On the Brink of Inanity
woke up at 3AM, and was unable to get back to sleep. I had eaten
too close to bedtime, and my stomach was roiling. Bleary-eyed, I
wandered down to my computer, figuring I might as well answer e-mail
and read a few articles instead of staring blankly at the ceiling.
I realized I hadn't yet read Jeff Tucker's recent article about
Conservatism, so I pulled up LewRockwell.com. What was this link
to Brink Lindsey? I was getting sleepier, but I decided to click
words on the screen began to blur as I read through Lindsey's "A Tale of Two Libertarianisms,"
where he argues about the pie-in-the-sky, utopian nature of "radical"
libertarianism. (It's the February 25 entry in his blog.) Increasingly,
I grew confused as to where I was. The computer faded into insubstantiality
was it some vision I had been having? What in the world was
a "computer," anyway? I shook my head, and my vision of the large
room in front of me cleared. I had been on the verge of nodding
off during an important speech by my colleague!
an odd dream that had been, of that strange future world! It was,
after all, 1803, not 2003. And I was in the US Congress, listening
to the honorable Congressman Lindsey assailing the radicals who
would disrupt our happy Union over abstract, utopian nonsense like
"freeing the slaves." Let me share with you the gist of his argument:
radical abolitionist vision starts with an abstract ideal: a polity
in which no humans are bought or sold as property. A "true" abolitionist,
in this view, is someone who upholds this ideal as the summum
bonum. True abolitionists may get their hands dirty in the real
world and advocate incremental reforms, and they may even be coy
about their long-term hopes, but when pressed they must declare
their allegiance to the ideal. Any deviation from the ideal, any
support for the rights of slaveholders, is seen as impure and compromised.
Such deviations represent "concessions" to slavery; they "open the
door" to relentless and limitless expansion of it.
abolitionists, on the other hand, start with the status quo in all
its wretched messiness. Reformists share with their radical confreres
a moral commitment to the sanctity of individual rights and
a deep appreciation of some of the worse aspects of human slavery.
But reformists apply their principles in a very different way: not
as blueprints for an ideal society, but as guides to incremental
reform. As to the precise outlines of an ideal society they are
agnostic or even indifferent. For them the goal is making the lives
of real-world slaves better, not spinning utopias.
abolitionists do not worry that their acceptance of buying and selling
human beings concedes some vital principle. Radicals charge that
anything short of complete ideological consistency creates openings
for the slaveholding impulse to take root and then run rampant.
Itís a concern that might make some sense if we were currently living
in an abolitionist polity and were worrying about setting dangerous
precedents. But, hey, hereís a news flash: That abolitionist polity
is nowhere in sight! Thereís no need to worry in our day and age
about giving away the store to the slaveholders; they run the store
already, folks, and our job is to convince them to give it back.
Appealing to them on the ground of principles that neither they
nor the vast majority of the American public share (for example,
that Negroes are human beings with the same rights as whites, or
a revolting idea like making miscegenation legal) is not, in my
view, the most effective strategy.
abolitionists eschew utopianism, not because they are less intellectually
rigorous than their radical cousins, but because they are more intellectually
rigorous. A utopia without any slavery, upon careful scrutiny, turns
out to be a will-oí-the-wisp. Letís start with examining one niggling
little problem: It turns out that full-fledged abolitionist program
is incompatible with our dawning industrial civilization. Without
slaves to pick cotton in the South, the vast international textile
trade would collapse, and with it our nation's prosperity.
bettering the condition of slaves is one of the greatest achievements
of civilization, nonetheless it is not a project that can be pursued
with unswerving consistency at least not with results that
would be broadly acceptable. More basically, the project of aiding
slaves cannot even be launched without a political decision to embrace
certain values at the expense of others. Radical abolitionists argue
that abolition ultimately can be justified as compelled by reason,
and I have a good deal of sympathy with that argument. But such
an argument, even if successful, still leaves unanswered a fundamental
question: Why be reasonable? Why value a system based on reason
over one based on other human values or needs? Clearly there are
alternatives: People have been unreasonable throughout most of history.
A slaveholder believes unbending adherence to the "peculiar institution"
makes for the ideal social order, and reason isnít going to convince
him otherwise. Indeed, he believes that unbridled reason is an evil
to be combated. Ultimately, then, the case for abolition is an assertion
of values: A society in which fewer humans are bought and sold is
a better society than the alternatives.
if people in society are willing to deploy the coercive powers of
government to regulate slavery, it should not be surprising that
they want to use it to sustain it as well. In my view, therefore,
the only intellectually defensible abolitionist position is that
the reduction of slavery should be the primary political
value, and that other values also should be taken into account when
deciding some particular issue with regards to slavery. A utopian
view that human slavery ought never to exist is untenable.
to draw the line on which subsidiary values can be recognized, and
how, is not a question susceptible to principled resolution. There
are no analytically sustainable bright lines. Can slaves be made
to work on Sundays? Is it acceptable to sell young children separately
from their parents? Such questions are matters of judgment. It is
inevitable that people will disagree on these judgment calls. But
the general principle of "chipping away" at slavery as the highest
political value is something that unites us all and defines us as
given my views, I believe that pragmatic, reformist abolitionism
represents the most vital and promising expression of the abolitionist
impulse. First, it accords far better than the radical alternative
with the great current of our intellectual tradition. Neither Plato,
nor Aristotle, nor Locke, nor Hume, nor Jefferson, nor Washington,
were radical abolitionists all saw a role for slavery in
human society. Utopianism is not the distillation of the abolitionist
tradition; it is a caricature of it.
reformist abolitionism offers the best hope for chipping away at
slavery in the future. There is an enormous opportunity for abolitionism
that is grounded in the real world. But for the abolitionist alternative
to really gain ground, it must fashion a message and a program that
begins, not with unworkable ideological contraptions, but with the
here and now of political reality. It must lead public opinion in
the direction of greater appreciation for the value of alleviating
the condition of human slaves gently, firmly, patiently,
and just a few steps ahead of those whose minds it seeks to change.
It must recognize that there is only a path of ongoing reform and
adjustment, no final destination of perfection, and that we all
have much to learn along the way.
2003 Gene Callahan
Callahan/Stu Morgenstern Archives