Thursday, October 23, 2014

DiLorenzo's Fake Lincoln

Some weeks back I was in an online discussion about good Lincoln biographies. The book that received the most mentions was The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War, by Thomas DiLorenzo. Some brief internet searching revealed that the book is quite controversial and has been charged with gross distortion of history. Nevertheless, I was morbidly curious enough to read it myself.

DiLorenzo's stated goal is to get past the "myths" of Lincoln that he believes is all too common and reveal the truth about the man. (p. 1-2) Yet despite his claims, DiLorenzo actually fails to uncover anything particularly novel about our sixteenth president. Instead, he does the opposite, and in so doing becomes the very type of historian he decries. He presents an abridged history, selectively using events, quotes, and supporting scholars to further his thesis driven work. In fact, DiLorenzo identifies nothing about Lincoln's views of  race, southern succession, national unity, or methods of emancipation that is not addressed with greater care and context in Doris Kearns Goodwin's much superior Team of Rivals. In comparison, The Real Lincoln reminds me of a rushed college paper where all facts must be squeezed into the neatly predetermined premise and no argument should be examined too closely.

The thesis is quite simple. Too simple. Abraham Lincoln began the Civil War to further the centralized "American System," which he identifies as the combination of a protective tariff, internal improvements (subsidies, particularly for railroads), and a national bank. Addressing the issue of slavery was merely a means to that end. In fact, DiLorenzo goes so far as to conclude that subsidizing railroads "seems more and more like the sole reason the Republican Party was created in the first place." (p. 222-23)

DiLorenzo's historical errors have been addressed elsewhere and elsewhere. They could, and did, fill an entire book. Even a sympathetic reviewer concluded: "The Real Lincoln is a travesty of historical method and documentation. Exasperating, maddening, and deeply disappointing." These reviewers have quite adequately pointed out the worst errors concerning Lincoln. I want to focus on the errors concerning Lincoln's world.

First of all, DiLorenzo repeatedly accuses Lincoln of subverting or ignoring the Constitution. Yet his constitutional reasoning makes me wonder if  he has ever carefully read the document or if he simply uses the term "unconstitutional" for anything he doesn't like.For example, DiLorenzo faults Lincoln for:
ignor[ing] the economic logic of the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution, which--in order to guarantee free interstate commerce--made it illegal for one state to impose a tariff on goods imported from another state. If free trade among states is a good idea--and it is--it is just as good an idea with regard to international trade. This was the thinking of the framers of the idea as well. Jefferson and Washington, for example, were staunch advocates of free international commerce as well as interstate commerce. (p. 69-70)
Yet he fails to mention that tariffs on international commerce are explicitly permitted by the Constitution (Article 1, section 1, clause 1) and one of the first major acts passed by the new Congress was the Tariff Act of 1789, which was signed into law by President Washington.

Likewise, DiLorenzo labels the whole "American System" (tariffs, banking, and subsidies) "mercantilist" (p. 56) and favorably references the "constitutional arguments" made against such a system by "Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Tyler and others." (p. 234). Yet he never informs his readers that John Marshal, himself a member of the founding generation and delegate to the Virginia ratification convention, wrote a unanimous opinion for the Supreme Court finding that chartering a national bank was a proper exercise of the power to regulate interstate commerce. Instead, DiLorenzo leaves the reader with the distinct impression that both tariffs and the bank are obvious unconstitutional overreaches of federal power.

Much ink is also shed over Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus, but despite that ink the reader would not know that the Constitution says: "The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it." (Article 1, section 9, clause 2.) Nor is the reader told that despite this same phrase's appearance in the Confederate Constitution, Jefferson Davis also suspended habeas corpus and other civil liberties. Failure to even engage the constitution text does not make for a strong constitutional argument. For those truly interested in a serious discussion of the habeas corpus suspension, as well as other constitutional questions from the era, see Mark Neely's Lincoln and the Triumph of the Nation: Constitutional Conflict in the American Civil War.

DiLorenzo's Constitutional double standard is further on show in his discussion of internal improvement subsidies. Somehow, after railing against the corruption that invariably accompanies internal improvement subsidies (not to mention his skepticism of their constitutionality),  DiLorenzo faults Lincoln for not adopting a method of compensated emancipation. Apart from the fact that Lincoln and the Republicans had initially pursued that avenue with no cooperation from the states, such a measure would be subject to the exact same criticisms that DiLorenzo had for other subsidy systems. Yet for DiLorenzo, no stick seems too poor to beat Lincoln. By this point, he looks less like lady justice blindly weighing the facts and more like a blindfolded child wildly waving a stick at a piñata.

Apart from his stilted view of the Constitution, DiLorenzo also repeatedly demonstrates that he has little knowledge of pre-Lincoln American history. In an odd twist, the author who claims to be giving a closer look than anyone else to one of our most famous Presidents has failed to look closely at anyone else. DiLorenzo paints the American founding as a libertarian happy place marred only by the existence of Alexander Hamilton and his ilk.  In his portrayal, all the founding fathers (except Hamilton) believed in right of succession/revolt against oppression (except for slaves), in freedom and liberty (except for slaves), in free markets (with slave labor), and in strong restrictions on the use of state authority (except for runaway slaves). Lurking in the shadows were Alexander Hamilton, Daniel Webster, and Henry Clay, held at bay by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Andrew Jackson, and John Calhoun. Lincoln finally accomplished what Hamilton etc. could only dream about, the destruction of the federalist system.

That the loose confederation model of voluntary enforcement did not work under the Articles of Confederation is apparently an irrelevant detail. As is Jefferson's complete absence from the Constitutional Convention. As is the passage of tariffs and chartering of national bank by the very first Congress. As is the early passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts (DiLorenzo calls their "quick[]" abandonment a demonstration of how the foundation generation "jealously protected rights," (p. 131) but does does not bother to enlighten us what their initial adoption a mere 11 years after the Constitution was ratified means). Lincoln is even blamed for the ill treatment of Native Americans that took place in the wars after his death (and some during his administration), while Andrew Jackson is somehow lionized for his proper view of government with no mention made of his awful Indian policies.

Lincoln is routinely weighed against those who DiLorenzo believes are the truly great presidents, Jefferson, Madison, and Jackson, and found wanting. But it takes little more than a basic knowledge of these other presidents to realize that DiLorenzo's standard is one of convenience, not history. Madison's co-authorship of the Federalist Papers with Hamilton is hardly mentioned. Lincoln is chastised for his eagerness for war, but Madison's War of 1812 (pushed for by Calhoun) is also not mentioned. And there is not even attempt to reconcile Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase with DiLorenzo's version of Jefferson as a strict adherent to limited spending and executive power.

But the oddest historical oversight is DiLorenzo's treatment of Andrew Jackson. DiLorenzo holds up Jackson as one of the strongest supports of states rights, including the right of states to nullify federal laws and secede from the Union. Apparently, he has either never heard of or didn't think it worthwhile to mention the Nullification Crisis in 1832--the incident where Jackson was on the verge of ordering federal troops into South Carolina to enforce federal laws. Madison likewise stated during this time that South Carolina was in the wrong. In the lead up to the Civil War, Lincoln looked to Jackson for guidance on how to respond to rogue states. Jon Meacham addresses this in detail in American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House. Yet ignoring all this, DiLorenzo tells his readers that "Thomas Jefferson was perhaps the most articulate defender of states' rights, followed by Andrew Jackson..."(p. 261) Yet for all DiLorenzo's rhetoric, I'd put $5.01 on Lincoln in any debate between him and DiLorenzo over a proper understanding of Jackson's legacy.

Towards the end of the book, we get a fascinating glimpse of DiLorenzo's dizzying intellect, which I will quote in its entirety to avoid any accusations of tampering. He speculates that had Lincoln allowed the southern states to peacefully leave,
[a]fter a number of years, the same reasons that led the colonists to form a Union in the first place would likely have become more appealing to both sections, and the Union would probably have been reunited. 
After that, knowing that secession was a real threat, the federal government would have stuck closer to its constitutional bearings. The mere threat of peaceful secession would have had that effect on it. Its imperialistic tendencies and the large tax increases necessary to finance such adventures would have been checked. We may never have had a Spanish-American War. We may also have never had a president like Woodrow Wilson, who was so eager to involve Americans in a foreign war. Economist Han-Hermann Hoppe argues in a recent book that if America had not intervened in World War I, the European monarchies would have eventually worked out a peace agreement that was not so punishing on Germany, and that may have even precluded the rise of the Nazi Party, which itself was partly a reaction to the Versailles treaty of World War I. (p. 272-73)
Yes, DiLorenzo traces the Holocaust back to Abraham Lincoln. But why stop with Lincoln? This sort of reasoning can trace infinitely back to any person. Which only demonstrates how malleable and faulty this sort of historical analysis is.

DiLorenzo opened his book claiming that "much of what has been written about Lincoln is a myth." (p. 1) Whether true or not of others, DiLorenzo ensures that it is a self-fulfilling prophecy for his own work, not only for Lincoln but also for the Constitution, the founding generation, and Andrew Jackson. His premise is simply too neat and tidy to be considered a serious history.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Swamping My Reading List

Some time back I decided that I wanted to read a biography of each of the Presidents (I got little further than making a list). In making my list, though, I discovered that while there are many many biographies written about some Presidents (and very few about others), identifying a good biography can be a challenge. How does one know which are good and which are not before reading them? Individual reviews are helpful to a point, but are often fawning and don't give an overview of the entire field or compare one against another.

Yesterday I found what I was looking for. Blogger Stephen Floyd has taken on the momentous task of reading and reviewing not just one, but all of the major biographies of the Presidents. He started with Washington in 2012 and has gotten all the way to Hayes. Each book gets its own review and he also does a single comparison of all the books. The comprehensive reviews are one of my favorite features. And as a private pilot, he also intersperses some of his reviews with areal photographs of the locations.

His blog confirmed several books that were already on my Presidential to-read list, gave me replacements for others, and identified many more that I was unaware of. I trust it will be my first stop in considering the quality of any future biographies that catch my eye.

I encourage you to check out his blog and think that you won't be disappointed. (Intimidated, maybe, but not disappointed.)

And let me know, what were the best or worst Presidential biographies that you've read?

Monday, October 6, 2014

Locke and Marx's dilemna

In our Cold War and post Cold War world, capitalism and communism, freedom and tyranny, and democracy and Marxism are viewed as clashing opposites.

Yet in 1922, Roscoe Pound observed that Karl Marx, the father of modern socialism and communism, and John Locke, one of the fathers of modern democracy, actually viewed property the same way. For background, Pound was the Dean of Harvard Law School from 1916 to 1936 and is one of the most cited legal scholars of the 20th century. Writing about theories of property, Pound makes the following observation:
This controversy as to the respective claims of him who creates by labor and him who furnishes the materials goes back to the Roman jurists of the classical period. The Proculians awarded the thing made to the maker because as such it had not existed previously. The Sabinians awarded it to the owner of the materials because without materials the new thing could not have been made. In the maturity of Roman law a compromise was made, and various compromises have obtained ever since. In modern times, however, the claim of him who creates has been urged by a long line of writers beginning with Locke and culminating in the socialists.
This passage led me back to both Marx and Locke, to see if Pound's accusation was true.

Locke, in establishing a construct for the foundation of property, focuses on labor. "Nor is it so strange, as perhaps before consideration it may appear, that the property of labour should be able to over-balance the community of land: for it is labour indeed that puts the difference of value on every thing." And again: "Thus labour, in the beginning, gave a right of property, wherever any one was pleased to employ it upon what was common, which remained a long while the far greater part, and is yet more than mankind makes use of." For Locke, it is the act (labor) of taking things out of common ownership, whether it be picking apples or tilling land, that creates the right to that thing taken or improved. "As much as any one can make use of to any advantage of life before it spoils, so much he may by his labour fix a property in: whatever is beyond this, is more than his share, and belongs to others."

Turning next to Marx, we find that once again Pound's observation is correct. Marx casts history as a conflict between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The former were the embodiment of capital, the latter of labor. His complaint was that laborers were unable to own property because the means of production were entirely controlled by the capitalists--capital and not labor determined ownership.

The result was the creation of "the modern working class, developed—a class of labourers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital. These labourers, who must sell themselves piece-meal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market." Accordingly, he concluded, "The distinguishing feature of Communism is not the abolition of property generally, but the abolition of bourgeois property." He challenges the idea that property ownership is based in the supplying of capital, and instead seeks to recreate a society that places it with labor.

So what changed between Locke and Marx? They both have the same foundational interpretation of perpetuity ownership, yet one sought social stability and the other for social revolution. Let me suggest that it is in their assumptions. Or, more accurately, it lies in the assumptions of the world in which they wrote and its changing purpose of law.

To illustrate this, we return to Pound. Pound postulated that the law at various times has been viewed with different purposes. During the Middle Ages, it existed to keep society stable--to keep people in their social places. This view was challenged in the age of exploration and colorization. New continents and new resources meant that conservation and perpetuation were no longer primary goals. Instead, "Men did not so much desire that others perform for them the duties owing in some relation, as that others keep hands off while they achieved what they might for themselves in a world that continually afforded new opportunities to the active and the daring. [...] Accordingly, the end of law comes to be conceived as a making possible of the maximum of individual free self-assertion."

I found it fascinating that in this view, libertarianism is a by-product of the temporary western experience a vast and sudden change in geography. Ideas of limits and place and scale and proportionality were subordinated to the self-made man. And the world was such that the self-made man was an actual opportunity for many.

But--and there is a huge catch--what happens when the limit is found to the new limitless world? How does a society determine property ownership when there is no unowned continent or resource pile from which to extract property? As Pound describes, the law then turned back toward a more Medieval idea of conservation and equity:
When this last stage in the development of the idea of law as existing to promote or permit the maximum of free individual self-assertion had been reached, the juristic possibilities of the conception had been exhausted. There were no more continents to discover. Natural resources had been discovered and exploited and the need was for conservation of what remained available.
Once the common stock is all divided, under Lock's mode, all that is left is reshuffling. Those whose ancestors did not labor, or who lost the fruits of their labor, have no starting ownership and have difficulty obtaining it. A model that started out with ownership based on labor results in one based only on inherited property. This is exactly the social shortcoming Marx identified, referring to it as the bourgeoisie control of the "means of production". Marx's critique largely boils down to the observation that the opportunities assumed by Lock no longer existed and an attempt to restore them. However, Marx failed to realize that he was merely calling for a turning back of the Lockean clock, not a new construct of property ownership.

Enter Adam Smith, writing almost exactly between Locke and Marx. Like Locke and Marx, Smith also based original property ownership in labor: "Labour was the first price, the original purchase money that was paid for all things. It was not by gold or by silver, but by labour, that all the wealth of the world was originally purchased." Yet he recognized that a time would come when there was no more common stock to pull property from, and labor would become subordinate:
As soon as the land of any country has all become private property, the landlords, like all other men, love to reap where they never sowed, and demand a rent even for its natural produce. The wood of the forest, the grass of the field, and all the natural fruits of the earth, which, when land was in common, cost the labourer only the trouble of gathering them, come, even to him, to have an additional price fixed upon them. He must then pay for the licence to gather them, and must give up to the landlord a portion of what his labour either collects or produces. This portion, or, what comes to the same thing, the price of this portion, constitutes the rent of land, and in the price of the greater part of commodities, makes a third component part. [...] As soon as land becomes private property, the landlord demands a share of almost all the produce which the labourer can either raise or collect from it. His rent makes the first deduction from the produce of the labour which is employed upon land.
Smith recognizes, but is also somewhat critical of, this effect of landlords imposing "rent" on what was previously the act of the laborer to create ownership. Yet he recognizes the the price of value of a thing is not based on labor alone, but also on the "rent" payed to the owner of the means of production (his third component is "profit.") In language that sounds like an early echo of Marx's clash of bourgeoisie and proletariat, Smith observes that the non-landowning laborer is at a distinct disadvantage in this new balance of economic power.
What are the common wages of labour, depends everywhere upon the contract usually made between those two parties, whose interests are by no means the same. The workmen desire to get as much, the masters to give as little, as possible. The former are disposed to combine in order to raise, the latter in order to lower, the wages of labour. It is not, however, difficult to foresee which of the two parties must, upon all ordinary occasions, have the advantage in the dispute, and force the other into a compliance with their terms. The masters, being fewer in number, can combine much more easily: and the law, besides, authorises, or at least does not prohibit, their combinations, while it prohibits those of the workmen. We have no acts of parliament against combining to lower the price of work, but many against combining to raise it. In all such disputes, the masters can hold out much longer. A landlord, a farmer, a master manufacturer, or merchant, though they did not employ a single workman, could generally live a year or two upon the stocks, which they have already acquired. Many workmen could not subsist a week, few could subsist a month, and scarce any a year, without employment. In the long run, the workman may be as necessary to his master as his master is to him; but the necessity is not so immediate.
Smith concludes that for a society to be continually improving, it must seek to improve "circumstances of the lower ranks of the people". "No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, clothe, and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, clothed, and lodged." Accordingly, for Smith, good treatment of the working class is both a requirement and a reflection of a society that is increasing its collective wealth. And failure to treat the laborers well is a reflection of a stagnant or declining economy. 

In short, sixty years after Locke, Smith saw the potential shortcomings of a purely Lockean perspective, and sought to warn against it. Seventy years after Smith, however, Marx observed in practice what Smith had warned against in theory: that an inequitable treatment of the workers would lead to decline. Marx took that one step further and added revolution.

Marx embraced the revolution, believing it would solve the imbalance. Yet he still suffered from Locke's optimism and belief that labor alone was a sufficient bases for an ongoing theory of property. He failed to see what Smith (and, according to Pound, the Roman jurists) had previously realized: that the disappearance of a common stock of land and resources necessitated modification of the model of property ownership--one that balanced labor and capital. Marx was still operating in the self-made man world. He failed to identify the root cause of the working class problem, and as a result, when his theories were implemented they created wealth imbalances greater and quicker than what he reacted against. His self-made men were tyrants.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Maze Runner Review

Thomas and friends
What do you do when you don't know what to do?

Last night I went to see Maze Runner. The overarching plot, quite far fetched, can mostly be ignored. But the basic plot allows the viewer to wrestle with the questions of uncertainty and risk.

In the beginning of the film, we find ourselves introduced to the “Glade” and its inhabitants through the eyes of the new guy, Thomas. Thomas joins the “Gladers” by default because no one knows what is really going on. All they know is that they have no memories prior to their arrival there and that bad stuff happens all around them.

Thomas, quickly learns that they have been living in fear and uncertainty but if they just keep their heads down, they are pretty safe. But safety isn’t Thomas’ highest priority. He wants more. He is willing to take risks to find answers and pursue freedom.

To me the haunting question the movie asks is, “What do you do when you don't know what to do?”

I know I tend to be like the “Gladers” who want to just stay put. They are the ones who want to hunker down and not take any risks - to do what seems safe rather than to boldly make decisions and changes that might go horribly wrong but also might lead to change good change.
Hong Kong Protesters 
But then I think of the people of Hong Kong. They would be safer at home, quietly doing what millions of Chinese do every day and just quietly allow the Communist Party leaders stack the deck and run the country pretending to have elections. But they want freedom. Thousands are standing up, like Thomas, and taking to the streets. They know there is a good chance that they will be hit with tear gas (or worse). But they are willing to take that risk. Freedom is worth it. Some risks are worth taking.

You can check out more reviews here!

Post by Jeremiah Lorrig

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