Memo To Libertarians: There Was No Golden Age Of Liberty

David Boaz has a great piece over at Reason today on the historical blinders that some libertarians seem to have when looking at America’s past:

When we look at our own country’s history—contrasting 2010 with 1776 or 1910 or 1950 or whatever—the story is less clear. We suffer under a lot of regulations and restrictions that our ancestors didn’t face.

But in 1776 black Americans were held in chattel slavery, and married women had no legal existence except as agents of their husbands. In 1910 and even 1950, blacks still suffered under the legal bonds of Jim Crow—and we all faced confiscatory tax rates throughout the postwar period.

I am particularly struck by libertarians and conservatives who celebrate the freedom of early America, and deplore our decline from those halcyon days, without bothering to mention the existence of slavery. Take R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., longtime editor of the American Spectator. In Policy Review (Summer 1987, not online), he wrote:

Let us flee to a favored utopia. For me that would be the late 18th Century but with air conditioning….With both feet firmly planted on the soil of my American domain, and young American flag fluttering above, tobacco in the field, I would relish the freedom.

I take it Mr. Tyrrell dreams of being a slave-owner. Because as he certainly knows, most of the people in those tobacco fields were slaves.

Tyrell isn’t alone in having those dreams of some wonderfully libertarian ante bellum America. There are examples all over libertarianism of those who think that President Lincoln was a tyrant intent on crushing the freedom of the South, or that the Confederacy was fighting for liberty instead of human bondage. Or, just those who believe that the American past was a golden age of liberty when the truth is that it was not:

Has there ever been a golden age of liberty? No, and there never will be. There will always be people who want to live their lives in peace, and there will always be people who want to exploit them or impose their own ideas on others. If we look at the long term—from a past that includes despotism, feudalism, absolutism, fascism, and communism—we’re clearly better off. When we look at our own country’s history—contrasting 2010 with 1776 or 1910 or 1950 or whatever—the story is less clear. We suffer under a lot of regulations and restrictions that our ancestors didn’t face.

But in 1776 black Americans were held in chattel slavery, and married women had no legal existence except as agents of their husbands. In 1910 and even 1950, blacks still suffered under the legal bonds of Jim Crow—and we all faced confiscatory tax rates throughout the postwar period.

In fact, it might even be said that America is more libertarian today than it has been at any point in it’s history:

Compare conditions now to how they were at the outset of the 1960s. Official governmental discrimination against blacks no longer exists. Censorship has beaten a wholesale retreat. The rights of the accused enjoy much better protection. Abortion, birth control, interracial marriage, and gay sex are legal. Divorce laws have been liberalized and rape laws strengthened. Pervasive price and entry controls in the transportation, energy, communications, and financial sectors are gone. Top income tax rates have been slashed. The pretensions of macroeconomic fine-tuning have been abandoned. Barriers to international trade are much lower. Unionization of the private sector work force has collapsed. Of course there are obvious counterexamples, but on the whole it seems clear that cultural expression, personal lifestyle choices, entrepreneurship, and the play of market forces all now enjoy much wider freedom of maneuver.

Does that mean that the infringements of liberty and encroachment of the state that we see today is acceptable ? Of course not, but it does mean that we need to recognize that the idyllic American past never really existed and that the fight for liberty is a fight for the future, not the dead past.

  • http://thelibertypapers.org/ Brad Warbiany

    I touched on some of the same issues in my 2005 essay Peak Liberty. I.e. as we’ve begun to see more and more parity between ethnic/social groups in the amount of liberty enjoyed, the actual level at which that parity maxes out has decreased.

    I.e. 1787 was a pretty free place for a landowning white male; not so much for blacks or women. Today there is a much smaller difference between the freedom a white male enjoys compared to minorities or females, but the actual level of freedom enjoyed is less than he had in 1787 — and decreasing with every new government edict and program (individual mandate, anyone?).

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  • Akston

    Granted there are manifold reasons to appreciate the present. Indoor plumbing, the absence of polio, and fewer codified infringements of natural rights based on complexion and gender are just the beginning. I’ll sing that verse of Kumbaya.

    Is that the main thrust of the post? Or are we apologizing for the currently increasing abuses and begging for the chains to rest lightly upon us?

    Shall we respond to the currently increasing abuses by idolizing a more recent past, rather than a more distant past?

    I’ll grant that “the perfect is the enemy of the good”…after we define “good.”

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  • http://www.dropshippers.co.za/History-Book.html Trey Historical

    For example, in the 1950s, ground nuclear testing was causing lethal radiation exposure to humans. Trey Historical