David R. Henderson  

Lincoln: Public Choice 101

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Honestly, Abe!

My long-time friend, Tom Nagle, wrote the following letter to American Way, the American Airlines in-flight magazine, after reading an article on the making of the film, Lincoln. I convinced him that the probability of his getting the letter published in that magazine was close to zero and so he gave me permission to publish it here:

Your story [December, American Way] about the making of Lincoln aptly describes it as a "textured, intimate film about the Abraham Lincoln few people know: the clever politico, the complicated family man, the Republican revolutionary." All true, but it left the reader with the impression that the movie portrays Lincoln as the honest saint we learned about in school. What is really great about the movie is its honest portrayal of a man who blatantly lied to and manipulated even his most intimate advisors, bought votes with bribes, and unnecessarily extended a war that was costing more lives every day in order to secure a goal that neither a majority of Congress nor a majority of the public shared. As such, he showed himself not to be the "honest Abe" we learn about in school, but more like some highly effective but morally compromised modern presidents: Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon come to mind. The tension between my feelings about Lincoln's means and the laudable end, slavery's definitive demise, left me thinking often about the film and its implications for democracy. If others are affected in the same way, Spielberg may have created something that does more than merely entertain.

New York Times columnist David Brooks, on the other hand, observing the same facts in the same movie, had this to write, in a column, titled--and this is not from The Onion--"Why We Love Politics":
It [the movie Lincoln] shows that you can do more good in politics than in any other sphere. You can end slavery, open opportunity and fight poverty. But you can achieve these things only if you are willing to stain your own character in order to serve others -- if you are willing to bamboozle, trim, compromise and be slippery and hypocritical.

The challenge of politics lies precisely in the marriage of high vision and low cunning. Spielberg's "Lincoln" gets this point. The hero has a high moral vision, but he also has the courage to take morally hazardous action in order to make that vision a reality.

To lead his country through a war, to finagle his ideas through Congress, Lincoln feels compelled to ignore court decisions, dole out patronage, play legalistic games, deceive his supporters and accept the fact that every time he addresses one problem he ends up creating others down the road.

Politics is noble because it involves personal compromise for the public good. This is a self-restrained movie that celebrates people who are prudent, self-disciplined, ambitious and tough enough to do that work.


Tom Nagle, who is often a fan of Brooks' columns replies:
I am absolutely flabbergasted by Brooks' piece, and that it ran in the New York Times. He writes, "Politics is noble because it involves personal compromise for the public good." Lincoln wasn't making just "personal compromises." He made decisions not just to sacrifice his own integrity but to sacrifice the lives of thousands of people, many impressed into service against their will, in order to achieve an objective that he thought was more valuable than they were! What this movie showed is that when presidential power trumps the power of the legislative branch that represents the popular will and the judicial branch that enforces constitutional limits--as both Lincoln and modern day neoconservatives espouse--then we cease to become really free people and become just pawns in a bigger plan. In the case of Lincoln, the plan happened to produce something of enduring value. But in the case of Woodrow Wilson, Lyndon Johnson, and George W. Bush, to name just those about whom most all will agree, the unprincipled exercise of power has been far less beneficial.

I think "far less beneficial" has to be the understatement of the day.


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CATEGORIES: Public Choice Theory



COMMENTS (75 to date)
Hadur writes:

Never knew that Tom Nagle owned slaves.

kingstu writes:

"Why We Love Politics" is a glowing look at all the "good" an immensely powerful man did in the United State's highest public office. I would challenge David Brooks (the NYT token liberal Conservative) to ask himself about the other great politicians of the ages. Do Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao Zedong show us that “you can do more good in politics than in any other sphere”? Perhaps these men all remind us that the “marriage of high vision and low cunning” can be used for less noble purposes as well.

Hunter writes:

I can't find the quote, but this sound like Machiavelli when he essentially said that a good prince risks his immortal soul for the benefit of his country.

Tracy W writes:

In response to Tom Nagle's piece, I rather find myself thinking "compared to what?"

The popular will wants lower taxes, more government spending on everything (except maybe foreign aid which Megan McArdle called like trying to pay off your credit cards by slashing your chewing gum budget) and no deficits. This combination is not achievable.

Constitutional limits may also well be stupid (the US's federal constitution strikes me as relatively sensible, there's a lot of badly written ones out there), in doing things like asserting rights to an education, that pensions will be paid, etc, things that should be balanced amongst other political pressures.

So I'm inclined to think that often a politician who can hypocritically get past all those pressures, in the pursuit of a good goal, is better than one who, say, mindlessly follows the popular will and leads their country into a debt crisis (see Greece, for example. Or Robert Muldoon of NZ.)

egd writes:
The popular will wants lower taxes, more government spending on everything and no deficits. This combination is not achievable.
Welcome to a strong argument against any sort of democratic government.

I think most people support democratic government not because they think popular will is correct, but because they're worried about the wrong type of people having power.

See Democrat support for President Obama's executive power grab.

Jim Glass writes:

extended a war that was costing more lives every day in order to secure a goal that neither a majority of Congress nor a majority of the public shared.

Well, Lincoln *did* win the election of 1864, in which "extending the war" was *the* issue. So it is not at all clear that this claim is true, to be kind about it.

But let's say it is true, for argument's sake.

Why is the goal of the majority of Congress and majority of the public automatically to be respected?

Suppose that the plain desire of the majority of Congress representing the plain desire of the majority of the people is to ... send a race of people to concentration camps .... enslave an entire race of people permanently .... exterminate a race of people from lands they occupy that the majority wishes to seize for itself. All of which has, of course, happened.

Then a politician who lies and connives and deceives to stop these things from happening is a bad guy? Doing something wrong? Really???

There is nothing sacred and good about democracy, majority rule, and "the will of the people". At best it is, as Churchill famously said, least bad -- the worst form of government except for the others that have been tried.

And this weak principle of majority rule -- so easily turned to ill and evil, at its best only relatively better than others -- *certainly* does not morally excuse a politician from doing the morally right thing, and exercising all his wiles to do it, when what the majority wants is the ill and evil.

I mean, my word, how many times do libertarians *savage* politicians (here on this blog and everywhere else they can) exactly for pandering to -- that is, following -- the will of Bryan Caplan's sheeple instead of standing up to them and doing the "right" thing? But now, no, the opposite, the elected leader must bow to and follow the will of the majority of the people no matter how muddle headed-to-outright evil that will is?? Three cheers for rent controls, fat unfunded entitlements for all, and Japanese-American citizens in concentration camps!

There is nothing sacred or inherently beneficial about majority rule, democracy. The case for it is entirely pragmatic, as Churchill stated.

The objective record makes it very clear that in insufficiently socially "advanced" societies it is a very bad thing. Hitler and the Nazis were entirely legitimately elected, with everyone knowing full well what his agenda was via Mein Kampf and his public record of relentlessly telling them. A host of tyrants have been popularly elected and supported by the majority expropriating the minority. (How socially "advanced" was the USA circa 1860?)

The inherent conflict created by the moral necessity for a political leader to do the *right thing* even when that defies and contradicts the will of those to whom he is supposed to answer -- defeating their will -- is one of the big things that makes the history of and study of political leadership so ... interesting.

All of western civilization as we know it arguably was saved when Themistocles lied, tricked and deceived the Athenian people into being prepared to meet the Persian invasion, which he knew was coming but they didn't believe.
Was he wrong to do it?

Ken B writes:
when presidential power trumps the power of the legislative branch that represents the popular will
Rather a stretch don't you think? After all in the movie, Licoln had a majority to start. And the votes he was after were democrats defeated and set to be replaced by republicans. Seward (in the movie) says they'll have the votes if they wait -- the congressional election having just been won big by the republicans. The senate had already passed the measure.

I think Brooks is zeroing in on a willingness to 'work' the system for good, accepting the system is flawed. If that's really disreputable then I eagerly await denunciations of William Wiberforce and his willingness to accept the support of members from rotten boroughs.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Ken B,
We economists tend to say that there's a substitute for everything, but in this case I think I'll just have to see the movie to judge your vs. Tom Nagle's claims about the Congressional majority. Re Brooks, though, I don't need to see the movie. Read his whole column, Ken B, and see if you don't find yourself squirming.

Daublin writes:

I'd like to believe it, but Lincoln strikes me as not so much crafty, but rather incompetent. I daresay more people would see it if it weren't for the hot button issue of slavery.

A better description is that Lincoln was an appeaser. In the run up to his presidency, he consistently tried to please everyone by saying both (a) he disapproved of slavery, and (b) the slave states should not be interfered with. Sounds like a waffley, politician, doesn't it? He did not change this stance until he blundered into war, at which point he radically aligned with those who still supported him.

Anyone blundering into a civil war should be immediately disqualified as having "low cunning".

Les Cargill writes:

The level of resolve and bloodshed during the civil war wasn't about slavery; it was that people in the North had decided that they had to win *that* war or there would be a continuing series of wars. H.W. Brands has made this point rather well ( I believe I got it from his Q&A about "American Colossus" on CSPAN ). That puts the moral calculus on a more utilitarian footing... and reduces the amount of Progressivism implied by the victory...

Lincoln was also a *railroad lawyer*, and knew that this technology would force a more unified nation. The 13th was most likely considered by Lincoln to be a tactical move to make the war more total....

I have yet to see "Lincoln", but I will. To my ear, it is better when our heroes are fully formed and not saints. Sadly, that causes some people to dismiss them.

Also, Scott Reynolds Nelson is in the process of explaining a great deal of American history in terms of ... financial panics. By "great deal", I mean "nearly all". A financial panic ( or more than one - I'm thinking of 1837 ) probably metastasized slavery into a much more permanent institution. Slaves turned out to be a better store of value than just about anything. If that thesis holds up, it could be huge.

Ken B writes:

@DRH:
Usually I start squirming at 'Brooks'. Sometimes at 'David'! :)
If you mean I should squirm at Lincoln's machinations, then I don't. I don't squirm at Wilberforce's either. If you mean at Brooks's usual we-are-the-Eloi-we-do-it-for-you-and-you-should-thank-us spiel, then yes.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Ken B,
The third one. We're squirming about the same thing.

egd writes:

Jim Glass:

I mean, my word, how many times do libertarians *savage* politicians (here on this blog and everywhere else they can) exactly for pandering to -- that is, following -- the will of Bryan Caplan's sheeple instead of standing up to them and doing the "right" thing?

Libertarians *savage* politicians for pandering to the people when the politicians are taking away the liberty of others. If popular will is pro-liberty, Libertarians are happy to go along with popular will.

Following, or not following, popular demand is not the common denominator.

Greg G writes:

This post implicitly assumes that presidential leadership is simply either principled or unprincipled. That is a false dichotomy. That is the point David Brooks is making.

We care about many different principles and values and they often conflict with each other forcing difficult choices and compromises. Lincoln was quite honest about the fact that preserving the union was his most important principle and fighting to abolish slavery was his next most important principle. He was elected twice on that basis.

When you are bitching on the internet about how things ought to be, it is easy to avoid hard choices. When you are running a country... not so much.

It is always interesting how often the people who feel most entitled to better political leadership than they are getting are the people who would be the last to consider actually doing those political jobs they think should be done better. And yet they often seem to remain in a state of hyper-vigilence for signs of over-entitlement in others.


John writes:

Jim Glass: I don't think anyone was attacking Lincoln, or saying that Lincoln was a bad person, or saying that Lincoln didn't do an enormous amount of good.

But the relevant question today isn't "should we give Lincoln a large amount of power"; the question is "should we give the executive branch a large amount of power." If you have a way to reliably distinguish between "good" and "bad" presidents, a way that does not rely on the popular will (which as you say can itself be "good" or "bad"), a way to give unilateral power to the "good" ones and take it away from the "bad" ones, a way that preferably does not involve you personally deciding who is good and bad, then I'm on board!

David R. Henderson writes:

@Jim Glass,
What John says, except that I do want the person to be good by my standards.

Tracy W writes:

@egd - "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried from time to time."

I'm in favour of democracy because it has a peaceful way of removing lousy leaders.

Jim Glass writes:

Jim Glass: ... Libertarians *savage* politicians for pandering to the people when the politicians are taking away the liberty of others. If popular will is pro-liberty, Libertarians are happy to go along with popular will.

Ah, so you agree with me that the shot at Lincoln that he sought...

"to secure a goal that neither a majority of Congress nor a majority of the public shared"

... is empty specious rhetoric from a libertarian point of view.

(In addition to being simply false, considering all the times Lincoln and the Republicans were elected and re-elected during this period.)

Thanks.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Jim Glass: I don't think anyone was attacking Lincoln, or saying that Lincoln was a bad person, or saying that Lincoln didn't do an enormous amount of good.

Really? Hmmm...

"[He] unnecessarily extended a war that was costing more lives every day in order to secure a goal that neither a majority of Congress nor a majority of the public shared. ... He made decisions not just to sacrifice his own integrity but to sacrifice the lives of thousands of people, many impressed into service against their will, in order to achieve an objective that he thought was more valuable than they were! "
Does that read to you like a description of a good person doing an enormous amount of good?

It reads to me like a description of a dictator rolling over the will of the legislature and the people to kill many thousands of people to suit his own whim. Which he valued far above their human lives.

Which is a bad person doing bad.

BTW, I enjoy the extra rhetorical flourish of that "unnecessarily" -- as if when the legislature and the people decide it is right to fight a war and commit to doing so, it is unnecessary to win it.



Jim Glass writes:

Just to be clear, when Nagle writes...

Lincoln wasn't making just "personal compromises." He made decisions not just to sacrifice his own integrity but to sacrifice the lives of thousands of people, many impressed into service against their will, in order to achieve an objective that he thought was more valuable than they were!

...he means ...

"... in order to achieve what he and his party were popularly elected to do in 1860, re-elected in 1862 while doing it to continue doing, and re-elected again in 1864 while doing it to finish the job."

What this movie showed is that when presidential power trumps the power of the legislative branch that represents the popular will

Who's being contemptuous of the expressed will of the legislature and voting public now?

Nagle personally disapproves of Lincoln's Civil War policy, then substitutes that personal opinion of his own for the result of every election and legislative vote from 1860 thru 1864 -- then claims Lincoln ignored the will of the legislature and voting public of his day.

I mean, geeze.

MingoV writes:

Tom Nagle wrote:

... The tension between my feelings about Lincoln's means and the laudable end, slavery's definitive demise...
Nagle didn't learn all the negative facts about Lincoln. Lincoln cared about slavery only as a political issue. He had no intention of proposing an amendment that would make slavery illegal. He was in favor of forcibly relocating freed slaves to Africa. Not one slave was freed during his presidency. The Emancipation Proclamation was pure propaganda. It applied only to the states that had seceded and did not affect the four Union states that still allowed slavery.

Lincoln was our worst president. He smashed state rights, started a war over voluntary secession, violated the Constitution numerous times, established a federal military, instituted military conscription, and supported the "total war" concept that killed tens of thousands of civilians. We went from a federal to a national government during Lincoln's presidency and never went back.

David R. Henderson writes:

@MingoV,
He had no intention of proposing an amendment that would make slavery illegal.
That's clearly false. You don't have to see the movie to know that Lincoln not only "intended to propose an amendment that would make slavery illegal," but also actually did propose an amendment that to make slavery illegal.
Not one slave was freed during his presidency
I'm pretty sure that's false too.
Your whole last paragraph is correct and does not contradict the Tom Nagle statement you quoted. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if Tom Nagle agrees with the whole of your last paragraph. Indeed, one of his points, which is above, is that executive power is dangerous.

CBrinton writes:

David Henderson, on "MingoV:

"Your whole last paragraph is correct . . ."

Actually, it isn't. To the extent it makes factual statements, they are a mishmash of falsehoods. Among others:

"Lincoln . . . . started a war over voluntary secession,
[False: secessionist acts of war, including armed assault on and thefts of US property, began before Lincoln was even inaugurated]

. . . .established a federal military,
[False: The US Army and Navy were both established in 1775; Lincoln was not even born until 1809]

The other claims are too vague to be checkable, involving terms subject to tendentious definition.

After spotting two obvious mistakes in the earlier part of MingoV's post, it's curious that Mr. Henderson was so willing to think the last part was accurate.

Greg G writes:

I am always amazed at how many self described libertarians think that going to war to free Americans from the British in 1776 was more important for the cause of liberty than going to war to free Americans from slavery in 1860. Isn't it obvious that those slaves were far more oppressed than the colonists were in 1776?

Tom Nagle writes:

Tom Nagle, in response to Jim Glass and others who apparently have misunderstood my position, let me try again:
Where did I write that I think presidents should simply follow the whims of the majority? I do not believe in majority rule; the founding fathers created a constitution with separation of powers in part to protect us from that. They also created a constitution to protect us from presidents who might use the office to trample our freedoms despite the will of the majority or the rules that we agreed would limit the power of government over individuals. I admire a president who uses his veto to thwart bad laws, and judges who use their power to stop the majority's violation of constitutionally guaranteed rights. But what is to protect us from a man who gets to the White House and then uses his power to pursue ends that cost the lives and wealth of people in causes that they do not support?
Our constitution was meant to protect us from any branch of government that came to be abusive of our freedoms. Before Lincoln, it did. But his decision to disregard the constitution to achieve his ends, a decision we see him openly acknowledge in the movie, set a precedent that has increased presidential prerogatives and undermined our freedoms ever since. From Wilson’s military draft and sedition laws in WWI, to Roosevelt’s incarceration of the Japanese in WWII, to Johnson’s use of the FBI to blackmail congressmen to support his war, to Bush/Cheney’s claim of a right to imprison, torture, and kill anyone whom they, in their judgment, viewed as an “enemy”, the path that Lincoln started us down has cost us dearly. When Lincoln said that he was defending “government of the people, by the people, and for the people”, he was telling a cynical, bold-faced lie. Government of, by, and for the people was created by our founding fathers, and Lincoln was the first president to cite expediency as a justification to dismantle it.

Tracy W writes:

But what is to protect us from a man who gets to the White House and then uses his power to pursue ends that cost the lives and wealth of people in causes that they do not support?

Um, quite a number of people in the USA, before Lincoln, were using their power, including government power, to pursue ends that cost the lives and wealth of people in causes that they do not support. Lincoln was the one who ended slavery.

Greg G writes:

Tom Nagle says: "Government of, by, and for the people was created by our founding fathers, and Lincoln was the first president to cite expediency as a justification to dismantle it."

This is an imaginative reading of history. We had the enforcement of the Alien an Sedition Acts. We had Jefferson ignoring the fact that he had no real constitutional authority for the Louisiana Purchase. We had Jackson thumbing his nose at the law and the Supreme court regarding Indian treaties.

Show me one civil war in history that didn't result in at least a temporary reduction in civil liberties.

egd writes:

Tracy W writes:

I'm in favour of democracy because it has a peaceful way of removing lousy leaders.

It also has a tendency to enshrine lousy leaders. See Chavez.

Tracy W writes:

quite a number of people in the USA, before Lincoln, were using their power, including government power, to pursue ends that cost the lives and wealth of people in causes that they do not support.

Government-mandated murder, imprisonment, impovershment, and stripping the democratic voice of an entire region of the country is the solution?

Ken B writes:

Greg G:

I am always amazed at how many self described libertarians think that going to war to free Americans from the British in 1776 was more important for the cause of liberty than going to war to free Americans from slavery in 1860.

+1. I second everything you said actually but this in particular.

egd:

Government-mandated murder, imprisonment, impovershment, and stripping the democratic voice of an entire region of the country is the solution?

Enshrining government-mandated murder, imprisonment, impovershment, and stripping the democratic voice of an entire race is the solution?

Ken B writes:

Tom Nagle

Our constitution was meant to protect us from any branch of government that came to be abusive of our freedoms. Before Lincoln, it did

I am dumbfounded. Really if your critics had characterized your beliefs this way I would have thought they were being inflammatory and grossly unfair.

egd writes:

Ken B:

Enshrining government-mandated murder, imprisonment, impovershment, and stripping the democratic voice of an entire race is the solution?

Fortunately, it's not (and was not) an either-or choice.

You appear to believe that 600,000+ military deaths is a low enough price to pay to eliminate slavery. Then reconstruction, the civil rights act, expansion of executive and federal authority, and southern disenfranchisement.

I don't.

CBrinton writes:

egd:

"You appear to believe that 600,000+ military deaths is a low enough price to pay to eliminate slavery. Then reconstruction, the civil rights act, expansion of executive and federal authority, and southern disenfranchisement.

"I don't."

Your complaint should be addressed to the slavocrat leadership, then. They could have had gradual (and probably even compensated) emancipation combined with a stop to the expansion of slavery, but they were willing to use military aggression in order to expand and protect slavery.

Unfortunately for them (and for others as well) their intended victims had the ill-grace to fight back.

djf writes:

It's amazing that supposedly liberty-loving libertarians, who vilify Americans who want to restrict immigration as "haters," apparently think slavery was no big deal - at least, it was not so bad as to be worth the war that ended it, or even the ordinary seamy political maneuvering used to push through the 13th amendment. This would seem to bear out those who say libertarians disproportionately exhibit autistic and obsessive/compulsive tendencies.

This makes it a bit easier to understand libertarians' reluctance to concede that World War II was worth fighting.

I wonder - would libertarians object to the kind of political tactics shown in the Lincoln movie if those tactics were used to further some libertarian goal - say, abolishing a counterproductive regulatory scheme or subsidy program, or instituting amnesty for illegal immigrants?

Ken B writes:
Fortunately, it's not (and was not) an either-or choice
Actually in 1861, it was. That secession was driven by a desire to protect slavery as an institution is pretty clear. Read the Georgia or SC acts for instance. But the whole history makes this plain. You can certainly make a case the civil war was too high a price, but you really shouldn't try to deny the plain nature of the confederacy. Its VP explains it clearly.
Greg G writes:

@egd

I wonder if you would have felt we paid too high a price to get rid of slavery if you had been a slave?

Ben Southwood writes:

@djf

Obviously if anything is going to war for, it's worth going to war to stop easily one of the top ten evils in history (Southern US slavery).

The best counter-argument to your comment would be along the lines that slavery could feasibly have been ended a la Brazil or elsewhere by buying out slaveowners and compensating slaves – avoiding billions of dollars of destruction, 600,000+ casualties etc. etc.

The question – much less of a pitched battle – is whether there was in fact another option.

egd writes:

CBrinton:

Unfortunately for them (and for others as well) their intended victims had the ill-grace to fight back.

Northerners were the intended victims? There weren't very many battles fought outside Confederate territory.

Or do you mean that the North fought on behalf of the slaves? That would certainly be news to the Northern army at the time.

The Civil War was a war for independence. Slavery was an important backdrop and the key reason for seeking independence, but that doesn't change the nature of the conflict.

egd writes:

Greg G:

I wonder if you would have felt we paid too high a price to get rid of slavery if you had been a slave?

Of course not. Were I enslaved and forced into the harsh living conditions of a 19th century slave I would be willing to sacrifice a number of individuals to guarantee my own freedom.

But if we went around killing 600,000 non-slaves for every free slave (or even 600), at some point you would agree that the losses outweigh the gain.

Tracy W writes:

@egd:

It also has a tendency to enshrine lousy leaders. See Chavez.

Compared to what? There's plenty of nasty dictators and monarchs who died in bed, or were only dislodged by a bloody war.

Government-mandated murder, imprisonment, impovershment, and stripping the democratic voice of an entire region of the country is the solution?

Slave-owning does indeed strike me as a crime worthy of imprisonment, impoverishment and losing one's democratic voice. And its perpetrators are certainly morally deserving of execution, though I disapprove of capital punishment on other grounds. It is miserable for those innocent people economically dependent on the slaveholders, as it is miserable for innocent people who are dependent on ordinary murderers, rapists, etc, but the criminals should have thought about that before they committed their crimes. Society is not served by letting murderers, rapists, slaveholders, etc, get away scot-free just for short-term protection of their innocent dependants.

I don't know why you're talking about stripping a region of its democratic voice. That implies that it had a democratic voice in the first place. But the confederate states didn't allow women or black male slaves to vote. Very undemocratic.

djf writes:

The level of historical knowledge around here is pretty abysmal.

@egd - There were millions of slaves when the Civil War started, multiple times the number of soldiers who died in the war. I'm not sure whether that affects the point you're trying to make, but the point is pretty bad, anyway - fundamental political disputes are periodically resolved by violence when they cannot be resolved otherwise (see, e.g., the American Revolution, which was fought over matters far less grave than slavery). That's just the way human societies work. Don't like it, move to another planet.

@Tracy W - Before the 15th Amendment, southern states, and many northern states, did not allow any blacks to vote, even free blacks. Also, if female suffrage is required for a society to qualify as democratic, the United States (except for a few odd western states like Wyoming) did not become democratic until 1919, when women were given the right to vote nationwide.

Ken B writes:

djf you raise an interesting point. I think there is a big difference between denying the vote to blacks and denying it to women. To a considerable extent married women will share a common interest with their husbands, daughters with their brothers or parents. Clearly blacks in the old south did not share much common interest with whites. This is a significant asymmetry I think. (I think you are hinting at this btw.)

djf writes:

Ken B, my point with regard to women's voting was that neither the North nor the South allowed women to vote at the time of the Civil War. Tracy W seemed to be asserting that the South was nondemocratic because women did not vote there, but this did not distinguish the South from the North. The large majority of states, both northern and southern, continued to disenfranchise women until the constitution was amended to prohibit it in 1919. I agree with the distinction you draw between disenfranchsing a sex (whose members necessarily are related to, and share interests with, members of the other sex) and disenfranchising a race. However, the same distinction held true in both slave states and free states; most of the latter did not permit blacks to vote, though they were free.

egd writes:

djf:

fundamental political disputes are periodically resolved by violence when they cannot be resolved otherwise

Violence wasn't the only solution to the "fundamental political dispute" of slavery. To resolve the dispute the South tried to leave the union.

Secession is, in my view, superior to violence.

Remember, the North wasn't fighting to stop the South from having slaves, the North was fighting to maintain political dominion over the South. If they were fighting to end slavery then a slave-free Confederacy would have been an acceptable conclusion to the war.

Lincoln wanted to save the union, not abolish slavery. See the Horace Greeley letter.

johnleemk writes:

"Government-mandated murder, imprisonment, impovershment, and stripping the democratic voice of an entire region of the country is the solution?"

When much of the wealth of that region is literally human slaves (there's plenty of economic scholarship sizing the value of human slave assets in the South) or industry built on the backs of those slaves, government-mandated destruction of said wealth (by liberation of those slaves) doesn't strike me as an inappropriate solution.

And if the blacks of the South could vote, would they really have voted to remain enslaved? (There's also some considerable scholarship questioning whether the whites of the South would have actually voted for secession if it had been put to a referendum. It's certainly doubtful that if all people of the South over the age of 18 had been allowed to vote on it that secession would indubitably have turned out to be the democratic will of the people.)

As for Lincoln's intentions, anyone suggesting that he was pro-slavery (or apathetic about it) is simply ignorant of the complexity of his views. Lincoln was always anti-slavery. He was not always an abolitionist. His preferred solution was compensated emancipation followed by voluntary emigration of free blacks (he had zero desire to coerce anyone on the issue of colonisation, and dropped it once it became clear it wasn't going to happen). The suggestions that zero slaves were freed under Lincoln or that the Emancipation Proclamation didn't free any slaves are so plainly absurd that I'd take bets with anyone, at any odds, on these two questions.

johnleemk writes:

egd,

I don't see where in the Greeley letter Lincoln says "I'm apathetic about slavery, I only want to save the Union." He says that ending slavery has to take a backseat to ending the war. That seems like a fair statement to me. It's impossible to read the letter as "I don't care about slavery" and reconcile it with the fact that Lincoln had just finished the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation when he wrote to Greeley.

djf writes:

@egd - thanks for the history lesson, but I'm well aware of the history of the Civil War era. For your information, secession (like the disagreements between G Britain and the American colonies in the 1760s-70s) was a fundamental poltical dispute that ultimately could not be resolved except through war. Apparently, had you been around at the time, you would not have thought the federal government justified in going to war to prevent secession. You would have been entitled to that view, and are entitled to hold it now, but your opinion that the Union could be dispensed with was a minority view in the North in 1861, even among people who had no problem with slavery and had voted against Lincoln.

No one was proposing a slavery-free Confederacy. I have no idea how you came up with that. The only reason the South wanted to secede was to protect slavery; they believed that the election of Lincoln meant that slavery would untenable within the Union IN THE LONG RUN, given the growing power of the North vis a vis the South.

I've read the Greely letter, thank you very much. I don't see what that has to do with any point I was making; I never asserted that Lincoln was elected president on an abolition platform (his platform was to outlaw the spread of slavery to the western territories, in case you're intersted - that's what the secessionists objected to).

Ken B writes:

johnleemk: "slaves were freed under Lincoln"

And the reverse. When Lee's army marched into Pennsylvania they rounded up all the free blacks they could and sent them south as slaves.

No-one here has mentioned the exchange of black prisoners of war either. Why do you think that might be?

Ken B writes:

As for the Greeley letter, not only is johnleemk right but does it matter who Greeley was? The Greeley letter is a form of 'press release'. Lincoln was trying to smooth things. Raise your hand here everyone who takes white house press releases at face value.

Anyway no-one argues the North fought the war to end slavery, just that ending slavery became a -- not the, a -- war aim by the end. The passage of the 13th makes that indisputable. It was passed before the war ended and ratification was demanded from returning states.

egd writes:

djf:

secession (like the disagreements between G Britain and the American colonies in the 1760s-70s) was a fundamental poltical dispute that ultimately could not be resolved except through war.
Why couldn't it have been resolved except through war? Was the North incapable of allowing the South to secede? I'll also go ahead and dispute that American Independence couldn't have been resolved except through war. There are examples of British colonies becoming independent without a war for independence.
No one was proposing a slavery-free Confederacy. I have no idea how you came up with that.
I never said anyone was proposing a slavery-free Confederacy. I was disputing the oft-repeated argument that the North went to war against the South to abolish slavery. It was nothing of the sort. The American Civil War was a war of Independence and the South lost.
I've read the Greely letter, thank you very much. I don't see what that has to do with any point I was making; I never asserted that Lincoln was elected president on an abolition platform
You made the argument that slavery was a fundamental political dispute that could not have been resolved except for war, with the implication that it was the Civil War that addressed the issue. I pointed out that the Civil War was not about slavery. Which you seem to agree with.

If the Civil War was about slavery, then the North would have accepted a slave-free Confederacy. But as Lincoln's letter pointed out - Lincoln would prefer to allow slavery and save the Union than to abolish slavery and lose the Union.

Greg G writes:

@egd

If it was a mistake to fight to end slavery because, given enough time slavery would have died anyway, then doesn't it follow that it was a mistake to fight for American independence because all the British colonies were eventually granted independence if they waited long enough.


Ken B writes:

And to follow on Greg G's last, wasn't it likewise wrong to fight for southern secession? Starting with firing the first shots?

egd writes:

Greg G:

If it was a mistake to fight to end slavery because, given enough time slavery would have died anyway

I'm not sure I ever made that argument.

Step back a moment: is it a legitimate exercise of government power to permit private slavery?

If it is, then the South was engaged in self-determination. You and I may disagree about the decision, but I think most would agree that self-determination is adequate grounds for secession.

Ken B:

And to follow on Greg G's last, wasn't it likewise wrong to fight for southern secession? Starting with firing the first shots?

Northerners (or Union loyalists) stationed in the South were given the opportunity to leave prior to the first shots being fired.

If US troops were stationed in a foreign country and asked to leave by the government, would the use of force to remove them be appropriate?

Greg G writes:

@egd

If a county or city or village or individual landowner wants to secede from a state should they be able to? Let's assume they are willing to give the state "the opportunity to leave prior to the first shots being fired."

MingoV writes:
@MingoV, "He had no intention of proposing an amendment that would make slavery illegal."

That's clearly false. You don't have to see the movie to know that Lincoln not only "intended to propose an amendment that would make slavery illegal," but also actually did propose an amendment that to make slavery illegal.

Lincoln, before the southern states seceded, had no intention of proposing an amendment to make slavery illegal. Is that better? Lincoln's comments and writings before and during his presidency proved his indifference to slavery. For him, it was a political issue, not a moral one.
Mark V Anderson writes:

Greg G writes:
@egd
If it was a mistake to fight to end slavery because, given enough time slavery would have died anyway, then doesn't it follow that it was a mistake to fight for American independence because all the British colonies were eventually granted independence if they waited long enough.

Kind of a change in subject, but I think a very good case could be made that the United States would have been much better off if they had not fought the Revolution. I've heard that only a third of the colonists were even in favor of the war (1/3 against, and 1/3 undecided). The Revolution occurred mostly because of hotheads that thought they were smarter and better than the Brits, and it is less than clear that they were correct. I am not any kind of expert on the Revolution, so I am far from certain on this, but that is my working hypothesis.

CBrinton writes:

egd writes:

"Step back a moment: is it a legitimate exercise of government power to permit private slavery?"

OK, I'm not a libertarian, but it seems to me that any libertarian would answer this question with "No."

Am I wrong about this? I don't see how, if you regard slavery as something a government can legitimately permit, you can describe yourself as a libertarian. I'm not saying libertarians have a duty to resist all illegitimate governments with armed force, but if you think slavery is legitimate it seems to me you're by definition not a libertarian.

And saying that the CSA would "permit private slavery" is quite an anodyne way of describing that entity's policies on slavery. Under the CSA constitution, all states were forbidden from "impairing the right of property in negro slaves."

This means CSA states were required to let slaveowners make any use of slaves, including putting them to work or selling them, within those states' borders. No CSA state could be a free state. And in any CSA territory "the institution of negro slavery as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress, and by the territorial government."

CBrinton writes:

Me:

Unfortunately for [the slavocrats] (and for others as well) their intended victims had the ill-grace to fight back.

egd:

"Northerners were the intended victims [of the slavocrats]?"

Yes. The slavocrats intended to spread slavery into the US's western territory; they were very clear on this.

The Republican party's 1860 platform, by contrast, held
"that the normal condition of all the territory of the United States is that of freedom; that as our republican fathers, when they had abolished slavery in all our national territory, ordained that no 'person should be deprived of life, liberty or property, without due process of law,' it becomes our duty, by legislation, whenever such legislation is necessary, to maintain this provision of the constitution against all attempts to violate it; and we deny the authority of congress, of a territorial legislature, or of any individuals, to give legal existence to slavery in any territory of the United States."

egd: "There weren't very many battles fought outside Confederate territory."

True, but irrelevant. The slavocrats, when they could, seized US property at gunpoint, in may cases before the states where that property was located had even purported to secede.

Is armed robbery to be accepted because it is done by pro-slavery militias? Is an aggressor's incompetence in picking a fight with someone much stronger to be held in his favor?

egd: "Or do you mean that the North fought on behalf of the slaves? That would certainly be news to the Northern army at the time."

Not if they read the Republican party platform, referenced above. The US government was acting to contain slavocrat aggression and maintain a system wherein individual states could, if they chose, abolish slavery. This is anti-slavery action even though not aimed at immediate emancipation--just as containment of Communist aggression was anti-communist action. The US policy of resisting slavocrat aggression made it much more likely that the slaves would be freed (as, indeed, ended up happening).

egd: "The Civil War was a war for independence. Slavery was an important backdrop and the key reason for seeking independence, but that doesn't change the nature of the conflict."

The Civil War resulted from the attempt by a slavocrat oligarchy to set up a government explicitly dedicated to protecting and spread its favored institution of chattel slavery. Any libertarian should see that preventing the creation of such a government, and resisting its spread, are both causes worth killing or dying for.

Is there some libertarian principle that "independence", even if pursued for explicitly anti-libertarian reasons and with the overwhelmingly likely effect of perpetuating a directly anti-libertarian system, is to be favored? I would think libertarians would be smarter than that.

egd writes:

@Greg G:

If a county or city or village or individual landowner wants to secede from a state should they be able to? Let's assume they are willing to give the state "the opportunity to leave prior to the first shots being fired."

Do you recognize the right of self determination? If so, where do you draw the line? How about a population of 4 million people and an area the size of Delaware?

The Confederacy was larger, in both area and population, than the original 13 colonies at the time of the Revolution. It was also culturally distinct from the industrialized North. Sounds like enough for self determination to me.

As for the legitimacy of government sanctioned slavery, there's no disputing that governments have the power and authority to enslave others, and have exercised it since roughly the beginning of history.

Slavery is very wrong, both morally and economically, but I won't question that governments have the authority to enforce it.

And I think you'll find few libertarians willing to endorse a war in a foreign country to eliminate slavery there.

CBrinton writes:

egd:

"Were I enslaved and forced into the harsh living conditions of a 19th century slave I would be willing to sacrifice a number of individuals to guarantee my own freedom.

But if we went around killing 600,000 non-slaves for every free slave (or even 600), at some point you would agree that the losses outweigh the gain."

So let's plug in some numbers.

There were about 3,950,000 slaves in 1860. All were free by the end of 1865. (I'll ignore any population increase among the slaves.)

Death tolls:
USA military: 360,000
CSA military: 260,000
Civilians: 50,000

Total: 670,000

Or roughly 1 death for every 6 slaves freed (or 0.17 deaths per slave freed).

By your own argument, seems like quite a favorable ratio.

And this counts the people fighting for the avowed purpose of preventing emancipation (the CSA military) equally with the people who fought to make emancipation more likely.

Tracy W writes:

@djf: Yep, I didn't bother spelling that out, but it was implicit in what I wrote. I still would prefer to live in a state that gives the vote to all men, but not to women, as every man has a mother, and many of them have sisters, wives, daughters, etc, so they have a natural interest in our welfare. Which doesn't necessarily apply for relations across the races. But I'm not impressed with whining about how the US confederate states were deprived of their "democratic" voice, when that voice excluded well over half the population.

@egd:

The Confederacy was larger, in both area and population, than the original 13 colonies at the time of the Revolution. It was also culturally distinct from the industrialized North. Sounds like enough for self determination to me.

You mean apart from how the Confederacy denied millions of people not merely the right to vote, but the right to decide where they worked, the right to remain with their family members, the right to marry who they wanted, the right to keep their earnings, the right to not be beaten? A necessary condition for self-determination is not being a slave.

Tracy W writes:

egd:

As for the legitimacy of government sanctioned slavery, there's no disputing that governments have the power and authority to enslave others, and have exercised it since roughly the beginning of history.

I would have thought that there was no disputing that governments have the power and authority to punish people who kidnap, beat and rape others, and steal said others' earnings (all key elements of US slavery), and have exercised it since roughly the beginning of history.

egd writes:

Tracy W:

You mean apart from how the Confederacy denied millions of people not merely the right to vote, but the right to decide where they worked, the right to remain with their family members, the right to marry who they wanted, the right to keep their earnings, the right to not be beaten? A necessary condition for self-determination is not being a slave.

What was the legal status of slavery during and post-Revolution?

How was the legal status of slavery in the colonies around the time of the Revolution different than the legal status of slavery in Southern states around the time of the Civil War?

Or do you think the United States, by virtue of it being a slaveholding nation, was not justified in separating from the British Empire?

Ken B writes:
I think most would agree that self-determination is adequate grounds for secession
Self-determination, with slavery? pull the other one.

If I think you owe me money I cannot just take it. I must follow the legal process. If I want to evict you because I think you broke the lease I cannot just wave a gun at you and demand you leave, I must follow the legal process. There is a process to enable secession. It is the amendment process. The south did not even try. Instead they went straight to insurrection. Armed insurrection in the name of oppression and slavery.

Tracy W writes:

@egd: My opinion of the justification of the American Revolution does indeed turn on whether the USA staying in Britain would have meant slavery being eliminated in the USA in 1833, when slavery was ended in most of the British empire, or if it would have delayed the ending of slavery in the British empire because of the increased role of southern US slave-based wealth in the British Empire. (I also think the relative treatment of American Indians is an important matter to consider). As this involves counter-factual history, I don't think I'll ever make up my mind on the justification of the American Revolution.

@djf: on re-reading my comment, I've realised I made a major typo. I'd prefer living in a country with only universal male suffrage to living in an out-and-out dictatorship, but I most definitely prefer having my own vote and living in a country with universal adult suffrage to being deprived of said vote.

Ken B writes:
Slavery is very wrong, both morally and economically, but I won't question that governments have the authority to enforce it.
Yet you question the right of governments to preclude it. And you question the right of governments to put down insurrection or enforce legal rights.
CBrinton writes:

egd:

"As for the legitimacy of government sanctioned slavery, there's no disputing that governments have the power and authority to enslave others, and have exercised it since roughly the beginning of history."

Using the same reasoning:

"As for the legitimacy of governments using force against armed groups they consider threatening, there's no disputing that governments have the power and authority to use force in this fashion, and have exercised it since roughly the beginning of history."

You have just proven that the USA's actions in the civil war were quite legitimate.

egd writes:

Tracy W:

My opinion of the justification of the American Revolution does indeed turn on whether the USA staying in Britain would have meant slavery being eliminated in the USA in 1833

Then you should support the South seceding. Without the Civil War, it is more likely than not that slavery would have continued well past 1865.

CBrinton:

You have just proven that the USA's actions in the civil war were quite legitimate.

Please don't put words in my mouth. Your reasoning reaches that conclusion, not mine.

Greg G writes:

@egd

There are today many states that contain large cities. In a number of cases these cities differ culturally, ethnically, and politically from the rest of the states that contain them. In many cases these cities now have far larger populations than the states that contain them did when those states were formed.

Does it follow from this that those cities should have the right to secede from their states in the name of self determination? If New York City had wanted to secede from New York State in 1860 in order to support slavery should it have been allowed to?

egd writes:
If New York City had wanted to secede from New York State in 1860 in order to support slavery should it have been allowed to?
Yes. Cities, individuals, and towns have the same right.

If an individual doesn't see being a part of a government as a net benefit, why should they be forced to remain a part of the government?

Suppose I decide that Canada offers me a better opportunity than the United States. I would rather support and receive benefit from the Canadian government than the U.S. government.

Should the United States Government arrest me to prevent me leaving the country?

If the Government can't arrest me, why can they prevent me from taking my real property with me?

If the Government can prevent me from taking my real property with me to Canada, why not my personal property? Or intellectual property? Or debts?

Other than the transfer of real property, what difference is there between secession and immigration?

Greg G writes:

@ egd

No one is questioning your right to emigrate to another country (although it is worth noting the Confederacy did not recognize the right of slaves to emigrate).

Are you saying that every landowner should have the right to decide and change at will which country his land should attach to? Or to form a new country consisting of only his land?

CBrinton writes:

I wrote:

egd:

"As for the legitimacy of government sanctioned slavery, there's no disputing that governments have the power and authority to enslave others, and have exercised it since roughly the beginning of history."

Using the same reasoning:

"As for the legitimacy of governments using force against armed groups they consider threatening, there's no disputing that governments have the power and authority to use force in this fashion, and have exercised it since roughly the beginning of history."

You have just proven that the USA's actions in the civil war were quite legitimate.

egd replied:

"Please don't put words in my mouth. Your reasoning reaches that conclusion, not mine."

This is false.

I did not put any words in egd's mouth (no one who read what I wrote would have any doubt what egd had said and what I did), but I did apply egd's reasoning. egd wrote that slavery had "legitimacy" because "there's no disputing that governments have the power and authority to enslave others, and have exercised it since roughly the beginning of history."

Identical reasoning shows that putting down rebellions has "legitimacy" because "there's no disputing that governments have the power and authority to put down rebellions, and have exercised it since roughly the beginning of history."

egd apparently now wishes he hadn't written what he did (not surprising, given its obvious anti-libertarian implications), but his reasoning is clear. The laws of logic don't stop working because you don't like the results.

It's also interesting that egd apparently can't support his claims about how resisting slavocrat aggression and preventing the spread of slavery isn't anti-slavery action.

CBrinton writes:

djf: "It's amazing that supposedly liberty-loving libertarians, who vilify Americans who want to restrict immigration as 'haters,' apparently think slavery was no big deal - at least, it was not so bad as to be worth the war that ended it, or even the ordinary seamy political maneuvering used to push through the 13th amendment."

It is odd, isn't it? And, in my experience, quite specific to US-based libertarians (although Mr. Henderson, as a Canadian, may be an exception). I have yet to meet a libertarian from the rest of the world who thought allowing an independent CSA to come into being would have been a good idea.

I suspect it comes from unconscious "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" thinking, with the US government as the enemy.

And, let me be clear, there's no reason a libertarian shouldn't consider the US government as an enemy. The US government is exceedingly unlikely to become a libertarian-acceptable governing entity (if such a thing is even possible) anytime soon.

But the fact that entity A is your enemy does not mean that entity B, which fought entity A, wasn't much worse. As bad as the US government was and has been, there is every reason to think an independent CSA would have been much, much worse. At least if you care about liberty. Which the CSA's founders didn't, as their own statements show.

Of course, I'm obviously not a mind-reader, so the above is merely my speculation based on years of interaction with libertarians. But I think it's pretty clear there's _something_ going on: take Mr. Henderson's response to MingoV. MingoV wrote an error-ridden statement, and Mr. Henderson was intelligent and well-informed enough to spot two clear mistakes. But he then went on to accept the rest of MingoV's arguments, without bothering to check them.

Ken B writes:

@cbrinton: David was a Canadian. He is an American citizen now. I do't know if he has dual citizenship but has said recently he thinks of himself as an American. I carefully avoid "Yankee".

I am most emphatically Canadian.

Tom Nagle writes:

Thanks Greg G and Ken B for bringing me back to reality. Lincoln obviously was not the first U.S. President to take onto himself extra-constitutional powers, undermining the principle of separation of powers.

Tracy W writes:
Then you should support the South seceding. Without the Civil War, it is more likely than not that slavery would have continued well past 1865.

Personally I would have supported the South ending slavery without any civil war. And the sooner the better. The prospect of slavery in the US south continuing past 1865 strikes me as a bad thing.

Ken B writes:

Tom Nagle: very gracious.

I think you underestimate Lincoln here. He was at pains to make sure his iffy actions did not serve as precedent. That is why passing 13 was vital: so that the proclamation not serve as the de jure basis of the slaves' freedom. This limits the precedent value of his actions, beyond the mere claim of war or insurrection powers.

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