Slippery slope arguments

1.  “If we set up no smoking sections on airlines, then eventually you won’t be able to smoke at all on airlines.  Then they’ll ban smoking in restaurants, then bars, then offices, then spaces outside offices, then hotel rooms and apartment complexes.  Then they’ll start going after sugary drinks.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

2.  “If we legalize homosexuality, then eventually they’ll ask for gay marriage.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

I’m old enough to recall these slippery slope arguments, and I lived long enough for them (and many others) to come true.  I have no idea what the future will look like, except that I’m pretty sure it will look ridiculous from our perspective.  And that’s fine; it’s their world, not ours.

This post is motivated by a Ilya Somin piece in the Washington Post:

Perhaps because efforts to separate the Confederacy from slavery are so implausible, defenders of keeping Confederate monuments in place increasingly resort to slippery slope arguments. Here’s Donald Trump making the case earlier today:

“I wonder, is it George Washington next week?” Trump asked….

He went on to make a slippery slope argument — equating Confederate general Robert E. Lee with presidents like Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who were slave owners…

“So, this week it’s Robert E. Lee,” Trump said. “I notice that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder is it George Washington next week, and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”

In fairness, the slippery slope argument is sometimes advanced by more intellectually serious advocates than Trump. It is wrong, even so. The argument fails because there are obviously relevant distinctions that can be made between Washington and Jefferson on the one hand and Confederate leaders on the other.

On the issue of Confederate statues, I agree with Somin.  But on the slippery slope argument I agree with our sleazy, lying, white nationalist President.  They will eventually come after Washington and Jefferson.  Washington is my favorite President, but he was also a slave owner. That’s not a small insignificant flaw; it’s a massive moral failure, far worse than anything Dennis Hastert was accused of.

I don’t favor re-naming the Washington Monument, nor do I think eating meat is immoral, but I fully expect future generations to decide that eating (non-test tube) meat is immoral, and I expect them to rename the Washington Monument.

Our current world is our business, and the ethical standards adopted by the future world is their concern.  That’s the real problem with slippery slope arguments.



62 Responses to “Slippery slope arguments”

  1. Gravatar of Benny Lava Benny Lava
    17. August 2017 at 09:33

    I remember other slippery slope arguments. Like if they bail out the banks and GM that they will nationalize them and other industries too. What about all the slippery slope arguments that are wrong? Remember the slippery slope miscegenation arguments?

  2. Gravatar of Don Don
    17. August 2017 at 09:41

    Slippery slope is usually applied to a rational world. I don’t think the argument applies to a mob mentality.

    I also wonder about the term “nationalism” these days. Is “anti-globalism” the same thing as “nationalism”? When does a little bit of nationalism become too much?

  3. Gravatar of CMOT CMOT
    17. August 2017 at 09:43

    Right on cue:
    “[Chicago] Pastor Wants Presidents’ Names Removed From Washington, Jackson Parks Over Ties To Slavery”

  4. Gravatar of Patrick Sullivan Patrick Sullivan
    17. August 2017 at 09:48

    It’s not even a moral flaw to be born into a world in which slavery was normal. In fact, Washington fretted that if he freed his slaves they’d find themselves overwhelmed by the freedom, and its responsibilities. Which isn’t an obviously wrong analysis.

    It was a long and winding road for Western Civilization to come to the conclusion that slavery was morally wrong. Prior to the industrial revolution, it may well not have been. ‘Sometimes,’ said Edward Teller, ‘We have to do that which is very difficult. Sometimes we have to think.’ Which very few of Trump’s critics are capable of.

  5. Gravatar of Diotima Diotima
    17. August 2017 at 09:58

    Thanks for this and all your work, which I find really helpful to follow. But saying that these slippery slope arguments came “true” seems, at best, misleading. The slippery slope argument is in support of a specific conclusion. In one of these cases it is: we could not remove the statue of Lee.

    The argument is either that, if we do this, then we will also do things we shouldn’t re: e.g. Washington.

    You seem to advocate the contrary conclusion: we should get rid of the statue. I agree.

    Now, in the future, maybe the Washington monument will be renamed. Even if we assume that this will be a mistake, or something we should not do, it in no way follows that the slippery slope argument is or somehow becomes correct. It will still be the case that we should get rid of the Lee statue.

    Perhaps the slippery slope argument has one premise that will be shown true. But even if so that doesn’t mean the whole argument succeeds. And it isn’t clear what the premise exactly is. That removing Lee would cause us unavoidably to also get rid of Washington’s name? That seems pretty unlikely.

    The whole idea “becoming” true smacks a bit of the moral relativism that has so corrupted the US right, and which I’m sure that you reject. E.g. Segregation did not “become” evil after MLK or something. It was already so.

  6. Gravatar of Diotima Diotima
    17. August 2017 at 09:59

    Oops: we could not

    Should be

    We should not.

  7. Gravatar of MLB MLB
    17. August 2017 at 10:02

    I’d guess abortion is the issue most likely to look barbaric in the distant future. Especially in a future where babies can be incubated outside of the womb so you are a valid life at any stage. 700,000 abortions occur per year and a very valid argument can be made that this is life (at least as high in the pecking order as animals I would think). There are nearly as many 3rd trimester abortions each year as gun homicides.

  8. Gravatar of Diotima Diotima
    17. August 2017 at 10:04

    Sullivan may find me weak in thinking, but I would say: slavery was and always is wrong.

    Some are born into contexts in which all of the available choices are wrong. The tragedy of this is that whatever they do will be wrong. Their task is to figure out what is on balance least wrong. I don’t knownthe details in terms of which Washington would be evaluated here. But it is possible he did it well, and unswerving commitment to the evil of slavery is compatible with thinking so.

  9. Gravatar of Scott Freelander Scott Freelander
    17. August 2017 at 10:12


    I don’t doubt you’re right about the slippery slope, but if I recall correctly, many of the founders were opposed to having leaders immortalized in statues and on money, including themselves. I happen to agree with them. So, I favor having all the statues of our political leaders removed, but it has nothing to do with any of them owning slaves.

  10. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    17. August 2017 at 10:26

    Benny, Yup, they don’t all come true.

    Patrick, Trump is now so far beyond defending that you shouldn’t even try.

    Diotima, I thought it was pretty clear in my post that I meant the associated prediction came true, not the underlying policy advocacy.

    I’m not a moral realist, I think in terms of things being regarded as evil. Thus segregation became regarded as evil after MLK. But yes, I also reject moral relativism.

    MLB, You may be right.

    Scott, I agree.

  11. Gravatar of Randomize Randomize
    17. August 2017 at 10:28

    I’d prefer that the conversation about the confederate statues moved away from slavery (since the country as a whole was culpable in that institution) and instead focused on the fact that the confederates were damned traitors. Jefferson Davis deserved a noose and somehow got a statue instead.

  12. Gravatar of Patrick Sullivan Patrick Sullivan
    17. August 2017 at 10:42

    Timothy Taylor, as usual, has an astute post (quoting Adam Smith);

    “The animosity of hostile factions, whether civil or ecclesiastical, is often still more furious than that of hostile nations; and their conduct towards one another is often still more atrocious. … In a nation distracted by faction, there are, no doubt, always a few, though commonly but a very few, who preserve their judgment untainted by the general contagion. They seldom amount to more than, here and there, a solitary individual, without any influence, excluded, by his own candour, from the confidence of either party, and who, though he may be one of the wisest, is necessarily, upon that very account, one of the most insignificant men in the society. All such people are held in contempt and derision, frequently in detestation, by the furious zealots of both parties. A true party-man hates and despises candour; and, in reality, there is no vice which could so effectually disqualify him for the trade of a party-man as that single virtue. The real, revered, and impartial spectator, therefore, is, upon no occasion, at a greater distance than amidst the violence and rage of contending parties. To them, it may be said, that such a spectator scarce exists any where in the universe. Even to the great Judge of the universe, they impute all their own prejudices, and often view that Divine Being as animated by all their own vindictive and implacable passions. Of all the corrupters of moral sentiments, therefore, faction and fanaticism have always been by far the greatest.”

    IOW, what Trump said.

  13. Gravatar of Patrick Sullivan Patrick Sullivan
    17. August 2017 at 10:58

    ‘Sullivan may find me weak in thinking….’

    The words you should be using are ‘incapable of.’

  14. Gravatar of Diotima Diotima
    17. August 2017 at 11:00

    No worries, I was pretty sure that was your view. To each their own, but if I had that view I would not write:

    “these slippery slope arguments, and I lived long enough for them (and many others) to come true.”

    Rather than “these predictions”

  15. Gravatar of Diotima Diotima
    17. August 2017 at 11:03

    I’d be totally interested in this moral view, but I don’t get this:

    “I’m not a moral realist, I think in terms of things being regarded as evil. Thus segregation became regarded as evil after MLK. But yes, I also reject moral relativism.”

    The first sentence suggests (though doesn’t literally say) you don’t believe in moral facts independent of what is regarded as good/bad. Your view of such regarding is that they change over time. So If that’s your view, I can’t see how relativism could be avoided.

    Present topic seems great reason to believe in such moral facts. At least to me. Thanks!

  16. Gravatar of Student Student
    17. August 2017 at 11:58

    There were a lot of immoral actions committed over many years and over many things. It’s impossible to find someone worthy of enshrinement at all. How many presidents were morally culpable in the genocide against native Americans. How about the annexation of Texas or Hawaii? How about the fact that MLK and JFK were adulterous. How about the fact that women couldn’t vote until the 20th century and that my grandfather could basically smack my grandma around legally? How about the fact that fathers could walk out on their children without paying a penny for their support until like 20 years ago? How about the fact that we can at this moment in time murder an child in the womb at will so that we can afford a vacation or fancy car or continue to go out partying on Friday night. How about the fact that on my way home tonight I am going to walk by homeless mentally ill or drug adicts sleeping on the street and not give them the 20 bucks in my pocket (today at least) because I plan to buy my wife a bottle of wine instead?

    It’s endless. I certainly believe slavery is immoral and morality is objective but we are all immoral in one way or another (some just much more than others) so we either build no monuments at all… we accept that we can redefine want monuments are no longer acceptable over time… or we come up with some other kind of line… like not enshrining traitors.

    I am kinda with Randomize on that point.

    PS, can you believe they ever let people smoke on a plane? What kind of asshole would do something like that. It’s kind of like sitting next to someone a ripping a terrible smelling fart (a toxic one at that) without giving a shit.

  17. Gravatar of E. Harding E. Harding
    17. August 2017 at 14:57

    Were Trump White Nationalist, he’d be a much better president than he actually is. The least a White Nationalist president would do would be to end DACA, which Trump hasn’t done because of his c*ckoldry.

    “Our current world is our business, and the ethical standards adopted by the future world is their concern.  That’s the real problem with slippery slope arguments.”

    Oh; agreed.

    Sumner, please comment on the NAFTA renegotiations that began yesterday.

  18. Gravatar of Student Student
    17. August 2017 at 15:07

    Yeah trumps problem is he isn’t white nationalist enough… Cuz ending immigration is the key to innovation and economic growth! Immigrants never innovate and are just dead weight all those hard working white people have to carry on. Ha!

  19. Gravatar of Laura Laura
    17. August 2017 at 15:52

    When will they do away with those pesky Che monuments? How many innocent victims must be named before the left repudiates Che?

  20. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    17. August 2017 at 16:01

    Slippery slope?

    In the 1980s the Wall Street Journal said inflation should be under 5%, but that was good enough.

    In the 1990s Milton Friedman said the Fed was a little too tight when inflation was at 3%.

    By 2010 Charles Plosser was rhapsodizing about 1% deflation.

    A slippery slope into quicksand?

  21. Gravatar of Steve F Steve F
    17. August 2017 at 16:08

    Your arguments would reach people better without the personal insults regarding Trump.

  22. Gravatar of Todd Kreider Todd Kreider
    17. August 2017 at 16:21

    “Our current world is our business, and the ethical standards adopted by the future world is their concern.”

    Let’s see if you say this when they take down the Scott Sumner statue in Newton, MA.

    (They do have a Scott Sumner statue up in Newton, right?)

  23. Gravatar of major.freedom major.freedom
    17. August 2017 at 16:40

    Sumner please provide evidence that Trump is a “white nationalist”, because your race baiting fake news brainwashing is not evidence.

  24. Gravatar of major.freedom major.freedom
    17. August 2017 at 16:42

    It is not merely a slippery slope, it is how governments inherently operate in the face of failures of their own interventions into the market.

    Read Mises on this, you have no excuse

  25. Gravatar of dtoh dtoh
    17. August 2017 at 16:48

    Human political history has mostly been about exploiting tribalism to justify the use of violence to gain power and wealth. We’ve had a brief respite for the last 75 years, which I fear is coming to an end.

  26. Gravatar of dtoh dtoh
    17. August 2017 at 16:50

    And I would add that tribalism is equally abhorrent whether it is race based, class based or ideologically based.

  27. Gravatar of major.freedom major.freedom
    17. August 2017 at 16:52


    Except for the production of security and defense, and money.

    Then tribalism is justified, lol.

  28. Gravatar of major.freedom major.freedom
    17. August 2017 at 17:00

    The WaPo is fake news.

    Do your research

  29. Gravatar of Paul Zrimsek Paul Zrimsek
    17. August 2017 at 17:21

    Washmon, Jeffmem doubleplusungood: ref unpersons.

  30. Gravatar of BC BC
    17. August 2017 at 19:25

    I don’t think the Washington and Jefferson arguments are even a slippery slope. I believe that the fringes on the left *already* argue that we should disavow the Founding Fathers because they were slave owners.

    Paradoxically, though, Trump’s comments may actually delay or discredit those arguments. Since people want to emphasize how flawed Trump’s comments were, they will tend now to declare that it’s obvious that the Founding Fathers are different from the Confederate leaders. It seems to me that Trump has had a similar effect on trade, immigration, and Russia where anti-Trump reaction has made the left more pro-trade, pro-immigration, and anti-Russia than before.

    I’m beginning to think that if Republicans really want to replace Obamacare with a market-oriented system, they should get Trump to tweet that he thinks Obaamcare is great because it puts him (through his HHS Secretary) in charge of our healthcare and that he understands healthcare better than most doctors.

  31. Gravatar of Philo Philo
    17. August 2017 at 19:25

    The issue of public monuments is theoretically interesting. The trouble with putting up a statue commemoration someone or other on public property at public expense even if a majority of voters favor it is that the decision will be forced upon the dissenters; arguably this constitutes an example of the tyranny of the majority. is sometimes necessary, but the imposition on the dissenting minority that is entailed by majority rule is unfortunate, and we should strive to minimized it. In the case of monuments (as that of flags, effigies on currency, etc.) it will frequently be unnecessary thus to impose on the minority, since those who favor memorializing someone can do it at their own expense.

    But perhaps we absolutely must have some public memorialization. Accordingly I propose to accept it, but limited to extremely clear-cut cases, requiring, say, a three-fourths vote of the relevant deciding body (the voters of the relevant political unit as a whole, or some representative body). Furthermore, once the memorial has been erected it should be pulled down or negated only by a three-fourths decision. These rules will not help with our present troubles, since they have not been in effect, and I am not proposing to apply them *ex post facto*. But if and only if three-fourths of the relevant voters want to put up a public statue of Robert E. Lee, or Martin Luther King, Jr., or Winston Churchill, Babe Ruth, Norman Borlaug, Michael Jackson, Superman, Mickey Mouse, etc., it should be done, and not thereafter undone until three-fourths of the voters want to undo it. (I would even allow a statue of Jesus Christ or the Buddha, since I do not consider a mere statue to constitute “the establishment of a religion.” Admittedly a statue of the prophet Mohammed would be problematical for peculiar reasons.)

    This rule for the future should minimize strife over public memorialization, and put a damper on the distressing “culture wars” that have been disturbing us lately.

  32. Gravatar of Philo Philo
    17. August 2017 at 19:33

    (Poorly proof-read; my apologies.)

  33. Gravatar of Patrick Sullivan Patrick Sullivan
    17. August 2017 at 21:00

    ‘I’m beginning to think that if Republicans really want to replace Obamacare with a market-oriented system, they should get Trump to tweet that he thinks Obaamcare is great because it puts him (through his HHS Secretary) in charge of our healthcare and that he understands healthcare better than most doctors.’

    I laugh.

  34. Gravatar of Dtw Dtw
    18. August 2017 at 03:05

    “White nationalist president ” really? A little virtue signaling eh?

  35. Gravatar of Major.freedom Major.freedom
    18. August 2017 at 04:09

    The Alt Left want to try to erase history, just like the communists of the 20th century did so. Where we’re they 8 years under Obama?

    The alt left media outlets like CNN, MSNBC, CBS, NYT, are not disavowing the various violent alt left groups, which is not surprising at all. Why would alt left media criticize alt left terrorism?

  36. Gravatar of Major.freedom Major.freedom
    18. August 2017 at 04:15

    Here is a symbol of alt left hate:

    Anyone notice the flag in this picture of the Third Communist International from 1932?

    Does it look familiar to you? It should, today’s alt left terrorist group Antifa also use it.

  37. Gravatar of Ben Ben
    18. August 2017 at 04:43

    Stick to monetary policy that you actually posses greater knowledge and informed opinion than 99.9% of the population.

    Confederate statues? Not so much.

  38. Gravatar of Han Han
    18. August 2017 at 04:51

  39. Gravatar of Student Student
    18. August 2017 at 06:14

    Confederate monuments… America’s first participation trophies.

  40. Gravatar of Justin D Justin D
    18. August 2017 at 06:45

    Often, it seems arguments derided as fallacious ‘slippery slope’ arguments are in fact reduction ad absurdum arguments. So it’s not that people are saying X will lead to Y just because X is crazy and so crazy things like Y will also happen, but the justification you are using for X would also apply to Y. This is why some of these arguments have been coming true.

  41. Gravatar of Miguel Madeira Miguel Madeira
    18. August 2017 at 06:46

    “I’d prefer that the conversation about the confederate statues moved away from slavery (since the country as a whole was culpable in that institution) and instead focused on the fact that the confederates were damned traitors. ”

    A problem with this argument is that the USA themselves are a result of treason (against Britain). If you consider that confederates are bad because they rebelled against the established government (instead because of the specific reason why the rebelled), then the “Founding Fathers” are also bad, and in the end perhaps even Rosa Parks and the Freedom Riders are also “bad” (they participate in organized campaigns to subvert the established laws, after all, instead of “working inside the system”).

  42. Gravatar of Justin D Justin D
    18. August 2017 at 07:26

    –“I don’t think the Washington and Jefferson arguments are even a slippery slope. I believe that the fringes on the left *already* argue that we should disavow the Founding Fathers because they were slave owners.”–


    If the ultimate principle at stake is “we shouldn’t honor racist owners of slaves/defenders of slavery” or perhaps more broadly “we shouldn’t honor people who were on the wrong side of today’s majority public opinion on moral issues”, then Washington and Jefferson are at risk. Yes, there are relevant distinctions that can be made between Washington and Lee, but typically those distinctions get swamped by the ultimate principle, and people making them will eventually be accused of hatred and bigotry.

  43. Gravatar of Mike Rulle Mike Rulle
    18. August 2017 at 07:59

    We all live in our own time’s Weltanschauung. How easy is it “today” to feel morally superior to the great men of yesterday.

    My favorite movie of all time was the psychological multi-layered absurdist comedy by Woody Allen, Zelig. The serious question he raises, through hilarious comedic set ups, is how easy it is to become simply part of the value system which surrounds you. So our protagonist becomes a Nazi,a Freudian doctor, a Chinese man etc, until he is finally “cured” by his doctor to become a “normal” 1930s American, which of course is just another social construct within which he becomes absorbed.

    Zelig has no intrinsic self, he is just a product of his surroundings. Now, this was a comedy, so we do not have to take it it literally in its full nihilistic sense.

    But I think we should have a bit more humility as we shout on the rooftops about the obvious immorality of our ancestors. We, of course, will certainly be on the other side of similar shouts aimed at us by our descendants.

  44. Gravatar of Matthew Waters Matthew Waters
    18. August 2017 at 11:25

    It’s worth noting that there are a ton of wrong slippery slope arguments alongside the “correct” examples mentioned. Santorum had said marriage between man and dog was following gay marriage. I won’t hold my breath for man-dog marriage.

    At the end of the day, we have to assume not every issues ends at 0% or 100%. It’s crazy to stay at 10% and not go to 20%, because of fear of going to 90%. There can be real injustice solved by going from 10 to 20%.

  45. Gravatar of Edward Edward
    18. August 2017 at 13:06

    There’s a difference between hypocrisy and akrasia (Greek word for weakness of will) as opposed to actively celebrating slavery. Jefferson “trembled for his country when he reflected on the fact that God is just”.

    Jefferson could’ve written that all white men are created equal. But he didn’t. he said ALL MEN.

  46. Gravatar of Massimo Heitor Massimo Heitor
    18. August 2017 at 15:56

    Dr Sumner, your coblogger David R Henderson, asserts that the North was the aggressor, the actual cause of waging scorched earth warfare, burning entire cities to the ground, starving children to death, etc to preserve the union was a morally bankrupt reason to wage offensive war, hence the slavery issue was exploited to post-moralize.

    You’ve called this position outrageous and comparisons between Abraham Lincoln and Bashar al Assad outrageous and adopted the mainstream left-wing kulturkampf position that aligns with left-wing political self-interests.

    Could you debate your coblogger on this more directly?

  47. Gravatar of bill bill
    18. August 2017 at 17:21

    If you do debate, please discuss the Corwin amendment.

  48. Gravatar of Student Student
    18. August 2017 at 20:30

    Post moralize???

    We could either believe you or take the actual actors at their own word…


    Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin. That we do not overstate the dangers to our institution, a reference to a few facts will sufficiently prove.

    The hostility to this institution commenced before the adoption of the Constitution, and was manifested in the well-known Ordinance of 1787, in regard to the Northwestern Territory.

    The feeling increased, until, in 1819-20, it deprived the South of more than half the vast territory acquired from France.

    The same hostility dismembered Texas and seized upon all the territory acquired from Mexico.

    It has grown until it denies the right of property in slaves, and refuses protection to that right on the high seas, in the Territories, and wherever the government of the United States had jurisdiction.

    It refuses the admission of new slave States into the Union, and seeks to extinguish it by confining it within its present limits, denying the power of expansion.

    It tramples the original equality of the South under foot.

    It has nullified the Fugitive Slave Law in almost every free State in the Union, and has utterly broken the compact which our fathers pledged their faith to maintain.

    It advocates negro equality, socially and politically, and promotes insurrection and incendiarism in our midst.

    It has enlisted its press, its pulpit and its schools against us, until the whole popular mind of the North is excited and inflamed with prejudice…”

    – A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union.

  49. Gravatar of msgkings msgkings
    18. August 2017 at 22:26

    @Massimo H: I know you’re an an/lib so how do you not see the Civil War as human liberty enhancing, full stop?

    @Student: well done

  50. Gravatar of Massimo Heitor Massimo Heitor
    19. August 2017 at 03:17


    “We could either believe you or take the actual actors at their own word…”

    Yes, but there are multiple actors with conflicting words. It’s unreasonable to cherry pick just the quotes that support your conclusion and hide or refuse to acknowledge equally legitimate quotes that point to a different conclusion.

    You cite the declaration of independence from Mississippi. South Carolina wrote something similar. Those states formally declared that they were seceding in the interests of preserving slavery. These are legitimate quotes, they show a Southern leadership motivated by slavery, but you can’t just limit discussion to quotes that serve your conclusion.

    The state of North Carolina OTOH, seceded because they didn’t want to be forced to attack neighboring states. The Crittenden Johnson resolution was written and passed unanimously by US Congress to formally declare the goals for the war, and they were clear that their purpose was to preserve the union and not to interfere with slavery. Abraham Lincoln was quite eager to make concessions on the issue of slavery. Many slave states fought for the Union even though they supported slavery.

    “In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country”, Robert E Lee in 1856

    “Save for defense of my native state, I never desire again to draw my sword.”, Robert E Lee to Abraham Lincoln in 1861.

    “So far from engaging in a war to perpetuate slavery, I am rejoiced that slavery is abolished. I believe it will be greatly for the interests of the south. So fully am I satisfied of this, as regards Virginia especially, that I would cheerfully have lost all I have lost by the war, and have suffered all I have suffered, to have this object attained.” Robert E Lee in 1870

    @msgkings, I am definitely not an anarchist at all. I’m a libertarian in the Milton Friedman sense; I’m a fan of the decentralization and devolution of power which is a big libertarian idea. Moving power closer to the hands of regular people. Part of that is moving power from the federal level to the states and to the cities, where regular people can potentially have more engagement. Free markets work well precisely because they put power in the hands of regular people and let people decide with their wallets and their actions rather than this mess of voting in elections. In this sense, giving states the right to secede and escape from a tyrannical central government is clearly a libertarian idea.

  51. Gravatar of Student Student
    19. August 2017 at 04:49

    So Lee opposed slavery on moral grounds and swore as a military man to preserve and defend the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic… but when push came to shove, he went back on those principals and instead fought to protect the financial interests of elite flesh traders. That’s not to different than those Germans that in theory opposed Nazism but yet when push came to shove, backed the Nazis.

  52. Gravatar of Michael Rulle Michael Rulle
    19. August 2017 at 06:06

    David Henderson’s argument, assuming it is represented accurately by Massimo, is unfortunately greatly flawed. But first, lets state what he gets right. The war was brutal in its execution by the Union. Straight from Lincoln’s direction Grant and Sherman became his leading generals because of their will to do anything necessary to achieve unconditinal surrender. Lincoln almost lost the 1864 election because of a “bipartisan” movement in the north to seek a compromise position with the south. I believe David is a pacifist, which is a valid moral position, but most pacifists seem unable to grasp the consequences of their beliefs. Or perhaps they do, and are willing to sacrifice their lives for that belief, as that is surely what it requires.

    Mankind suffers from “Original Sin”. I won’t put the Catholic spin on this as it is unecessary. There has never been unmitigated good in virtually any human endeavor, least of all war. I think this is likely obvious to this site’s readers. But David’s belief that slavery was some kind of post mortem rationale is absurd. It was the core reason for the war, for if their had either been univeral slavery or universal freedomthere never would have been a war. This does not mean there were not other self interested factors, nor that Lincoln’s views of Black people were always enlightened by todays evolved standards, but at the time the war was the completion of the unfulfilled standards set by the righters of the Constitution.

    I also do not doubt, in a counterfactual conjecture, that had there not been slavery and the South chose to seceed, that Lincoln and the Union would still have fought. So in some sense, David’s position captures these other interests. But at the end, when fire and brimstone was brought upon the south, it was the slavery issue, from a moral and, yes, political sense which drove the war.

    That is why it is sad today that we still argue about race. But, ironically, the moral battles of today seem absurd and almost petty. The central argument today about race, seems to narrow down to “you are a racist” and “I am not a racist”. Just a few days ago there was a heated set of arguments on this sight about gender diversity, which I gather people feel comfortable discussing.

    Yet it is racial differences in social and economic outcomes which is the single largest disparity in this country.

  53. Gravatar of Michael Rulle Michael Rulle
    19. August 2017 at 06:15

    excuse various misspellings etc in above comment. It takes 90 percent of the time to eliminate 100 percent of errors, particularly on an ipad

  54. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    19. August 2017 at 09:13

    Diotima. I’m not a moral relativist because I believe that slavery is wrong at all times and in all places. I merely pointed out that others have not always regarded slavery as wrong. I’m a Rortian, not a moral relativist—there is a difference. What I deny is a distinction between subjective belief and objective fact. Things called “objective facts” are actually someone’s belief.

    Everyone, I oppose all government statues. Let sports have their “Hall of Fame”, but keep government out of that business.

    If you want to erect a statue of Lee on your front lawn, go right ahead.

  55. Gravatar of Massimo Heitor Massimo Heitor
    19. August 2017 at 09:24


    Robert E Lee fought to defend his home state of Virginia. He didn’t go back on those principals. I understand that the southern states including Virginia and many states that fought for the Union practiced slavery. I’m not blind or deaf to the slave issue. But just repeating slavery and redirecting any conversation back to slavery doesn’t make a reasonable argument. In what fashion did Lee go back on his principals of defending his home state and switch to strictly and exclusively fighting for slavery?

    @Michael Rulle,

    My argument is that mainstream political factions are deliberately distorting The Civil War to serve political interests in today’s world. Otherwise, no one cares about dusty old history.

    Slavery was a big component of the Civil War and the tensions leading up to it. So, your argument that if there were no slavery there wouldn’t have been a Civil War sounds reasonable but doesn’t really prove anything. But The Civil War really was more complex than just the issue of slavery. I summarized counter points but reconsider:
    – Many pro-slavery states fought for the North.
    – General Sherman promised to help the Southern whites, “protect themselves against negroes and abolitionists”. That really doesn’t sound like a committed abolitionist or a man fighting for abolition.
    – Crittendon Johnson resolution is the US, and all of Congress unanimously voting to formally declared that their goals of the war omit abolition.
    – Lincoln was quite eager to extend slavery indefinitely. Lincoln was adamant and unyielding on the issue of secession and “preserving the union”.
    – Robert E Lee was quite vocal that slavery was evil and that he fought as a loyal son to the sovereign state of virginia.

    You don’t have to take my interpretation on David Henderson’s view on the Civil War. Here is the link to the book that he highly recommends. And you can skim the Amazon page to get the gist of the arguments that it makes.

    Libertarian hero Ron Paul was a big fan and advocate of Thomas DiLorenzo who makes very similar points. Here is one of his books on The Civil War:

    BTW, there are different levels of “pacifist”. Ron Paul supports wars of self-defense or defense of a good ally, but opposes most US military activity in the Middle East which is not self defense in the strict sense. I don’t really agree with Ron Paul, I don’t think his simple ideological arguments are convincing. I’ve read some reasonable arguments defending more aggressive military use in the Middle East, notable Michael Flynn: Stable western-friendly governments in the Middle East would benefit us and the world. I believe Ron Paul said we shouldn’t interfere with hostile nations building nuclear weapons, which sounds crazy. I’d stress I don’t have any terribly unique or important insights on Middle East foreign diplomacy. I only comment as it relates to the morality of war and the American Civil War.

    My interest in the Civil War is because it’s a dominant part of US civic religion and modern morality: notably the moral rights of secession vs dominion and when violence is morally justified. And how the events of history are twisted to serve modern political interests.

  56. Gravatar of msgkings msgkings
    19. August 2017 at 10:49

    @Massimo: Secession is a libertarian idea, but so is freeing slaves. Clearly you think state secession is a more important principle than actual human liberty.

  57. Gravatar of W. Peden W. Peden
    19. August 2017 at 13:27


    I agree. IIRC, that was Friedman’s justification for regarding Lincoln as one of the greatest presidents from a libertarian perspective.

  58. Gravatar of bill bill
    19. August 2017 at 14:39

    The slave states that seceded were not willing to limit slavery to just their states. They wanted to bring slavery to new territory in the west. This is the key point. There was not a majority in the north to attack the south to end slavery per se, but the north didn’t want slavery in new states (see Corwin Amendment). I’m generalizing, of course. Also, here’s a direct quote from the constitution of the CSA:

    “In all such territory the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected be Congress and by the Territorial government; and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories shall have the right to take to such Territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the States or Territories of the Confederate States.”

    So if new states in the CSA would not have a right to disallow slavery, it means that the CSA was not a believer in “states’ rights” per se.

  59. Gravatar of Massimo Heitor Massimo Heitor
    20. August 2017 at 06:46


    “Clearly you think state secession is a more important principle than actual human liberty.”

    I am telling you what I think but you seem determined to refuse to accept my own position.

    I can support devolution of power, oppose horrific wars that target civilians, *and* oppose human slavery. These views really don’t conflict with each other. You are trying to twist my opposition to a horrific war into support for slavery which is absurd. It really wasn’t an either-or proposition.

    In a two-party election system, by contrast, it *is* either-or. Even if you hate both candidates, it still makes sense to vote for which candidate is better or less bad. And less bad and better are basically the same. Here, it is perfectly reasonable to support both the right of secession, oppose horrific wars, and oppose human slavery.


    “the CSA was not a believer in “states’ rights” per se.”

    I agree. The CSA would have crushed other state’s rights if they could have won. They weren’t principled philosophers, they were vying for political power, and secession was just a practical compromise.

    You are trying to suggest that because one side was bad, the other side was good. Stalin fought Hitler. Neither were good guys.

  60. Gravatar of bill bill
    20. August 2017 at 10:03

    I do believe that the northern side was better. And I am tired of the people that say that the war was about states rights.

  61. Gravatar of Scott Freelander Scott Freelander
    21. August 2017 at 07:12


    Yes, that is a sensible, libertarian position, and the founders had much wisdom is resisting attempts to immortalize political leaders.

  62. Gravatar of Mark Mark
    21. August 2017 at 18:57

    “Like if they bail out the banks and GM that they will nationalize them and other industries too.”
    Careful. If Elizabeth Warren or someone like her becomes the next president, nationalization of major banks isn’t an unlikely outcome, and that slippery slope may turn out true.

    Additionally, even “failed” slippery slope arguments aren’t necessarily really failed arguments. Keep in mind that those who make the argument aren’t outside the system. All the pushback against, let’s say, the bank bailouts, grounded in part in the logical conclusion of bank bailouts being nationalization, might be a major reason why politicians are wary of doing it. If no one ever reminded others of the ‘slippery slope’ from modest limitations on free speech to totalitarianism, maybe we’d already be halfway there by now?

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