Alexander Hamilton says, “No Exit.”

When the U.S. federal congress was given the power to do something, it clearly possessed the right to draft laws to execute that power. Nevertheless, to ensure that no one got any ideas about who was or was not under the power of those laws, the Necessary and Proper Clause and the Supremacy Clause were included in the U.S. Constitution. In Federalist 33, and in the context of the taxation question, Alexander Hamilton explains in clear terms why the Necessary and Proper Clause was (is) necessary and proper:

But SUSPICION may ask, Why then was it introduced? The answer is, that it could only have been done for greater caution, and to guard against all cavilling refinements in those who might hereafter feel a disposition to curtail and evade the legitimate authorities of the Union. The Convention probably foresaw, what it has been a principal aim of these papers to inculcate, that the danger which most threatens our political welfare is that the State governments will finally sap the foundations of the Union; and might therefore think it necessary, in so cardinal a point, to leave nothing to construction.

The Federalist Papers are nothing less than a Complete Treatise Against Exit. Our founding fathers knew that a Powerful Union would need all conflicts of interest between the states (slavery being the most prominent) to defer always to the interests of the One True State. To put it another way, in the interest of the State, the interests of the State are the only interests that matter. This is the principle upon which America as a nation was founded.

The State’s power is whole and complete, and its power is pointed in all directions, especially southward. Indeed, Alexander Hamilton knew that if he wanted to end slavery in the South, he simply needed to make the South part of the North Union and enlist slaves to fight for the Union. In 1779, he wrote:

An essential part of the plan is to give [negroes] their freedom with their muskets. This will secure their fidelity, animate their courage, and I believe will have a good influence upon those who remain, by opening a door to their emancipation. This circumstance, I confess, has no small weight in inducing me to wish the success of the project; for the dictates of humanity and true policy equally interest me in favour of this unfortunate class of men.

Read it once more. If you didn’t catch it, perhaps you will the second time: one of the founding fathers thought that emancipation of slaves and the creation of the Union through revolution were one and the same project—or, at least, that the Revolution could be an opportunity for laying the groundwork for emancipation in the South. He surely was not alone.

I’m not arguing that slavery was moral. It wasn’t. However, it was primarily an economic immorality—it was wrong not because blacks were picking cotton and being mistreated but because blacks were picking cotton, being mistreated, and not being paid for it. Had plantation owners paid their laborers and allowed them some limited freedom of movement (a la the servants of the old English gentry), then slavery would have been no worse than the other forms of hard labor that were eventually ameliorated with technology and labor laws.

The point lies in how the Union solved the slavery problem—not by allowing time, technology, or incentives to do their work, or by leaving the South to its own immoral destruction, but by encompassing the South entirely under its moralistic, universalist, Puritanical power and saying, “You can’t do it that way.” No exit. This method set a dangerous precedent. Post-1865, it unleashed the leftward,  ever-democratizing impulse of American politics, which was, of course, dormant but fully formalized in the nation’s embryonic state. I return you to the first Hamilton quote above

(Had more of our founding fathers possessed the agrarian temperament of a Thomas Jefferson, the federal state may have contained seeds that would have blossomed into an eventual loosening of its own power. But that was an impossibility. Why would anyone drawn to the center want to loosen the power he finds himself embodying? Besides, agrarians don’t do well in the center by definition.)

22 responses

  1. Pingback: This Week in Reaction | The Reactivity Place

  2. Handle

    There are some problems with exit too.

    There’s short-termism (like in corporate governance or pension ponzi schemse) – make your money by fooling people with promises and planting time bombs for the future but leave before they go off.

    There’s talent drain – you could be doing everything right, but some other place discovers a deposit of some talent-intensive scarce natural resource and, in a generation, you’re Mississippi (or, pick your favorite example).

    And mobility discourages putting down roots and really putting all your efforts and investments into a community. It’s like how the existence of no-fault divorce (certainly an easy “exit” system) undermines marginal marriages by incentivizing dissolution instead of compromise for reconciliation.

    If you have no choice but to live somewhere, and if your children have to live their too, and you are in a high-trust community where you feel you can invest in and contribute to public goods and get reciprocity from your neighbors, the lack of exit could actually encourage welfare. Hell is other people, but having to stick with your neighbors means people will tend to be more polite to each other.

    Exit works well in most normal competitive non-rivalrous consumer markets where you buy things frequently with a small percentage of your income. The less frequently, and the more expensive, and when there are lots of what Milton Friedman would call “neighborhood effects”, like with real estate, the more east exit starts to create potentially negative incentives.

    May 18, 2013 at 12:31 am

    • There certainly is a thing as too much exit, as well as too little. I think we suffer from the former more than the latter. Rootlessness is a far more prevalent pathology than… unrootlessness, i.e., parochialism. But in talking about The Reaction®, we have to keep that escape hatch open, because what local communities may make of it may become intolerable to some of their dissident members. Exit is more desirable, in other words, than genocide. Or the US Civil War.

      May 18, 2013 at 1:49 am

    • Yes, like neoreaction more generally, Exit is sensitive to scale. Ease of exit at the family or community level is not necessarily a good thing; however, lack of an exit mechanism at the societal or national level is precisely what gives the Cathedral its ever-expansive power.

      May 18, 2013 at 2:39 pm

      • Handle

        Can we formulate an “exit rule” to accommodate this scale logic?

        Structure society in “governed populations” of increasing scale.

        A0 is the individual
        A1 is, let’s say, the family
        A2 perhaps a neighboorhood, or a congregation
        A3 is the suburb
        A4 is the town

        And then city, metropolis, state, nation.

        Ax is allowed to exit from Ay under certain circumstance?


        May 18, 2013 at 8:21 pm

      • I think you’re onto something . . . My first impression is that the contemporary West has things backward: harder to exit the further up the scale you go in terms of population and generality, but easier to exit at the familial and neighborhood level, which, quite frankly, are the levels at which people should strive to make things work rather than simply moving away in space.

        But then, if exit is difficult at the local scale, the doors are open for harsh re-segregation laws . . .

        May 18, 2013 at 11:53 pm

  3. panjoomby

    excellent post – no wonder abe lincoln was so loony for union. i do have to point out that slaves were paid with room, board & retirement. slaves were paid more than indentured servants & more than the slaves (slavs – whites!) on the other continents. pretty much all groups have been subjected to slavery. only one group consistently uses it as an excuse.

    May 18, 2013 at 7:52 pm

    • There are certainly documented cases of slaves being treated well, especially if they were ‘house slaves.’ At that point, they were probably treated much the same way the English gentry treated their servants and serfs.

      The problem with treating American slavery as a monolithic entity is that it wasn’t a monolithic entity. Experiences differed widely. Now, as I said in the post, I think it was wrong that the slaves weren’t paid even though they had no debts to pay off and that they had no freedom of movement. However, contemporary American blacks do, as you imply, assume that all slaves experienced THE WORST POSSIBLE FORM OF SLAVERY—whippings, torture, ill health, young death . . . which, of course, was likely only experienced in rare circumstances. Only about 800k slaves were ever imported into America, but their population was in the tens of millions by the time of Abe Lincoln. Their population grew steadily, and that doesn’t happen unless the slaves’ lives were stable and healthy enough for frequent breeding.

      May 18, 2013 at 11:58 pm

      • jamzw

        600k. 12.5 million shipped, 11 million sold at auction, .6 million in North America. (Paul Johnson,A History of the American People)

        May 23, 2013 at 5:12 pm

  4. lucklucky

    Without Freedom to Exit, Tyranny is the result.
    That is why slavery could exist , there was no freedom to exit.

    May 19, 2013 at 6:39 am

  5. Handle

    Exit Bleg:

    I’d like to see people grapple and engage with this problem seriously and offer their ideas. I find it to be surprisingly deep. Or, at least, none of my instinctual first approaches seem satisfactory upon analysis. Maybe it’s just a tragic situation with no good answer, but I’d still like to read people’s ideas.

    1. No easy exit is, like lucklucky says, tyrannical and, essentially, with the imposed uniformity of the modern imperial central states – the problem.
    2. Too easy exit has it’s drawbacks too. You want people, especially leaders, but also the led, to feel bound to each other with reciprocal loyalty. You want people to put down roots, invest, and stay committed to each other. You want people to work to strengthen and preserve relationships because they feel they shouldn’t break away at the first annoyance. You don’t want a “why not litter, it’s not my home, I’m just passing through” attitude.

    Maybe it’s a function of age too. Young single people are ultra-mobile whereas middle-aged families have a spiderweb of important relationship network connections holding them in place.

    Ok, what do you all think?

    May 19, 2013 at 1:23 pm

    • Vladimir

      Obviously the whole issue of voice vs. exit is a complex topic suitable for a book-length work, not a brief blog comment. But I guess I can offer a few off-hand bullet points in response:

      1. When it comes to voice vs. exit in political communities, clearly, a crucial variable is the size of the community. Beyond a certain size, voice necessarily becomes the domain of professional politicking and propaganda. A typical member of very large community, even if he has the time and will to keep track of all the issues, can only fight a losing political battle against powerful coalitions of special interests, thus becoming just a puny subject of higher powers, despite his nominal voice rights.

      2. One factor that greatly improves things in favor of voice is the social capital of cultural homogeneity combined with a highly evolved culture whose customs and norms are capable of addressing the complex questions of advanced civilization. This means that nearly all questions will have a consensus answer — and a good and one at that — thus drastically shrinking the domain of politics. The remaining issues can then be resolved by voice mechanisms, which will function better because propaganda and politics are constrained by the consensus culture, and there is a smaller set of issues to keep track of in the first place. (And even if they end up decided by nasty politics or tyrannical dictate, they will still apply only to a tolerably small portion of one’s overall life.)

      3. Another way to look at point (2) is the observation I read somewhere (I think from James Donald) that an egalitarian, voice-based political system can exist only between individuals who deal with each other from a safe distance, in a good-fences-make-good-neighbors way, so that politics is reduced to a few questions of common interest while letting each individual pursue his own business without meddling by others (except perhaps in firmly established customary ways that are not subject to political manipulation). As soon as voice-based politics is no longer constrained and can be used to reach over the fences in novel and arbitrary ways, it becomes a nasty contest of politicking and propaganda, whose excesses can be tempered only by exit or autocratic or oligarchic dictate from above.

      4. A more difficult question, however, is presented by organic, self-governing social institutions that exist within the broader political community, like families, guilds, or churches. For some of these, easy exit is absolutely destructive — a family under a no-fault divorce regime, or a guild under completely free market competition, is hardly worth the name. For others, not so much — under at least some circumstances, churches can flourish even when changing religions draws no legal penalties. Unlike for the overarching political community, there is no straightforward analysis that would apply to all such institutions, and it must be done on a case-by-case basis. (It’s not even clear for which ones their destruction by easy exit is in fact undesirable: a guild getting destroyed by competition may well be a just and beneficial outcome by all reasonable metrics. And even for the most essential one, i.e. family, it’s clear that there should still be some finite, if exorbitant, exit cost as an option that puts an upper limit on how bad things can get.)

      5. One thing that does seem clear, however, is that the modern ideal of egalitarian democratic, voice-based decision-making is an unworkable and utopian idea for practically any kind of community or social institution. (Its closest approximation in reality can be a local community of yeoman property-holders with a uniform and highly civilized culture.) In anything larger, voice-based decision-making always degenerates into politicking, propaganda, and consequent chaos of mob madness or tyranny of special interests — which can be only tempered by autocracy, oligarchy, or exit. Even on small scales, absent these conditions, successful voice-based systems are always profoundly inegalitarian and based on customs and interpersonal relations that are wholly unintelligible to the modern liberal social theories (a successful marriage and a happy family being the most obvious example).

      May 19, 2013 at 7:23 pm

      • Thanks, Vladimir. A lot to think about here. For starters:

        As soon as voice-based politics is no longer constrained and can be used to reach over the fences in novel and arbitrary ways, it becomes a nasty contest of politicking and propaganda, whose excesses can be tempered only by exit or autocratic or oligarchic dictate from above.

        I have neo-cameralist and monarchist sympathies, so tempering democracy through autocracy or oligarchy is not, in and of itself, a negative thing, IMHO. It all depends on whose hands control the power and to what ends the power is put. Right now, we have a worst case scenario: one of the main purposes of the D.C. oligarchs is to perpetuate, expand, and exacerbate the wrangle of voice-based democracy, not ameliorate it. The man sitting in the White House is a community organizer, for God’s sake . . .

        One thing that does seem clear, however, is that the modern ideal of egalitarian democratic, voice-based decision-making is an unworkable and utopian idea for practically any kind of community or social institution.

        Yes, I think the Exit question is simply another way of addressing the problem of democracy more generally, just from another angle. Nick Land’s latest post about blogs is, of course, really a post about governance. Good governance should provide the most freedom possible whilst maintaining order and working against entropy. Democracy quickens entropy, destroys order, and erodes freedom for those who lack the MSM megaphone. Exit becomes exigent as entropy and disorder become more and more widespread. Exit is hacking off the limb to save what remains from the spread of that entropy and disorder, i.e., from democracy.

        May 20, 2013 at 5:17 pm

    • I don’t think it is possible to formulate a universal exit policy that works at all levels of human interaction. All you can do is encourage what is normal and natural and healthy, and discourage what is not.

      A lot of the rootlessness arises from people going to college, which is only a secondary effect of government policy. You can’t BAN people from moving away and starting a life somewhere else, but you can get back to a more sane college policy. Stop giving away money for it at State and Federal levels. Allow discrimination for any reason and many people won’t have a reason to seek the (otherwise worthless) diploma. Less reason to go to or complete college will result in earlier marriage and fertility, closer to place of birth. Younger women marry with lower N, which makes them AND their husbands happier.

      You cannot absolutely BAN civil divorce. But you can get rid of no-fault divorce (gays’ll love that one). You can get rid of presumptive female custody.

      Handle’s An heirarchy is a great way to look at the problem, but you have to realize that the strength of ties, legal and cultural, that bind you to commitment group n are naturally (and therefore ought to be) inversely proportional to n. It makes no sense if you can divorce your parents but cannot divorce your state. That would be tyrrany. It probably does not add up to tyranny to say you cannot divorce your parents, except for some grave crime.

      May 19, 2013 at 7:46 pm

      • Handle

        Is everything just in the wrong place now?

        The easy exits should be harder (divorce?)
        The hard exits should be easier (government rules and structure?)
        The easy voices should be harder (democratic machine politics?)
        The hard voices should be easier (dark truths against the Blue Orthodoxy?)

        May 19, 2013 at 10:57 pm

      • thalesomiletus

        “Is everything just in the wrong place now?”


        Difficulty in making your way to the Exit — is this not *the* argument for minarchy? Have the least amount XYZ to exit from in the first place? If other people aren’t riding my ass over X, I don’t have to worry about how to extract myself from X if I don’t like how they’re running X.

        May 20, 2013 at 7:29 pm

  6. A Historian

    You quote: “This circumstance, I confess, has no small weight in inducing me to wish the success of the project [the Revolution];”

    “The project” does not refer to the entire Revolution, as you interpret.

    Hamilton specifically writes in the letter to John Jay “on a project…to raise two three or four battalions of negroes.” He then goes on to say that “the give [negroes] their freedom with their muskets” is why he specifically hopes that the project to create these battalions of black soldiers is successfully – that it will “open a door to their emancipation.” It is clear here what Hamilton means by “project” is then, and invalidates the interpretation you make.

    See full text of Hamilton’s letter to John Jay here:

    Also you state: “Alexander Hamilton knew that if he wanted to end slavery in the South, he simply needed to make the South part of the North Union and enlist slaves to fight for the Union.”

    Your statement on South vs North in reference to ending slavery is completely ahistorical. In 1779, when Hamilton wrote this letter, slavery was legal and existed in ALL thirteen colonies – north and south. Yes, Hamilton wished to end slavery in all of the United States – he was an active founding member of the Manumission Society in New York, among other things. But claims about Hamilton “knowing” he needed to make the south part of a “Northern Union” (ignoring the strong influence of southerners such as the Virginians in creating that union, among other facts) and targeting slavery solely in the south do not hold up to historical facts.

    May 20, 2013 at 8:56 pm

    • Yes, I was a bit slippery with my referents there, but the point remains the same: the “project” is arming black slaves to join the Revolution, and Hamilton hopes that this will a) help the Revolution succeed in the South, and b) lay the groundwork for emancipation.

      By 1779, Vermont had already abolished slavery and Pennsylvania was just months away from doing so. Within two decades, most Northern states would pass anti-slavery laws, so Hamilton was well aware of the Northern zeitgeist and well aware that the fight over slavery would take place in the South. Why? Because of something else Hamilton knew: most of the slaves resided in the South. Virgina, the Carolinas, and Georgia alone housed half the slaves in the states. To suggest that Hamilton the Abolitionist didn’t already see what needed to be done for his cause is quite naieve, in my opinion. This letter proves that he was already thinking about emancipation in the South as much as he was thinking about winning the War. Indeed, the letter proves implicitly that he saw the Revolution as an opportunity to aid emancipation, which was the point I was trying to make.

      Nevertheless, I’ve edited the post to more accurately reflect the point. Thanks for aiding the clarification.

      May 20, 2013 at 9:23 pm

  7. Pingback: Randoms | Foseti

  8. Christopher

    I had never put no-fault divorce and jurisdictional exit on the same continuum before.

    This feels like a fruitful line of inquiry.

    Exit may have negative externalities.

    So: When compensation owed? To whom? How much? Under what circumstances? How does it scale?

    May 23, 2013 at 2:47 pm

  9. VXXC

    Then take it the Hell Back.

    May 24, 2013 at 12:29 am

  10. VXXC

    They won’t allow you to exit. As we have seen you may vote as you like, they do as they please. Exit requires success in what you are desperately trying to avoid, you wish Cake without baking it. Exit by the way bakes in THEY still have a country. And they’ll certainly mobilize it with all the unholy force they can muster to take the rest back. These are the people who already would leave us with no catacomb free to discriminate on any matter including marriage and even abortion in our own religions. So you cannot peacefully exit. If they for instance never get round to Singapore it will because of defeat, collapse, exhaustion or China. It is against their very core natures to give any peace anywhere. The 20th century is witness to that. If there had been no African slavery they would have eventually marched against the South, you may believe it as even now they march against it’s long dead phantoms. And in the name of the phantoms they march against the rest of us.

    Nor can Exit-land ever sleep safe from their relentless predations. It is they who must exit if you would be left alone and well and lightly governed. And they who must never upon being forced to exit never sleep safe but forever fearing – you.

    This is the price of Liberty from insane and criminal government.

    Do not begin what you do not wish to finish. You cannot exit. You must prevail.

    May 24, 2013 at 12:52 am

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