Originally posted at Talk to Action.
Over the past year, Rachel Tabachnick and I have written a great deal about the Neo-Confederate elements of the Religious Right. I have focused upon Catholic Neo-Confederates Thomas DiLorenzo and especially Thomas E. Woods, Jr. They claim that without an individual state’s right to secede or at least nullify locally unpopular federal laws and judicial rulings, tyranny reigns. History not withstanding, they say that secession and nullification are necessary for the expansion of freedom.
I have argued that if Woods’ ideas were to prevail, the only freedom that would be expanded would be the freedom to oppress. That freedom to oppress has inglorious roots and those roots have a name that has faded into the fog of history. Its name is Mudsill.
Mudsill is a theory of economics that helps us better understand that the definition of liberty and freedom of the self-described libertarians of the Catholic Right is really about their belief in the right to oppress others.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a “mudsill” as 1. a supporting sill (as of a building or bridge) resting directly on a base and especially the earth; 2. a person of the lowest social level). The economic theory gets its name from an 1858 defense of slavery by South Carolina Senator James Henry Hammond.
“In all societies that must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life,” Hammond declared. He further argued that this perennial underclass is necessary for the rest of society to move forward. He said that this class requires “a low order of intellect and but little skill. Its requisites,” he said, “are vigor, docility, fidelity.” Hammond insisted that such a class is necessary to support “that other class which leads progress, civilization, and refinement. It constitutes the very mud-sill of society and of political government; and you might as well attempt to build a house in the air, as to build either the one or the other, except on this mud-sill.”
Here is more from Hammond’s infamous Mudsill speech:
The Senator from New York said yesterday that the whole world had abolished slavery. Aye, the name, but not the thing; all the powers of the earth cannot abolish that. God only can do it when he repeals the fiat, “the poor ye always have with you;” for the man who lives by daily labor, and scarcely lives at that, and who has to put out his labor in the market, and take the best he can get for it; in short, your whole hireling class of manual laborers and “operatives,” as you call them, are essentially slaves.
It is worth noting that both Thomas DiLorenzo and Thomas E. Woods, Jr. are Catholic Neo-Confederates – modern-day advocates of the old Confederate cause combined with elements of nativism, religious chauvinism and caste consciousness. In addition to their embrace of Austrian economic principles (more on that point below), Neo-Confederates advocate the long discredited states’ rights theory of nullification — the notion that any state has the right to ignore any federal court order or law which that state has deemed unconstitutional. And a number of them – Woods, most preeminently – view states rights and nullification as a means to impose theocracy at the local level.
While not all libertarians are Neo-Confederates, Neo-Confederates of DiLorenzo’s and Woods’s ilk are certainly libertarians. This comes into focus when we consider the League of the South with which Woods proudly identifies and whose core economic beliefs are of the Austrian School variety: opposition to fractional banking; a return to the gold standard; and a general distrust government regulation that often borders on anarchy. (Indeed, Woods himself is devotee of anarcho-capitalist Murray Rothbard). DiLorenzo’s and Woods’s strain of libertarianism argues that these are essential elements of freedom.
Since the League of the South’s ideal of Southern independence, “Is structured upon the Biblical notion of hierarchy,” it is not surprising that most Neo-Confederates view the 14th Amendment as illegitimate. Indeed, the amendment’s due process clause that extends federal First Amendment guarantees of religious freedom to the states. Hence, these Neo-Confederates sometimes argue that while the federal government may not establish an official religion, individual states may do so.
“Labor is appraised like a commodity not because the entrepreneurs and capitalists are hardhearted and callous,” Austrian school leader Ludwig von Mises famously declared, “but because they are unconditionally subject to the supremacy of the pitiless consumers.”
Beyond their ruthless views of economics, Austrian schoolers apply the same principles to politics and government. They see dollars as ballots and the many considerations of government should be replaced by the supposed efficiencies of the free market. (DiLorenzo and Woods are both Senior Fellows at the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Alabama.) Of course, if dollars were ballots, then those with more determine electoral outcomes – which is antithetical to modern notions of democracy. If such ideas seem far-fetched, they are actually in open circulation. In February 2014, billionaire Tom Perkins suggested only half in jest, that this is the way it ought to be.
In any case, this view of economics and government brings us back to the origins of the Mudsill theory, which was primarily a justification of slavery which, in turn, is the root of modern libertarianism. “Mudsillism” allows for the select few to use other human beings to generate wealth without providing just compensation. And although we don’t call it that, Mudsillsm is resurgent in America as wages are stagnant or in decline despite the increases in worker productivity. Increasingly, average Americans work longer and harder while shareholders and executives are rewarded far beyond their contributions. And personal indebtedness to financial institutions replaces wages that, in turn, replaces liberty with dependence. Indeed, if libertarian economics were to prevail, the result would be local theocracies, restricted education, and the hierarchical economic castes.
Lincoln understood that liberty is not narrowly defined as the ability to simply do as one pleases if the end result is foreseeable harm to others. Liberty exists within a structure of reciprocal rights and duties. Implicit within these is respect for human dignity, and by extension, the dignity of the worker. For Lincoln, that meant a baseline of no slavery, outright or constructive. As a logical extension, he believed that labor should be educated and not treated as “a blind horse upon a tread-mill.”
And just as Lincoln saw emancipation and citizenship as the logical means of perfecting the promise of equality, so too does contemporary liberalism see necessary legislation to prevent inequality built upon bad economic behavior.
Lincoln first took on Sen. Hammond at a Wisconsin State Fair in September 1859. Lincoln attacked Hammond’s Mudsill-based opposition to universal education. He observed, “According to that theory, the education of laborers, is not only useless, but pernicious and dangerous.” But Lincoln did not fear an educated working class. Indeed, he boldly enunciated what would become a core belief of contemporary liberalism, stating, “In one word Free Labor insists on universal education.”
Lincoln knew that in the absence of universal education, access to better knowledge and skills is a privilege accorded to the few who can afford to buy it, and that the result was greater economic inequality. This means that a greater segment is suited to only the most menial tasks. Doing away with public education is one of the surest ways to ensure that most less-affluent Americans become that “blind horse upon a tread-mill.”
Lincoln’s demand to consider the dignity of the worker would later be taken up and expanded upon by Pope Leo XIII and his greatest American economic interpreter, Monsignor John A. Ryan. Both Leo’s and particularly Ryan’s calls for unionization, a living wage, and safe working conditions are on now bedrock principles of Catholic social teaching. Beyond that, through their influence on FDR’s New Deal they helped bring about a more just form of capitalism.
The Church’s teachings in this area stand in stark contrast to Mudsill. DiLorenzo and Woods know this and they don’t like it.
Like Juliet’s observation that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” so it is with Mudsill. We may call it something else these days, but it smells the same.
Filed under: Catholic Right, Catholic social teaching, Progressive catholicism | Tagged: Abraham Lincoln, Austrian economics, Catholic neo-Confederates, Catholic social teaching, dependence, homeschooling, James Henry Hammond, Jr., League of the South, libertarianism, Monsignor John A. Ryan, Mudsill theory of economics, Pope Leo XIII, slavery, Thomas DiLorenzo, Thomas E. Woods, Tom Perkins, universal education | 2 Comments »