Assessing Lincoln: Slavery, the Indians, and Civil Liberties

This week a congressman out of North Carolina claimed that Abraham Lincoln was like Adolf Hitler. A crackpot claim, to be sure, but perhaps not a surprising one, given that extremes call forth extremes. After all, Lincoln is usually rated the best president in American history, and has attained a mythological status that makes it almost criminal to question his sanctity. It doesn’t help matters that the ones who do question it are usually either crackpots like Larry Pittman, or revisionists with Confederate sympathies.

The worst revisionist claim is that the South fought for states’ rights and not slavery, which has been thoroughly debunked. Not only was the South very obviously trying to protect slavery, but whenever the rule of law had interfered with maintaining slavery in the past, the South became a burning advocate for federal power. Only after the executive branch was no longer friendly to slavery (i.e. after Lincoln’s election), did the South begin to harp on states’ rights.

Revisionists over-vilify Lincoln for his “unconstitutional” suppression of the South. While it is arguable that Lincoln should have acted in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence and let the South peacefully secede, he did have the authority, under the mildly centralizing Constitution, to put down the southern insurrection. So the war effort was not itself unconstitutional. That he maneuvered the South into starting the war, on the other hand, by making them fire the first shot — a point widely accepted, even by scholarly giants like Shelby Foote and Bruce Catton — was certainly unethical. But that’s actually a minor offense. The real point is that the Civil War should not have been fought at all.

Here’s the run-down of what I consider to be Lincoln’s worst sins. They fall under what he did for slavery, the Indians, and civil liberties. He fails in all categories.

1. Slavery. If the Civil War ended slavery, African Americans hardly experienced more freedom in the face of white southerners who were bitter over it. In Ivan Eland’s view, peaceful alternatives to Lincoln’s policies would have achieved better results and far more quickly. Recarving Rushmore supplies those alternatives:

(1) If Lincoln wanted to preserve the union (which he did: it was his main reason for the war), he could have offered southern slave owners compensation for a gradual emancipation of slaves. Many other countries had already ended slavery by these measures, and Lincoln himself had made such proposals earlier in his career. The cost of this kind of emancipation would have been far less than the financial costs of the Civil War, not to mention the obscene cost of human lives, which by the end of the Civil War totaled 600,000 Americans, 38,000 of whom were African Americans.

(2) Or he could have simply let the southern states go, and get Congress to repeal the Fugitive Slave Act, which prosecuted those who did not return escaped slaves to their owners. Abolitionists had already made this proposal anyway and it would have easily passed, making the northern states a haven for escaped slaves, in time emptying the South of slaves. This option would have honored the spirit of the Declaration of Independence for the South, which is based on free government and self-determination, while also choking off slavery.

Either option would have ended slavery without producing the backlash of “Jim Crow” laws and organizations like the KKK. After the war and union occupation, African Americans were subject to a discrimination that was almost as bad as in the slave times, and it would be an entire century before the Civil Rights Act came in remedy. This is what admirers of Lincoln ignore. The North’s ruthless war tactics and post-war reconstruction policies produced exactly what happens anywhere else we try to “build democracy”, like in Vietnam and Iraq. When outside powers attempt to change culture through military occupation, the results are never good.

Slavery was doomed and Lincoln knew it. The British Empire had eliminated it in the 1833-38 period, even “backwater” Mexico has ended the practice in 1829, and other parts of the world too. And it was ended without resorting to bloody wars. Lincoln himself had entertained the compensation option, so this isn’t an unfair hindsight judgment. He was aware of how the world was moving, both at home and abroad.

2. The Indians. Try asking them what they think of Lincoln. They say he was one of the Five Worst Presidents for the Native American Tribes, and they’re obviously right. Even by 19th-century manifest-destiny standards, Lincoln was a demon. He seized one of the largest portions of land from the Indians, running the Navajos and Mescalero Apaches out of their New Mexico territory and into a reservation 450 miles away. When this kind of thing happens in places like Bosnia and Dafur, we call it ethnic cleansing. The journey for the Indians was a death march, a lot like the Trail of Tears under Andrew Jackson: thousands of them were herded across a scorching desert, “escorted” by Lincoln’s army who killed those who lagged behind. The survivors who made it to the reservation were shoved into squalid camps infested with disease.

No one would excuse this behavior if it weren’t the president named Abraham Lincoln we were talking about, who has been mythologized to the extent that he can’t possibly, really, have been this bad. But he was. He worked against the Indian tribes them at every turn, and with more ruthlessness than most of the 19th century presidents. He cheated the Sioux out their lands as well, and when they revolted, he unleashed General Pope on them, who promised to exterminate the Sioux, who were “maniacs and wild beasts, and by no means people with whom treaties or compromise can be made”. Lincoln afterwards signed off on 38 Indian prisoners in Mankato, Minnesota, and on December 26, 1862 the largest mass execution in United States history took place under his authority. Only a dishonest apologist could salvage anything for Lincoln’s reputation out of this.

3. Civil Liberties. Lincoln was an enemy of the First Amendment. He arrested journalists, newspaper publishers, and critics of the war, and threw them into prison. He closed the mail to publications which opposed his war policies, and he deported an opposing congressman. On top of all that, he physically attacked and removed a peace movement. There have been only two other presidents with this level of contempt for free speech: John Adams and Woodrow Wilson. Today, Donald Trump shows himself to be on the same page as Adams, Lincoln, and Wilson.

Lincoln likewise “disappeared citizens” without arrest warrants, or in other words detained them without allowing them to challenge their detention (a violation of habeas corpus). To date there has been only one other president who has claimed and exercised this right — you guessed it, George W. Bush. In Lincoln’s case, he simply ignored Supreme Court Justice Robert Taney’s order that habeas corpus could be suspended only by Congress and not the president. Lincoln played the dictator and suspended it anyway. As if that weren’t bad enough, he also created military tribunals to prosecute civilians who were discouraging people from enlisting in union armies. Those civilians were simply exercising their free-speech rights.

“Tear down the memorial”

It’s always easy to judge by hindsight and fancy how we could do better. I’m under no illusion that I would make a good president. But I’ll say this: As president I sure as hell would never start an unnecessary war by making the other side fire first, and then use the federal army to kill hundreds of thousands of people, cripple tens of thousands more for life, destroy their economy, burn their towns to the ground, abolish my own people’s civil liberties, and inflict all the other miserable costs of war, just to prevent certain states from leaving the goddamn union. Yes, Lincoln did have the Constitutional right to suppress the South (against what Confederate revisionists claim), but that doesn’t mean he should have; and I would not have. As president I hope I would have had the wisdom to pursue one of the two options entertained by Eland:

“Lincoln should have let the South go in peace, as the abolitionists advocated, or offered southerners compensation for the emancipation of slaves. Under the first option, industrialization and rising moral objections likely would have peacefully eliminated slavery in the South — as they did in most other places of the world — helped out by a slave haven in the free North. In sum, a close study of Lincoln’s presidency leads to thoughts of tearing down the Lincoln Memorial.” (Recarving Rushmore, p 130)

Lincoln was no Hitler (only a crackpot would say that), nor was he the villain of Southern revisionism. But he was indeed a bad president — one of the worst, I believe, in our nation’s history.

President’s Day Special: From Nixon to Obama

bush-obamaI would say “Happy President’s Day”, except the presidency right now isn’t cause for joy. No matter, we’ll celebrate in a special look-back. Even the worst presidents are saints compared to Donald Trump.

In this post I rank the presidents who served during my lifetime according to their record. That’s eight presidents — from Nixon to Obama — and when I say “according to their record”, I mean for what they did for causes of peace, fiscal security, and a free society, not on the basis of their charisma or reputation. In Recarving Rushmore Ivan Eland has criticized the bizarre logic that leads historians to favor charismatic heroes who give great speeches and/or happen to serve in times of crisis, even when not for the better. He scores each president, from George Washington to Barack Obama, on a 60-point system as follows:

53-60 = Excellent
43-52 = Good
37-42 = Average
25-36 = Poor
7-24 = Bad
1-6 = Atrocious

To see his rankings of all the presidents since Washington, see my earlier post. These are my revised rankings of Eland for the last eight presidents:

1. Jimmy Carter (Good) — Peace (17), Prosperity (18), Liberty (14); Total score = 49
2. Bill Clinton (Average) — Peace (14), Prosperity (15), Liberty (12); Total score = 41
3. Gerald Ford (Average) — Peace (15), Prosperity (11), Liberty (12); Total score = 38
4. Richard Nixon (Poor) — Peace (8), Prosperity (12), Liberty (6); Total score = 26
5. Barack Obama (Bad) — Peace (4), Prosperity (10), Liberty (6); Total score = 20
6. Ronald Reagan (Bad) — Peace (2), Prosperity (5), Liberty (6); Total score = 13
7. George H.W. Bush (Bad) — Peace (3), Prosperity (1), Liberty (8); Total score = 12
8. George W. Bush (Atrocious) — Peace (0), Prosperity (1), Liberty (2); Total score = 3

I agree with Eland that Carter was the best (and only good) president in my lifetime and George W. the worst. My surprise came with Nixon. An examination of his record doesn’t show him to be quite as bad as I’d always thought. Eland has George H.W. above Obama and Reagan, whereas I rank him the worst of the “Bad’s”. Otherwise our hierarchies are the same. My individual scores are either the same or close to Eland’s, the two exceptions being the “prosperity” categories for Nixon and Obama, which I award much higher. I explain everything in the commentaries below.

richard-nixonRichard Nixon, 1969-1974. Peace (8), Prosperity (12), Liberty (6); Total score = 26/60 = Poor.

Peace (8/20): Nixon was a beast in Southeast Asia. He should have ended the Vietnam War right away, but spent four years and 22,000 additional American lives (out of the 58,000 total between 1961-75) to get a peace settlement. Even as he winded down in Vietnam, he escalated the war in other ways — by bombing Cambodia and supporting a Vietnamese invasion of Laos, each without Congressional approval. On the plus side, Nixon had an otherwise humble and commendable foreign policy. His visit to China not only resulted in improved relations with that country, but made the Soviets want friendly and peaceful relations with America. To his serious credit, he ended the draft, which had been in place since 1940, thereby removing the stain on a free society that requires people of a certain age and gender to be forced to enter a dangerous occupation for little pay. Also, he agreed to destroy U.S. biological and chemical weapons.

Prosperity (12/20): Eland gives Nixon only 4 points in this category, but as a fiscal moderate I see the good as much as the bad, and so jack him up 8 points. He’s known as the “last liberal president” (until Obama), despite his conservative image, for his spending on social programs. He gave elderly people an increase on social security benefits, and proposed universal medical insurance that provided even stronger coverage than Obama’s later Affordable Health Care Act. He created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the war on cancer, and a federal subsidization of the arts — all big pluses. He forced car makers to reduce emissions under the Clean Air Act, signed the Endangered Species Act, and expanded national parks. That adds up to a very progressive track record, brought down only by the fact that some of Nixon’s federal spending was too unrestrained and ended up contributing to a problematic economy.

Liberty (6/20): Watergate has defined Nixon and that’s not unfair. Spying on his enemies (or perceived enemies) was a serious offense because it undermined American liberty through the use of illegal tricks, misuse of security agencies, and obstruction of justice in trying to cover up crimes. But even worse than Watergate, in my view, is the war that Nixon launched on drugs. It’s still with us today, and obscenely criminalizes non-violent addicts (who need help, not jail) while causing violent criminals to go on parole in order to make room in prison for the drug offenders. Eland gives Nixon only 4 points in the liberty category, and that is just, but I have to bump him up 2 extra points for his treatment of Native American Indians. He endorsed a self-determination plan for the Indian tribes, and because of his activism Congress passed laws including the Indian Self-Determination and Educational Assistance Act. More than any modern president, Nixon changed the course that had driven vast numbers of Indians into poverty. It’s worth bearing in mind that as Nixon was being kicked out of the White House, the Native Americans were singing his praises.

gerald_ford_official_presidential_photoGerald Ford, 1974-1977. Peace (15), Prosperity (11), Liberty (12); Total score = 38/60 = Average.

Peace (15/20): Ford had one of the most commendably restrained foreign policies of any modern president. He engaged militarily overseas only a few times in minor ways, and for the most part resisted the counsel of his hawkish advisors — Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Kissinger, all of whom would later advise George W. Bush, who unlike Ford would follow their atrocious advice. He maintained Nixon’s detente policy with China and the Soviet Union, and he removed American support from the racist governments of South Africa and Rhodesia. On the downside, he increased defense spending, despite the end of the Vietnam War, and briefly attempted to get America re-involved in helping South Vietnam.

Prosperity (11/20): Ford inherited the mess of the Vietnam War which had dragged for eternity. Like all wars it caused inflation since it was funded by taxes, borrowing money, and printing money, and Ford did about as much good as harm in trying to alleviate the bad economy. He created government jobs to help the unemployment problem, arguably for better and worse. He kept most of Nixon’s programs going (which I consider mostly good), but used his veto power to stop the creation of more given the bad economy (which is reasonable). Some of his vetoes were overridden, but on whole they did have the result of the lowest annual spending increases since Eisenhower.

Liberty (12/20): Eland gives Ford only 8 points in this category, docking him a monster 12 solely on the basis of his pardon of Nixon. That’s too harsh. Many historians actually commend Ford for pardoning Nixon in the interest of American morale, and you can make a case for the lesson cutting both ways. I see no reason to dock Ford more than 8 points in the liberty category, and so I score him 12.

jimmycarterportrait2Jimmy Carter, 1977-1981. Peace (17), Prosperity (18), Liberty (14); Total score = 49/60 = Good.

Peace (17/20): Carter believed that America shouldn’t police the globe, showing rare wisdom for a president in the post World-War II era. He avoided war in the Horn of Africa. He refused to support Somali aggression against the Soviets, thus avoiding confrontation with the nuclear-armed Soviet Union. He got Congress to ratify an end to the neocolonial U.S. occupation of the Canal Zone in Panama. He criticized both sides in the Nicaraguan civil war and stopped U.S. aid to the right-wing dictatorship. He scaled back involvement in this region (unlike Reagan who would zealously support a covert war favoring the right-wingers against the left). He finished normalizing relations with China, and terminated the U.S.-Taiwanese defense alliance (unlike George W. Bush who would later recklessly pledge to defend Taiwan from a nuclear attack, thereby putting American cities at risk). On the downside, Carter failed to successfully negotiate for the release of American hostages in Iran, though without negative long-term effects (U.S. policy in Iran was doomed to failure before Carter took office). His biggest blunder was overreacting to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and allowing his National Security Advisor to initiate the campaign which supported the mujaheddin in both Afghanistan and Pakistan — promoting, in other words, Islamism to fight Communist forces. Reagan would increase support for these jihadists on an insane level, but it began with Carter, and these U.S. funded Islamists would go on to spawn al-Qaeda. On whole, this record is extremely impressive for a president in the 20th century.

Prosperity (18/20): If Nixon was the last liberal president (until Obama), then Carter was the first conservative president (since Coolidge). This despite the fact that Nixon has the conservative image, and Carter the liberal one. In fact, Carter was a monetary tight-ass in a climate of concern. He promoted individuals taking responsibility for themselves, pushed for reducing the federal deficit, advocated the deregulation of industries, and believed that welfare was bad for the family and work ethic. Ford left him a rather stagnate economy; Carter’s conservative policies led to the prosperity of the Reagan years (not Reagan’s policies, on which see below), and they would set the precedent for later tight-money policies that led to prosperity in the Clinton years. Carter’s principled stand as a budget-hawk (his priority was lowering inflation, not reducing unemployment) would cost him the support of many Democrats, which is why he didn’t get reelected. In this sense he was a lot like the tenth U.S. president John Tyler, a Whig who stood courageously alone against his fellow Whigs and lost support. Carter also created the Department of Education, for which Eland downgrades him (for governmental expansion and intrusion), but which I strongly endorse and thus award Carter 3 extra prosperity points for a total of 18.

Liberty (14/20): Carter was near perfect on liberty issues and by rights deserves a score of 20. He supported the Equal Rights Amendment, which aimed to ensure that women were treated equally in society. He avoided the tendency of post World War II presidents to support communist-hating dictatorships that committed human rights violations. But sometimes Carter’s criticisms of other nations did harm. For example, his blasting of South Africa’s racist policies caused its white supremacists to persecute blacks even more, and their fury at Carter is precisely what caused the election of Prime Minister John Vorster, who believed in apartheid. If Carter showed military and economic restraint, he didn’t always show restraint as a spokesman. For the most part, however, he has a good liberty record.

official_portrait_of_president_reagan_1981Ronald Reagan, 1981-1989. Peace (2), Prosperity (5), Liberty (6); Total score = 13/60 = Bad.

Peace (2/20): Eland’s chapter on Reagan should be required reading for those who treat him like a demigod. He was a terrible president. His anti-Soviet policies and massive defense buildup reversed Nixon’s friendly detente policy with the Soviets, and raised the specter of nuclear war. For all his swaggering anticommunist rhetoric, Reagan didn’t even win the Cold War. The Soviet empire collapsed because of its poor economic performance and over-extending itself in other countries. And as the Soviets were in decline, Reagan launched needless and harmful missions elsewhere. He sent forces to Lebanon. He invaded Grenada. He attacked Libya. All without congressional approval as required by the Constitution. In Lebanon, he actually cut and ran after Shi’ite jihadists killed hundreds of American troops (Osama Bin Laden would remember the way western leaders, even macho-men like Reagan, tend to beat a hasty retreat.) He then went to Grenada in a silly “rescue” of medical students from a supposed Cuban takeover; in fact there was no viable threat in that region at all. Then he picked the fight with Gaddafi in Libya, creating a new enemy for no good reason. Gaddafi was a tyrant, to be sure, but not nearly as bad as the Islamic jihadists whom Reagan zealously supported so that they would fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Out of that manipulative mess would step a very pissed-off Osama Bin Laden. In sum, Reagan was an incompetent, leftist-hating, war-hungry failure. And he was the first of a new dynasty of Republicans that began a long slide to where the GOP is today: in shambles.

Prosperity (5/20): Reagan’s conservative fiscal image is a myth, and one that I once believed. He was more fiscally liberal than Carter and Clinton, and spent loads, not least on defense and his ridiculous Star Wars program. He gave the largest tax cut in American history, but his tax cuts were fake since they weren’t accompanied by spending cuts. As Eland points out time and again, tax cuts without spending reductions mean nothing, because either the taxes have to be raised at a later date (which they were), government borrowing has to increase, or the government has to print money to cause inflation. (Because of bracket creep and inflation, Reagan’s tax reductions ended up benefiting only the rich.) Reagan was not responsible for ’80s prosperity in any case. The ones responsible were the heads of the Federal Reserve System — Paul Volcker under Carter, and Alan Greenspan under Reagan — who sucked inflation out of the system with tight-ass money policies. Greenspan was appointed by Reagan but didn’t follow his lead; he followed the tight policies of Volcker his predecessor. The prosperity of the Reagan years came not from Reagan himself but despite Reagan and his heavy spending and fake tax cuts, and this is lost on devotees who actually believe he was a fiscal conservative.

Liberty (6/20): The Iran-Contra scandal was as bad as Watergate. In return for the release of hostages, Reagan sold heavy weapons to Iran (a state sponsor of Islamic terrorism) and used the profits to fund the Contras in Nicaragua (in their war against the Marxist Sandinista government). First of all, this was in violation of the arms embargo against Iran and the Arms Export Control Act which carried criminal penalties. Second, only Congress can appropriate money for government activities; Reagan’s short-cut was as much a Constitutional violation as Nixon’s misuse of security agencies. Even worse than Nixon, Reagan escalated the war on drugs. He attempted to stack the Supreme Court with justices who were less committed to interpreting the Constitution than in legislating conservative mores from the bench. On the other hand, he also appointed Antonin Scalia, and as a result citizens retained the right to burn the American flag, not to mention other liberties. It’s difficult to say whether or not Scalia was a misfire on Reagan’s part, but because Scalia ended up being an important champion of Constitutional liberties, I’m awarding Reagan 6 liberty points instead of 4.

220px-george_h-_w-_bush_president_of_the_united_states_1989_official_portraitGeorge H.W. Bush, 1989-1993. Peace (3), Prosperity (1), Liberty (8); Total score = 12/60 = Bad.

Peace (3/20): Bush’s colossal failure was that he didn’t return to a policy of military restraint when the opportunity presented itself (like Ford did considerably after Vietnam, and as Carter did especially after him). There was no great power to take the place of the communist threat (when the Berlin Wall fell in ’89 and the Soviet Union dissolved in ’91), but Bush kept on with aggressive overseas policies. He invaded Panama for little reason. He went to war with Saddam Hussein in Iraq, worried that Saddam might invade Saudi Arabia (and threaten the oil supply), even though there was no evidence indicating Saddam had such designs. After the Gulf War he left behind an unneeded military presence in the Persian Gulf, which infuriated Osama Bin Laden (on his return home to Saudi Arabia after fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan). We’re still today reaping the consequences of the elder Bush’s pointless excursions in the Middle-East.

Prosperity (1/20): Eland gives Bush a putrid score of 1, for the terrible recession Bush presided over, for ballooning the federal budget deficit, and for doing nothing constructive to alleviate the problem.

Liberty (8/20): To Bush’s credit, he signed the Americans with Disabilities Act. But on his watch the FBI covered up federal misconduct when residents were shot at the Ruby Ridge property in Idaho; the residents were acquitted of all crimes, and the FBI snipers had been given illegal shoot-to-kill orders, and yet of the shooters was promoted to the #2 job in the FBI hierarchy. Bush also pardoned high-ranking officials who were involved in Reagan’s nefarious Iran-Contra scandal. His choice of the unqualified Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court is one of the worst appointments in the cause of liberty, and clearly intended as a “token African American” to replace Thurgood Marshall. On the other hand, he appointed David Souter, who turned out to be one of the best justices of the post World-War II era.

800px-44_bill_clinton_3x4 Bill Clinton, 1993-2001. Peace (14), Prosperity (15), Liberty (12); Total score = 41/60 = Average.

Peace (14/20): Clinton usually kept military efforts under control and was reluctant to use ground troops after the deaths of American soldiers in Somalia. In the case of Somalia (Clinton’s first overseas involvement), Eland calls it the one legitimately humanitarian U.S. military intervention in the last century, and he’s probably right. Clinton also intervened in Bosnia, and while that was partly on humanitarian grounds there were political reasons too, as there were for the subsequent bombing of Serbia and Kosovo. Clinton got somewhat lucky with Kosovo, when Serbian forces were withdrawn because the Russians suddenly stopped supporting Serbia. Clinton also got lucky with North Korea, when he threatened war against Kim Il Sung. Fortunately Jimmy Carter had been invited by Kim to North Korea, and the former president was able to smooth things over and get Kim to freeze his nuclear program. When al Qaeda bombed the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, Clinton replied with cruise missiles, pounding al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and Sudan, taking steps to kill Osama Bin Laden but not persisting enough (though doing more than George W. Bush later did).

Prosperity (15/20): Clinton took office during the recession which resulted from the sins of Reagan and Bush, who gave fake tax cuts to benefit their rich Republican constituents without meaningful spending cuts. Clinton immediately reigned in government spending and became a budget hawk in the mold of Eisenhower and Carter (and the previous heads of the Federal Reserve System, Paul Volcker and Alan Greenspan), to produce the prosperity of the mid to late ’90s. He worked with Republicans to curb welfare and converted a permanent underclass into temporary aid recipients who had to work while getting assistance. He expanded the Earned Income tax Credit, which lowered taxes for people just above poverty line which encouraged them to keep working instead of going on welfare. He created the World Trade Organization which on whole increased world trade flows.

Liberty (12/20): The David Koresh incident is a blight on Clinton’s administration; many of the Branch Davidians were killed in the standoff, some of them children. To Clinton’s credit, he wanted to lift the ban on gays in the military, but had to compromise with the silly “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that prevented the military from rooting out gays but required gays to stay in the closet. Worse was his signing the Defense of Marriage Act, which stalled progress on gay marriage. To be fair, he was boxed in by his opponents on this issue, but in recent years Clinton has admitted that he was simply wrong to sign DOMA. In general his liberty record is okay.

george-w-bushGeorge W. Bush, 2001-2009. Peace (0), Prosperity (1), Liberty (2); Total score = 3/60 = Atrocious.

Peace (0/20): George W. was not only the worst president in my lifetime, he was one of the worst in history. If I were put in charge of building an “anti-Mount Rushmore”, I would carve his face on it, next to those of Lincoln, McKinley, and Wilson. (Trump will likely oust one of these four.) Bush invaded Iraq for no legitimate reason at all, and bogged America down in a new Vietnam. Scholars are in wide agreement that the Iraq War was one of the hugest foreign policy disasters in U.S. history. Not only was it a distraction from the critical task of focusing on the 9/11 attackers, it was based purely on Bush’s need to settle old scores with Saddam, and justified by manufactured evidence. He demanded that his advisors come up with proof that Saddam and al Qaeda were linked in cause, and that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction — neither of which was remotely true — and when they couldn’t, he sent them back to the drawing board, saying “Wrong answer.” The biggest anti-war protests in history broke out across the globe. By removing Saddam, moreover, Bush empowered Islamists and jihadists to fill the power void, who are far worse than Saddam. (In Saddam’s Iraq you were at least mostly safe if you stayed out of politics and played by Saddam’s rules.) Eland’s indictment of George W. is a zinger: “If Bush had been president when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and Hitler declared war on the U.S., he probably would have gone to war against Argentina instead of Japan or Germany.” He earns a goose-egg in the peace category.

Prosperity (1/20): Bush’s economic and spending policies were hideous and the cause of the worst recession since the Great Depression. Like Reagan he gave fake tax cuts while letting federal spending spiral out of control. He used the 9/11 attacks to dramatically escalate the defense budget, and most of this money didn’t even go towards fighting terrorism.

Liberty (2/20): Bush tried expanding the powers of the presidency in ways that make the Caesar-presidents of the 20th century (esp. McKinley and Wilson) look benign. He (and Dick Cheney) disdained Congressional checks on his authority, believing that as war commander in chief he was not subject to the constraints of the Constitution’s separation of powers. Like Abraham Lincoln (and no other president), Bush claimed the right to “disappear” citizens without the need for an arrest warrant, list of charges, trial, or access to a lawyer. Also like Lincoln, he suspended the writ of Habeas Corpus, which is a citizen’s right to challenge detention. According to the Constitution only Congress can suspend this right, and only in times of invasion or rebellion. For the first time in U.S. history, Bush declared that the Geneva Conventions regarding the treatment of prisoners of war don’t apply to terror suspects, and it took years for the Supreme Court to overrule him on this. Most notoriously, he and Cheney sanctioned the use of torture in overseas detention centers. Meanwhile on the domestic front, Bush signed three bills that restricted abortions.

440px-official_portrait_of_barack_obamaBarack Obama, 2009-2017. Peace (4), Prosperity (10), Liberty (6); Total score = 20/60 = Bad.

Peace (4/20): Eland calls Obama a “slightly improved version of George W. Bush”, and that’s pretty much right. Both presidents attacked countries for no good reason, escalated needless wars, and got vast numbers of American soldiers and indigenous peoples killed for little gain. Like Bush, Obama waged these wars under the illusion that America could bring democracy to the Middle East by removing dictators and encouraging their opponents to work for elections and peaceful change. Bush thought this in toppling Saddam, and Obama thought it when he helped bring down Mubarak in Egypt, and Gaddafi in Syria, and then Assad. The result was anarchy in Libya, instability in Egypt, and the strengthening of jihad and sharia groups who are much worse than the supplanted dictators. Obama was even worse than Bush on the subject of Islamism, for he outrageously ordered the removal of all mention of Islam from counter-terror training, and refused to allow high-ranking law enforcement and intelligence officials to study the religious ideology of the terrorists, which is necessary to understand and counter them. He also expanded, rather than reduced, Bush’s 9/11 drone wars, ramping them up in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. On the plus side he succeeded in killing Osama Bin Laden, but what he should have done at that point was declare the war on terror over, end the drone wars, and return America to a long-overdue policy of restraint and normalcy. Obama did none of these things. He deserves credit, however, for resisting strong pressures from American war hawks, Israel, and Saudi Arabia to pursue aggressive policies with Iran and Syria. Thus his score of 4 over Bush’s rotten goose-egg.

Prosperity (10/20): Eland gives Obama a score of 3, but I disagree for the same reasons I hold Nixon in higher esteem. As a left-libertarian I don’t share Eland’s hyper-hostility to government spending, and certainly not towards universal health care reform. So first I have to multiply Eland’s score by four to a score of 12, since I consider the Affordable Health Care Act a huge positive achievement. Then I have to downgrade Obama 4 points (and that’s being charitable) for his complete failure over two terms to address the plight of the middle class (for which reason we now have Donald Trump). That brings the score to 8. I add another 2 points though, because while Obama’s stimulus package was a fiscal monster, it did reduce unemployment and prevent a significant increase in poverty, at least in the short term. (George W., on the other hand, receives no positive adjustments from me for his liberal bailout program, since the recession was triggered by his own disastrous policies. You don’t get points for trashy bailout emergencies when you’re fixing your own mess.) So I say 10 prosperity points for Obama, though I admit that’s rather generous.

Liberty (6/20): Obama didn’t fulfill his promise to close Guantanamo, but Congress is to blame for that. On the other hand, Obama can’t blame anyone but himself for continuing Bush’s policies of indefinite detentions without trial, and watered-down kangaroo military commissions. He has been just as bad as Bush in killing people overseas without Congressional approval of hostilities, and in using domestic surveillance of American citizens without warrants. He did however stop the use of torture and overseas detention centers run by the CIA. On the domestic front, he got the military to stop the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, just as he ordered Justice Department lawyers to stop supporting the Defense of Marriage Act in courts, both of which had treated gays as second-class citizens. In view of his progress on torture and gay rights — and that he at least tried to close Guantanamo — Eland’s liberty score of 4 seems rather stingy. I’d be more inclined to say 9, except that I have to apply an automatic -3 penalty for a cause not mentioned by Eland: the drug war. It’s beyond reprehensible that an African American president did nothing for the drug war, given that (1) African Americans are the ones who suffer most from this obscene policy, and (2) increasing numbers of American citizens have been vocally demanding that drugs be legalized. My liberty score for Obama is thus a 6.

Democracy vs. Liberty

libertyAre the principles of democracy and liberty self-reinforcing, or do they stand in tension? Should the U.S. president be chosen by the people, or by a professional Constitutional-geared search committee?

In the original vision for America it was the latter. We often forget that the American Founders believed democracy could be as big a threat to liberty as governmental tyranny, and so they designed only one sixth of the federal government — half of the legislative branch, namely the House of Representatives — to be voted in democratically. Senators were chosen by their state legislatures (until 1913), Supreme Court justices were appointed by the president (and still are today), and the president was chosen by an electoral college (or by the House of Representatives if no candidate got votes from a majority of the electors). In the Founders’ vision only Representatives (Congressmen) were chosen by popular elections.

In the case of presidential elections, the Founders intended the electoral college to function essentially as a search committee that would forward a list of their top candidates for the presidency to the House. The Congressmen would then choose the president except in cases where there was a consensus among electors. The system never ended up working that way, but that was the original vision. In the nation’s first decades, the methods used by states to select their electors kept changing so that rather than having state legislatures choose them, they were chosen by the people directly. So in effect there was popular voting for the president despite the process outlined in the Constitution.

It was the seventh president Andrew Jackson (1829-37) who did the most by far to make presidential elections democratic in the way we think of them today. He is usually praised for this, but the catch is that popular opinion can be as treacherous as governmental tyranny. This has obviously been proven in the recent Brexit and Trump votes. (In America’s case, Trump lost the true popular vote, but the point is that in the hands of an electoral college operating in a manner envisioned by the Founders, someone like Trump would have never been nominated let alone win an election.) Jackson was a rather terrible president himself, though chosen and loved by “the masses”. It’s the story as old as Rome: democracy is a poisoned chalice. The historian Randall Holcombe says:

“What Andrew Jackson did not anticipate was that by making government officials more accountable to the general public, they would be more inclined to make decisions that pandered to popular opinion rather than sticking to the guidelines of the Constitution. The Founders had good reason for trying to insulate the actions of the federal government from the demands of popular opinion, but Jackson wanted to remove that insulation, making the federal government more accountable to the electorate. Jackson was successful, and his most lasting legacy is that he made the federal government more democratic and thus more oriented toward satisfying the demands of the voters than protecting their liberty.

“Jackson believed that liberty could be protected only by allowing the people to govern through majority rule. He saw democracy and liberty as self-reinforcing, because democratic oversight of the government would guard against its being taken over by a political elite and would prevent the elite government from pursuing policies that would benefit the elite few at the expense of the masses. The Founders felt otherwise, for two reasons. First, they did not believe that most people had the capacity to make thoughtful and informed decisions about their government. Second, they believed that rule by majority could be just as tyrannical as rule by a king, or rule by any elite group. Thus, they designed the government to be run by a political elite, constrained in its actions by the limiting powers of the Constitution.”

This cuts to the heart of my own duality. On the one hand I have a misanthropic streak favoring elitism. It may be a contemptuous thing to say, but people by and large are stupid and poorly informed and can be counted on to give up their liberties and/or vote against their own interests without realizing it. On the other hand I cherish the idea that every individual, no matter how ignorant, should have a say in who governs and leads them, and that they should participate in the voting process accordingly.

“With little imagination,” says Holcombe, “one can envision how American politics would be different today if the president were chosen by a search committee of knowledgeable electors not committed to any candidate, rather than by popular voting.” Certainly we wouldn’t have a disastrous Trump presidency. In any case, Andrew Jackson is the one largely to thank for the double-edged sword of our democratic presidential elections.

Quiz: Which President was most like Donald Trump?

Which president is MOST comparable to Donald Trump? No peeking at the answers below, until you choose.

(A) John Adams (2nd president)
(B) John Quincy Adams (6th president)
(C) Andrew Jackson (7th president)
(D) John Tyler (10th president)

 

joh(A) John Adams (2nd president, 1797-1801)

John Adams may be the last who comes to mind when you think of Donald Trump. He has a generally favorable image among most historians, but is rightfully censured by others. I consider him a terrible president. Like Trump he had a volcanic temper, exploding with little provocation. Many of Adams’ colleagues believed he was too unstable to be a leader, and that’s how many people feel about Trump.

The crucial commonality is tyranny, with respect to foreigners and also citizens who speak against the president and his policies. Adams used the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 with zeal. These four acts made it harder for an immigrant to become a citizen (Naturalization Act); allowed the president to imprison and deport any foreigners who were considered dangerous during peacetime (Alien Friends Act), or to imprison and deport any foreigners who had ties to a hostile nation (Alien Enemies Act); and then criminalized anyone, citizens included, who spoke out against the federal government (Sedition Act) — an egregious violation of free speech. One might wonder how these odious laws were even possible at such an early stage of American history. Supposedly they were “security” measures” because the nation was engaged in a semi-naval war with France, but in reality they were all domestic measures. Adams was just trying to insulate his Federalist Party and crush all opposition from the Democratic-Republicans. He punished journalists and others who spoke out against the government with huge fines and prison sentences.

Most of these laws, thankfully, were abolished when Jefferson took office in 1801 (though one of them, the Alien Enemies Act, is still on the books today, and was used by FDR in World War II). They were the worst assaults on civil liberties in all of American history (aside perhaps from Woodrow Wilson’s crackdowns during World War I). If Trump could get away with using laws like these today, he surely would, and he is already following their spirit. His hostility to immigrants and foreigners is beyond dispute, and he has openly disdained free speech and threatened to sue journalists and media figures (like Bill Maher) who “slander” him.

Award yourself 5 out of 5 points if you chose Adams. I believe he is the closest presidential analogy to Donald Trump.

j_quincy_adams__original(B) John Quincy Adams (6th president, 1825-1829)

Quincy-Adams and Trump share the commonality of pure self-allegiance — loyal to themselves and no one else or any party. Quincy-Adams was a Federalist who repeatedly sided with the Democratic-Republicans when it suited his purposes. Trump was once a Democrat but now a Republican; he was once pro-choice and now an anti-abortionist; etc.

But this is a rather superficial comparison. Quincy Adams was an average president, in Ivan Eland’s judgment for example, “never doing anything spectacularly good or spectacularly awful”. That description doesn’t fit the profile of Trump, who is spectacularly awful in every way.

Award yourself 2 out of 5 points if you chose Quincy Adams.

andrew-jackson-600(C) Andrew Jackson (7th president, 1829-1837)

Andrew Jackson will be the most obvious answer to many, and it’s even Trump’s own choice. It’s disturbing that he chose Jackson as “his” president to hang in the Oval Office. Perhaps he fancies himself a populist and champion of the common man, as Jackson was. Or maybe he emulates Jackson’s nasty temper; Jackson repeatedly got his way by intimidation, his opponents were terrified to cross him, and one biographer said that Jackson “hated with a Biblical fury and resorted to petty and vindictive acts to nurture his hatred”. Or it might be that Trump feels bonded to Jackson by voter-fraud paranoia; Jackson had claimed that the system was rigged after losing the first presidential bid in 1824. (Trump goes Jackson one better: he’s been bitching about the “rigged system” even after he won.)

But it could also well be that Trump feels inspired by Jackson’s worst claim to fame — the outrageous treatment of the Native American Indians, which aligns in some ways with his pernicious views of Hispanics and Muslims. Thomas Jefferson had set the precedent for ethnic cleansing over 20 years before Jackson, arguing that if the Indians would not assimilate into white society, then they had to be removed from their ancestral homelands and relocated to less desirable land further west. But Jackson was the president responsible for implementing Jefferson’s ethnic-cleansing policy on a grand scale. In 1830 he got Congress to pass the Indian Removal Act, driving Indians off lands that had been guaranteed to them by more than ninety treaties, using state militia to evict them from their homes, and sending them out on the infamous Trail of Tears, to die by the thousands en route to their new homes in the west. Incredibly, Jackson justified all this by saying that whites had left their homes to travel to new far-flung destinations, and the Indians were only being asked to do the same. This obviously ignores that (1) whites did this willingly, while the Indians were coerced and terrorized into doing so; and (2) whites were seeking advancement and better opportunities in the west, while Indians were being downgraded as they had to give up their homelands for poorer land in Oklahoma. One thing can certainly be said: Trump is just as anti-intellectual in rationalizing his bigoted policies for the Mexican wall and the moratoriums on Muslim countries.

Most of the similarities between Jackson and Trump are more apparent than real. When Trump entered the White House his approval rating was awful; it’s becoming clear to even those who voted for him that he is actually the opposite of a populist — a business man for the rich. Jackson was a populist in every way and revered by the people. Trump’s nastiness is that of a boor and a blowhard and a narcissist, and it’s unpredictably volcanic in the manner of someone like John Adams. Jackson’s temper was rooted in a genteel code of chauvinistic honor, that thoroughly disdained Trump-like vulgarity. He was a gentleman, in other words, when it came to women, and constantly fought hot-headed duels to protect their honor. If he had ever heard remarks about “pussy-grabbing”, he would have given Trump a thrashing without second thought. That leaves the Indian outrage as the only substantive point of contact — though that is an admittedly huge issue, as the bigotries of both presidents impact huge amounts of non-white peoples in ways that oppose what free societies stand for.

Award yourself 4 out of 5 points if you chose Jackson.

john-tyler(D) John Tyler (10th president, 1841-1845)

John Tyler and Donald Trump were belligerent kids: as a ten-year old, Tyler bound and gagged his schoolmaster and left him for dead; as a seven-year old, Trump punched his music teacher and gave him a black eye. In adulthood they became sexually coarse: as a 26-year old congressman, Tyler flung around lewd innuendos left and right, and when he took a second wife (who was 30 years younger than he), he openly bragged about his sexual prowess. Trump, of course, has become infamous for his “pussy-grabbing” statements.

But as with John Quincy Adams, the comparisons are superficial. On whole John Tyler was not only an excellent president, and vastly underrated, but in the judgment of a historian like Ivan Eland he was the #1 president of all time! He was cautious and restrained in his approaches to governing, and he courageously stood up to members of his own party (the Whigs) to preserve those ideals, which ruined his chances for a second term. He ended the longest Indian War in American history, and allowed the Seminoles to stay on their reservation in Florida rather than continue the Jeffersonian/Jacksonian ethnic-cleansing policy of sending them west of the Mississippi. He reduced troops in the U.S. army by 33%. And as a man with southern sympathies, he remarkably reached an agreement with Britain to jointly enforce a ban on the slave trade. If I were to rank the U.S. presidents, Tyler would easily make my top five.

Award yourself 2 out of 5 points if you chose Tyler, then dock yourself a point since Tyler was one of the best presidents of all time, if not the best (Trump will be one of the worst presidents of all time, if not the worst), for a total of 1 out of 5 points.

“Donald Adams Trump”?

In my opinion, Donald Trump is most like John Adams. Like the 2nd president, Trump has a dangerously unstable temperament, is hostile to immigrants and foreigners, and has no respect for free speech when he is the one being criticized. From here on, I’m calling him President Donald Adams Trump.

The Problem of Ranking U. S. Presidents

recarving_2nd_1800x2700Ivan Eland has offered a new approach to ranking the U.S. presidents, and it’s one that I both applaud and have reservations about.

His book is called Recovering Rushmore (2014, now updated to include Obama) and its hall of fame/shame is based on (1) the degree to which a president’s policies promoted peace, prosperity and liberty, and (2) the president’s adherence to the Constitution’s limitations on presidential powers. This opposes the criteria used by most historians, who tend to reward a president who happens to serve in a time of crisis and by expanding his presidential power. And herein lies the rub. As a libertarian I largely approve Eland’s criteria, but as a left-leaning libertarian I’m not as hostile to executive activism when it comes to fiscal benefits (the prosperity category) for the common good.

I agree with Eland entirely when he criticizes rankings based on a president’s charisma, oratory skill, and/or management style. People who want an inspiring speaker basically want a class president instead of a real president. Charisma is a nice bonus, but that’s it.

Eland also scores for non-partisanship. For example, he skewers the Republican Bush and Democrat Obama for their many indistinguishable policies. Both started and escalated needless wars, toppling Islamic dictators which paved the way for jihadist groups that have been far worse. Both restricted civil liberties in the fight against terrorism, and both ignored the plight of the working middle class. Precisely because of all of this we now have a demagogue (Trump) who will likely be the worst president in history.

Meanwhile, in Eland’s judgment, the Republican Eisenhower and Democrat Carter come off rather well. Eisenhower minimized American involvement and intervention, and made sound decisions that helped the economy. Carter, while inheriting the stagnation caused by the Vietnam War, fostered economic policies that eventually led to the prosperity of the Reagan years and set a precedent for renewed prosperity during the Clinton years.

Anyway, here’s Eland’s list, followed by a list from the American Political Science Association for comparison. The greatest value to be taken from Eland is his critique of charismatic activists. As a species I believe we are drawn to such figures. We experience the pull of “good leaders”, forgetting that bland personalities who show executive restraint can be just as good leaders — and often better ones. Right now we have a president who doesn’t understand the meaning of restraint at all, and precedents for executive overreach don’t help matters.

The Excellent

1. John Tyler (1841-1845)
2. Grover Cleveland (1885-1889; 1893-1897)
3. Martin van Buren (1837-1841)
4. Rutherford Hayes (1877-1881)

The Good

5. Chester Arthur (1881-1885)
6. Warren Harding (1921-1923)
7. George Washington (1789-1797)
8. Jimmy Carter (1977-1981)
9. Dwight Eisenhower (1953-1961)
10. Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929)

The Average

11. Bill Clinton (1993-2001)
12. John Quincy Adams (1825-1829)
13. Zachary Taylor (1849-1850)
14. Millard Fillmore (1850-1853)

The Poor

15. Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893)
16. Gerald Ford (1974-1977)
17. Andrew Johnson (1865-1869)
18. Herbert Hoover (1929-1933)
19. Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877)
20. William Howard Taft (1909-1913)
21. Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909)
22. John Adams (1797-1801)
23. James Buchanan (1857-1861)
24. Franklin Pierce (1853-1857)

The Bad

25. James Monroe (1817-1825)
26. Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809)
27. Andrew Jackson (1829-1837)
28. James Madison (1809-1817)
29. Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865)
30. Richard Nixon (1969-1974)
31. Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945)
32. Lyndon Johnson (1963-1969)
33. George H.W. Bush (1989-1993)
34. Barack Obama (2009-2017)
35. Ronald Reagan (1981-1989)
36. John F. Kennedy (1961-1963)
37. George W. Bush (2001-2009)

The Atrocious

38. James Polk (1845-1849)
39. William McKinley (1897-1901)
40. Harry Truman (1945-1953)
41. Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921)

What catches the eye in the “Bad” category are the placements of figures like Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy. According to Eland, Jefferson claimed to be for small government, but did things that proved otherwise, such as imposing a trade embargo that stifled liberties and led to hunger and starvation. His Louisiana Purchase was unconstitutional, and his ethnic cleansing of the Native American Indians set a bad precedent (followed especially by Andrew Jackson). As for Lincoln, he pursued the Civil War ineptly, and if it ended slavery, African Americans hardly experienced more freedom in the face of white southerners who were bitter over the war. In Eland’s very strong view, peaceful alternatives to Lincoln’s policies would have achieved better results and far more quickly.

As for the last four, they earn their shameful slots on Eland’s list for steering America into completely needless wars that changed us for the worst. (1) Polk started a war with Mexico to steal a third of its land and by doing so inflamed regional tensions that eventually led to the Civil War. (2) McKinley made America into an imperialist Britain by prosecuting the Spanish-American War and acquiring colonies. (3) Truman turned a local war in Greece into a cold war against the Soviets, which led to the creation of the security state, an imperial presidency, and trashed the traditional requirement that the American people, rather than the president, decide if war is needed. (4) Wilson (besides being an overt racist) took America into the disastrous World War I, which laid the seeds for the Bolshevik Revolution and Hitler’s rise to power. I think Eland is too hard on Truman, but most of this is right, and in particular McKinley is the one who laid the foundations for turning America into a trans-world empire.

The American Political Science Association

Compare Eland’s list to a more standard ranking from the American Political Science Association based on a survey of historians and scholars.

Someday…

… I may do my own ranking of the presidents, which would mediate between the approach of Eland and the one above. The peace/liberty criteria is at odds with the hero/hands-on model, yet I believe each has its place.

I can at least agree with the combined assessments of Recovering Rushmore and The American Political Science Association on this point: Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were the best two presidents of my lifetime (post-1968), and George W. Bush was the worst. So they’re each doing something right.

Right vs. Left Libertarians

firstnoel

The Left Libertarian (“You”)

I’m often asked what makes a left-wing libertarian. In my home state of New Hampshire, most libertarians lean right, as do high-profile politicians like Ron and Rand Paul, or Gary Johnson. Some even consider a left libertarian to be an oxymoron, given the opposing values of individual freedom (the noun) and the collective good (the adjective). See how I tested (my green plot) on the political graph. That’s where a left libertarian falls in relation to other parties.

In a sentence, left-wing libertarians want personal freedoms and free market capitalism just like the right-wing variety, but will sometimes subordinate those interests to an egalitarian vision so there can be personal freedom for everyone. Left libertarians won’t always sit back laissez faire. They will push for the fixing of social wrongs if the consequences of individual freedom are deemed too costly.

I have pointed out the intersection between libertarians and librarians on certain points below, and I’m proud to work in a field that stands for these values in a day when they are eroding under assault from all quarters, but especially from the left. It makes the “left libertarian” label more ironic (not oxymoronic) than ever.

Where the right and left agree (core freedoms)

There are the “big” issues on which right- and left-libertarians are as one. They are equally opposed to (1) any infringement on free speech and expression, (2) the criminalization of drug use, (3) invasion of privacy especially by electronic surveillance, and (4) the growing police state.

(1) Free expression is the cornerstone of liberty and non-negotiable to the right and left wings. Both maintain that a governmental agency should never decide what people cannot say, see, or hear. The common objection that “free speech does not mean the freedom to offend” misunderstands free speech at its essence, as it has always has been about the capacity to offend. Without offense there is no point to free expression, and the most reformative revolutionaries throughout history could not have achieved progress. All libertarians oppose hate speech laws, as it is impossible to determine what is hateful or apply the standard objectively or consistently. People have a poor understanding of bigotry, to the extent that human rights activists (like Aayan Hirsi Ali) and progressive religious reformers (like Maajid Nawaz) have been branded as hateful, which is the equivalent of demonizing Martin Luther King Jr. Both libertarian wings insist on the basic point to free speech grounded in our integrity as human beings: that none of us has an inalienable right to be shielded from expression that hurts or upsets us, not even genuine bigotry. When people are silenced and their speech or writings criminalized, it makes societal infants of us, which is a condescending approach to humanity and the antithesis of freedom.

main(2) Both camps are opposed to criminalizing drug use because it interferes with people’s right to regulate their consciousness as they please, and ruins the lives of these nonviolent drug users by incarcerating them. This is a double-obscenity to left-wing libertarians, because the lives ruined are mostly non-whites in poverty. The right and left wings may part ways beyond the legal question. Left libertarians may advocate for government funded recovery programs to assist addicts (as in Portugal), while the right-leaning libertarians will say stop wasting taxpayer money on those who should take responsibility for themselves. (Both wings of libertarians will also support the legalization of prostitution for similar reasons.)

(3) The right and left are univocal in opposing surveillance and private data collection. It’s worth noting the significant overlap between libertarians and librarians, who believe in the sanctity of patron confidentiality. Librarians oppose ILS (computer) systems that store the borrowing history of their patrons beyond what is necessary to retrieve overdue material. In the same way, librarians are aligned with libertarians on the issue of free expression, which the American Library Association links to the issue of privacy. The ALA’s core value of intellectual freedom is defined as “the right of library users to read, seek information, and speak freely… a publicly supported library provides free, equitable, and confidential access to information for all people of its community.” Confidentiality/privacy is an integral part, as librarians see it, to intellectual freedom.

(4) As the tyranny of law gets worse, both wings speak out against executive overreach and the abuse of police power. Left-wing libertarians may single out the abuse of minorities (and join hands, for example, with the “Black Lives Matter” movement), but if that seems like disproportionate outrage, it is because the abuse of minorities is itself disproportionate. Generally speaking, the right and left wings are as one on this issue, and have taken issue with the presidential overreaches of Barack Obama, which has established a horrible precedent for Donald Trump.

Where they disagree

A classic example of where the two wings have differed is on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Right-wing libertarians opposed it for infringing on freedom of association, and to uphold states’ rights, while left-libertarians supported it for promoting racial equality — precisely so that minorities can enjoy personal freedoms as much as whites. Similarly, on the question of school busing, right libertarians opposed governmental interference, while left libertarians supported it to help minorities for the sake of their freedom.

Gun control is contested. On the one hand, the right and left wings support an individual’s right to bear arms, and thus oppose overly restrictive guns laws, for example those of New York City and California. On the other hand, left-libertarians usually support a serious measure of gun restrictions. Guns are too dangerous in the wrong hands and when access is too easy.

With the free market, left-libertarians will sometimes subordinate capitalist interests to the welfare of all impacted. They are open to reducing the power of corporations and banks (as long as the free market system can accommodate the changes), when in the cause of worker’s rights and income equality. In other words, the left-wing are willing to support legislature that makes “robber baron” capitalism more difficult, and will get behind politicians like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, whom the right libertarians believe to be threats to the capitalist way.

The abortion issue is tricky, because for some libertarians the life of the unborn takes precedence over any “freedom” cause. Ron Paul would be an example of an aggressive (right-wing) libertarian and yet a strong anti-abortionist. But many libertarians are pro-choice, though for different reasons. Right libertarians have objected to the intrusion on states’ rights to decide the legality of abortion, as well as a woman’s individual rights. For left libertarians the woman’s individual rights are most important, and also the social concern for unwanted infants who aren’t given a chance to life in a way that could be considered free.

We’re out there

This snapshot paints with a broad brush, but serves to show that a left-wing libertarian isn’t an oxymoron — even if the right-wing libertarians of my home state think I’m out to lunch! Basically, left libertarians are the heirs of classical liberalism. We cherish equality and social justice like other leftists, but not at the expense of core freedoms, and we have no use for the political correctness, obscurantism, and double-think of today’s regressive left.

Reading Roundup: 2016

This was a really good year for books. Read all of these if you can make time.

mythandalusianparadise_frontcover_final1. The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise, Dario Fernandez-Morera. If you can only make time for one book on my list, pick this one. It’s a milestone in putting to bed the biggest academic myth of our time, and comes from a Harvard scholar, the last place you’d expect on this subject. We’ve been taught that Muslims, Christians, and Jews co-existed fruitfully under an enlightened Islamic hegemony in medieval Spain, where the reality is the opposite. Christians and Jews were treated horribly under Islam. As dhimmis they were subject to degrading laws that made life barely tolerable. Medieval Spain was a society in which the abuse of non-Muslims, slaves, and women was written into law and sanctified by holy writ. Even at its most prosperous the Caliphate of Cordoba was never a tolerant or humane society. None of this should be controversial, but university presses are a bit paralyzed; they want to avoid the charge of “Islamophobia” and so present Islamic domination (of even centuries ago) as relatively benign. The idea of Christian dhimmis being content under Islamic rule is as much a fantasy as that of American blacks happy as slaves in the antebellum south since their masters made them “part of their family”. Had there been no Islamic conquest, and Visigoth Spain was left to grow and interact with eastern Christianity, the Renaissance would have happened much sooner.

marginal2. A Marginal Jew: Probing the Authenticity of the Parables, John Meier. If Meier is right, and unfortunately I think he is, then the parables aren’t the guaranteed voice of Jesus. Of the 32 stories, we can salvage perhaps four — yes, only four — with confidence: The Mustard Seed (God’s rule was already at work in human activity, and however small that seemed now, it would bear fruit on a huge scale in the end), the Great Supper (a warning that one’s place in the kingdom can be taken by those who never had any right to it), the Talents (along with sovereign grace and reward comes the possibility of being condemned in hell for refusing God’s demands contained in his gifts), and the Wicked Tenants (Jesus knew what awaited him if he confronted the Jerusalem authorities, and he accepted a destiny of irreversible martyrdom). All other parables, even the long-standing cherished ones — The Good Samaritan, The Prodigal Son, The Leaven, The Sower, The Seed Growing Secretly, The Laborers in the Vineyard, The Unmerciful Servant, The Shrewd Manager, The Pharisee and the Toll Collector, The Unjust Judge, The Friend at Midnight, The Rich Fool, The Rich Man and Lazarus — either shout a later creation, or can at best be judged indeterminate. Meier shows that the dominant view is a house of cards: there is no warrant for giving the parables pride of place in the teachings of Jesus. Full review here.

moh_and_cha_revisited3. Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited: The History of a Controversy, Emmet Scott. The premise of this book is that without Muhammad, Charlemagne would have been inconceivable. Meaning that if not for the Islamic invasions of the seventh century, the medieval world as we know it would not have appeared. There would have been no “Holy” Roman Empire, and Western Europe would have remained fairly Roman under the continued influence and communication from Constantinople. The Viking raids wouldn’t have occurred, nor would there have been crusades or inquisitions. Without the Islamic example of slavery, contact with Indians in the new world may have unfolded differently, not to mention Europe’s relations with sub-Saharan Africa. That was Henri Pirenne’s thesis 80 years ago, and Scott improves on it with special attention to the archaeological record. It’s clear that the barbarian invaders weren’t mindless destroyers or ineffectual hold-outs, but rather they adopted Roman civilization to the extent that classical culture not only thrived but revived over against the deterioration of the third-fifth centuries. This state of affairs wouldn’t change until the second quarter of the seventh century, with the jihad invasions of the East, Middle-East, and North Africa. And from the ravages of Islam would rise Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire in response. This is essential reading for understanding the genesis of medieval Christendom. Full review here.

night-comes4. Night Comes: Death, Imagination, and the Last Things, Dale Allison. I make a point of reading everything by Dale Allison, even when it goes outside my comfort zone. He’s a solid historical critic and well-rounded thinker that makes him equipped to tackle big theological questions. This book is about death and how we cope with the idea of it. The first chapter is a meditation on the fear of death, how we push for longevity, and how our increased longevity has effected our perception. In the days of Jesus, for example, life would have looked different if you could only hope to make it to 30 instead of 80. (Imagine, says Allison, how Jesus’ prohibition against divorce will look to a 500-year old Christian, if science ever gets us that far.) The second chapter deals with the resurrection, suggesting that no matter how physical (like the gospels) or spiritual (like Paul) we favor the idea, there’s no neat answer to the objections against both, though Allison leans more in favor of Pauline discontinuity between the old and new bodies. Modern cremation and organ donation, not to mention our increased detachment to the physical remains of loved ones, means that corpse-like resurrection becomes less important to modern Christians. The next chapter is about judgment, with a fascinating discussion of near death experiences and “life reviews”, which according to survivors forced them to watch the replay of their entire lives in an instant, and to grasp the consequences of everything they’ve done. Then there are chapters on the question of an afterlife. Like many of Allison’s books, Night Comes unnerves you no matter what you believe.

atheist-muslim5. The Atheist Muslim, Ali Rizvi. This book is the best example I know of how to criticize religion — and with a razor when necessary — without attacking people in the process. Rizvi begins with Thomas Jefferson who launched the first U.S. international war against Islamic jihadists who were for no apparent reason attacking U.S. ships sailing into the Mediterranean. Jefferson wanted to know why, and in the words of the Muslim ambassador, they were simply doing as Muhammad commanded, that it was the Muslim right to wage war on all nations who didn’t acknowledge Islamic rule, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Muslim who died in battle for this cause would go to paradise. This was two centuries ago, long before ISIS or Al-Qaeda, the Iranian revolution, modern drone strikes — and long before any established “U.S. foreign policy”, which is not what calls forth jihadist warfare in any case. Rizvi refutes false dichotomies (with zingers like “saying that culture is the problem and not religion is like saying, ‘It’s not falling out of the airplane that kills you, it’s the ground.’”), and suggests that what makes the Qur’an so dangerous is that it combines the worldly violence of the Old Testament with the afterlife violence of the New. His chapter on free speech, and the necessity of defending even hate speech, is unassailable. This is a book that anyone can and should learn from, even if you don’t particularly identify with atheism (as I don’t). Full review here.

chaos6. Harnessing Chaos: The Bible in English Political Discourse since 1968, James Crossley. I like the use of 1968 as a benchmark. I was born that year and it probably says something about me. Crossley calls it “the key moment of historical chaos” that triggered huge cultural shifts worldwide. Fury over Vietnam. Flower power. Hippies and drugs. And the backlash to all of this. Crossley focuses on the impact of this chaos in the U.K. and on four evolving English views of the bible: (1) the Cultural Bible of western heritage and literature, (2) the Liberal Bible of democratic thought (freedom of conscience, rights, and consensus against tyranny), (3) the Neoliberal Bible of Margaret Thatcher (individualism, free trade, the priority of the market and individual responsibility against state power for the common good and elimination of poverty), and (4) the Radical Bible of liberation theology (socialism and revolutionary transformation). It’s an excellent chronicle of how politicians and public figures use the bible, and confirms my long-standing opinion that the Judeo-Christian tradition is saturated with ideas that lend themselves to both socialistic and individualistic values in almost equal measure. Be sure to get the revised (2016) version, which improves on the 2014 with a chapter covering the past two years, especially David Cameron’s speeches upholding the Neoliberal Bible while Jeremy Corbyn’s invoke the Radical Bible. I’d love to see Crossley write a book like this focused on American politics.

seven myths7. Seven Myths of the Crusades, Alfred Andrea & Andrew Holt (editors). This was published in 2015 but I read it this year. If you want to know what specialists say about the crusades without reading dense tomes this is exactly the book for you. It’s easily accessible and grounded in peer-reviewed scholarship. It corrects longstanding myths about the crusades, like being greedy unprovoked attacks on a benign Muslim world (the Christian holy wars were defensive responses to Muslim conquests of Christian land, and they were economically suicidal expeditions), anti-Jewish (the church never preached a crusade against the Jews, though some crusaders turned things in this direction), or the western equivalent of the Islamic jihad (jihad is a permanent state of being, tied to the warlord example of Muhammad; the crusades were unique events requiring the papal approval, voluntary, tailored for medieval knights whose profession was sinful to begin with, and they were never seen as essential to Christianity). It’s an economical book that packs useful information in short space, and to my surprise, many people have thanked me for recommending it. Further notes about the book here.

paul-behaving-badly8. Paul Behaving Badly: Was the Apostle a Racist, Chauvinist Jerk?, E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien. For an evangelical book I have to admit it handles Paul pretty evenly. The authors apply the idea of a “trajectory hermeneutic”, where biblical principles that initially have little effect produce significant change over time. So if Paul required women to be submissive and dress appropriately in certain contexts, he also considered women to be his missionary colleagues, not to mention deaconesses, which means that his teaching was at least in a direction of liberating women. Same with slavery: in antiquity it was the natural backbone of society, with rigid lines between slaves and masters, and Paul could never have condemned the institution and be taken seriously. But he did teach that slaves and masters were brothers on equal footing in the Christian family, and because of that, masters can’t assault their slaves with impunity. Paul at least pushes in a direction of protection and liberation of slaves. On the subject of homosexuality, Paul’s trajectory is in the negative direction. In Roman culture homoerotic sex may have shamed the passive male, but it celebrated the dominant (penetrating) one. Paul condemned both active and passive roles, pushing in a direction of more restriction rather than liberation, even concluding — though the authors frankly avoid this unpleasant point — that sodomites are “worthy of death”. On whole this is a balanced treatment that helps one understand the importance of trajectory hermeneutics, and why it’s not the case that scriptures are malleable to the same degree, or in the same direction, on any issue.

assholes.jpg9. Assholes: A Theory of Donald Trump, Aaron James. Now that Trump has been elected, this book is more sobering than entertaining. On the one hand, it’s true that much of Trump’s success owes to American anger with the establishment, income inequality, leftists who make honest discussions (about free speech, Islam, etc.) difficult, and other things. That’s understandable; he’s an outsider to a system that has failed us. But he isn’t a competent or humane outsider. He’s an asshole, and recognized as such even by his fans. How does an ass win the presidency? “To sum up my answer,” says James, “he flashes between different asshole types, boorish one moment, self-aggrandizing the next, then bullshitting, all while managing to be very entertaining. Trump is a stunning, even likable showman. His display of the asshole arts — as schoolyard bully, or cutdown boxer — is unrivaled, and its own spectacle. The question is then why enough of us are not flatly revolted. My answer is that we — most of us — really like an ass-clown. We are drawn to him even in revulsion, and his supporters forgive or overlook his transgressions. Our pleasure in the spectacle leaves us unsettled in our feelings and him free to do pretty much as he likes.” He’s about to plant his worthless ass in the Oval Office, so get ready for the worst next month. Full review here.