December 16, 2002
What Trent Lott might have said

Alex points me to this interpretation of Trent Lott's recent poor-choice-of-words. Author Lew Rockwell does not claim that Lott believes what Rockwell writes, nor does he suggest that choosing these words would have kept Lott out of the soup. He merely offers it as "a mental experiment in truth telling". I don't know if Rockwell himself believes what he's writing or not, but for the purposes of this post I'm going to assume that he does.

Rockwell makes a rather valiant effort to recast Lott's words as an endorsement of "state's rights". He goes to some lengths to make Lott's words sound heroic rather than troglodytic, being sure to observe Rule Number One for public apologies, which is "Always claim victimhood status":

I grant that my comments were highly unusual in American public life. Even more intense than the race taboo is the rule against expressing any regret for the astonishing centralization of power in America since World War II. Question that, and you will have few friends, and legions of opportunistic enemies. Such is the fate of any dissident living under Leviathan.

Yes, we surely do marginalize our libertarians more than we do our racists in America. I hear that the folks at Cato can barely get more than one op-ed per week printed in the dailies.

Rockwell next makes the fascinating claim that "states' rights" was the better way of ending segregation, and that it was interference from that bad old Federal Government which really caused all of "those problems":

In the American lexicon, federalism is the same as the Jeffersonian phrase "states' rights," which means that the states as legal entities are to have rights against the federal government. In this way, America was different from Prussia or any other nation-state of the old world that had a unitary state apparatus. American federalism was the embodiment of political tolerance and decentralization – the expression of the liberal conviction that society can manage itself and needs no central plan.

No, this does not lead to perfection. It does restrain power, and permits flexibility and competition among legal regimes. It is this very flexibility that would have best handled the issue of race relations in the period after World War II. As for segregation, if anyone believes that the states could have successfully preserved legal segregation, he knows nothing about the South or American politics. Segregation was on its way out in 1948 – already under fire in state legislatures and towns – and would have been repealed peacefully and constitutionally, in time, and without the antagonisms that always accompany political impositions.

Most Southerners, however, understood that the federal government wanted to do more than end legally sponsored segregation. They understood that the federal government wanted to take charge of their schools and communities, not only ending legal segregation but also managing their lives by prohibiting voluntary choice in the exercise of private property rights. This is what they predicted and this is what occurred.


Instead of allowing segregation to fade away, the federal government got involved in the business of regulating the states and created a very ugly backlash in the South. This tragic error has resulted in unnecessary racial conflict and the consolidation of federal power. This has not been helpful to American race relations, and it has taken away essential freedoms and property rights from all Americans.

And I'm sure that if left to their own devices, Augusta National will start extending invitations to women, too. Whether anyone now reading this will be alive to see it when it happens is a separate question.

While I agree that "we wouldn't have had all these problems" if white people in general and Southerners in particular had suddenly had an epiphany about racial equality back then, I have a real hard time believing that anyone who would earnestly make this claim today would be treated with more respect than Trent Lott is getting right now. Does anyone truly believe that letting the South sort things out in their own time was the right call?

But what really flabbergasts me about this is the assertion that holding states to the idea that "all men are created equal" is somehow "[taking] away essential freedoms and property rights from all Americans". Is there one freedom that applies to "all Americans" that was taken away by the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act? Was lynching an example of "voluntary choice in the exercise of private property rights"?

There's a point at which all "state's rights" arguments break down for me, and that's the point at which the exercise of state's rights leads to a lessening of freedom for some class of Americans who happen to live in the wrong state. If we can't agree that all Americans, in all 50 states, have the same basic right to vote, buy property, hold a job, marry, raise children, and live free then we may as well declare this whole "United States" thing to be a failure. Let all 50 states go their own way and be done with it, for if the federal government cannot guarantee the rights of all its citizens then it truly has no purpose. At least then we won't be subjected to tedious debates about how those overreaching know-it-alls in Washington have cruelly and arbitrarily ended someone's precious way of life just because it clashed with an inconvenient sentence in an old document in a museum somewhere.

There's more, but I've run out of energy to deal with it. Suffice it to say that any attempt to defend Trent Lott's words as an endorsement of "state's rights" is just a defense of the right of some Americans to oppress other Americans over the right of all Americans to live as free men and women. If you truly believe there's a palatable way of phrasing that, then you're as bad as he is.

UPDATE: Patrick also has a few thoughts about "state's rights".

FURTHER UPDATE: Instapundit and Jim Henley are also on this. (I suspect there are others that I'll come across as I catch up on my blog reading.) Henley also addresses this same Rockwell piece as well as giving some background on Lew Rockwell. Having read that last piece, I now believe that Rockwell probably does agree with what he wrote, so everything I said can be properly directed at him.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on December 16, 2002 to Scandalized! | TrackBack

All too many Southern (and some paleo) conservatives embrace the political theory of John C. Calhoun (whether they realize they are doing it or not). Indeed, one of the tensions within contemporary conservatism in America (or at least within the contemporary Republican Party) has long been whether it shall be a movement dominated by Calhoun or by Lincoln. The political theory central to this debate really has not changed much over the years, and is captured brilliantly in Harry Jaffa's Crisis of the House Divided and A New Birth of Freedom.

Posted by: Kevin Whited on December 16, 2002 11:17 PM

States' rights end where the Constitution begins in my book. Alas, Charles, you believe the Supreme Court should protect "freedoms" not even mentioned in the Constitution or even universally accepted by the public and endorsed by the national legislature. For me, that is where the pro-federal position breaks down into simple bullying, and where the libertarians begin to have a point.

And all of that is consistant with Lincoln's beliefs.

Posted by: Owen Courrèges on December 17, 2002 4:01 PM