Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Best Historical Example

NOTE: Another essay I forgot to include. As often as I cited this essay, I would have imagined it was posted long ago, but, oddly, I have overlooked it until now.

As long as I have been writing my blog I have been writing about the way in which our view of our fellow man determines our political philosophy. My ideas developed over time, but the basic point never changed. If we view our fellow man as being someone pretty much like ourselves, a competent being capable of making his own decisions, who should be granted the respect of being allowed to decide for himself what is and isn't important, then our political philosophy will tend toward the libertarian, favoring small government of limited powers.On the other hand, if you view the bulk of humanity as needing guidance, as incapable of making their own decisions and in desperate need to advice from their betters, or even needing to be prevented from making the wrong decisions, then your philosophy will tend toward the authoritarian and interventionist.

Some would argue that the question is not so all or nothing, not so black or white, but that simply is not true. As I wrote several times, once you allow that people are incompetent, even if you allow it in only one area of life, the logic of that decisions justifies others to make the same assumption about other areas. Once you have allowed that adults should be treated like children, should be stripped of their rights to decide for their own good, even if only in a very limited context, you have established a principle which cannot be stopped. There may be grey areas, place where one is not wholly free or wholly enslaved, but that is only because the process is still running its course. Once you allow that slavery may be allowed for the good of the slave, you have established the principle of slavery. Only an unflinching defense of human freedom and dignity is compatible with freedom, any admixture of authoritarianism will eventually lead to total slavery.

I am not going to elaborate upon this principle here, as I have done so much better in several older essays which I will list in the postscript. Suffice it to say that there are a variety of justifications offered for limiting freedom. Some base it upon simple incompetence, but that is not a popular approach, as it may eventually lead to resentment as voters realize they are those "other people" who are being called incompetent. More often there is a more complex argument. Either there is "insufficient information", or simply an "imbalance in information", making the argument that should one party have advantage over another that is reason enough to strip them of their freedom. At other times the argument is advanced that one segment of society has too much power and can effectively coerce the rest, and so the state must step in and deprive all of some freedoms to redress this imbalance. But most popular is the argument that some immoral individuals somehow either have deceived or coerced part of all of society into acting against their interests, and thus society needs to act to ensure that these sinister plans do not come to fruition. 

Then again, sometimes simple arrogance does work. For example, historically, the arguments against the Jacksonian movement, from the presidency of Jackson himself, through the administrations Polk and Pierce, were largely based upon class envy and arrogance. The Jacksonians were depicted as ignorant bumpkins riding a tide of brainless enthusiasm among the unwashed masses. Afraid of being associated with the brainless plebs, many avoided being labeled a Jacksonian for the same reason modern intellectuals eschew being labeled conservative or religious. It was such a successful slur that even today many history texts present the impression that Jackson and his associates were ignorant hicks opposing the Bank of the United States from populist, anti-banking sentiment, rather than from a reasoned commitment to gold, decentralization and budgetary restraint. Despite some rather learned economic support for their position at the time, modern historians still insist on portraying the Jacksonians are rubes without a sound understanding of economics.

However, though the Jacksonians provide a great historical example of how simple arrogance and criticism of "those ignorant rubes" can be used to push an authoritarian line, and oppose the reduction of centralize power, it is not the best example from our history. Just as in the gun control debate there are several great historical example, from the Japanese shogunate's disarming of the commoners to the Spartan disarming of helots to Cromwell era restrictions upon bearing arms, there are multiple examples from US history where on the basis of both ignorance and malevolence individual rights were dramatically curtailed, leading to ever greater government power. But, looking back, there is no single greater example than the American Civil War.

There is no denying that the Civil War was a watershed moment in our history. Ignoring the obvious effects, the long term impact was dramatic. First, and most obviously, the Civil War was the death knell for the traditional view of federalism and the cause of states' rights. From the decline of the Democratic party to the 14th amendment to the eventual expansion of the interstate commerce clause to allow federal involvement in all manner of state matters, none of these things would have happened without the Civil War. It was the first real step in creating the unitary federal government we have today, as well as the starting point int he decline int he importance of the states. The significant changes may not have come until later, the changes in the election of senators, the ICC, federal law enforcement, and so on, but all had their origin in principles established during the Civil War.

Nor was that all. Not only did the federal government gain autonomy from the states, but several other less obvious principles were established. For example, the birth of the federal debt came about largely during the Civil War. Granted, we had run debts before, and the Grant administration did finally retire the "greenbacks" sued to finance the Civil War, but thanks to Salmon P Chase and a handful of others, during the Civil War and immediately after, many principles that would lead to central banking were born. For example, our first federal fiat currency was created, as was the principle of backing new currency with federal debt. And, while federal banking laws had begun somewhat earlier, they really gained teeth following the war, leading to the first really centralized control of currency creation, and, in turn, the first strong nation boom and bust cycle. Nor does it seem coincidental that the first federal income tax was also born during the Civil War. And, while many of these measures did not survive the war, or were repealed by Grant or later presidents, they served to establish the possibility of such measures, and were used to justify the revival of these concepts in the decades to come.

And let us not forget a few other principles often overlooked. The Civil War also saw the first suspension of habeas corpus by the federal government, as well as the first use of troops to occupy US territory on a long term basis. It was the first use of the draft and first draft riots as well.  So besides the economic and political trappings of authoritarianism and the gutting of federalism and state authority, we also have the first use of troops against civilians, the first large scale jailing of political protesters, the first involuntary military conscription and the first occupation of American soil (and that was in non-rebel states as well).

But to return to my original point, while it is easy to establish that the Civil War set the stage for the future authoritarian steps that would bring us to our present state, what was it about the Civil War that made this possible? We had fought other wars, had suffered enemy troops on our soil, even seen Washington burn, yet we had not resorted to eliminating our own freedoms. So what was it about the Civil War that led to this destruction of rights?

And the answer is, exactly what I have been arguing. The Civil War was the first time that the government argued that people should be denied the right of self government. Some because of alleged evil, others because of incompetence, or because they were being misled by evil, but the argument was still made that there should be a limit to the freedoms we allow some citizens.

Now, this was not completely novel tot he Civil War. Slavery had created some bizarre political situations even before the war. The many political compromises required to admit new states as "slave" or "free" clearly were blows struck against states' rights, as individual citizen were denied the right to choose for themselves and their states. In fact, the very existence of free states was a political peculiarity, as logically, if states were compelled to respect the laws of one another, a slave who was property in one state was property in all, so nothing would prevent slaveholders from taking slaves to free states and keeping them there. (Which was the logical conclusion of the Dred Scott ruling.) The nation's ambivalence about slavery led to all manner of bizarre rules, to infringement of rights of both property and political self-determination. So it is not surprising that when war came many of those same problems grew even larger, leading to even worse outcomes*.

But it was not until the war itself that arguments started to be made that individuals could not make decisions for themselves. Not only that states could not decide whether to allow or disallow slavery, but that states could not be allowed to decide whether to remain in the union or not. Recall that, until the Civil War, it was taken for granted that each state was sovereign and joined the United States voluntarily. And, though it had never arisen, there was nothing to prevent a state from leaving the union should it wish. It was seen as an extension of the federal system of government. As man voluntarily entered the social compact, surrendering none of his rights, states entered the union, surrendering none of their rights. But the Civil War changed all that, giving the federal government effective veto over the actions of the states.

The justification offered was twofold. First, the argument to evil, in the case of abolitionists, that evil slaveholders were manipulating the southern states into leaving the Union, or, in the case of those supporting a strong union, that selfish interests of various kinds were threatening to dismember the nation. Second, and probably more important, was the implicit argument to arrogance and incompetence, that the ignorant yokels of the south were being misled, were not aware that their real interest lay in maintaining the Unite States intact, and that, through his ignorant actions, the southerner was harming everyone, north and south. It was almost the textbook version of the arguments I see as supporting authoritarianism. An ignorant and easily misled group is being misled by sinister forces and also following their own foolish prejudices and in the process harming everyone, so they must be restrained for their own good and the good of all.

And the circumstances of the war made this argument work perfectly. Normally the argument has to be carefully made. It is offensive to argue "you don't know enough to decide what is a fair wage, but I do", not only because it insults the listener, but because the implicit arrogance turns off the audience. And so, in modern times, most such arguments tend to describe "those people", an abstract group of ignorant individuals which includes everyone but the listeners, simultaneously suggesting  a majority is ignorant, while also making a majority of listeners think they are superior tot eh rest and feeding their arrogance. 

But, in the case of the Civil War the geographical realities made the argument easy. The northerners could easily look down on the southerners, and geographical rivalries even helped to reinforce the image of ignorant hicks and foolish yokels. As southern public opinion did not matter in the north, playing into prejudice did not risk losing support. And so the entire war could be justified by arguing that the war was being fought to save the southerners from themselves, from both their mistaken beliefs and from the machinations of sinister land owners and slave holders.

But the consequences of such an argument are still being felt. Fighting a massive war on the basis of stopping people from making the wrong decision and harming both themselves and others inevitably brings about changes. As I argued elsewhere, beliefs carry us to their logical conclusion, whether we want it or not.  And, while some argue that Lincoln's usurpation of power was what led to the eventual growth of government, I would argue that it was not his explicit actions, but the justification. Most of his biggest power grabs were undone by the Grant administration, or even by Johnson. Little was left of Lincoln's war time government by the 1880's. But the justification, the destruction of any viable theory of states' rights, and the premise that people can be violently prevented from making the wrong choice, even if it is technically permissible, those had a much longer lifespan, and those are truly what led to all the changes we saw, and the world in which we live today.


* Please note I am not arguing for slavery here. I simply argue that if slavery were elgal in one state, the logic of "full faith and credit" would require all states to respect slavery and the property rights of slave owners, which would effectively make all states slave states. 


My writing on the topic of political philosophy and our view of others has been covered in the following posts:
The Essence of Liberalism
Arrogance and Gun Control
A Very Simple Truth
Mainstreaming hate
Our View of Our Fellow Citizens
Those Other People
Seeing People As Stupid
The Virtue of Humility
The Costs of Understanding
Man's Nature and Government
The Important Lesson of Racism
Lying Politicians and "Other People"
Two Kinds of Liberal
The Citizen Dichotomy
How Democrats Keep the Poor Poor
My Vision of Government
My Vision of Government Part II
Economic Versus Social
Inescapable Logic
Eurocentrism? Racism? Liberal Traits All
Smaller Government , Fair Weather Friends and Special Cases
The Benefits of Federalism
A Question for Liberals
Fairness and the Free Market
A Question of Perception
The Endless Cycle of Intervention
An Analogy For Government
Planning For Imperfection
The Intellectual Elite
Appealing to Arrogance
Nuclear Disarmament and Gun Control 
Conservatives and the "Big Picture"
Conspiracy Theories
Pseudo-Homophobes and Silent Assent
Tolerance? Really?
Government's Abusive Behavior
Very Brief Gun Control Post
Conservatism, Incremental Change and Federalism
"Empathy" Threatens not "Justice" but Predictability 
Liberal Bait and Switch 
"Fair Trade" 
A Question About the Two State Solution 
Why Does the Public Own the Airwaves? 
Great Minds? 
Something to Bear in Mind 
Inescapable Logic II 
Living Large During the Good Times 
A Strange Reaction 
Acting Against Interests 
It Is Possible... 
Specious Argument 
Keeping You Safe 
Special Cases
Modern Marius and Sulla 
Cognitive Dissonance Part 2
Another Take on the WSJ Editorial
A Question for Artists of the Left
In A Nutshell 
The Political Spectrum 
In Defense of Discrimination 
Greed Versus Evil 
How to Handle Idiots 
Don't Blame the Politicians 
The Danger Inherent in Banning "Bad Ideas" 
Life Is Not Fair - And Trying To Make It So Makes Things Worse 
Power - Political and Economic 
Anti-Man Intellectuals 
The Most Basic Argument For Limited Government 
Economic and Political Power Revisited 
Concentrated and Diffuse Power 
Utopianism and Disaster 
First Kill All the Lawyers, Looking Back at Katrina 
Symmetry and Asymmetry in Government 
The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism 
The Road to Violence 
Regulated Speech 
Changing Incentives 
Three Types of Supporters of Big Government 
What I am Seeking 
Our Rude Behavior 
Bad Economics Part 5 
In addition, for those interested, I wrote about slavery in my posts "More Thoughts on Slavery" and "Some Logical Problems With Reparations". 

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2009/10/27.

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