At Reason.com I argue that libertarians are wrong to look back at some point in the past for a golden age of liberty, and especially wrong to write paeans to the gloriously free 19th century without mentioning the little matter of 19 percent of Americans being held in chains.
For many libertarians, “the road to serfdom” is not just the title of a great book but also the window through which they see the world. We’re losing our freedom, year after year, they think….
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.
I note that “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,” and I name a couple of examples. When we talk about how free Americans were in the 19th century, we should remember that many millions of Americans look back on those years and say
“My ancestors didn’t have the right to worship in their own way. My ancestors didn’t have the right to keep and bear arms. My ancestors didn’t have the protection of centuries-old legal procedures. My ancestors sure as heck didn’t have the right to keep what they produced, or to pursue an occupation of their choice, or to enter into mutually beneficial trades. In fact, my ancestors didn’t even have the minimal right of ‘the absence of physical constraint.’”
Postscript: In late-breaking news after the Reason article was written, Gov. Robert McDonnell (R-VA) has issued a proclamation declaring April “Confederate History Month.” As politicians often do with news they’re not really publicizing, McDonnell posted the proclamation on his website Friday, but no one noticed until Tuesday. The proclamation urges Virginians to “understand the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of the Civil War” but does not mention slavery. Virginia’s last Republican governor, in issuing a proclamation remembering the Civil War, had at least acknowledged reality: ”The practice of slavery was an affront to man’s natural dignity, deprived African-Americans of their God given inalienable rights, degraded the human spirit and is abhorred and condemned by Virginians … Had there been no slavery, there would have been no war.” Amazingly, he was criticized for that simple and obvious statement, as was I when I quoted it a few years back.