Libertarians Need Not Support Centralized Power

Column by Paul Bonneau.

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The title of this piece will no doubt strike libertarians as absurd, but after reading Randal John Meyer’s Libertarians Need Not Support the Confederacy, the reason for my title will become clear.

Meyer critiques Phillip Magness’ piece, “What Should Libertarians Think About the Civil War?” Magness takes the line that, “One needn’t be for the Union to be against slavery,” and “One needn’t be for the Confederacy to object to the North’s prosecution of the war.” He does a pretty good job of distancing us from the actions of both governments back then, and suggesting other libertarians do the same; but for some reason this is not good enough for Meyer.

Meyer writes, “. . . the case for the North is within libertarian philosophy. Southerners attacked a northern fort . . . .” That’s funny. By any reasonable reading of the Constitution, or conception of the act of secession, Fort Sumter legally reverted to South Carolina the instant that South Carolina seceded from the Union (indeed, the fort was empty at that point). South Carolina attacked a Northern military detachment which had illegally and without orders occupied the fort so they could bombard any shipping that declined to pay the hated Northern excise tax. By Meyer’s lights, it appears perfectly all right for a foreign nation to sit in another nation’s harbor to collect a tax; but true libertarians need not support military occupation and tax collection, nor the “internal improvements” that the North was using the tax proceeds for.

Of course anyone with even a modicum of historical curiosity understands that Fort Sumter was a ploy to enable Lincoln’s invasion of the South, in order to keep his expanding empire intact. That doesn’t sound very libertarian!

Perhaps Meyer agrees with Lincoln’s opinion that South Carolina was not a foreign nation, and that secession was impossible. That doesn’t sound very libertarian either.

Meyer considers the military actions of the South “hardly better” than those of the North. I guess he forgot who was invading and occupying whom. Needless to say, when a war takes place mostly in one country, and hardly at all in the other, the first is going to see a lot worse and more numerous depredations than the other. The offenses Meyer mentions to make his point are almost all against Union soldiers, who after all initiated force, and who should expect poor treatment in return. When one’s people are near starvation due to having been invaded, it’s a bit much to complain that the invading troops are not treated well enough.

Meyer writes, absurdly, that federalism was weakened by Southern officials as a result of seceding! Worse, he claims that “federal power expanded once the Civil War Amendments were passed—but in a libertarian direction.” Centralization of power is libertarian? Who’da thunk it? His “proof” of this nonsense is that, “Finally, individuals could appeal to the federal government for protection against their own state’s abuses . . . .” Hmmm, I wonder who individuals could appeal to, for protection against federal abuses? Before the centralization he is so fond of, individuals had at least the option of moving to another state to escape oppression. Now with centralization, where is the escape? True libertarians understand that subsidiarity is one of the true supports of liberty, something that must have escaped Meyer’s notice.

Meyer rightly claims that “Northerners were the actual defenders of states’ rights,” in opposing the imposition by the South (via the federal government) to catch and return escaped slaves. But the libertarian remedy is not to break the terms of the contract (the Constitution), much less to invade seceding states. If the northern states found the Fugitive Slave Act intolerable, the libertarian remedy was to change the statute in Congress--failing that, to amend the Constitution to allow such a change--failing that, to secede themselves from the Union. Indeed, many abolitionists proposed just that, so they could better shelter escaped slaves. The British solution was also more libertarian--buying slaves and setting them free. By the way, I am well aware that it is a bit of a stretch calling these remedies libertarian, although libertarian minarchists probably would have no problem with them--if not the libertarian anarchists. In any case, it’s probably not too controversial that these measures are at least more libertarian than aggressive war.

Meyer again falls into the absurd with his last sentence, “The South was wrong to wage war.” I suppose he considers defense outside the libertarian norm.

No, the article he critiques is the true libertarian outlook: “a pox on both their houses.”

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Paul Bonneau's picture
Columns on STR: 106


Glen Allport's picture

Right on the mark, Paul, as always. Initiated coercion, especially when centralized in a large government, is never libertarian in nature. You'd think all libertarians would understand THAT, at least, but . . . 
One historical note: You're quite right that Britain was less violent and more sane in their approach to ending slavery (which they did well before the US and of course without a war), but there's a LOT more to the story. Anyone interested will enjoy Jim Powell's excellent Greatest Emancipations -- an engaging read supported by staggering levels of evident research and detail. Ending slavery in Britain and elsewhere was a vast, multi-generation chore that spanned the planet and was opposed by huge classes of very wealthy men. Greatest Emancipations has been my default waiting-room material at the dentist and whatnot for the last six months; nearly every page brings interesting details I'd not known before.