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When Libertarians Forget History

by @ 1:47 pm on April 7, 2010. Filed under History, Individual 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.

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5 Responses to “When Libertarians Forget History”

  1. Justin Bowen says:

    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.

    Just like there are examples all over libertarianism and other schools of thought who think that the Patriots who were fighting against Britain were fighting for freedom and liberty and all that nonsense.

    You can’t have it both ways. You can’t say that it’s okay for one group of people to supposedly stand on moral principle and declare their freedom from one government while oppression was the word of the day and then go on to say that another group of people not more than a century later weren’t standing on the very same moral principles while trying to obtain their freedom.

    The fact is, where there’s government, there’s oppression. Anyone claiming to be fighting any government while proposing that another be set up in its place is no better than the Confederates or Patriots.

  2. tfr says:

    > married women had no legal existence except as agents of their husbands.

    Allow me to pick a nit: this oft mentioned factoid is only half true. True, women could not vote, nor were they likely to be active legally while their husbands were alive. However, once their husband was gone, they often were considered head of household, often made property transactions, disposed of estates in wills, etc.

    I won’t get into Lincoln, except to say his little crusade to save “the Union” came at a cost of a great deal of freedoms, and not just those of southerners.

  3. Scott says:

    When I was at a tea party last year, and they were all chanting “take our country back”, I thought of some of these points. Exactly how ‘far’ do they want to take it back? Things weren’t exactly peaches and cream back then either.

  4. Michael says:

    Thank God for this piece by David Boaz. Ron Paul, good economics ideas that he may have had, wrote several times that the Civil War eroded the Constitution. This is a bunch of bullshit and, yes, borderline racist.

    And for those who want to deny the racism accusation, racism isn’t some boogeyman. It’s used to describe a real thing. If you don’t want to be called a racist, then just stop being a racist.

  5. [...] Doug Mataconis at Below The Beltway: 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. [...]

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