Enemy of the State

Emory’s Donald Livingston champions the cause Leviathan fears most—secession.

By: Kelse Moen

Drive a few minutes beyond the shadows of central Atlanta’s skyscrapers, past the prostitutes and panhandlers along Ponce, and you will reach Emory University, the land of manicured lawns and marble buildings. And tucked away off the campus quad, you will find Donald Livingston, professor of philosophy, lost in contemplation in his office, as he frequently has been since 1984.

A genteel South Carolinian with tweed coat and full white beard, his office in perpetual disarray and stacked with books by dead white men, Livingston is both the quintessential Southerner and the quintessential philosophy professor—but with a twist. He is a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow but also an associate at the Ludwig von Mises Institute, a Ron Paul supporter who has spent much of his career addressing what he calls the “moral, legal, and philosophical meaning of secession.” Read: defending the right to secede and condemning that Great Centralizer, Abraham Lincoln. Livingston founded in 1998 and still helps run the Abbeville Institute—named after fellow South Carolinian John C. Calhoun’s hometown—in order to promote the study of Southern culture and values. The institute’s purpose is not to play cheerleader in some regionalist competition or (if I may assuage the fears of the miseducated) to promote racism or slavery. The values that it advances are “private property, place, piety, humility, manners, classical liberal studies, rhetoric, and the importance of a human scale to political order.” In short, conservative values.

The conservative or libertarian college professor is a rare breed. But here at Emory, Livingston is an even greater anomaly. He’s a voice of conservatism on a campus where, to the extent that people care about politics at all, they are progressive by default; here, at bottom, the highest value is oneself. Livingston will spend hours talking to students about Calvinist philosopher and theologian Johannes Althusius on a campus where people are always on the go. Emory is no place to cultivate what Russell Kirk called “the permanent things”: we are nothing if not impermanent. We are a collection of individuals on our way to somewhere else, whether to business school or medical school or law school, and Emory is just an impressive notch on our belts, a credential for future admissions departments. In this sense, Emory melds perfectly with the city of Atlanta itself, the city which was razed by General Sherman’s marauding army, only to be replaced by a skyline of shiny new buildings, populated by ambitious business professionals by day, yet empty by night. At Emory, the Yankee invasion never stopped. We’re awash in would-be fashionistas from Long Island, fratboys from Massachusetts, and legions of amoral, high-intensity business schoolers. The result is that we have no shared culture of our own.

Toss into this mix me: a studious philosophy major from Boston. In the fall of my junior year, I happened to sign up for a class called Philosophy of Law taught by one Dr. Donald Livingston. I was a Northerner whose primary libertarian influence at the time was Ayn Rand, and Livingston’s class blew my mind.

Livingston believes that the divided society is the best society. “The more masters we have, the freer we are,” he says. “And that is the most we can hope for.” Originally, that is what the whole American Constitution was about. We would have a central government in Washington to ensure free trade among the states and provide for the common defense, but all other powers were left to the states, and within the states power was divided between the cities, towns, and, in most, the church. The benefits here came from the fact that the masters would be in perpetual squabbles with each other and no single master would gain enough power to oppress the rest of us.

But that ended with the Civil War, which Livingston calls “the real American revolution.” Unlike the 1776 revolution—a conservative revolt that kept our traditions and system of government intact and sought only to throw off a power that betrayed them—the Civil War effected a fundamental change in American thinking. It shifted power decisively and forever out of the hands of the several states and into Washington. And while some of President Lincoln’s more draconian wartime measures—issuance of fiat money and suspension of habeas corpus for instance—ended when the war did, the system was by then in place to bring them back whenever our betters in Washington so desired. Later, of course, they would so desire, and there was little any of us could do about it.

This is why secession is so important. Nothing sends a message to power so well as literally leaving—and taking your land with you. Thus for all those who genuflect before the altar of state power, secession must be crushed. And it has been crushed, as Livingston readily admits. Now, whenever we consider division, we panic, he says. But this wasn’t always the way. The Declaration of Independence is a declaration of secession from Britain. In the 1850s, the city of New York considered leaving the Union to become a free-trade city, and New England threatened secession in 1804, 1808, and 1812. Maine, Kentucky, and Tennessee were created by seceding from other states. When Jefferson bought the Louisiana Purchase, he never expected the Union to extend from “sea to shining sea.” He assumed that new states would form but then secede from the larger whole, creating their own unions with distinct governments but that would be bound together by a shared culture in an “empire of liberty.”

A government of a few hundred elected officials presiding over a country of 300 million is simply dysfunctional, Livingston says. It can no more function as a republican government than a five-story tall man can function as a healthy human being. Thus, if we want to reform government, we have to start dividing it. This is where Livingston differs from most mainstream libertarians. They don’t think about the politics of size and proportion—only about ending the war in Iraq or the Fed or the PATRIOT Act. “But even if we get rid of the Federal Reserve,” Livingston remarks, “the ruling class will still find a way to get what it wants.” They have the power “to push one button and make 300 million people jump,” and that power cannot be diminished just by doing away with its emanations. Only by physically dividing power via secession or federalism can we regain control of ourselves.

But there’s another reason to support division, Livingston says. Liberty requires a virtuous people, and the seeds of moral virtue are in the family and the community. They are the institutions that raise us, and the character we develop in youth is the character that will guide our conduct throughout our lives. The virtues that we learn from family and community are virtues of affection, self-worth, and personal rectitude. They instill in us virtues that make the State and all its enticements unnecessary. Who needs a welfare check when you were raised to work hard and know that, should financial catastrophe hit, you have caring neighbors to fall back on? Livingston’s libertarianism is the libertarianism of Burke, Hume, and Tocqueville—the libertarianism that actually begets liberty. It comes from people who see themselves as participants in a moral universe, people who can clearly see right from wrong, who know that stealing and murder are wrong whether they are committed by street-corner thugs or agents from the IRS or CIA.

That is the type of virtue in which we can only be raised. But the State can better profit from weak and isolated people with no strong moral values. Libertine “libertarians,” who just want the freedom to have an abortion, practice witchcraft, or take LSD, are in fact the perfect subjects for an oppressive State. Seeing themselves merely as individuals with desires to be satisfied rather than as moral actors, and incapable of seeing the value of the tradition in which they live, they fall into the pit of moral relativism and self-indulgence. And no one is so easily dominated as he who believes there are no values worth defending.

There will still be those who claim that the central government has been a force for good; that without it we never would have abolished slavery, or ended segregation, or achieved equal rights for homosexuals. Even many conservatives and libertarians have come to think of government as, if not a source for good, at least the arena in which our liberties are to be won. The yelps of joy from Beltway libertarians when the Supreme Court tossed gun owners a few crumbs in last summer’s Heller decision are testament to this, as are the hordes of enthusiastic young conservatives who descend on the Imperial Capital for CPAC every year with grandiose plans to purge our Arlen Specters and Olympia Snowes and bring real, conservative values back to Washington.

But as Dr. Livingston taught me, the very idea of legislating conservatism from above is fundamentally unconservative. The conservative order has to come from below, from our distinctive, organic communities. And although the central government has been able to squelch some of society’s uglier sides, are we really better off? Lincoln abolished plantation slavery, but he replaced it with the slavery of the income tax and the military draft. Whatever “gains” we make by appeal to Washington have the ultimate effect of increasing central power and turning the rest of us into beggars, palms out, asking, “Excuse me, sir, could you spare some rights?”

Donald Livingston may be living at the wrong time. We are at the zenith of centralized power, which doesn’t seem to be decentralizing anytime soon. But then again, while the imperial worker bees buzz around the capital planning wars and bailouts under the immortal marble gaze of the Great Centralizer, forever enthroned before the National Mall, there are those of us, far away in a province he once conquered, who want to know what liberty really means. There’s never been a better time to learn the answer. And Livingston, the genteel old philosophy professor, can teach us.

Kelse Moen is a senior at Emory University. His column appears regularly in the Emory Wheel.