier system of bankruptcy proceedings.)
Now on to Lincoln, the real "problem" with DiLorenzo: Yes, it is "peculiar" for him to hold those views, in the sense that most Americans have been taught that Lincoln is a hero, the greatest of presidents who "saved the Union." Yet as DiLorenzo's work has documented, Lincoln was a tyrant. And it's not even the "mere" issue of not allowing people to leave the government of which he was the sitting head, but also rather tyrannical things like locking up newspaper editors who disagreed with his policies. (Here's an example from a non-pro-Southern website of Lincoln seizing newspapers for apparently printing hoaxes. The reader can surely see the slippery slope involved, but again I am offering this "understandable" example since it comes from a neutral source that isn't condemning Lincoln in the discussion.)
People who worry about the abuse of civil liberties under the Bush and Obama administrations should recall that Lincoln famously suspended the writ of habeas corpus. Fortunately, we live in a system of checks and balances, and a U.S. district court overruled Lincoln. Oops, he just ignored them. But, when you're trying to achieve important goals, you can't be bothered by individual rights and what a U.S. district court thinks of your policies.
Finally, let's deal with Milbank's last "shocking" quotation, where DiLorenzo praises the League of the South as being in the tradition of George Washington or Thomas Jefferson. First of all, if you click through and read the article, you will see that DiLorenzo is defending his friend Tom Woods from similar character attacks. In other words, when Woods made a splash with his own book on American history, people trotted out the zombie strategy of linking him to the "neo-Confederate" League of the South. So DiLorenzo was only talking about the League of the South to defend his buddy; it's not (as Milbank is obviously trying to imply) that DiLorenzo looked at his calendar and said, "Whoa, it's that time of the month when I have to go out and promote my employers, the League of the South."
But more important is the fact that someone who thinks the Southern states should have been allowed to secede is quite clearly endorsing the principles of the Declaration of Independence. That's the whole point, after all: When a people think that they are being oppressed by a government that is not representing their interests, then they have a God-given right to dissolve their ties with that government and form their own. That's what the people in the Confederacy were doing.
Of course, the elephant in the room in all this is slavery. Obviously it was an awful thing that the institution existed in the first place, and that the political leaders in the South wanted to perpetuate it. But guess what, Mr. Milbank? George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both owned slaves. And when the American colonies declared their secession from Great Britain, they consisted of a lot of slaveholders. If King George had — halfway through the War for American Independence — declared a new objective of freeing all U.S.-based slaves, would Milbank now say that the wrong side won that war?
This is the crux of the matter. If someone (like DiLorenzo) wants to praise the good things in the writings of the Founders, and also of the arguments in favor of Southern secession, that's consistent. If someone else (say a Black Panther) wants to denounce the Confederacy, but also all the hypocritical Dead White Males who signed the Constitution and endorsed its offensive 3/5 clause, that too is consistent; fair enough.
But what doesn't make any sense is for Milbank (and related critics like Paul Krugman and Matt Yglesias) to go along with the standard American civics lesson, which teaches that slave-owners George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were heroes of liberty, but then to recoil in horror at the idea that the Southern states should have been allowed to secede, because they had slaves and therefore forfeit any possibility of our (qualified) endorsement in that terrible episode in American history.
One of the most basic insights of Western civilization is that the ends don't justify the means. (For example, everyone is praising the nonviolent methods through which the Egyptian people recently achieved political change.) Nobody in this day and age is defending the institution of slavery as it existed in the Southern states. Even so, that doesn't mean Abraham Lincoln was right to wage an awful war, even if one of its outcomes was the eradication of slavery.
On the matter of consistency, neo-conservatives are fine: They supported George W. Bush's invasion to bring freedom to Iraqis, and they revere Abraham Lincoln as the greatest Republican of all time. But people like Krugman and Milbank are again being inconsistent: If Lincoln is so great — such that we don't even need to explicitly defend him from the criticisms leveled by critics such as DiLorenzo — then George W. Bush should at least be a pretty good guy. And yet Krugman and Milbank have been quite critical over the Bush administration's handling of war.
In any event, this entire episode actually encourages me. Everyone now knows that when Ron Paul holds a hearing on how the Fed contributes to unemployment, the "other side" has nothing much to say, except attacking the background of the witnesses.
This might resonate with professional pundits, and it may indeed raise doubts among some regular Joes who have never heard of Tom DiLorenzo. But I still bet if you polled a large number of black teenagers, and asked, "Do you think Ben Bernanke can't sleep at night, knowing that the official unemployment rate in your demographic is just shy of 50 percent?" they probably would laugh at you.
*NOTE: In Milbank’s original article, he quotes Clay as saying that DiLorenzo “worked for” the League of the South. However, DiLorenzo claims that Clay actually said “work for.” Although the audio quality is poor, it does indeed sound as if Clay said that (at about the 55:00 mark in this video).
Bob Murphy [send him mail], adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute, is the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Capitalism, The Human Action Study Guide, and The Man, Economy, and State Study Guide. His latest book is The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Great Depression and the New Deal.