The last paragraph of Mr. Ferrara’s fourth sketchy story contains three sentences, each of them a puzzle:
The U.S. Constitution, largely inspired by Lockean theories of “liberty,” contained a clause that required the interstate rendition of escaped slaves to the owners of these human chattels, a clause that stood until the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, abolishing slavery in the United States. (23)
Does Mr. Ferrara accept the sturdiness of the word “liberty”? One wonders, since he almost never sends it outdoors without its scare-quote jacket. It is sheer obfuscation to insinuate that John Locke did not have a theory of that real object, liberty, whatever that theory's imperfections. We can comprehend each other’s criticisms only if our words pick out the same things in our common experience.
And it was Congress, not the “free” market, that provided the Fugitive Slave Acton of 1793 and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, both of which mandated the return of escaped slaves pursuant to the Constitution’s unamended text, the latter statute requiring federal marshals to effect the forcible repossession of human chattels. (23)
It is hard to make out Mr. Ferrara’s intended irony here. Would it have been better if the free market, excuse me, the “free” market had provided those laws? Was it morally inferior to Congress for not having done so?
Without suggesting in any way that Lincoln was justified in waging total war on the South at the costs of 600,000 lives, it has to be said that the stated legal pretext for southern secession was the federal government’s failure to assist the “free” market by compelling the states to honor the constitutionally and statutorily mandated rendition of escaped slaves. (23)
In the reference note attached to this paragraph, Mr. Ferrara quotes from several southern declarations of secession. While we catch our breath, we ask again how they might bear on a Catholic’s assessment of Austro-libertarianism. Is Mr. Ferrara just indulging his interest in the legal dimension of early American history at the expense of his reader’s? Whatever the answer, it is hard to see how he could satisfy the latter interest without addressing centuries of Catholic apologetics and involvement in, on the demand-side at the highest levels, the slave trade.
The northern manufacturers did have a pact with southern plantation owners against British rule, a pact that not only acquiesced in but explicitly recognized in law the right of an American, post-colonial rule, to own certain human beings. The southerners who entered into this alliance were given to understand that should their legal property wander away from their territory, their northern confederates would help that property find its way back.
A thoroughly shameful ingredient of human and American history, all agreed. Now, what has this to do with the price of Boston tea? Before America was founded as an independent country, there were Christians in its territory who were cordially opposed to slavery, and they left evidence of their activity as early as 1688. These abolitionists were Quakers, however, not Catholics. The latter distinguished themselves as anti-abolitionists.
Before that reference note (attached to the numeral 600,000), Mr. Ferrara attaches one wherein he enlarges upon his loathing of Lockean “consent” and with much hand-waving promotes a book whose arguments we cannot examine:
As I argue in Liberty: the God that Failed, it was the height of absurdity for Lincoln to contend that the immediate descendants of the same Protestant revolutionaries who had overthrown King George on account of such grievances as a trifling tea tax of the local quartering of troops in riot-torn Boston, were somehow bound in perpetuity, under pain of death, to a central government in Washington, D.C.—a government, moreover, to which they had supposedly “consented” under Locke’s nonsensical theory of sovereignty as “government by consent of the governed.” But such are the absurdities unleashed by the revolutions Austro-libertarians hails as great triumphs for “liberty,” even as they bemoan the rise of the “statism” those same revolutions made possible. (330 n. 37)
We are hardly obliged to analyze a string of gratuitous assertions, but let’s take note of how Mr. Ferrara goes about his propagandistic business.
Surely Mr. Ferrara knows that those grievances were merely symptomatic of widespread colonist distaste for being ruled from abroad—that is, for being colonists—although making light of the disutility that any imperial measure represented is uncalled for.
It is not clear, however, that Mr. Ferrara even believes the colonists ought to have thrown off British rule in the first place, even failing any return of England to the status of a Catholic confessional state. Between one group of Protestants and another, it seems, he has no preference.
Upon being parsed, that run-on sentence ironically confirms the anarchist suspicion that governments or states—or rather the people who run them, be they deistic presidents or Catholic kings—cannot be trusted to keep the promises they make to the governed or even to each other. Was it Mr. Ferrara’s intention to confirm that suspicion? Probably not.
It is not clear to this anarcho-Catholic that Lincoln’s federalist-centralist presupposition was more “absurd,” or at least less morally warranted, than George III’s imperial one, but then Mr. Ferrara’s sentence is not a model of clear expression.
The matter might be put this way: if good-life seeking (eudaimonia) is the standard of the good in human affairs, then moving from colonial to republican status was arguably a step in the right direction. Why? Because that direction was libertarian and good-life seeking requires liberty, i.e., the right or jus to use one’s property as one sees fit, uncoerced by another. (That logically rules out using one’s property to coerce others regarding the use of theirs.)
Toward the end of exposing the futility of the goal of “self-limiting government,” that move (from colonial subjects to independent nation) was probably pedagogically necessary. But Mr. Ferrara directed his theatrical laughter, not at the propensity of rulers to self-aggrandize—for that vice has not ensnared only deists and Protestants—but at the notion of “the consent of the governed,” arguably the least morally objectionable aspect of an admittedly hopeless program.
Instead of throwing around hyperbolic language like “height of absurdity,” “nonsensical theory,” and “absurdities,” he might have reviewed, or promised to review, an extended (1,616-page) study of the American Revolution by a leading Austro-libertarian. We refer, of course, to Murray N. Rothbard’s four-volume Conceived in Liberty, from which we quoted the other day and whose Wiki entry has links to free .pdf’s of all four tomes. (Here’s the ad copy of the one-volume unabridged edition.) Perhaps Mr. Ferrara is saving his analysis of them until the publication of his Liberty. (We’re surprised he didn’t put scare quotes in that title.)
It pertains to the dignity of a divine image-bearing creature above the age of reason to be asked his or her consent for the use of his or her labor or property. The notion is at the heart of covenant-making, e.g., marriage, and of covenant-breaking, e.g., sin. Now, one may not withdraw one's consent if, after giving it, another in good faith committed his person or property. This obtains in all contractual undertakings: one may not “withdraw one’s consent” to pay one’s bills! Apart from those circumstances, however, one may without prejudice withdraw any consent one may have given to any state of affairs involving himself or herself.
As for the phrase "the consent of the governed." Rulers may be blamed for traducing the principle they pretend to honor. They may justly be shamed for stretching the meaning of “consent” beyond reason so that a generation of the long-dead may be said to have “bound” the living, which bonds take the form of taxation, regulation, and conscription—and then for insisting to their hapless subjects that the latter are only taxing, regulating, and conscripting themselves (which, lamentably, so many of the “themselves” foolishly believe).
But not for enunciating it.