Prompted by the resignation of Jack Hunter (a.k.a., the Southern Avenger) from Sen. Rand Paul’s staff, the writers at the libertarianish collaborative site The Volokh Conspiracy ran a series of posts on the Confederacy, the upshot of which was that the South had it coming.
I am neither a libertarian nor an uncritical defender of the South. But while these posts are varied in quality – a few have barely risen above point-and-sputter regarding slavery – two in particular stood out as particularly good. The first was by Randy Barnett
The first, by Randy Barnett, gives chapter-and-verse on how decidedly non-libertarian and indeed non-“States Rights”-affirming the antebellum South actually was. Reading it, I was struck by the extent to which the South had given the northern states ample cause to secede from the federal Union themselves, so much so that I’m vaguely curious as to why that never actually happened.
The second post, by Ilya Somin, quotes extensively John Stuart Mill’s writings on the Confederacy and whose thoughts are especially interesting given that he wrote them while the war was still in progress. Mill’s main point is that the defense of slavery motivated secession, subsequent revisionists notwithstanding.
But he also writes something I found troubling:
But we are told, by a strange misapplication of a true principle, that the South had a right to separate; that their separation ought to have been consented to, the moment they showed themselves ready to fight for it; and that the North, in resisting it, are committing the same error and wrong which England committed in opposing the original separation of the thirteen colonies….
I am not frightened at the word rebellion…. But I certainly never conceived that there was a sufficient title to my sympathy in the mere fact of being a rebel; that the act of taking arms against one’s fellow citizens was so meritorious in itself, was so completely its own justification, that no question need be asked concerning the motive. It seems to me a strange doctrine that the most serious and responsible of all human acts imposes no obligation on those who do it, of showing that they have a real grievance; that those who rebel for the power of oppressing others, exercise as sacred a right as those who do the same thing to resist oppression practiced upon themselves…. Secession may be laudable, and so may any other kind of insurrection; but it may also be an enormous crime. It is the one or the other, according to the object and the provocation. And if there ever was an object which, by its bare announcement, stamped rebels against a particular community as enemies of mankind, it is the one professed by the South.
I need to parse the phrase “sufficient title to my sympathy”. If by this Mill means a cause meriting the provision of material aid, then I would go even farther than he does: the only causes meriting such aid are ones that advance the interests and well-being of the citizens of the state offering the aid, slavery or no slavery. But Mill almost certainly doesn’t intend this. Rather, he would evaluate claim to independence on moral grounds, and finds the South’s lacking.
As I said, I am not a libertarian, but I do believe in territorial self-government, and I advocate this with few reservations. I have little admiration for how any nation runs its affairs (including, lately, my own) but I would not interfere in how even the obscurantists of the Taliban govern their own country – as surely they will if ever the U.S. removes its military props to the corrupt Karzai regime. Afghanistan is for the Afghanis, and I only reserve the right to keep such people outside the borders of America.
But isolationism is out of favor, so let me put this another way: in practice, Mill’s is an “exception” big enough to drive a truck through. I would go so far as to say that any would-be imperialists, seeking to deny a people weaker than themselves the opportunity to live under laws of their own choosing, could find some moral fault to justify its denial. They might even find a moral fault on libertarian grounds: libertarian fantasists to the contrary, all the world’s nations choose a mix of tradeoffs between freedoms and restriction, trade-offs exemplified by the writers at Volokh. Who among them can cast the first stone?
An argument for tolerance in the context of self-government also may not be sufficiently persuasive to those who, like Somin and perhaps Mill, possess sufficient confidence in the ascendance of their preferred policy mix in what may yet be the most powerful country in the world. Why should they fear outsiders turning their own taste for imperialism against them?