Once again I find myself smack dab in the middle of an argument, stuck between two sides that I don’t agree with – at least not fully.
Incredibly, the Confederate flag has become the hottest political topic of this week. Beginning with calls for its removal from the South Carolina capitol building, the debate has evolved into a raging battle between the enforcers of political correctness and those who loathe it.
As is typical of such debates, dispassionate logic and historical accuracy have been thrown to the wind as people on both sides have oversimplified history in order to support their conclusions. Thus, a debate over the symbolism of a particular flag has turned into an attempt to indict an entire culture and a counter-attempt to exonerate it.
The PC’ers – Partially Right, Mostly Wrong
Let’s get one thing straight. The Confederate flag, which confessed mass-shooter Dylann Roof allegedly embraced, did not cause him to kill anyone. This idea – that any symbol that dangerous and violent people use is the cause of their violence – is so obviously nonsensical that it’s amazing that anyone actually believes it.
Similarly, it is nonsense to conclude that because the Confederate flag was used by a government that protected slavery and was later embraced by racists, it can only represent those sentiments. If that were the case, the American flag, which flew over slavery for much longer than the Confederate flag did and has also been waved by racists, would be pulled down with great haste. Anyone tempted to feel superior because they hoist the Red, White and Blue instead of the Stars and Bars clearly has no understanding of the history of northern racism.
The reality is that, for many southerners, the flag is a symbol of independence and regional pride. It was under that flag that their ancestors fought what they considered to be a defensive war. This does not undo the more sinister causes that the flag has represented, but it is ludicrous to claim that it has only ever represented sinister causes.
And while we’re on the subject of the war, the claim that the flag needs to be removed because it represents treason against the United States is ridiculous. There was nothing treasonous about southern secession, since secession was widely accepted throughout the first half of the nineteenth century as a valid constitutional and legal option. If critics of the Confederate flag are being intellectually honest, how can secession represent a problem for displaying that flag but not the American flag? Or will those people be flying the Union Jack come July 4th?
As is typical, the PC police have latched on to an idea and seem intent on running with it well into the land of absurdity. They have approached a topic, on which they might indeed have a point, with all the grace of the proverbial bull in a china shop. One cannot help but wonder if their concern is really as much about a flag that symbolizes bigotry as it is about completely obliterating a culture they don’t like.
Libertarians Should Not Love the Confederate Flag
But for as annoying as the anti-Confederate flag crowd has been this week. I have been even more bothered by defenders of the flag, particularly libertarians. It has been disheartening to watch otherwise staunch defenders of liberty rush to the defense of the Confederate flag and, at least implicitly, the Confederacy itself.
I will gladly go on record with this statement: there is no reason for a libertarian to defend the Confederacy or the Confederate flag.
Now first, I must allow that I understand where libertarians are coming from on this issue. As I already said, many Confederate soldiers fought in the Civil War to defend their homes. Furthermore, I believe that history bears out the revisionist claim that the North aggressed against the South and that, inasmuch as the Union forces were invaders, the Confederate soldiers were justified in defending themselves.
But it’s a long leap to go from understanding the moral right of southerners to defend their territory to embracing the Confederate government and the flag that represented it. The Confederacy was not a libertarian paradise – it wasn’t even anything approaching it.
First, the fact that the Confederacy explicitly supported slavery cannot be swept under the rug. There is very little, if anything, that is more antithetical to libertarian principles than slavery, the unwarranted aggression of one person against another, the denial of an individual’s right to self-ownership.
But beyond this obvious rejection of libertarian ideals, the Confederacy engaged in many of the same abridgments of freedom that libertarians decry in the Union. Like the North, the Confederacy engaged in massive centralization of power, to the point that, according to Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, “Confederate war socialism was more economically centralized than the Union’s neo-mercantilism…”
Indeed, the Confederate government nationalized several industries, including those related to food, clothing and munitions. It raised taxes significantly and devalued the currency. Like Lincoln, Confederate politicians suspended habeas corpus. Like the North, the Confederacy conscripted soldiers. Robert Higgs has written about how Confederate armies stole from civilians in order to supply themselves.
The behavior of the Confederate government, in violation of its constitution, led its own vice president, Alexander Stephens, to fear that, “Constitutional liberty will go down, never to rise again on this continent.”
None of this is laudable from a libertarian perspective. It may well have been that while southern soldiers believed themselves to have been fighting against an outside oppressor, a home-grown oppressor was their reward had they won the war.
This analysis dovetails with what libertarians already know. We know that governments seek to centralize and grow their own power, especially during wartime. The Confederacy was no different. Therefore, there is no reason to view the Confederate flag as some symbolic representation of freedom. There is every reason to view it and the Confederate government with the same skeptical eye we turn upon the federal government.
It seems that many libertarians cut the Confederacy some slack because they identify the Confederate cause with secession. But we need not excuse the rampant illiberal actions of the southern government in order to vindicate a principle that we already know is correct. Secession can stand perfectly well on its own merits – on its foundation in natural rights, on its use by the American revolutionaries, on appeals to it by northerners throughout the nineteenth century and even by its politically-justified use by southerners in 1860-1861.
So where does this leave us with the Confederate flag at the capitol? I say take it down. While I don’t believe that it only represents these ideas, the flag is tainted with its associations with slavery and racism. It is further tainted with its associations with centralization and political oppression.
And while we’re taking down flags at state capitols, I say we pull down the American flag too. Fly the colors of each individual state high and proud. Be done with displays of devotion to any centralized government, be it the current one in Washington D.C. or the one that died in Richmond 150 years ago.