Jason Brennan’s provocative new book, Against Democracy, divides people into three groups based on their orientation to politics: “Hobbits,” who are apathetic and ignorant; “Hooligans,” who are engaged but hopelessly biased, convinced that fans of other political teams are “stupid, evil, selfish, or at best, deeply misguided”; and “Vulcans,” who “think scientifically and rationally about politics” and whose “opinions are strongly grounded in social science and philosophy.”
This will be my third and final post on Jason’s Brennan post entitled What Do Libertarians Think about the U.S. Constitution (based on his new book). In my previous post, I argued that Jason ignored the significant possibility that a stronger federal government would further liberty because it would promote both peace and competition between the states.
Here I want to discuss Shay’s Rebellion, which is often cited as a reason why a stronger federal government was needed. Jason describes the Rebellion as a “bizarre” and therefore weak basis for a stronger national government. Jason writes:
Shay’s Rebellion in 1786 prompted many leaders to replace the Articles of Confederation and to favor a stronger central government. Daniel Shay was an honored and decorated soldier during the American Revolutionary War. Like many revolutionary soldiers, Shay was never paid for his service. He returned from service with large farm debts—debts he could not pay because he was not paid for his military service. European creditors wanted payment in gold and silver, but these were in short supply. Shay and other badly treated veterans worried their property would be confiscated and they would be placed in debtors’ prisons. They petitioned the Massachusetts government to fix the problem. Boston ignored their petitions. Finally, in desperation, Shay and other farmers rebelled. They formed a militia to prevent local courts from confiscating their property. Under the Articles of Confederation, it was difficult for the US central government to help Massachusetts crush the rebellion.
American public school history books tell the story of Shay’s Rebellion in order to show that the US Constitution was necessary. Some libertarians take an alternative reading: The government treated Shay and his fellow farmers in an extremely unjust way. If Shay’s Rebellion is supposed to justify the US Constitution, what is the justification, that the Constitution makes it easier for the government to oppress the poor? (emphasis added)
Two points here. First, Shay’s Rebellion is used as a case of where civil insurrection might have triumphed and displaced the elected government. While libertarians might sympathize with the farmers, many insurrections are based on less sympathetic causes. Allowing such insurrections – or permitting weak governments that cannot put them down – is not a good way of promoting liberty. As Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 9 justifying the new Constitution as a means of promoting stability in government: