In his book The Real Lincoln Thomas DiLorenzo briefly mentions one curious justification for the War Between the States, viz. that it was necessary for the preservation of the “mystical union” of the states. Among those who subscribe to this view is Jude Wanniski, who also holds that Lincoln must have been right simply because he won.
Without going into the general problem of the extent to which individuals living under a common legal system resemble the state of holy matrimony or into the subtleties of the 19th century American religious thought, it is useful to draw an analogy between our present regime and the more conventional mystical union.
It would seem on reflection that the United States today is the union between the federal government as the king of Siam, and the fifty states as its fifty slave-concubines whom this government ravages every day of every year — even on Christmas, for the government has no shame whatsoever. Now forgive me for being rude, but this is merely another way of saying that the “political union” amounts to the right of the central state — a relatively small group of people who tend to cluster around Washington, D.C. — to wreak havoc over half the North American continent as opposed to, say, one quarter of it.
It may strike one as odd how easy divorce is in today’s society yet that political secession is looked at with horror. Even more telling is the fact that being “on top of the heap” justifies for Wanniski conquest, the tremendous loss of life and property, the revival of total war, the awful economic policies that included everything from high tariffs to the suspension of Wanniski’s own beloved gold standard, and a bloody and preposterous revolution when, as Wanniski points out, he is already “66 years old.” At that age he is still “status-anxious”?
Now we may very well appreciate his concern for the need for Americans to be “on top”; however, allowing one’s ambitions and power lust to go out of control is not the proper means towards a harmonious union and general happiness. Does Wanniski not share these values? Even more damning is the fact that the correct way to success, wealth, and, indeed, power (insofar as this power is creative and not destructive, a distinction which seems lost on Wanniski), is through freedom and peace and not through mercantilism and war.
The problem is therefore twofold: First, whether the war corrupted American power, and second, whether America would be even more influential had the war never occurred and had secession been allowed. What reason does Wanniski have to answer either question in the negative? Is it not the modern state, this amalgamation of an astonishing variety of human vices that have been institutionalized, raised to dizzying heights, and glorified, that permitted men like Richard Perle whom Wanniski himself calls the “Prince of Darkness” to come to power, while he, a self-proclaimed prophet of God, is ignored and despised? Has he considered whether such a thing could happen in the antebellum America? Finally, is it genuinely helpful to define “power,” as Wanniski does, not as the ability of individuals to create a thriving civilization, but as the ability of Caesar (afterwards deified) to crush anyone who stands in his way?
Well, may we all have a great victory.
Perhaps Wanniski’s obduracy can be explained as follows. Whatever does actually happen, he thinks, is for the best. Divine providence is such that all evil has a purpose; indeed, as Augustine writes, “Since God is the highest good, He would not allow any evil to exist in His works, unless His omnipotence and goodness were such as to bring good even out of evil.” Thus, while it is appropriate to make judgments about those matters in regard to which the outcome of the struggle is still uncertain, past actions are not worth evaluating, because whatever happened was meant to happen and was part of the divine plan.
Yet from this argument Wanniski’s attitude towards the War Between the States does not follow. First, there is a difference between that which is good in itself and that which is evil yet which results in good consequences that somehow outweigh that evil, perhaps unbeknownst to or contrary to the intent of the evildoer. The wrongful act passes, but guilt remains. Does not then justice demand that evil be seen for what it is, regardless of the consequences that follow it?
Second, Wanniski cannot know precisely what good is to come from Lincoln’s “squelching” of the voluntary union, for if he did know, then he could point out to us the greater good that resulted from it. His belief that this greater good is the current American world dominance is, as argued above, unreasonable. (Even the commonplace belief that the benefits of the abolition of slavery were “greater” than the costs of war seems more defensible.) Hence if the war was, indeed, foolish and evil, then prima facie it is worth saying so regardless of our belief that all will be well in the end, whatever that end may be. Is it entirely possible, furthermore, that this greater good may never be known to us or that it will be manifested only in the distant future. Does Wanniski believe himself privy to the precise details of God’s design? Is the American empire really the crown jewel of creation?
We may observe, however, that Wanniski himself does not adhere to this position when it comes to the more recent wars. In order to be consistent, ought not he to defend the United States’ past “squelching” of Bosnia, Iraq, and a dozen other places? Are we not the great power? Is this not why George Bush, too, should be “admired” — for his destructive omnipotence? For the important question is indeed not what “Abe Lincoln and Slobodan Milosevic have in common,” but what Abe Lincoln and Richard Perle do.
Perhaps there is another way to get to the source of Wanniski’s beliefs. If the supporters of a decentralized society have not yet attained their vision, he may think, then that vision must not actually be very good. The failure up until now of the lovers of liberty to succeed beyond “delay[ing] for a while some especially obnoxious measures,” as Ludwig von Mises put it, suggests that liberty may actually be a bad idea. For, surely, if it were good, it would be accepted as such a long time ago. Once again, the crude power of the state is self-justifying. There is no need to enter in the refutation of this view, for nothing will convince those who deify the state.
Finally, we may wonder if Wanniski’s hope is that if he sends a sufficient number of memos to the politicians, the latter will realize the error of their ways and obey the will of God, such as Wanniski believes it to be. If so, then we may wish him all the luck in the world.