What Libertarians Think About the U.S. Constitution Part III: Shay’s Rebellion, Liberty, and a Stronger National Government

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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:

It is impossible to read the history of the petty republics of Greece and Italy without feeling sensations of horror and disgust at the distractions with which they were continually agitated, and at the rapid succession of revolutions by which they were kept in a state of perpetual vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy. If they exhibit occasional calms, these only serve as short-lived contrast to the furious storms that are to succeed. If now and then intervals of felicity open to view, we behold them with a mixture of regret, arising from the reflection that the pleasing scenes before us are soon to be overwhelmed by the tempestuous waves of sedition and party rage. If momentary rays of glory break forth from the gloom, while they dazzle us with a transient and fleeting brilliancy, they at the same time admonish us to lament that the vices of government should pervert the direction and tarnish the lustre of those bright talents and exalted endowments for which the favored soils that produced them have been so justly celebrated.

Second, if Jason believes it is “bizarre” for defenders of the Constitution to cite Shay’s Rebellion, then I believe it is “bizarre” for Jason to use sympathy for Shay’s plight as an argument against a stronger federal government.  Jason writes that  Shay “could not pay [his debts] because he was not paid for his military service.”  But why?  Shay served in the Continental Army, which was not paid largely because the weak Articles did not allow for federal taxation.  Thus, the cause of Shay’s situation offered by Jason turns out to be a weak and poor federal government that did not pay its debts.  This was one of the reasons to strengthen the federal government.

Moreover, the inability of the federal government to pay the army might have undermined liberty even more seriously without the probity of George Washington.  The failure of the government to honor its debts to the soldiers led to the Newburgh Conspiracy which might have led to a Napoleonic style seizure of power had Washington not been the liberty loving man that he was.

Allowing the federal government to imposes taxation was a necessary element of liberty.  While the federal government may have been given more power to tax than was necessary – especially once the definition of direct taxation was narrowly construed, and the Sixteenth Amendment only made things worse – strengthening the federal government’s power to tax as compared to the Articles was necessary for both orderly government and liberty.