Tag: history

Liberalism and the French Revolution

Twenty-five years ago today I stood on the Champs-Elysees and watched a parade celebrating the bicentennial of the French Revolution, capped off with Jessye Norman singing “La Marseillaise.”

Of course, the French Revolution is controversial, especially among my conservative friends. How should libertarians see it? Three years ago I discussed that topic at FreedomFest and on the Britannica Blog. Here’s some of what I wrote then:

The Chinese premier Zhou Enlai is famously (but apparently inaccurately) quoted as saying, “It is too soon to tell.” I like to draw on the wisdom of another deep thinker of the mid 20thcentury, Henny Youngman, who when asked “How’s your wife?” answered, “Compared to what?” Compared to the American Revolution, the French Revolution is very disappointing to libertarians. Compared to the Russian Revolution, it looks pretty good. And it also looks good, at least in the long view, compared to the ancien regime that preceded it.

Conservatives typically follow Edmund Burke‘s critical view in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. They may even quote John Adams: ”Helvetius and Rousseau preached to the French nation liberty, till they made them the most mechanical slaves; equality, till they destroyed all equity; humanity, till they became weasels and African panthers; and fraternity, till they cut one another’s throats like Roman gladiators.”

But there’s another view. And visitors to Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington, get a glimpse of it when they see a key hanging in a place of honor. It’s one of the keys to the Bastille, sent to Washington by Lafayette by way of Thomas Paine. They understood, as the great historian A.V. Dicey put it, that “The Bastille was the outward visible sign of lawless power.” And thus keys to the Bastille were symbols of liberation from tyranny….

Liberals and libertarians admired the fundamental values [the French Revolution] represented. Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek both hailed “the ideas of 1789” and contrasted them with “the ideas of 1914” — that is, liberty versus state-directed organization.

Know Your Libertarian History: The Great Tax Revolt of the 1970s

One of the great libertarian victories of the past few decades was the tax revolt of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The inflation of the 1970s caused higher property taxes and income tax bracket creep, which led to California’s Proposition 13, the Kemp-Roth tax cut bill, the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the 1981 tax cut, the deceleration of government spending, the further lowering of marginal rates in 1986—and a long period during which economic growth exceeded government growth.

This story isn’t told often in history books and popular media. Even with the boom in histories of modern conservatism, which in many instances focuses on the reaction to socialism and the welfare state, there is rarely a sense of the important arguments that free-market advocates were making. That’s why it’s important to have historians who understand economics and appreciate the value of limited government. One such historian is Brian Domitrovic, author of Econoclasts: The Rebels Who Sparked the Supply-Side Revolution and Restored American Prosperity.

In the latest issue of Cato Policy Report, the Cato Institute’s newsletter for Sponsors and friends, Domitrovic has a lead article titled “Tax Revolt! It’s Time to Learn from Past Success,” where he tells the story outlined above. If you get discouraged about the possibility of positive change, you should read it. Or read it if you just want to know more about the history of movements for limited government.

Also in the January-February Cato Policy Report: my editorial on Pope Francis, Nelson Mandela, and the longing for Utopia; leading scholars and policymakers on a century of central banking; and reports on NSA surveillance, jury nullification, and Cato’s recent policy studies.

Note that if you were a Cato Sponsor, you would get articles like this in your mailbox every month, along with the satisfaction of supporting the work of the Cato Institute. Become a Sponsor now!

Making and Taking

In a column on what Jane Jacobs would have thought of the Wall Street protests, Sandy Ikeda quotes a line from her book Systems of Survival:

[W]e have two distinct ways of making a living, no more no less… . First, we’re able to take what we want – simply take, depending of course, on what’s available to be taken. That’s what all other animals do… . But in addition, we human beings are capable of trading – exchanging our services for other goods and services, depending, again, on what’s available, but in this case what’s available for exchange rather than taking. [51-2]

And that reminded me of a cartoon from 2002 that I found last week in moving my office (upstairs to the Cato Institute’s beautiful new seventh floor):


Ikeda goes on to urge the Wall Street protesters to follow Jane Jacobs’s advice:

The “commercial moral syndrome” that underlies free markets and trade counsels: “shun force, come to voluntary agreements, be honest, collaborate easily with strangers and aliens, compete, respect contracts, use initiative and enterprise, be open to inventiveness and novelty, be efficient, promote comfort and convenience, dissent for the sake of the task, invest for productive purposes, be industrious, be thrifty, and be optimistic.”

On the other hand, the “guardian moral syndrome” that underlies government and forced takings counsels: “shun trading, exert prowess, be obedient and disciplined, adhere to tradition, respect hierarchy, adhere to tradition, be loyal, take vengeance, deceive for the sake of the task, make rich use of leisure, be ostentatious, dispense largesse, be exclusive, show fortitude, be fatalistic, and treasure honor.”

Which of these best fits the personality profile of the young, iconoclastic but peaceful, ideologically driven protesters with their iPhones, Twitter, and leaderless organization? Now which of these best fits their enemy?

They really are the two choices that have faced us throughout history. And fortunately, as Deirdre McCloskey and Steven Pinker have pointed out in very different recent books, human life has been enhanced by the fact that people have perceived that making and trading are better than taking.

Constitution Day

On September 17, 1787, the Framers of the Constitution of the United States of America, having completed their work over that long hot summer, sent the document out to the states with the hope that conventions in the states, pursuant to Article VII, would see fit to ratify it. Nine months later, on June 21, 1788, New Hampshire became the ninth state to do so, making the Constitution effective between those states. Shortly thereafter, three more states ratified the document; and Rhode Island, the last, did so on May 29, 1790.

The Constitution was not perfect – what human creation is? – not least in its oblique recognition of slavery, believed necessary to ensure union. But it provided for amendment, as with the addition of the Bill of Rights in 1791 and the Civil War Amendments several decades later, which ended slavery and brought the Bill of Rights to bear upon the states. All things considered, especially when we look at the rest of the world, the Constitution has served us well, enabling us to prosper in greater freedom than most have ever enjoyed.

Over the past century, however, we’ve allowed governments at all levels to grow far more than the Framers ever would have imagined the Constitution allowed, until today the modern redistributive and regulatory state is everywhere upon us. James Madison, the principal author of the Constitution, wrote in Federalist 45 that the powers of the new government would be “few and defined,” leaving us largely free to plan and live our own lives. If we’re to restore that Constitution of limited government, it will take more than courts and “politics as usual” to do so. We’ve got to take the Constitution seriously not just on Constitution Day but on every day. Fortunately, there are stirrings in the nation today that suggest that ever more Americans are doing so. Thomas Jefferson said it best: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”