Who's Afraid of Virginia Postrel?
One of the annoying things about being a classical liberal is that a lot of people who hate the current government but don't have much regard for liberty claim to be "libertarians" — Timothy McVeigh comes to mind — and some even insist that they get to define the term. In the latter category, Lewrockwell.com, a site pretty much dedicated to equating "libertarianism" with the decidedly anti-freedom policies of the Old South (along with extreme foreign policy isolationism and a misanthropic strand of anarchism inspired by Murray Rothbard), has run an attack on David Boaz of the Cato Institute. David's sin: making the rather obvious libertarian point that "As long as the violence and cruelty of slavery remain a living memory to millions of Americans, symbols of slavery should not be displayed by American governments." (I'm not entirely sure why he needs that qualifying clause.) Defending slavery is not something that libertarians do. That seems like a pretty open and shut case, regardless of how brave and idealistic some Confederate soldiers may have been. A lot of evil causes attract some brave and idealistic people. David is for liberty. Rockwell et al. are just against the government that ended state-supported slavery and Jim Crow. Those are two entirely different things.
For starters, let's dispense with that book — The Future and Its Enemies. Cool title, but it was rather thoroughly skewered by David Gordon in The Mises Review:
She begins with an absolutely perverse question: are you in favor of stability or change? She distinguishes between stasists, who favor a static, regulated world, and dynamists, who favor "a world of constant creation, discovery, and competition. Do we value stability and control, or evolution and learning" (p. xiv)? I should have thought the answer to Mrs. Postrel's question too obvious for words: some changes are good, others bad. To ask whether you favor change as such is a quintessential dumb question.
As Gordon continues,
All Mrs. Postrel has said is that if you don't want unlimited change, then you won't get unlimited change. If you keep your neighborhood the same, of course you will not get a new neighborhood. But, by assumption, the people who wish to keep their neighborhood do not want a new one. It avails nothing for Mrs. Postrel to bemoan policies that slow the rate of innovation, unless she advances an argument that the rate ought to be maximized. And it is not an argument for that proposition that if we do not maximize innovation, we shall have fewer innovations. That is a tautology.
Unfortunately, Mrs. Postrel has a go at ethics. She criticizes the bioethicist Leon Kass for lack of enthusiasm over laboratory fertilization and similar marvels. He dared to judge these by the criterion of "natural norms." But, Mrs. Postrel asks, doesn't nature vary? And why accept the guidance of nature anyway? "Is the ‘natural' an ethical trump" (p. 163)?
Not bad questions; but she makes no attempt to answer them. Instead she describes, for the umpteenth time, her version of nature as a process of continual change. Apparently, "the natural" is an ethical trump, so long as she is allowed to characterize it.
Which brings us back to her insulting smear of LewRockwell.com.
"The natural" is a good thing for Ms. Postrel, so long as she is allowed to characterize it, and, apparently, so are libertarianism and classical liberalism. Her reference to Murray Rothbard, for example, as a misanthrope, is bizarre. (Naturally, she provides no references to support the smear).
I confess that I was a bit surprised to see Ms. Postrel invoke the name of Tim McVeigh to smear LewRockwell.com, but then perhaps this only shows that I am not nearly as jaded and cynical as I had thought. It appears, however, that as William F. Buckley, Jr. once excommunicated thinkers from conservatism, Postrel seeks to excommunicate thinkers from libertarianism.
To be blunt, and yet not uncharitable, Ms. Postrel's invocation of Tim McVeigh is stupid in the extreme. Postrel has taken her place with Bill Clinton, who blamed "right wing talk radio" for McVeigh's murderous bombing in Oklahoma City.
Postrel's rant is without the slightest analysis or discussion of historical facts. Rather than take issue with DiLorenzo's arguments, Ms. Postrel merely asserts that the desire to abolish the Confederate battle flag is a "rather obvious libertarian point." (At least DiLorenzo made it on to her radar screen, though; she ignored numerous articles by Joseph Sobran, as well as my criticism of Boaz completely). Pace Postrel, the point is "obvious" only to those who appear have not considered the other side of the question. When in the Course of Human Events by Charles Adams and Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men by Jeffrey Rogers Hummel have clearly evaded her notice.
To which "anti-freedom policies of the Old South" is Ms. Postrel referring, aside from slavery? The draft? North had it also. Taxes? Ditto. Disregard of civil liberties in wartime? Again, the North did this as well.
Postrel arguably displays her ignorance of history in writing that the federal "government...ended state-supported slavery and Jim Crow."
Memo to Virginia Postrel: Jim Crow began after the war, and after Reconstruction, when the Southerners were again in charge of their own state governments. When blacks were held in slavery, there was no point to Jim Crow laws. As an aside, Postrel is also apparently ignorant of C. Vann Woodward's groundbreaking book The Strange Career of Jim Crow, where Woodward points out that the Southern Jim Crow laws — drumroll please — were modeled on Northern black codes which predated the Civil War.
If Ms. Postrel is referring to the federal government from 1865-1964, such that she is not claiming that the Lincoln or Andrew Johnson administrations abolished Jim Crow, then this only raises a further question: is Ms. Postrel opposed to any criticism of the federal government, merely because the federal government "ended slavery" (which it formerly protected) and "ended Jim Crow"?
If so, then Ms. Postrel is once again standing shoulder to shoulder with Bill Clinton, who smeared "right wing talk radio" for having inspired Tim McVeigh for the very base reason that he wished to squelch criticism of the government. It appears that Ms. Postrel may share Mr. Clinton's aim of suppressing criticims.
Also, what sort of libertarian is Virginia Postrel? The government "ended state-supported slavery" in the civil war? With a combined 50% tax rate paid to government at all levels, are Americans not today tax slaves? The Sons of Liberty, for example, considered themselves tax slaves — despite paying far less in taxes to King George, as Charles Adams notes in Those Dirty Rotten Taxes. Presumably, Ms. Postrel sees it as "evil" to make such a point.
Additionally, Postrel appears to favor the hegemony of the American empire, instead of the "extreme foreign policy isolationism" of LewRockwell.com (and of Old Right writers such as Garet Garrett, who argued as long ago as 1944 that the United States had become an empire).
Sadly, the silliness does not end there. Later, under the headline "Stars and Bars" (which, Ms. Postrel, was the First National Flag of the CSA, not the battle flag), she adds the following:
What do you expect? It's Mississippi, a state that never took any interest in joining the New South. It's not surprising that Mississippians voted 2-1 against a better looking, more patriotic (assuming your country is the USA, not the CSA), state flag minus symbols of rebellion and racism. Mississippi is a backward place, and Republicans are hurt tremendously by having Trent Lott, who sat out this fight, as one of their primary spokesmen.
South Carolina has the same flag it's always had—a white crescent moon and Palmetto tree on a blue background, with no Confederate emblems anywhere to be seen. And the Arkansas flag is still a reconfigured Confederate battle flag.
Better-looking? Has she actually seen it? The redesigned flag looks like a powder-puff version of the venerable Betsy Ross flag. Additionally, "more patriotic"? What, precisely, mandates patriotism to nation to the utter exclusion of patriotism to state? Travel to Texas (which she must also revile) and you will notice a Texas flag flying near almost every American flag.
And there she goes again: "symbols of rebellion and racism." Says who? Say Virginia Postrel and David Boaz, who are famous — famous! — and therefore correct. As Lew Rockwell has noted, if Postrel and Boaz are right about the Confederate flag, then the American flag has to go as well: the Ku Klux Klan was famous for displaying the Stars and Stripes.
Again displaying her ignorance of history, Ms. Postrel neglects to bash the Maryland flag for its red and white botony crosses, added to honor those who fought for the Confederacy, and the Virginia flag, adopted in 1861 as a symbol of resistance to Lincoln's tyranny.
If she is aware of these facts, why does she leave these flags off her endangered banners list? And, as I asked of David Boaz, when will the Saudi Arabian and Turkish flags be changed? After all, only 20 percent of Africans sold into slavery came to the United States. What about the flags where the other 80 percent were enslaved? Fair is fair.
Reading Virginia Postrel's drivel makes several facts apparent. First, she has not even bothered to read any of the pieces on LewRockwell.com, or anywhere else, discussing slavery and secession. Second, she does not care that she has not attempted to give her opponents a fair shake.
If Postrel cared about fairness and decency in debate, she would not compare LewRockwell.com to Tim McVeigh.
Finally, Virginia Postrel has some apologizing to do. I write for LewRockwell.com, and I abhor slavery, as all libertarians must, as the ultimate denial of human liberty — as I have noted in the very pieces in which I defend the CSA and the Confederate battle flag. And yet I have now been lumped with a murderer, Tim McVeigh, by an arrogant, ignorant woman.
Ms. Postrel, you are arrogant for authoring such attacks without first informing yourself of the facts. And you are ignorant of much American history — perhaps the dates of Jim Crow in the South, but almost certainly the history of state flags which are not visibly similar to the St. Andrew's Cross.
I'm waiting for an apology, but I'm not holding my breath.
In closing, allow me to add two small historical facts noted by Clyde Wilson and Jeffrey Rogers Hummel (who clearly know less history than Postrel and Boaz). First, the CSA enjoyed the support of two former American presidents, John Tyler and Franklin Pierce.
Tyler, the tenth president, of "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too" fame, was a member of the Confederate House of Representatives (as noted on the White House site). Secretary of War William Seward, meanwhile, is reported by Hummel to have taken steps to arrest former President Franklin Pierce (the 14th president) because of Pierce's criticism of Abe Lincoln for provoking the war and for violating the constitution in waging the war.
Second, Hummel also notes that the Southern states did not all secede for identical reasons. Although South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas might be charged with having seceded over slavery, "as Lincoln took the oath of office, the Union still contained eight slave states, more than had left." (Hummel, 137)
Why did the others leave?
They left over the issue of whether the union was voluntary or forced.
After Lincoln called for troops to invade the four states which had seceded, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas seceded — over the issue of the voluntary nature of the American union.
Had Lincoln not arrested 31 Maryland legislators, the mayor of Baltimore (the nation's 3rd-largest city at the time), a Maryland Congressman, as well as numerous publishers and editors, Maryland might very well also have seceded. For good measure, Lincoln had Union troops arrest secessionists who tried to vote in the election of 1861. He also gave three-day furloughs to Union troops so that they could return to Maryland to vote.
In another border state, Kentucky, troops also interfered with elections; they also broke up the Democratic convention at bayonet point.
The war, by the way, did not begin until Lincoln's call for troops — making it abundantly clear that even if four states seceded over slavery (which, despite Scott Callahan's arguments in The Libertarian Enterprise, I will not concede is the case), the war itself was fought over the voluntary nature of the union.
How's that for liberty-loving Lincoln? That, Ms. Postrel, is an example of what this writer has against the deification of Abraham Lincoln.
Ever heard those points before? If not, thank Ms. Postrel, and those unthinking persons like her, who wage war against the past in the name of their own myopic view of classical liberalism. Perhaps the CSA was not dynamic enough for Ms. Postrel. Or perhaps Franklin Pierce and John Tyler simply remind her of Tim McVeigh.
May 3, 2001
Mr. Dieteman [send him mail] is an attorney in Erie, Pennsylvania, and a PhD candidate in philosophy at The Catholic University of America.
© 2001 David Dieteman