Ten Score and One Year Ago

A month ago, I posted a portrait gallery of my personal heroes and invited readers to identify the faces; a few days later I posted the answer key.

To my mild surprise, the face that generated the most controvery—in both comments and email—was that of Abraham Lincoln, who was born 201 years ago on this day. Readers pulled no punches. ScottN wrote: “Lincoln is on a different list I have: People Who Caused the Most Unnecessary Deaths.” Peter wrote: “[Lincoln] was a tyrant and a racist to boot.” And the consistently provocative and thoughtful Bob Murphy wrote:

I would love to hear your reasons for including Lincoln. I have the same misgivings as the other commenter above, though I was going to introduce them with levity. (E.g. “I know you like math, Steve, so is that why you included the guy who maximized the wartime deaths of Americans?”)

I replied to Bob (and others) by email, with some sketchy thoughts and a promise to blog about Lincoln sometime on or before his birthday. With the deadline looming, I realize that I have little to add to those sketchy thoughts. So here, with only some minor editing, is the email I sent to Bob Murphy:

Dear Bob:

First, I do believe that a perfectly reasonable person could come to the judgment that Lincoln was a bloodthirsty madman.

Second, however, I am not one of those reasonable people. My reading of history is that Lincoln was motivated by a passion to end slavery, above all else. I agree that alternative readings are reasonable (see above). I also agree that there are a lot of other people who are more well-versed in this history than I am.

Third, even if we grant that freeing the slaves was a noble cause and Lincoln’s sole motivation, we might well take the position that the victory was not worth the bloodshed.

Fourth—on the other hand, 3/4 of a million people died to save 4 million slaves. That’s over five slaves freed per war death, which does not seem to me to be an unreasonable ratio. And that doesn’t even count all the future generations who would otherwise have been enslaved. (Of course it also does not account for the possibility that slavery could have been brought to a more peaceable end.)

Fifth—moreover, I think it’s clear that neither Lincoln nor any other reasonable person had any way of anticipating that there would be casualties on that order, so the war looks like a much better bet ex ante than ex post; and I think ex ante is the right standard for judgment.

Sixth—On the other hand, Lincoln had a lot of pretty ugly secondary motivations. (Protectionism, something like a national industrial policy, etc.) Well, so did Reagan—but you’ll never take Reagan’s portrait off my wall.

Seventh: Bottom line is that I think Lincoln was out, above all, to end slavery (though a reasonable person might disagree) and that the price he paid, while enormous, was a reasonable one (though a reasonable person might disagree), and that the clarity of his vision was a form of greatness and a force for good (though a reasonable person might disagree). I am also acutely aware that I might change my mind about these things if I were better educated.

**************************

So ends the email. Those readers who care to contribute to my better education are invited to fire away.

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46 Responses to “Ten Score and One Year Ago”


  1. 1 1 Ryan Mulligan

    My main reason for not liking Lincoln is that the Civil War reinforces the idea that you can’t leave the United States ‘union.’ The idea that a group shouldn’t be allowed to leave the union sounds a lot like slavery to me.

  2. 2 2 Peter

    Steven,

    I’m mostly surprised at how haphazard and disconnected your argument is. I’m used to your writing have more clarity and logical structure. My response will retain my customary murkiness and muddle.

    I think that everyone here can agree that the theft of someone elses liberty (i.e. slavery) is immoral. And I don’t believe that Lincoln was a madman. He seems to have had a genuine desire to end slavery but, like most who end up in high office, he had far too much faith in the power of the state to achieve those ends. Saying that he couldn’t have known how bad his decisions would end up isn’t a reason for celebrating him. That would be like celebrating FDR because he wanted the New Deal to fix the Great Depression, even though he prolonged it. Or celebrating a witch doctor for killing a patient even though the goal was to cure.

    I think you also underestimate the costs and overestimate the benefits. Conscription is a form of slavery, hence most of the army was enslaved in order to free the slaves. The states are now under the boot of the federal government, making all of us less free. Of course the entire delegation of Maryland was arrested so that Lincoln could have his way. That would seem to impinge on their freedom as well.

    And after the war many of the slaves lives were not changed at all. I’m not arguing that it would have been better for them to remain slaves, but the net benefit wasn’t very high.

    To me all of this points to one irrefutable conclusion: Ronald Reagan’s portrait should come off your wall.

  3. 3 3 Steve Landsburg

    Peter: I plead guilty to haphazardness and murkiness. I am moderately, but not extremely, knowledgeable about the history and politics of the mid-nineteenth century. Usually (but not always) I try to confine my writing to the small number of subjects I know more about.

    I do think the analogy to FDR is imperfect though, in that FDR a) should have known better and b) probably didn’t care to know better, since his goal was to amass political power, not to improve the world. (All of this, again, according to my reading of history, which is moderately but not exceptionally well informed.) I’m not sure you can say either of those things about Lincoln (though I’m also not 100% sure you can’t).

  4. 4 4 ScottN

    I think it is pretty firmly established that slavery was _not_ Lincoln’s primary motivation. Preventing states from peacefully leaving the Union was:

    “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.”

    The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume V, “Letter to Horace Greeley” (August 22, 1862), p. 388.

  5. 5 5 Stephan

    As European I’m agnostic in my judgement of Lincoln. And I’ve only read one book about the civil war. Pulitzer Price Winner: “Battle Cry for Freedom”. But what I’ve learned from the book, ist that Lincoln went to war without the intention to end slavery.

    In the chapter “Amateurs Got To War” Lincoln’s motive is described by his speech to Congress on July 4, 1861: “Our popular government has been often called an experiment. Two points in it our people have already settled – the successful establishing, and the successfull administering of it. One still remains – its successful maintenance against a formidable internal attempt to overthrow it … This issue embraces more than the fate of the United States. It presents to the whole family of man, the question, whether a constitutional republic , or a democracy … can or cannot, maintain its territorial intergrity, against its own domestic foes.”

    And in the same speech Lincoln reaffirmed he had “no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with slavery in the States where it exists.” Lincoln went to war because the secession was unconstitutional and therefore the South still lived under the Constituion.

  6. 6 6 Peter

    If anything I think this argument cuts against you. I’m not a professional economist, but from my outsiders perspective there is still not agreement on the cause of the Depression other than a few items that everyone agrees made it worse (Tarrifs, high wage policies, reduction in NGDP, etc.). But by the 1860 every industrialized nation had ended slavery peacefully. Of course there were differences between those other countries and the US, it was a solved problem. And both FDR and Lincoln had the common feature of ammassing power to themselves in order to solve a problem in the wrong way.

    I’ll assume that you agree with my other points. It just seems to me that you should have higher standards for your Wall of Fame than “He had some noble intentions, and tried something good, but failed miserably” or at best, “He traded the freedom of five people for the death of only one.”

  7. 7 7 Aaron

    ScottN is right. Lincoln was somewhat anti-slavery, but so was Thomas Jefferson, though he never acted on it. Lincoln’s priority, first and foremost, was to protect the Union, the same cause of the Civil War to begin with. One might ask why the Emancipation Proclamation only applied to rebelling states, or suggest that freeing the slaves was his method of destroying the South’s economy, and thus, ensuring they would not be able to rebel in the future.

  8. 8 8 Neverfox

    This is a pretty naive argument, I think, and not one of your best moments in a record of normally clear thinking. While I agree that it is reasonable to take the other view, I don’t think it is reasonable to take your view. Since you seem to be open to admitting some lack of historical knowledge around that time, I can’t recommend highly enough reading what abolitionist Lysander Spooner had to say about Lincoln in real time, without the years of revisionism.

    One problem is that it is incoherent to say that Lincoln was opposed to slavery because slavery is wrong and to say that he was opposed to secession of the South. Support of personal freedom from bondage is grounded in exactly the same moral principles as support of the personal right to secede. The only admirable position is to support both the right of the South to secede and the right of the slaves to “secede” from their masters (and likewise every human beings right to secede from any association with other humans). Lincoln was no friend of that concept and was thus not admirable or moral in his reasoning. In short, if a State in which there were no slaves at all had tried to leave the Union he would have tried to stop it, doing so with armed violence. That point alone tells everything. Many nations at that time had ended slavery without war; war here served another purpose. The issue of slavery was a great bit of propaganda for him to get at his immediate end: keeping the union together for pecuniary reasons.

    For a quick summary of Spooner’s argument, see here.

  9. 9 9 Benkyou Burito

    Steve- on your fourth point your math is off. You see to supporters of the rebellion, like your critics above, 3/4 million men died to free 2.4 million slaves. Remember to these people the slaves were deeded property and if you have to count them at all, then do so at 3/5ths of a real person.

    Ryan- We don’t always like the laws that govern us, but obeying them is still a duty and certainly not slavery. In Texas v. White the majority opinion said “By these [Articles of Confederation], the Union was solemnly declared to “be perpetual.” And when these Articles were found to be inadequate to the exigencies of the country, the Constitution was ordained “to form a more perfect Union.” It is difficult to convey the idea of indissoluble unity more clearly than by these words. What can be indissoluble if a perpetual Union, made more perfect, is not?”

    The southern states had the remedy to alter the constitution

    ScottN- Your quote lacks context. It is from a debate in which he described the issue of slavery as one that would destroy the country unless the advocates for it were allowed to push its practice into all the states or if its detractors were allowed to wipe the practice from all states. But since doing the former would settle the discord of slaver by introducing new conflicts he could not take that option. (first Lincoln-Douglas debate First Debate: Ottawa, Illinois, August 21, 1858)

  10. 10 10 Neil

    Lincoln indeed had a passion, even stronger than abolishing slavery, and that was to preserve the Union. And all Americans should be grateful to him in perpetuity.

  11. 11 11 Al V.

    @Neil – Lincoln’s passion may have been preserving the union, but it is not clear that this was truly a benefit. If we look at the history of civil wars, it’s not clear that countries a clearly worse off after being broken up. For example, Yugoslavia went through a bitter and violent civil war and is now 5 to 7 countries, depending on which you recognize. If we control for the effects of the war(s), it’s not clear that those countries are worse off than they would have been if Yugoslavia had been preserved.

    If Lincoln had allowed the southern states to secede, what would have been the downside? The U.S. would be two countries, one with slavery and one without. I’m sure that eventually (and probably quickly) slavery would have ended in the South. Retrospectively, the main benefit of the Civil War was the end of slaverly, not the preservation of the Union.

    @Steve Landsburg – Re. your fifth point, one of the problems with war is that the initiators almost always overestimate the ease of victory, and the cost of the war. Look at all the wars the U.S. has engaged in over the years. Rarely have we accurately project the cost and scale of the war. Just look at our current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Did anyone project that we would still be engaged in those countries 8 and 7 years later?

    The Gulf War of 1990-91 was one of the few conflicts where we had an accurate projection of the conflict, but that was a benefit of a very narrowly defined scope: get the Iraqi Army out of Kuwait.

  12. 12 12 Snorri Godhi

    It seems that I know less about this issue than any of the other commenters (as well as Steve); but the following remarks should be valid in spite of my ignorance.

    First, I take a consequentialist view: Lincoln’s motivations matters, but nowhere as much as the consequences of his actions. This is both because, lacking telepathy, we cannot know for sure what people’s motivations are; and because there were plenty of people who wanted to abolish slavery, so why take Lincoln as a hero unless he actually made progress to that end at reasonable cost?

    Second, as others have hinted, it is dubious that the Civil War had positive consequences for the former slaves. I remember reading that life expectancy for Blacks dropped dramatically after the Civil War. (But then, life expectancy also dropped dramatically after the collapse of the Soviet Union: that doesn’t mean that the Soviet Union should have been propped up.) Also, I understand that racism actually increased after the Civil War, both North and South.

    And yet, can we blame Lincoln for consequences that he could not have reasonably foreseen (given a human intellect and all knowledge available at the time)? I think not; but not blaming Lincoln is not the same as praising him.

    Third, I have been intrigued for several years by the similarities between the Civil War and the Iraq War: both initiated by a Republican President; both highly controversial; both resulting in casualties far higher than expected; both liberating people from tyranny; both necessitating an unpopular occupation (nothing else comes to mind at the moment). The lesson that I draw from this is that the Iraq War will remain controversial 150 years from now.

    Please do not take this as an attack on Lincoln: the Gettysburg Address alone makes him admirable, almost as much as the Funeral Oration makes Pericles admirable.

  13. 13 13 A.L.

    @ScottN – Describing the secession as peaceful might be a stretch. The Confederate Cabinet made the decision to fire on Fort Sumter, thus giving the order to fire the first shots of the war.

  14. 14 14 ryan yin

    I am interested in hearing why people think that slavery would very soon have been abolished had it not been for the Civil War. Why on earth would that be?

    Lincoln did once suggest buying out the remaining slaves in exchange for an abolition of slavery and an end to the war — in essence, he promised to give the rebelling states the amount the Union expected to spend finishing the war (I wonder what Coase would’ve thought). This idea was opposed universally by both his cabinet and Jefferson Davis et al. So I wonder, what exactly was the alternative means of ending slavery without war that people think he didn’t take (apparently on account of being ornery)? And is it time consistent in the “you’re not Doctor Who” sense — recall that the shooting had started months before his inauguration.

    I also wonder, for those who think that allowing secession would’ve been a net win for liberty, why exactly they think the Confederacy was a particularly libertarian place? I mean, even aside from the obvious deep affront to liberty. (As an aside, it’s fine to argue the Union’s casus belli wasn’t ending slavery. But it is just plain ahistorical to claim it wasn’t the point for the seceding states — after all, they said so when they seceded.)

  15. 15 15 Marcelo

    Steve, one minor point: you say “And that doesn’t even count all the future generations who would otherwise have been enslaved”. But it also doesn’t count all the future generations who would otherwise have been born had the war deaths not occurred, right? Not arguing with your email, just that one point.

  16. 16 16 Neil

    Ryan:

    That is the beauty of historical counterfactuals. Your assertions cannot be proven wrong.

  17. 17 17 Harold

    “The Gulf War of 1990-91 was one of the few conflicts where we had an accurate projection of the conflict, but that was a benefit of a very narrowly defined scope: get the Iraqi Army out of Kuwait”. I suppose Mr. Bush Senior deserves credit for this – he resisted pressure to push on to Bagdad.

  18. 18 18 Steve Landsburg

    Marcelo: Point taken.

  19. 19 19 Neverfox

    @Benkyou Burito

    Unless you are some sort of legal positivist, we most certainly do not have a duty to obey laws that are unjust. Positivism can go to hell FWIW.

  20. 20 20 Neverfox

    Not to mention that it should be fairly obvious that it’s absurd (and question-begging) to argue that the reason someone can’t secede is that the party from which they wish to secede believes that it should not be allowed. It’s essentially an argument that contracts should be enforced (to the degree that we grant for the sake of argument that the Constitution is a contract, which I think is pushing it) by specific-performance, which I assert is the very definition of slavery. To claim that the Union had a right to prevent secession is to presuppose the legitimacy of the Union, which is precisely the opposite of what the act of secession implies.

  21. 21 21 Benkyou Burito

    Neverfox- We are a nation of law. Did the southern states benefit from that union for generations? Was it only when they didn’t like the rules that they decided not to follow them? All laws are posiivistic, that’s their purpose. You want realism then okay, the reality is that the south broke the law and the north enforced it and broke them.

    Snorri- “Also, I understand that racism actually increased after the Civil War, both North and South. ”

    I would offer that Racism is a philosophy. Perhaps incidents of violence against blacks increased after abolition. But it would be a reach to say that is because more people hated blacks. Rather say that the same number hated blacks and many of the protections they “enjoyed” as property of a white person ended with their bondage.

  22. 22 22 Neverfox

    @Benkyou
    First, a legal positivist is someone who thinks that what laws in fact exists are the laws that should exist. Of course, there are such things as positive laws. The question is one of their legitimacy. As for a nation of laws, I think you are under the sway of the myth of the rule of law.

    You are simply presupposing the legitimacy of the Union’s claim over the South. If you want to argue that it’s a contract violation then you have to demonstrate how it was consensual (which is impossible) and that it applies to the parties that are actually seceding (i.e. that it’s cross-generational). Additionally, there are two ways to enforce a contract: specific performance and monetary damages, only the latter of which is legitimate lest we support slavery. I think the case that war is the paying of monetary damages is strained; it’s got specific performance written all over it. Also, no party should be the judge in its own case, which is exactly what happened when “the north enforced it”. If the north was a party to the supposed contract, then only a third party should legitimately decide the damages and enforcement.

    So on a number of counts the case for against secession, any secession anywhere at anytime, fails. Yes you can enforce contracts, but only if it actually is a contract, the ruling comes from an agreed to third party and that it’s not done through specific performance.

  23. 23 23 ryan yin

    Additionally, there are two ways to enforce a contract: specific performance and monetary damages, only the latter of which is legitimate lest we support slavery.

    Um … what? Requiring someone to fulfill their contract is slavery? So, aside from actual slavery, what doesn’t count as slavery?

  24. 24 24 RL

    First, Steve, a book recommendation: Jeff Hummel’s Freeing Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the Civil War.

    If ending chattel slavery required the Civil War, one might argue the evil of chattel slavery justified the Civil War, but slavery was ubiquitous at the beginning of the 19th century, ended virtually throughout the globe at the beginning of the 20th, and only in Haiti and the USA was violence necessary to end the abomination. So the War was NOT necessary to end slavery. A better argument could be made that secession would have ended slavery, by moving the line escaped slaves had to reach freedom several hundred miles south, from the Canadian border to the Mason-Dixon line (because secession would have ended the Fugitive Slave Law commitment of the Northern states).

    Secondly, as others have stated, while slavery may have been the reason the South wanted to secede, ending slavery was NOT the reason the North and Lincoln wanted to prevent the South from seceding. That motivation was CLEARLY to preserve the Union, no matter the cost. As such, it was a repudiation of the words of the Declaration to the effect that men can choose to throw off the bonds that tie them with others when circumstances dictate.

    Finally, the 600,000 dead, and far more maimed, counting both sides, was perhaps the least of the costs of the war. Hummel, an economist and historian, argues forcefully that the Civil War ended the long-term secular trend toward less government that began with the Jefferson administration. After the Civil War, which increased the size of government 5 fold in 4 years and led to one-party rule for the next two decades, the federal government went from a distant entity most Americans felt only when their mail was delivered to an over-arching force in American’s daily lives. The growth of Leviathan arguably began with the Civil War. Reasonable people can decide if this price was justified by ending slavery. But it is NOT reasonable to place the architect of this seminal move toward government power and away from individual freedom on one’s list of heroes. Without justifying the actions of his assassin, there WAS a reason Booth cried out “Sic semper tyrannis,” after all…

  25. 25 25 Snorri Godhi

    Benkyou:
    I would offer that Racism is a philosophy.

    Actually, I think that the term is used rather loosely to denote 3 different, but related, things: irrational feelings, conscious beliefs, and behaviors. But let’s take your definition: as it happens, “scientific” racism became widespread not long after the Civil War … and it was the “Progressives” who spread it.

    Perhaps incidents of violence against blacks increased after abolition. But it would be a reach to say that is because more people hated blacks. Rather say that the same number hated blacks and many of the protections they “enjoyed” as property of a white person ended with their bondage.

    I don’t see why people should have hated Blacks when they worked for the Whites. Of course, the vast majority of Southern Whites did not own slaves, but even so I am not sure why they should have hated Blacks.

  26. 26 26 Neverfox

    ryan yin – Please read more carefully. I said there are two ways, one of which is legitimate. What amounts to slavery is enforcement through specific performance.

    From Stephan Kinsella:

    Contractual obligations may be classified as obligations to do or to give. An obligation to give may be viewed as a transfer of title to property, as it is an obligation to give ownership of the thing to another. An obligation to do is an obligation to perform a specific action, such as an obligation to sing at a wedding or paint someone’s house. It is significant for our purposes that courts usually will not order specific performance (forcing the breaching or unwilling party to perform the contract), on the grounds that the plaintiff can usually be adequately compensated with money damages. Further, money damages do not impose a heavy burden on the court to supervise performance, while specific performance would. Specific performance would often be counter-productive. Consider a singer who refuses to perform a promised contract, for example. If ordered to perform, the signer might well give a shabby performance. Therefore, in such cases, the singer would be ordered to pay monetary damages to the other party.

    Even an agreement to sell a piece of property, such as a barrel of
    apples or a car, will usually not be enforced with specific performance; instead, the court would order the promisor to pay the promisee a sum of money. Specific performance is typically granted only in the case of unique property, such as a particular portrait, or in the case of real estate, because each parcel of land is unique. Even in these cases, specific performance results in the transfer of title to the unique property from the owner to the other party.

    Thus, in modern law, breach of contract results in a transfer of
    property—sometimes unique goods such as real property, but usually
    money—from the breaching party to the promisee. Thus, contracts are
    enforced today not by forcing a party to perform the promised action
    but by threatening to transfer some of the promisor’s property to the promisee if the promisor does not perform. For an agreement to be enforceable under modern legal systems means that some of one party’s property (whether money or some other owned good) can be forcibly transferred to the other party.

    Thus, in modern contract law, there are really no contractual ob-
    ligations “to do” anything. There are only obligations to transfer title to property, either directly (agreement to pay a sum of money) or as a consequence of failure to perform a promised action (obligation to pay a sum of money if the promised performance does not occur). It should be noted that, despite the lack of a legal compulsion to perform a contract, the institution of contract is alive and well. The legal threat of transfer of some of the promisor’s property in the event of default, combined with reputation effects, is apparently sufficient to render con-
    tracting useful.

    And here is Roderick Long riffing on the same tune:

    [S]uppose I have contracted with you to perform some service — say, to paint your dog. If I break our contract and refuse to paint your dog, can you — or the law, acting on your behalf — legitimately force me to paint your dog? It seems not. For in ordinary circumstances, forcing me to paint your dog would be a morally unacceptable act of aggression. How can the fact that I agreed to paint your dog make any difference? After all, on the view I’ve been defending, no mere act of will on my part can free you from your obligation not to aggress against me. But if I cannot legitimately be forced to fulfill my side of the contract, it seems that contracts in general are unenforceable, and so legally void. This seems to present an unpromising prospect for a political philosophy like libertarianism, committed as it is to the free-market economy — which relies so crucially on the principle of contract.

    Here I adopt the solution offered by libertarian legal theorist Randy Barnett. Suppose I offer to paint your dog for 200 drakhmas. You give me the 200 drakhmas, whereupon I pocket the money and skip town. On my view, you cannot legitimately force me to paint your dog; that would be involuntary servitude. But you can force me to give back the money; for you only transferred it to me on condition that I paint your dog; since the condition has not been met, the transfer has not gone through, and so I am holding on to your property without your consent. (I also think I can be required to pay you damages, as restitution for the value I have destroyed by depriving you of the use of your money during the intermediate period; for more on restitution, see my article cited above.) Thus, contracts can legitimately be “enforced” in the sense that a person who has received some consideration in exchange for an unperformed service can be required to pay back the consideration. Even “slavery contracts” could be enforced in that sense; for example, if, in exchange for 2000 drakhmas, I agree to do whatever you want, for the rest of my life, then if I ever back out of the contract (which I am free to do at any time), I have to pay you 2000 drakhmas (plus damages) — but I may not legitimately be forced to fulfill the contract. (If I do not presently have the money to pay, then I simply have a debt, like any other.)

    So at best you could argue that the Union army was going to take monetary damages (land etc.) but that requires proving a whole list of things. Plus with the killing and the fact that they were going to really be allowed to leave without surrender (which is very much like specific performance) and the fact that they were the judge in their own case, as it were, it looks like a major lapse of justice all around.

    To tie it into slavery, a great number of slaves in the South were slaves via “contracts.” So if you think that specific performance is a legitimate contract, then you should oppose the freeing of those slaves and demand that they fulfill their lifetime commitment. The same principle holds with any person who wishes to bow out of a political entity. To stop them is tantamount to enforcing a slavery contract. No contract can legitimately force a person to stay in the contract and perform; it can only enforce damages which must be proven and aren’t likely to come close to the person’s whole life in value.

  27. 27 27 Snorri Godhi

    WRT Al V’s comment: I am also confident (not sure, but confident) that the South would have abandoned slavery sooner or later: after all, every other country on Earth did. But of course Lincoln did not know that.

    Otoh the danger of splitting the USA should not be dismissed. I think it highly likely that, sooner of later, the Union and the Confederacy would have gone to war against each other (taking opposite sides in a world war, perhaps); so one might take the view that it was better go to war in 1861 and get it over with. As for the former Yugoslavia, who would have stopped the wars there in the 1990s, if the USA had been split?

    The same principle addresses Harold’s comment that “Mr. Bush Senior deserves credit for this – he resisted pressure to push on to Bagdad.” Having read Machiavelli, I knew* that there was going to be another war against Iraq the moment I learned that Bush senior decided not to push into Baghdad.

    * too strong a word, but I can’t think of a better word at the moment.

    To conclude on a lighter tone, no discussion of Lincoln is complete without the Gettysburg Powerpoint presentation:
    http://norvig.com/Gettysburg/

  28. 28 28 Steve Landsburg

    RL: Thanks for the book recommendation and the well put statement of your three main points. I will add Hummel to my reading list.

  29. 29 29 ryan yin

    Neverfox,
    I did read carefully. And I am specifically commenting just on your general claim that “specific performance [is] slavery”. The length of your quotes doesn’t actually seem to reduce the extremity of that claim. Nor does (among other things) the argument that specific performance is never necessary since, after all, the other party might prefer compensation. That might be true, but again, that’s sort of the point of contracts — if both parties would be better off by monetary compensation, maybe they should make a new contract to that effect. Nor does it suffice to say that sometimes we don’t use or need specific performance — that’s entirely insufficient to support the extraordinary equality you have asserted.

    But none of this really seems to answer the questions I asked earlier. (1) What is the reasoning for the extremely strong claim that slavery would’ve rapidly ended? Is it purely that they expected all the slaves to suddenly run away? (And does this mean that slavery would not have ended absent secession?) (2) What exactly is the specific mechanism whereby they think Lincoln could have ended slavery without war?

  30. 30 30 lukas

    To tie it into slavery, a great number of slaves in the South were slaves via “contracts.”

    By the 1860s, most slaves in the South had been born into slavery. There were no contracts between them and their masters, although some defenders of slavery argued the existence of an implicit contract.

  31. 31 31 Neverfox

    ryan -

    First of all, let me apologize for being overly harsh with my comment about your reading comprehension; it was out of line.

    I do however believe that the quotes given explain why I think one must consider specific performance enforcement equivalent to slavery. However, it does require some background beliefs, namely Rothbardian title-transfer theory of contract and a belief that slavery, like all matters of justice, is located in the space defined by the libertarian non-aggression principle. That’s a lot of background that I didn’t cover. I will however say that the Kinsella link goes into a lot of that detail, if you are interested. In short, my conclusion comes from libertarian first principles, which you may not share, but which nevertheless I think are correct and just. Under those principles, forcing someone to physically do anything is to initiate aggression unless that person has already committed aggression. Since simply not fulfilling a promise is not aggression, by libertarian standards, you cannot use force to perform an action, i.e. to hold them down and make them paint your house etc. That’s where the equivalence to slavery comes in: a slave is someone who is being forced (or coerced through the threat of force) to do something and not doing it gives the master legal permission use that force. It’s true that a perfect analogy only applies to contractual slavery, but the spirit of the comparison rests in treating someone else as the legitimate target of force to act a certain way when no property or person of the master has been violated. Since only aggression can be met with defensive force, specific performance isn’t justified, no matter the preferences of the parties.

    (1) What is the reasoning for the extremely strong claim that slavery would’ve rapidly ended?

    I never claimed it would have but the abolitionist movement had many similarities with many non-violent movements throughout history and to the modern civil rights movement. Also, no one is saying (at least not me) that force isn’t justified in freeing slaves, only that it is not clear that the Civil War was at all a targeting emancipation operation designed to limit collateral damage. It’s the same issue that comes up with any war: the leaders try to convince the populace that it’s really nothing more than targeted self-defense, either of themselves or a helpless third-party.

    (2) What exactly is the specific mechanism whereby they think Lincoln could have ended slavery without war?

    I’d rather put my faith in decentralized, bottom-up methods (revolts, underground movements which leaders like Lincoln could have aided with finances, legal immunity etc.). Though Thomas DiLorenzo tells us, “During the 19th century, dozens of countries, including the British and Spanish empires, ended slavery peacefully through compensated emancipation. Among such countries were Argentina, Colombia, Chile, all of Central America, Mexico, Bolivia, Uruguay, the French and Danish colonies, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela. (Lincoln did propose compensated emancipation for the border states, but coupled his proposal with deportation of any freed slaves. He failed to see it through, however). Only in America was war associated with emancipation.”

    lukas – While true, many slave masters tried to encourage their freed (and prior to that, runaway) slaves to stay, this time under contract. Sometimes they tried to locate them in the North with letters asking them to return for stipend (for a lifetime of service of course and based on the concept that force could be used to ensure performance). But the point was not to talk about the prevalence, but to point out that couching things in terms of contract doesn’t make them legitimate if it involves specific performance of actions rather than transfer of property (combined with the inalienability of the self). It was to say that even in those cases of slave “contracts”, it’s still slavery because there is not action that the slave could take to end the relationship that didn’t involve being forced to continue or, if monetary compensation were accepted, it would be because the master only agreed (rather than it being a universal principle of justice).

  32. 32 32 Tony Cohen

    The bias of your readership is showing. Lets just say that in my circle and world dominated by the liberal mindset, you NEVER would have gotten the response you alluded to…just food for thought

  33. 33 33 ryan yin

    Neverfox,

    I do share libertarian principles, but I’m not sure that I see why (a) specific performance is violence, but requiring compensation is not (what if I just refuse to pay? I’m not committing any violence against you, right?), or (b) why either form of requiring fulfillment of contract is against libertarian principles. I would say quite the opposite. (It also strikes me that you’re sort of requiring that everyone believe in anarcho-capitalism here, which is fine as far as it goes, but it seems odd and a bit out of proportion to attack Lincoln for failing to be a Rothbardian but then think the Confederacy was quite all right.)

    Compensated emancipation had been done before, it’s true (although I think you’ll find that this wasn’t the sort of deal that one could say “no” too — otoh, like J.S. Mill, I find myself wondering why the slaveowners are the ones who need compensation. This sounds like the legal positivism you previously excoriated — the reason why the slaveowners deserved compensation seems to be because they had power). But again, you’re attacking Lincoln here, so it seems appropriate to ask what he should have done after the shooting had started (noting that the South fired first and did so months before his inauguration).

    However, I think you are incorrect about who he offered compensation to — after his second election, he offered to buy out the rebelling slaveowners. They refused, of course. (Take that, realist theories of warfare!) For reference, try Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals”.

  34. 34 34 Neverfox

    I’m not sure that I see why (a) specific performance is violence, but requiring compensation is not (what if I just refuse to pay? I’m not committing any violence against you, right?)

    No because the compensation would be a transfer of title over certain alienable parts of your property are then to the offended party. Yet because they remain in your possession but are no longer your property, you are now guilty of theft. The use of force against theft is legitimate. In other words, it’s by virtue of relying on alienable forms of property and improper possession that monetary compensation and specific performance differ. It’s the only way to think about contracts and not contradict libertarianism (because it frames it in terms of property rights). There is no way to frame specific performance as a matter of property rights unless you treat the person themselves as property (even for a limited duration). I encourage you to try to define the breaking of a promise is such a way as to be a form of aggression against person or property that requires force as a response. Monetary compensation provides that way. I differ with some libertarians in thinking that one’s person is alienable in the same way as other assets, which drives the distinction. The Roderick Long link explains why in more detail.

    It also strikes me that you’re sort of requiring that everyone believe in anarcho-capitalism here, which is fine as far as it goes, but it seems odd and a bit out of proportion to attack Lincoln for failing to be a Rothbardian but then think the Confederacy was quite all right.

    Well, if I think such a theory is the right one (I’m not an ethical relativist) then it matters not that Lincoln predates Rothbard’s explication. There is nothing odd about applying an ethical theory to earlier points in history than the first time such a theory was put on paper.

    I find myself wondering why the slaveowners are the ones who need compensation. This sounds like the legal positivism you previously excoriated — the reason why the slaveowners deserved compensation seems to be because they had power.

    I was not defending it nor do I think they deserve it. You asked about alternatives to war; I gave you one that was used by other countries as empirical proof that it is possible without war, if not itself morally perfect. My personal preference is to allow secession and heavily fund and aid a different type of secession: slave rebellions – these occurred number times in America and were many times nearly successful except for state interference; combine that with perhaps targeted assassinations of slaveowners/traders/political leaders defending slavery (since that more closely resembles acting as the defensive agent of the slave; whereas war takes an overly collectivist view of the whole population of the South).

  35. 35 35 ryan yin

    Neverfox,
    Why can’t I just say, when you make a contract with me, you owe me what you said you would do/give — I’m entirely free to accept alternative compensation, but under no compulsion to do so? You seem to just be asserting this is right. (Though I came away with the impression that this is what Rothbard does as well.)

    It’s also unclear to me how you can even talk about what is and is not good government behavior under this framework — after all, doesn’t it all have to be anarchocapitalist to make any sense? But that doesn’t seem to be your position in re the Confederacy — after all, you are clearly asserting by implication that Jefferson Davis et al had the right to declare that everyone within certain imaginary lines would thereafter be under the sovereign rule of the (after all, much nastier and more totalitarian) Confederate Leviathan.

    You gave me an example of an alternative to war, but to be fair, I specified a “Lincoln doesn’t have a time machine” constraint and the war had already started. And as I mentioned, he did offer compensation. So these seem empirically insufficient and/or impossible.

    I’m curious about the other alternative you suggest — do you honestly believe that if the Union had simply allowed secession and then gone about supporting guerrilla warfare among the slaves, that this would not have led to war shortly thereafter?

  36. 36 36 Neverfox

    re: Rothbardian contract theory – I’ll leave it to you to read Kinsella’s paper or Rothbard’s Ethics of Liberty Ch. 19, where he lays out why his contract theory is consistent with the rest of his libertarian program. It’s just too big of a topic to tackle in a comment thread. But I’m not asserting anything that doesn’t flow from the libertarian non-aggression principle. Many libertarians are confused about contracts and wrongly think that specific performance is compatible with libertarianism or that contracts are these floating abstractions based on promises rather than property. The above reading should make the case.

    re: government behavior – My point is that I don’t support the Confederacy either. I support the right of every individual to secede from every other. That would include every person in the South seceding from the Confederacy. I was simply pointing out that it’s absurd to claim that you oppose slavery but support forcing people to stay as part of your government. It’s a major cognitive dissonance.

    you are clearly asserting by implication that Jefferson Davis et al had the right to declare that everyone within certain imaginary lines would thereafter be under the sovereign rule of the (after all, much nastier and more totalitarian) Confederate Leviathan

    I asserted no such thing. As an anarchist, I don’t believe that people have sovereignty over others. It’s entirely consistent with that principle to state that the Union does not have sovereignty over people who lived in the South. It’s an entirely separate thing, which does not follow, to say that Jefferson Davis et al have sovereignty over the people who lived in the South. The logical implication is that all such people claiming sovereignty can go to hell, whether they be representative politicians over the populace or slave owners over slaves. The act of Southern secession is more about the Union’s response to the concept of secession than it is about the legitimacy of the Confederacy, which is nonexistent.

    You gave me an example of an alternative to war, but to be fair, I specified a “Lincoln doesn’t have a time machine” constraint and the war had already started. And as I mentioned, he did offer compensation. So these seem empirically insufficient and/or impossible.

    But you presuppose that Lincoln had to respond to early Confederate bombing of forts inside their territory. You seem to be taking a “must answer back” mentality to war. But why should that be accepted. It also ignores the tremendous political play involved in the run up to secession declarations, prior to Lincoln’s election, as if the attacks sprung up ex nihilo. If Lincoln or his predecessors helped cause the problem (along with their Southern counterparts), it doesn’t become “aw shucks, well I can’t take it back and I don’t have a time machine so I guess war is moral now given the circumstances.” It just doesn’t work that way, IMO.

    I’m curious about the other alternative you suggest — do you honestly believe that if the Union had simply allowed secession and then gone about supporting guerrilla warfare among the slaves, that this would not have led to war shortly thereafter?

    Who knows what would happen? I’m not a consequentialist though. I don’t think that a person’s correct moral move is decided entirely or even mostly by the consequences of them. I’m not going to victim blame either by saying that triggering a response by the South would be the abolitionists “fault”. I only think that people should do what is right and something tells me that war doesn’t fit in to that picture. I don’t buy the poor North defending itself line.

    But all of this seems to ignore the point that almost all the evidence points to the fact that this war was not about freeing slaves or defending the North. It was about crushing dissent.

    Lincoln could have started by making a bold statement in favor of the right of all people to live as a secessionist state of one and immediately resigned his post during the inauguration speech, joined the underground abolitionist movement as the next John Brown. That would be worthy of admiration. To hell with “what should he have done as President?” Answer: resign.

  37. 37 37 ryan yin

    Who knows what would happen? I’m not a consequentialist though. I don’t think that a person’s correct moral move is decided entirely or even mostly by the consequences of them.

    Time out — penalty for moving the goal posts! Let’s rewind the tape. You say there was an alternative to war; I ask what the alternative to war is; you say don’t go to war and instead promote guerrilla movements in the south; I point out that Confederates, although moral degenerates, are not stupid and would retaliate by invading; you say “who knows … I’m not a consequentialist.” It’s fine not to be a consequentialist about morality, but you really can’t avoid being a “consequentialist” when you’re making claims about facts and about causation.

    Ok, great, so you think that the only moral response for any politician is always to resign, regardless of consequences for human life or liberty. But are there gradations, or is this just a binary thing? Are some more bad than others? Shouldn’t we occasionally have a sense of perspective?

  38. 38 38 Neverfox

    It’s not moving the goalposts to say that a) I don’t know if that would really happen (whose to say how disruptive putting down revolts would be to the South’s ability to form an organized front) and b) even if it’s likely, it doesn’t alter the correct moral move. If the South retaliated, then you defend yourself but it’s a big stretch of the imagination (especially given the actual words of Lincoln and the political situation) to imagine that charging in was a massive slave-freeing operation, busting open cages and shooting anyone who resisted.

    If I’m forced to assume the legitimacy of the state for the sake of argument (and Lincoln’s right to be commander-in-chief) then I might be persuaded that an offensive move could be legitimate if it had a very different nature, politically and militarily. In fact, Stephan Kinsella (from before) made the argument that war for the sake of the slaves, and carried out in a manner consistent with that end tactically, would be the right thing, even though he rejects the legitimacy of the state and the way such a force would be funded. As far as I can tell, he thinks that it resembles the likely libertarian voluntary response in enough facets to be good enough for us.

  39. 39 39 ryan yin

    Fair enough. I don’t completely agree, but that seems reasonable. (Yeah, yeah, SL

  40. 40 40 ryan yin

    Sorry I accidentally hit “return” before I finished my attempt at a clever “rational truthseekers can’t agree to disagree” reference. But it wasn’t that clever, so shorter was probably better. Anyway, thanks for the argument.

  41. 41 41 ScottN

    @A.L: It is historically established that Lincoln manipulated the Fort Sumter interaction to incite the South into firing first. He knew the strategic advantage of taking the first shot.

    Regarding the accusation that the Lincoln quote about freeing the slaves was taken out of context, I don’t see it. That is a pretty self-contained quotation. How can you read it any other way?

    After reading quite a bit about Lincoln and the Civil War, the fact that sticks with me is this: Of all the slave-holding nations, only the USA and Haiti ended slavery by war. Why? I say bad leadership on both parts.

    For further reading, see:

    http://www.amazon.com/Emancipating-Slaves-Enslaving-Free-Men/dp/0812693124/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1266333617&sr=1-1

  42. 42 42 Owinok

    That slavery was centuries old and colored with racism means it was not going to end in many places with a party. So just because the US and Haiti ended it with wars does not mean that the leadership in other places was superior. That is unbelievably bad reasoning.

  43. 43 43 Larks

    I think if you multiply the market price of a slave by the number of slaves, it comes out at less than the cost of the war; it would have been cheaper to simply buy the Slave’s freedom, and saved much bloodshed and illiberality.

  44. 44 44 Jon Shea

    http://www.newyorkpersonalinjuryattorneyblog.com/2010/02/scalia-there-is-no-right-to-secede.html

    This is only tangentially related, but amazing enough to demand inclusion in the discussion. A man is working on a screenplay for a comedy in which Maine secedes. Part of the plot involved a showdown in the Supreme Court. The author of the screen play writes to each of the Supreme Court justices asking for advice.

    Only Justice Scalia replies:

    I am afraid I cannot be of much help with your problem, principally because I cannot imagine that such a question could ever reach the Supreme Court. To begin with, the answer is clear. If there was any constitutional issue resolved by the Civil War, it is that there is no right to secede. (Hence, in the Pledge of Allegiance, “one Nation, indivisible.”) Secondly, I find it difficult to envision who the parties to this lawsuit might be. Is the State suing the United States for a declaratory judgment? But the United States cannot be sued without its consent, and it has not consented to this sort of suit.

    I am sure that poetic license can overcome all that — but you do not need legal advice for that. Good luck with your screenplay.

  45. 45 45 ryan yin

    Larks,
    That’s a good point. It’s also one that Lincoln himself made when he made precisely that offer, so …

  46. 46 46 Neverfox
  1. 1 Scalia Against Secession at Steven Landsburg | The Big Questions: Tackling the Problems of Philosophy with Ideas from Mathematics, Economics, and Physics
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