Hijacking a Principle
States' Rights Have to Do with Much More Than Slavery
MARCH 01, 2003 by SHELDON RICHMAN
This publication would not normally take notice of a Republican politician’s embarrassing moment. But former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott’s apparent retroactive endorsement of Strom Thurmond’s 1948 segregationist presidential campaign is relevant to Ideas on Liberty. It is relevant for this reason: the cause of liberty has been gravely harmed by the association of certain important ideas with slavery and state-enforced segregation. Those ideas come under the unfortunate term “states’ rights.” (Thurmond’s party was the States’ Rights Democratic Party.)
States have no rights. Individuals do. But that doesn’t mean the term is worthless. It denotes the decentralization of power and competing legal jurisdictions, which are approximated in the Constitution and the Tenth Amendment. The principle comes out of the view that political power is not to be trusted and therefore must be diluted and fragmented. This is why as august a figure as Lord Acton endorsed “states’ rights.”
The essence of government is legal violence (or the threat of it) that is available for use not only against aggressors but also against people who have not broken the peace. Thus government should be limited and its power divided among branches and across jurisdictions. The alternative is tyranny waiting to happen. Advocates of the freedom philosophy understand that the Miracle of the West is largely attributable to decentralization. It is what permitted the emergence of vital zones of individual freedom and, eventually, the formal ideology of liberty, property, commerce, and peace known originally as liberalism.
Unfortunately, in the United States the “states’ rights” principle was hijacked by illiberals who hitched it to slavery and then Jim Crow. This odious association helped to discredit the liberal cause.
That should make advocates of freedom angry. A lovely liberty-serving principle was disfigured and virtually destroyed by being twisted into a defense of slavery and statist racism. Every apologist for slavery and Jim Crow who defended his irrational anti-capitalist ideas in the language of “states’ rights” did a grave disservice to the cause of freedom. (Similarly, the southern slaveocracy stained the principle of property by claiming property rights in human beings.) We live with the poisonous consequences every day.
The Dixiecrats objected not only to Washington’s power grab per se, but also to the ostensible purpose of the grab: the abolition of forced segregation. In 1948 Thurmond never proclaimed that he favored repeal of Jim Crow and that his only beef was with Washington’s violation of the Tenth Amendment. On the contrary, his party’s platform stated, “We stand for the segregation of the races. . . . ”
That’s collectivism. Races cannot be segregated. Only individuals can be. As Ayn Rand wrote, “Racism is the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism. It is the notion of ascribing moral, social or political significance to a man’s genetic lineage.”
Libertarians are justified in despising those who, in the name of “civil rights,” would abolish private property and its institutional safeguards. Likewise, they should have contempt for those who have jeopardized those things by invoking them in the service of racial collectivism.
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