What Lott Might Have Said

[I do not contend that Lott believes what follows, and neither do I contend that by saying it, he would somehow save his neck. I offer it only as a mental experiment in truth telling. LHR]

My critics say that my comments — regretting the presidential loss of the Dixiecrats in 1948 — reflect a racial bias against blacks, because the States’ Rights Party endorsed the right of states to preserve segregation at the state level. In fact, the real issue is not race; it is freedom and federalism, concepts which are apparently not understood by the national press or by my critics left and right.

I grant that my comments were highly unusual in American public life. Even more intense than the race taboo is the rule against expressing any regret for the astonishing centralization of power in America since World War II. Question that, and you will have few friends, and legions of opportunistic enemies. Such is the fate of any dissident living under Leviathan.

Federalism is the essential genius of the American republican system of government, its great contribution to the modern political experience, as Lord Acton noted. In American law, federalism is guaranteed by the enumerated powers in the Constitution, which restrict the federal government to only a few functions while leaving the rest to the states and the people, as the 10th amendment says.

In the American lexicon, federalism is the same as the Jeffersonian phrase “states’ rights,” which means that the states as legal entities are to have rights against the federal government. In this way, America was different from Prussia or any other nation-state of the old world that had a unitary state apparatus. American federalism was the embodiment of political tolerance and decentralization — the expression of the liberal conviction that society can manage itself and needs no central plan.

No, this does not lead to perfection. It does restrain power, and permits flexibility and competition among legal regimes. It is this very flexibility that would have best handled the issue of race relations in the period after World War II. As for segregation, if anyone believes that the states could have successfully preserved legal segregation, he knows nothing about the South or American politics. Segregation was on its way out in 1948 — already under fire in state legislatures and towns — and would have been repealed peacefully and constitutionally, in time, and without the antagonisms that always accompany political impositions.

Most Southerners, however, understood that the federal government wanted to do more than end legally sponsored segregation. They understood that the federal government wanted to take charge of their schools and communities, not only ending legal segregation but also managing their lives by prohibiting voluntary choice in the exercise of private property rights. This is what they predicted and this is what occurred.

Let’s not forget, too, that the South was put through a cruel “Reconstruction” after the Civil War; less than a hundred years earlier, the right of self-government was taken from the South and military governments were installed. All people everywhere resent imperial government intrusion, but Southerners can speak with experience on the question.

Instead of allowing segregation to fade away, the federal government got involved in the business of regulating the states and created a very ugly backlash in the South. This tragic error has resulted in unnecessary racial conflict and the consolidation of federal power. This has not been helpful to American race relations, and it has taken away essential freedoms and property rights from all Americans.

Today we see every manner of socialistic meddling imposed on the states, not just in the South but on all states and against all businesses and schools and neighborhoods. The assumption is that DC managers know better how to bring about social cooperation than people themselves, and that people cannot be trusted in their daily lives to treat each other humanely. Instead, we are told, they need inhumane bureaucracies to tell communities how to run their schools, businesspeople who to hire and who not to fire, cities how much public housing to build and how much to distribute by way of welfare dollars.

Would the country have been better off had the Dixiecrats won in 1948? Of course this is conjectural history, and I was wrong to imply that we can know the answer with certainty. If Thurmond’s party had behaved the way the Democrats and Republicans typically have — betraying election promises in favor of building the welfare-warfare state — the party might not have made any difference at all.

However, we can say that the country would have been far better off by preserving freedom and federalism rather than by fastening on it a managerial regime that intrudes itself into every aspect of public and private life, often in the name of quelling racial conflict but in fact only creating more.

Let me finally say that in Mississippi, we have plenty of racial conflict, and I hope and pray for an end to it. But it is not comparable to the suspicion and anger that dominate race relations in Washington, DC, a place where the racial divide is obvious to anyone with eyes to see. Right here in Washington, the home of the people who claim they know what is best for everyone in the country and the world, crime and poverty are higher and the races can’t manage the everyday civilities that Southerners take for granted.

Therefore, I apologize for any misunderstanding my remarks created, owing to the lack of historical understanding of our nation’s press corps and punditry class. But I do not apologize for being a defender of freedom, federalism, and the Constitution, and for being an opponent of the Leviathan state, which uses any excuse, including race, to trample on the essential rights of all.

Lew Rockwell Archives