Ever since our inception in 1989, The Future of Freedom Foundation has had a firm policy against compromising libertarian principles. The reason is: We want to live in a free society, and we believe that principles hold the key to achieving the free society. It is the purpose of this multipart essay to explain why hewing to principle is the way to achieve freedom in the near term — that is, while most of us living today are still alive.
But it was an entirely different matter in pre–Civil War America. According to an article entitled “Was Abolitionism a Failure?” in the January 30, 2015, issue of the New York Times,
It’s hard to accept just how unpopular abolitionism was before the Civil War. The abolitionist Liberty Party never won a majority in a single county, anywhere in America, in any presidential race. Ralph Nader got closer to the presidency. In 1860 the premier antislavery newspaper, The Liberator, had a circulation of under 3,000, in a nation of 31 million.
Let’s imagine that a group in pre–Civil War America formed an organization calling itself “The Slavery Reform League,” whose mission was to improve the life of the slave on the plantation.
The League comes up with a proposal that contains the following five provisions:
No slave shall be forced to work longer than 8 hours a day.
The separation of spouses and children among the slaves shall be prohibited.
Slaves shall be entitled to medical care from a physician.
Slaves shall not be whipped.
Slaves shall be issued a voucher entitling them to switch to a plantation of their choice.
There is no doubt that the League’s proposal would significantly improve life for the slaves. But there is one glaring problem with the proposal: No matter how much their lives are improved on the plantation, the slaves remain slaves. Under the proposal, they will not be free. The institution of slavery remains intact, albeit in a reformed and improved way.
The League might respond that its proposal is an “incremental” or “gradualist” step toward freedom for slaves.
But there is something fundamentally wrong with that position: It implicitly condones the continuation of slavery for an indefinite period of time. It supports the violation of people’s fundamental, God-given rights during the period of the gradualism.
Moreover, how does improving the institution of slavery get society closer to freedom? The arguments for improving slavery are different from the arguments challenging the institution of slavery itself. Indeed, a call for slavery reform can easily be construed as an implicit endorsement of slavery. Moreover, slavery proponents themselves could easily recognize the benefits — even the morality — of treating slaves better without concluding that slavery itself should be brought to an end.
The founder of the Foundation for Economic Education, Leonard E. Read, once alluded to this problem in an essay entitled “Sinking in a Sea of Buts,” where he wrote,
Whenever anyone urges the gradual repeal of laws he believes to be wrong, he has lost the thought and force behind the case for repeal. Instead, postponement is actually advocated; and postponement, as eternity, has no calendar days, no deadline — it is a never-never proposition.
Equally important, as I will explain in a later installment of this essay, it is my personal belief, after many years of thought and reflection on the matter, that what is often represented to be a gradualist way to achieve freedom is nothing of the sort and that, in fact, it sometimes actually impedes the achievement of freedom.
In order to end slavery, it was necessary for people to question the institution of slavery itself. If everyone believed in slavery and simply supported efforts to improve slaves’ lives, it is highly unlikely that freedom for the slaves would have been achieved. They would have continued to be slaves, albeit with an improved lifestyle.
Therefore, from both a moral standpoint and a practical standpoint, there was but one correct position that a person could take with respect to freedom for the slaves: Abolish slavery.
By taking the abolitionist position, as compared to the reformist approach, the focus of the freedom advocate is now on moral principles and principles of liberty rather than on reform. Rather than showing people why an eight-hour work day would be beneficial to slaves, the freedom advocate argues that no one has the moral right to enslave anyone. Rather than showing how a voucher system would provide “choice” for slaves, the freedom advocate argues that every person, regardless of race, has the fundamental right to be free and to pursue happiness in his own way.
What if no one wants to listen to the abolitionists? What if everyone rejects their position? What if the abolitionists remain a tiny movement while the movement to improve life on the plantation is burgeoning?
It doesn’t matter. Even if everyone else in society decides to keep slavery intact and settles for improving and reforming it, the slavery abolitionists must continue hewing to principle, not only because it’s the morally right position to take but also because it’s the only real way to finally get enough people to abandon slavery reform and embrace genuine freedom.
Reformers might respond, “But Jacob, there was no button that could have been pushed to end slavery. So what was the point of being an abolitionist, especially since the abolition movement was so tiny?”
The answer is: It’s important to stand for what is right, not only because it’s right but also because it’s the only way to cause people to begin questioning the institution itself. If no one ever questions the legitimacy of an immoral governmental apparatus, then the apparatus remains intact. One person questioning the apparatus can lead to two and then three and then more. That’s what the power of principles and ideas on liberty are all about — the ability to bring about revolutionary shifts toward liberty, often suddenly and unexpectedly.
I believe that if Abraham Lincoln had chosen not to wage war against the seceding South, slavery would have crumbled on its own, owing to the moral arguments and efforts of that tiny group of abolitionists, as it did in much of the rest of the world. Already there were states in the North that had outlawed slavery but which had maintained fugitive-slave laws that required the return of slaves to the slave owner. Once support for those laws had disintegrated, slaves could have escaped to the North and not have had to worry about laws that required their forcible return to the South. Slavery could have been brought to an end peacefully, as it was in England, without the deadly and destructive Civil War.
Let’s consider another example of where hewing to principle is the key to freedom — religious liberty. What is religious liberty? It’s a way of life in which the government plays no role in religion. The government doesn’t subsidize the building of religious buildings or the payment of salaries for church personnel, and no one is forced to attend church services. We call this way of life a separation of church and state.
Today, Americans take religious liberty for granted. It’s a long-ingrained notion among the American people, reflected in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Imagine that some group today advocated a law that required every family to send its children into a governmental institution to receive religious education or a law authorizing the government to begin building its own churches. I think it’s safe to say that most Americans would rise up in opposition to such a proposal.
But throughout history — and in much of the world today — the combination of church and state has been as much a part of people’s lives as the combination of economy and state has been. Indeed, one of the reasons that English subjects began fleeing England and coming to the New World was to escape religious persecution at the hands of their own government.
But simply because a person wants to be free from religious persecution it doesn’t necessarily follow that he favors religious liberty. In fact, some of the English colonies in America themselves became bastions of religious tyranny.
Many years ago, I was struck by a story in Leonard Read’s book Vision, in which he told the story of a Catholic priest named Paolo Sarpi, who lived in the Venetian Republic during the 16th and 17th centuries, an era in which there was a combination of church and state.
In a dispute between Venice and Rome, Sarpi raised a revolutionary idea: the separation of church and state.
Read learned about Sarpi’s stand in a book entitled Seven Great Statesmen in the Warfare of Humanity with Unreason, published in 1910 by Andrew Dickson White, who was the co-founder of Cornell University. In that book, White writes,
Uncompromising as ever, Father Paul continued to write letters and publish treatises which clenched more and more firmly into the mind of Venice and of Europe the political doctrine of which he was the apostle, — the doctrine that the State is rightfully independent of the Church, — and throughout the Christian world he was recognized as victor.
Imagine that: One man ends up bringing about a revolutionary transformation regarding the role of the state in religious affairs.
In order for people to recognize the merits of separating church and state, one person had to start the process of causing people to question the legitimacy of the existing paradigm. By raising the idea, Sarpi was able to get an increasing number of people to see the rightness of his position, a process that finally shifted society to a paradigm based on separating church and state.
Is it possible to apply principles regarding the abolition of slavery and the principles of religious liberty to our time, specifically to the loss of liberty that Americans have suffered as a consequence of the welfare-warfare state? It certainly is. But in order to do that, we still have to visit history, specifically U.S. history in the latter part of the 19th century.