When I draw comparisons between libertarians and slaveholders…

When I put libertarians and slaveholders in the same orbit, libertarians go ape-shit.

But when they do it

We treat John C. Calhoun as a precursor of modern public choice theory. Calhoun anticipates the doctrine of public choice contractarianism as developed by Buchanan and Tullock and expands this approach in original directions. We consider Calhoun’s theory of why democracy fails to preserve liberty and Calhoun’s suggested constitutional reform, rule by unanimity. We also draw out parallels between Calhoun and Hayek with regard to theories of social change and Hayek’s analysis of “why the worst get to the top.” The paper concludes with some remarks on problems in Calhoun’s theory.

—it’s all good.

Of course, it helps if you can resolve that pesky question of slavery like so:

Furthermore, Calhoun furnishes only weak ethical foundations for his advocacy of the concurrent majority…

This lack of ethical foundation shows up in Calhoun’s defense of slavery, which continues to hurt his reputation and draw attention from his more valid and interesting contributions.

H/t Suresh Naidu


  1. Roquentin October 19, 2014 at 2:18 pm | #

    Did you ever get around to reading David Graeber’s “Debt?” It contains some of the most in depth analysis of the links between capitalism, slavery, and modern conceptions of freedom I’ve ever seen in print. I’d have to go digging through it to find a specific citation, but I distinctly remember a portion where he talks about how the Roman legal definition of freedom always was tied to ownership and slavery, back then even. As an side, he never says so in the book, but all these arguments about debt preceding money can be found in Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus. It’s almost as if he set himself the task of researching those concepts and giving them a firmer and better anthropological justification.

    • Benjamin David Steele October 19, 2014 at 6:01 pm | #

      “I distinctly remember a portion where he talks about how the Roman legal definition of freedom always was tied to ownership and slavery, back then even.”

      David Hackett Fischer discusses that in his books. He goes in great detail comparing Roman/Hellenistic liberty and Germanic freedom. Both traditions had major influence on British and hence American politics.


    • Will G-R October 20, 2014 at 1:03 pm | #

      I heartily second the recommendation; the relevant analysis takes place largely in Chapter 7 of Debt. Here’s the nut graf from toward the end of that section:

      “At this point we can finally see what’s really at stake in our peculiar habit of defining ourselves simultaneously as master and slave, reduplicating the most brutal aspects of the ancient household in our very concept of ourselves, as masters of our freedoms, or as owners of our very selves. It is the only way that we can imagine ourselves as completely isolated beings. There is a direct line from the new Roman conception of liberty—not as the ability to form mutual relationships with others, but as the kind of absolute power of “use and abuse” over the conquered chattel who make up the bulk of a wealthy Roman man’s household—to the strange fantasies of liberal philosophers like Hobbes, Locke, and Smith, about the origins of human society in some collection of thirty- or forty-year-old males who seem to have sprung from the earth fully formed, then have to decide whether to kill each other or begin to swap beaver pelts.”

      If Graeber were writing for a less general audience he might have sprinkled in a healthy dose of Marx’s writings about liberal philosophers “in whose imaginations this eighteenth-century individual … appears as an ideal, whose existence they project into the past” and so forth, since this amounts to much the same conclusion. But plenty of people who might otherwise read Graeber would categorically rule out touching Marx with a 10-foot pole, so there’s that.

  2. Paul Rosenberg October 19, 2014 at 2:33 pm | #

    It’s worth recalling that Lani Guinier also cited Calhoun and got demonized for it when Clinton announced her appointment to head the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division–an appointment he later withdrew under an intensely mendacious rightwing attack. Gunier cited Calhoun as just one of a broad spectrum of thinkers who had criticized the potential tyranny of the majority in a law review article that was used to paint her as a “quota queen”. (Calhoun wanted to use the idea of a “concurrent majority” to give white Souterners a veto power of matters concerning slavery. Guinier was suggesting something far more modest–simply that the black community be allowed political representation which it determined for itself.)

    I believe it was a Wall Street Journal editorial that specifically slammed her for citing Calhoun, and said we needed a Civil Rights Division head who admired Lincoln, not Calhoun. That’s what a progressive gets for pointing out that even conservatives agree with them on a particular point.

  3. Roquentin October 19, 2014 at 2:59 pm | #

    As a second aside, is it ironic that I disagree with their (Taborak and Cohen) interpretation of Hobbes? On page 659 in the 2nd paragraph, they state “following Hobbes” and then peddle an argument about individualism that pretty much runs directly contrary to everything Hobbes ever said. Whatever else you want to say about Hobbes, he was no individualist or fan of self interest. Human beings were all basically the same for Hobbes, and the main role of the individual was to submit him or herself to the commonwealth, the Leviathan of state power. I had to read it twice because I thought they were saying the Calhoun quote was a Hobbes quote, and I thought “There’s no way in hell Hobbes ever said anything like that.”

    One of the reasons I’ve personally tried to revive interest in Hobbes is because of how directly contrary to most tenants of neoliberalism he is. There is the state, in all it’s repressive glory. A giant, monstrous Leviathan which answers to no one, based not on any sense of ethics or principles but simply its ability to be more powerful than any competitor. At least now the terms of the debate are clear. Reactionary though he was, I find him less threatening than those who try to confuse the issue, presenting blatant contradictions, trying to dress the language of domination in the rhetoric of liberty.

  4. George M Munchus III October 19, 2014 at 10:09 pm | #

    Indeed John Clhoun’s defense of slavery in Ameican law has hurt his reputation on public choice theory. Peace,George Munchus Professor of Managment at UAB ________________________________

  5. Kelley P October 20, 2014 at 12:08 pm | #

    Libertarian here. Compassionate Libertarian. See, there is room for many types under the libertarian umbrella because libertarians believe that we have the freedom to believe what we want and to act according to our own conscience. Unfortunately, some of those types disagree with me or even agree with things I personally consider immoral, like abortion. For me, my core libertarian belief is that I have the freedom to do anything that causes no harm to others, their property, or nature. Anything else we do is up to us and our own choices. Calhoun, in defending slavery, missed a piece of that core belief, since Slavery harms others by treating them as property. However, there are a few crazy individuals in every party, and their thinking doesn’t represent the party as a whole. In using those few crazies as representational of the group as a whole, you have committed a logical fallacy.

    • BillR October 20, 2014 at 12:37 pm | #

      I’m sure there are some “good” libertarians out there which is more than can be said of all political ideologies. For instance, the search for “good” among this category turned out only a dud:

    • Mike Huben October 21, 2014 at 11:29 am | #

      Kelly P: You are committing the “no true libertarian” fallacy.

      As for your “causes no harm to others” principle, it is obviously bogus.

      Who gets to decide what the harm is and how? A eugenicist could decide that you are harming the human race, for example. And how much harm is tolerable? Somebody could claim that your consumption, no matter how small, is harmful to the environment. Do you get to decide? What if others disagree? This is not a core principle; it is bullshit that only sounds good until the first question is asked.

    • proudhon October 21, 2014 at 5:21 pm | #

      Property is created by the state, enforced through state violence. Property rights is the largest state violence project ever deviced.

      • Mike Huben October 21, 2014 at 8:58 pm | #

        Conflict over resources is inescapable; whether you have a state or not, people will make some sort of private claims over resources. States make those private claims more secure and reduce the conflict, allowing better investment. They can also modify the distribution and nature of the private claims (property) to achieve social justice.

        States are violent because we prefer the violence to come from states, rather than the self-interested.

        • Paul Rosenberg October 21, 2014 at 9:11 pm | #

          States aren’t violent because we prefer it for any reason. They are violent because they can be. That said, when states do monopolize violence, the overall effect is to reduce social violence–as data on European murder rates since the Early Modern period shows. But things have not worked out so well for blacks and other minorities, especially here in the US.
          In short: stuff’s complicated. Not just more complicated than libertarians believe, but more complicated than most quick-and-easy comebacks to libertarian simple-mindedness allow for, too.

      • Mike Huben October 22, 2014 at 9:31 am | #

        I agree, Paul. I didn’t write clearly enough. Private parties and states are violent because they can. We prefer the violence to come from states when they act to moderate self-interest, as in systems of law.

  6. Tribune October 20, 2014 at 11:11 pm | #

    On his deathbed Andrew Jackson was asked if he had any regrets. Yes, he replied. “I regret I didn’t hang Clay and shoot Calhoun.”

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