Libertarianism, the Confederacy, and the Civil War Revisited

Revelations that Rand Paul aide Jack Hunter has a history of racist and pro-Confederate statements during his days as a radio shock jock have rekindled the longstanding debate over libertarian attitudes towards the Civil War. Hunter has repudiated many of his former statements and attitudes. But that hasn’t stopped the controversy from continuing.

This uproar raises two important issues: First, is there any possible justification for libertarian sympathy for the Confederacy? Second, how should the libertarian movement react to people with views like Hunter’s?

I. The Case Against the Confederacy.

I have written about the first point at length in the past. To briefly summarize, the Confederacy is indefensible because it was created for the purpose of perpetuating and extending the evil – and manifestly unlibertarian – institution of slavery. Don’t take my word for it. Take that of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Vice President Alexander Stephens, and the southern states’ official statements outlining their reasons for seceding.

It’s also worth remembering that the Confederacy was a brutal and oppressive regime even aside from slavery. I am by no means hostile to all secession movements. But even if you endorse secession in any situation where a majority of the people in a state support it, you should still denounce Confederate secession. I explained why here:

As of 1860, African-Americans constituted about 40% of the population of the states that formed the Confederacy. It’s a safe bet that they were overwhelmingly opposed to secession. When you combine this overwhelming black opposition with that of the substantial minority of southern whites who also wanted to stay in the Union, it is highly likely that a majority of southerners in 1861 opposed secession. Once you recognize that blacks count too, it becomes clear that Confederate secession was anti-majoritarian as well as proslavery.

The Confederacy also had a terrible record on civil liberties, significantly worse than that of the Union. The Confederates were not even consistent supporters of “states rights.” For example, Confederate forces sought to coerce the states of Kentucky and Missouri into seceding from the Union even though majority opinion in those states (including majority white opinion) preferred to remain in the United States.

Recognizing the evils of the Confederacy does not require libertarians to endorse everything the Union side did, or even to believe that the outcome of the Civil War justified its horrendous costs. But there is no intellectually serious libertarian case for actually supporting the Confederacy, as distinct from criticizing the war policies of the Union.

II. Implications for the Libertarian Movement.

How should libertarians respond to those among us who defend the Confederacy? It would be easy to take the offensive by pointing to the dirty laundry of other political movements. For example, some prominent left-wingers such as Michael Moore have defended brutal communist dictators such as Fidel Castro. Liberals who don Che Guevara t-shirts despite his being a brutal mass murderer are a fitting left-wing analogue to Jack Hunter’s love of Confederate symbols. And when it comes to tolerating apologists for slavery and segregation, conservatism’s record is far worse than libertarianism ever could be.

But the shortcomings of other political movements cannot relieve us of responsibility for our own. A more reasonable response is to point out that pro-Confederate sentiments are a small minority among libertarians. Such ideas have been repeatedly denounced by representatives of the Cato Institute (the most prominent libertarian think tank), Reason (the best-known libertarian magazine), and various well-known libertarian intellectuals and pundits. Moreover, such libertarian opposition to neo-Confederate advocacy long predates the public controversy over libertarians’ attitudes on the issue (see, e.g., this 2004 Reason article and this 2001 piece by Cato Vice President David Boaz). Similarly, numerous prominent libertarian commentators denounced Ron Paul’s involvement with racist newsletters published under his name in the 1990s. What has changed over the last few years is that the increasing visibility of libertarianism in American politics has attracted mainstream media attention to what used to be a little-known intralibertarian dispute.

Still, pro-Confederate libertarians are a significant enough minority that the phenomenon can’t simply be ignored. So we must continue to emphasize that support for the Confederacy is incompatible with libertarian principles for all the reasons already noted. Jason Kuznicki of Cato writes that he “can’t understand how anyone might admire the Confederacy and also call themselves a libertarian. Any affinity for the Confederacy marks one very clearly as an enemy of liberty.” I think this is largely true. Anyone who supports the Confederacy despite being familiar with its record on slavery and other issues cannot possibly be a libertarian or, indeed, a minimally decent person of any kind.

But I also suspect that some pro-Confederate libertarians are not in fact closet defenders of slavery and racism. They are either unaware of the historical evidence or ignore its implications. For example, many of them probably believe longstanding “Lost Cause” myths, such as the idea that protecting slavery wasn’t really the motive for Confederate secession. Like political ignorance, historical ignorance is very common. Libertarians are certainly not immune to the problem.

Libertarians and others who defend the Confederacy out of ignorance aren’t completely without fault. If you are going to publicly pontificate about the rights and wrongs of the Civil War, you should have at least a minimal understanding of the relevant history. But such ignorance and irresponsibility are less culpable than deliberate support for slavery and racism.

Better-informed libertarians have no choice but to dissociate themselves from people who defend the Confederacy despite understanding its true nature. As for those who do so out of ignorance, we should first try to introduce them to the facts. In the real world, of course, the separation between the malevolent and the ignorant is often not as clear as it is in theory. A person who has some racist sentiments is also likely – for that very reason – to be attracted to “Lost Cause” interpretations of Civil War history. Even so, there are likely to be at least some people whose pro-Confederate sentiments are a result of ignorance rather than racism.

Finally, a word of unsolicited advice for Rand Paul: he needs to remove Jack Hunter from his staff. Even if Hunter’s contrition is genuine, a position as new media director for a libertarian-leaning senator planning to run for president is not the right place for a man who spent years making pro-Confederate statements and calling himself “The Southern Avenger.” Especially not if that senator is trying to broaden his and his party’s appeal to include blacks, Hispanics, and others. I don’t agree with Rand Paul on everything. But he has done good work on a number of issues. Continued association with the Hunters of the world will only undermine those efforts, just as it did in the case of his father.

UPDATE: I have made a few minor stylistic revisions to this post.

UPDATE #2: Libertarian political theorist Jacob Levy had some related thoughts in this post. I should perhaps acknowledge that Jacob anticipated my analogizing of Confederate apologists on the right to apologists for communism on the left, and even the analogy I drew between the use of Confederate symbols by people like Hunter and the popularity of Che Guevara t-shirts among some leftists. For the record, I came up with both analogies independently, before I read Jacob’s post. But he came up with them first.