The Real Dichotomy
recently, LewRockwell.com was the target of yet another verbal
assault, this one by long-time Reason editor Virginia Postrel.
Regular readers will know the details and have read the responses,
so Iíll not rehearse them here. I do recall the flurry of attention
Postrelís book The
Future and Its Enemies received when it came out, although
Iíve a confession to make: I started but didnít finish the book.
Once I realized that Postrelís main contention was one I couldnít
accept, at least not in the form she cast it, I lost interest. After
all, life is short.
contention is that there is a struggle going on between "dynamists"
who favor the liberty supposedly inherent in unrestricted change
(including that prompted by unlimited immigration) and "stasists"
who want to restrict change. It is not that we cannot draw such
a dichotomy; of course we can. But David Gordon, in his
original review of the book for the Mises Review (v.
5, #1, 1999), seemed to me to have the most obvious response. Sometimes
change is worth endorsing, and sometimes not. It depends on the
change. Sometimes what Postrel would no doubt describe as stasis
is worth keeping around if the people living in a given community
are satisfied with the technology they have and show no desire to
change. Stasis, of course, need not be merely technological. There
are Libertarians who have yet to realize that traditional religious
beliefs serve important and valuable purposes in many peopleís lives,
and may contain more metaphysical truth than materialism. But that
is another article.
my mind, there is different dichotomy one might draw that is far
more interesting, and ought to shed some light on the matter that
originally triggered this new volley of exchanges namely, David
Boazí uninformed attack on Confederate symbols. That is the dichotomy
between those I will call centralists and those I will call
as the term implies, support the increasing power of a central government,
whether directly or not. They might support expansionist government
indirectly by supporting ideas or policies that make no sense without
increasing centralization of government, such as the drug war, or
can only lead to centralization at the international level, such
as support for foreign wars that destabilize entire regions (e.g.,
that nasty little war in Kosovo). Decentralists agree with the Jeffersonian
statement that "the government that governs best is that which
governs least." They believe, in other words, that a central
government ought to be as small as possible as small as is compatible
with social stability. The Declaration of Independence is a classic
decentralist document in my sense, because what it declares is that
a community of persons has the natural right to free itself from
a government that has grown powerful and abusive. The original Constitution
contains something of a mixture of centralist and decentralist tendencies.
It created a stronger central government than existed under the
Articles of Confederation and this made the misnamed "anti-federalists"
sufficiently uncomfortable that men like Richard Henry Lee of Virginia
led movements against the ratification of the Constitution until
changes were made in it. The Bill of Rights shifted the Constitution
back in the direction of decentralism.
to be sure, Virginal Postrel wants to be a decentralist. What Libertarian
doesnít? When she tells us that technological innovation cannot
be controlled from any central point, there is no faulting her arguments.
The problem is whether Postrel (and Boaz and, therefore, perhaps,
other Libertarians) are consistent decentralists. Since consistency
is something Libertarians normally prize (and rightly so), the question
is worth raising. I will maintain that a consistent defense of decentralism
requires at least some stasis.
principles defined in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights certainly
amount to stasis of some kind. The Constitution wasnít intended
to be changed easily. This is why the authors of the Constitution
very purposefully made the document difficult to amend (not difficult
enough, as it turned out). The idea, accepted by Libertarians working
with natural rights theory, that rights pre-exist governments, wasnít
meant to be changed at all.
may argue that the ensuing history of our country has been the history
of the struggle between those trying to preserve a decentralized
order (originally embodied in the Jeffersonians) and those wanting
more centralization (originally the Hamiltonians). The centralists
made control of education one of their first goals, which is why
we see calls for government-funded "public schools" going
back to the early 1800s. The centralizing impulse succeeded at creating
a system of government-funded colleges, embodied in the land-grant
system created by the Morrill Act. President Buchanan had refused
to sign the Morrill Act into law during the late 1850s on the grounds
that it was unconstitutional; he correctly observed that the Constitution
did not authorize federal involvement in college education. Then,
in 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed the Act into law as a wartime measure.
Clearly, education at all levels has become more and more centralized
is our question for Libertarians, since we are now up to the 1860s:
was South Carolinaís Ordinance of Secession in 1860 a centralist
or a decentralist document? Were the efforts of the Southern states
to secede and form their own government fundamentally centralizing
or decentralizing? Let us pose the same question regarding Lincolnís
effort to hold the Union together. In a sense, the question answers
itself. Southern secession was decentralist almost by definition;
Lincolnís war to keep the Southern States in the Union against their
will was, but nature, an act of centralization. The Confederacy
was formed by men who believed that the central government in Washington
no longer represented their interests politically or economically,
and wanted out a tendency not that different from those who originally
fought off the British, leading to the formation of what eventually
became Lincolnís Union.
coalition of otherwise quite different thinkers have formed a kind
of spontaneous alliance in an attempt to divert attention away from
issues like secession, statesí rights and other expressions of decentralism
as they existed 140 years ago. It does this by keeping attention
focused on slavery, and the harm it supposedly did to blacks. The
coalition includes, obviously, the purveyors of political correctness
in the universities and the media (all of whom are direct beneficiaries
of political and economic centralization), those neocons who have
made Lincoln out to be a hero because he preserved the Union and,
unfortunately, those who have become what might be called the "Libertarian
Establishment." This phrase isnít quite an oxymoron. The Libertarian
Establishment appears to have two centers: Washington, D.C. (home
of David Boazís Cato Institute) and the West Coast (home of Reason,
Virginia Postrelís longstanding affiliation). It obviously doesnít
include Auburn, Alabama or Columbia, South Carolina, either.
this spring I penned an essay
showing that the "harm" done to blacks by slavery is largely a fabrication
Ė at least, if we accept the thesis that blacks played a major role
in Americaís natural inventiveness. Of course, this is not to say
that slavery was somehow a good thing. Of course no Libertarian
could endorse it, because no Libertarian (who by definition supports
the idea of economic self-ownership for all human beings) can endorse
the ownership of human beings by other human beings. But just as
there are degrees of evil in terms of the amount of harm done, there
is another side to the slavery issue. American blacks today Ė descended
from slaves Ė are the wealthiest blacks in the world. Far from having
been harmed, it is reasonable to argue that our ancestors did todayís
black Americans a favor. Naturally, the politically correct will
blow several gaskets a piece if they ever read this. But how do
you stare facts in the face and simply deny that they exist? Today,
black Americans at least have a chance at prosperity Ė when they
keep their families together, stay off drugs and out of gangs (rather
like white Americans). Had their ancestors been allowed to remain
in Africa, they would not only suffer far worse poverty but would
likely be ruled over by the kinds of criminal gangs that today control
a good many African countries. And they would not have escaped slavery,
which is practiced in many African nations even today. The institution
was not invented on the American continent, after all!
this is really a side issue, because there is considerable evidence
that ending slavery was, at best, a means to end. Lincolnís own
words lend this thesis considerable support. In 1862 Lincoln said:
paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and
is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the
Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could
save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could
do it be freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also
one quote lets the cat out of the bag: ending slavery was not
the central priority of the man running the show in the North.
Saving the Union was. It is becoming increasingly clear that for
Lincoln, this was the end that justified whatever means it took a
centralist project if I ever saw one, and the first of the quantum
leaps the country would take on its path toward becoming an empire
instead of the Constitutional republic the Framers originally gave
us. Moreover, the idea that Lincoln was in some sense of the term
a friend to blacks is hard to maintain in light of the following
remark he made in one of his debates with Stephen A. Douglas:
separation if effected at all must be effected by colonization:
Ö Let us be brought to believe that it is morally right, and
at the same time favorable to, or at least not against, our
interests to transfer the African to his native clime, and we
shall find a way to do it, however great the task may be.
is here talking about sending blacks back to Africa!
of this refutes the idea, which continues to be popular with the
Libertarian Establishment, that the War for Southern Independence
was fought over slavery. Slavery was one issue, but it was far from
the only issue. And it was not even the most important issue from
the northern point of view.
the last analysis, centralism had become the dominant political
(and economic) philosophy of the country by the end of the second
decade of the century just concluded. The quantum leaps of Empire
building continued, and continue to this day to the point where
it is difficult to imagine the idea that the countryís founding
political philosophy was something quite different. This explains
why (for example) criticisms of the Federal Reserve banking system
are to be found only on the margins despite the criticisms of central
banks by the Framers. The same is true with the Internal Revenue
Service and the possibility that the 16th Amendment wasnít
legitimately ratified according to the Constitutionís own rules.
Was the government or any media entity to recognize these, this
would give them "official" legitimacy. The holes this
would blow in the fabric of our rise to centralized Empire status
could never be papered over.
the real question here is: which side are the major voices of Libertarianism
today really on? What position are they eventually going to take
with the growing pro-South movement Ė and, for that matter, other
independence movements afoot (e.g., in Hawaii
where slavery canít be raised as a red herring)? There are, indeed,
people in places other than the South who are fed up with the regime
based in the District of Columbia. Is the "Libertarian Establishment"
going to side with centralists or with decentralists in how it approaches
todayís independence movements generally?
side against the pro-South movement is to side with this countryís
first quantum leap into centralization, like it or not. Libertarians
cannot be decentralists on every point except this and still be
consistent. So when David Boaz rails against the "symbols of
slavery" in the South, all we need say is that he hasnít done
his homework; and when Virginia Postrel rushes to his defense, taking
LewRockwell.com to task for its pro-South leanings, our best
strategy is to point out that one cannot be "for liberty"
without also being against centralization. These are not "entirely
Yates [send him mail]
has a Ph.D. in Philosophy and is the author of Civil
Wrongs: What Went Wrong With Affirmative Action. He is presently
compiling selected essays into a single volume tentatively entitled
What Is Wrong With the New World Order and Other Essays and
Commentary and a work on a second book, The Paradox of Liberty.
He also writes for the Edgefield
Journal, and is available for lectures. He lives in Columbia,
South Carolina, and is starting his own freelance writing business,
Millennium 3 Communications.
© 2001 LewRockwell.com