Cato’s David Boaz in recent weeks generated controversy in the libersphere when, in his Reason article Up from Slavery, he chastised conservatives and libertarians, such as Jacob Hornberger, for failing to condemn or acknowledge slavery when they celebrate aspects of antebellum America:
I am particularly struck by libertarians and conservatives who celebrate the freedom of early America, and deplore our decline from those halcyon days, without bothering to mention the existence of slavery. … Take a more recent example, from a libertarian. Jacob Hornberger of the Future of Freedom Foundation writes about the decline of freedom in America: …
Hornberger replied, in Up from Serfdom, acknowledging that in his article, he had “failed to except American slavery from my reference to the freedom enjoyed by early Americans,” that he “made a mistake and neglected to include the slavery exception in my article”–although he notes that in the past, he has “always made a point of mentioning that tragic exception when discussing the history of American freedom. (See, for example, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)” Boaz replied with Up from Slavery, Continued.
Of course, as everyone knows, there was slavery, and it was horrible and unlibertarian. But in my view, it’s no great crime to fail to explicitly mention the existence of slavery every time one says something about early America, since it’s universally known, indisputed, and condemned. Likewise, it’s quite obvious to everyone that libertarians oppose slavery.
From my point of view, the main problem with glorifying the Founders, the Constitution, and so on and treating these as proto-libertarian is that they are not–because of slavery, and other reasons to boot (see Rockwell on Hoppe on the Constitution as Expansion of Government Power, The Declaration and Conscription, Revising the American Revolution, The Murdering, Thieving, Enslaving, Unlibertarian Continental Army, Happy We-Should-Restore-The-Monarchy-And-Rejoin-Britain Day!, Jeff Hummel’s “The Constitution as a Counter-Revolution”). It seems to me to be American chauvinism in equating early American institutions and practices with libertarianism (see my post Boaz on Libertarianism and “Government”). Be that as it may, certain aspects of early American society were undeniably more libertarian–for white males, at least–and there is no good reason to pretend otherwise. (By the way, I hereby acknowledge slavery existed and condemn it. I’m also not a neo-Confederate, in case anyone needs to know.)
Another piece by Boaz himself helps illustrate why his argument is flawed. Just a few days after Boaz’s initial piece in Reason, he posted Are Libertarians Anti-Government?, in which he wrote:
… how should we describe the libertarian position? To answer that question, we need to go back to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
I don’t see the word “slavery” in this article. So Boaz seems to be “celebrat[ing] the freedom of early America, … without bothering to mention the existence of slavery.” He appears to be violating his own rule. Granted, this was a reprint of something written in 1998, but the introductory comments could have taken the time to denounce slavery. Boaz’s failure to denounce it here does not give anyone cause to think he denies there was slavery or to think he condones it. This leads me to think Boaz’s proposed rule is unwarranted.
Aside: On another matter: Boaz wrote recently: “If Republicans make big gains in 2010 with libertarian votes, we could be hearing about a ‘libertarian revolution.'” I am skeptical that Republicans are our natural allies. I will not agree with left-libertarians that the left is, but the right is not, either. We are neither left nor right. Both Republicans and Democrats are horribly opposed to freedom.