Tag: libertarian

Libertarianism Hits the Big Time

Michael Crowley, late of the New Republic and now with Time magazine, writes thoughtfully about Ron Paul, Rand Paul, and libertarianism. Crowley notes that Rand Paul, “more politically flexible than his father,” has plenty of unlibertarian positions. But both of them are tapping into a real strain in contemporary politics:

But he, like his father, also knows well that a genuine libertarian impulse is astir in America…. polls show an uptick in both social permissiveness and skepticism of government intervention….[Ron Paul] has already waited a long time — and it appears the country is moving his way.

This is a current trend, but it’s also deeply rooted in the American political culture. As David Kirby and I wrote in “The Libertarian Vote”:

It’s no surprise that many Americans hold libertarian attitudes since America is, after all, a country fundamentally shaped by libertarian values and attitudes. In their book It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States, Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marx write, “The American ideology, stemming from the [American] Revolution, can be subsumed in five words: antistatism, laissez-faire, individualism, populism, and egalitarianism.”… Richard Hofstadter wrote: “The fierceness of the political struggles in American history has often been misleading; for the range of vision embraced by the primary contestants in the major parties has always been bounded by the horizons of property and enterprise. However much at odds on specific issues, the major political traditions have shared a belief in the rights of property, the philosophy of economic individualism, the values of competition; they have accepted the economic virtues of capitalist culture.”… McClosky and Zaller sum up a key theme of the American ethos in classic libertarian language: “The principle here is that every person is free to act as he pleases, so long as his exercise of freedom does not violate the equal rights of others.”…

Some people recognize but bemoan our libertarian ethos. Professors Cass Sunstein and Stephen Holmes complain that libertarian ideas are “astonishingly widespread in American culture.”

Much political change in America occurs within those guiding principles. Even our radicals, Lipset and Marks note, have tended to be libertarian rather than collectivist. America is a “country of classical liberalism, antistatism, libertarianism, and loose class structure,” which helps to explain the failure of class-conscious politics in the United States. McClosky and Zaller argue that many of the changes of the 1960s involved “efforts to extend certain values of the traditionalethos to new groups and new contexts”—such as equal rights for women, blacks, and gays; anti-war and free speech protests; and the “do your own thing” ethosof the so-called counterculture, which may in fact have had more in common with the individualist American culture than was recognized at the time.

In a broadly libertarian country most voters and movements have agreed on the fundamentals of classical liberalism or libertarianism: free speech, religious freedom, equality before the law, private property, free markets, limited government, and individual rights. The broad acceptance of those values means that American liberals and conservatives are fighting within a libertarian consensus. We sometimes forget just how libertarian the American political culture is.

And of course American politics and policy deviate a great deal from those fundamental principles, which leaves libertarians feeling frustrated, even angry, and seeming extreme or radical to journalists and others. But as Conor Friedersdorf just wrote in Time’s longtime rival, Newsweek, the media have a bias toward the status quo and establishment politicians, even when current policies and the proposals of elected officials are at least as extreme as libertarian ideas:

If returning to the gold standard is unthinkable, is it not just as extreme that President Obama claims an unchecked power to assassinate, without due process, any American living abroad whom he designates as an enemy combatant? Or that Joe Lieberman wants to strip Americans of their citizenship not when they are convicted of terrorist activities, but upon their being accused and designated as enemy combatants? In domestic politics, policy experts scoff at ethanol subsidies, the home-mortgage-interest tax deduction, and rent control, but the mainstream politicians who advocate those policies are treated as perfectly serious people.

And Fareed Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek International, made the point a dozen years ago in a review of Charles Murray’s book What It Means to Be a Libertarian (in the Public Interest, not online)

The reason that libertarians seem extreme and odd is not that they are a furious minority, angry at a world that seems to have passed them by, but rather the opposite. They are heirs to a tradition that has changed the world. Consider what classical liberalism stood for in the beginning of the nineteenth century. It was against the power of the church and for the power of the market; it was against the privileges of kings and aristocracies and for dignity of the middle class; it was against a society dominated by status and land and in favor of one based on markets and merit; it was opposed to religion and custom and in favor of science and secularism; it was for national self-determination and against empires; it was for freedom of speech and against censorship; it was for free trade and against mercantilism. Above all, it was for the rights of the individual and against the power of the church and the state….

The reason that libertarianism seems narrow and naive is that having won 80 percent of the struggles it has fought over the last two centuries, it is now forced to define itself wholly in terms of the last 20 percent. Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice if you were in Prussia in the 1850s, but in America in the 1960s? Libertarianism has become extreme because the world has left it no recourse.

Now, I don’t feel furious, angry, or extreme. I think that libertarianism is the philosophy of the American revolution, the basic ideology of America, and indeed the foundation of Western civilization. The concept of personal and economic freedom – giving people more power to pursue happiness in their own way by restricting the size, scope, and power of government – is not extreme. Nor is it reactionary. In fact, it is the direction in which civilization has been heading, with many digressions and blind alleys, since the liberal revolution of the 17th century. I am a progressive. I believe that the simple, timeless principles of the American Revolution – individual liberty, limited government, and free markets – are even more powerful and more important in the world of instant communication, global markets, and unprecedented access to information than Jefferson or Madison could have imagined.  Libertarianism is not just a framework for utopia, it is the indispensable framework for the future.

Krugman and Oil Spills, cont’d

Last week Paul Krugman seized on the Gulf oil spill as another occasion to bash libertarians in general and the great Milton Friedman in particular. On Friday David skewered the Times columnist over his odd rhetorical ploy of treating politicians’ failure to follow Friedman’s principles as a refutation of those principles. Now economist Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution reports that Krugman also completely misunderstands the current set of laws governing oil spill liability:

The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA), which is the law that caps liability for economic damages at $75 million, does not override state law or common law remedies in tort (click on the link and search for common law or see here). Thus, Milton Friedman’s preferred remedy for corporate negligence, tort law, continues to operate and there is no doubt that BP’s potential liability under common law alone would be in the billions of dollars.

…The point of the OPA was not to limit tort law but to supplement it.

Tort law, as traditionally understood, could only be used to recover damages to people and property rather than force firms to pay cleanup costs per se. Thus, in the OPA as I read it – and take the details with a grain of salt since I’m not a lawyer–there is no limit on cleanup costs. Moreover, the OPA makes the offender strictly liable for cleanup costs which means that if these costs are proven the offender must pay them regardless (there are a few defenses, such as an act of war, but they are unlikely to apply). The offender is also strictly liable for up to $75 million in economic damages above and beyond cleanup costs. Thus the $75 million is simply a cap on the strictly liable damages, the damages that if proven BP has to pay regardless. But there is no limit, even under the OPA, on economic damages in the event that BP failed to follow regulations or is otherwise shown to be negligent (same as under common law).

The link Krugman supplies, and perhaps the source of his error, was this Talking Points Memo item baldly describing “the maximum liability for oil companies after a spill” as “a paltry $75 million.” Even the most passing acquaintance with the aftermath of real-world oil spills should have been enough for Krugman and TPM author Zachary Roth to realize that liability for assessments to this one federal rainy-day fund is but one component, perhaps but a minor one, of liability for overall spill damage. And even as regards this one specialized federal fund, Krugman and Roth got it wrong, as a glance at the May 1 edition of Krugman’s own paper would have revealed:

When a rich and well-insured company like BP is responsible for the spill, the government will seek reimbursement of what it spends on cleanup from the company and its insurers.

So Krugman’s post not only strained to take a cheap shot at libertarians, but also thoroughly botched a factual background that it would have been easy enough for him to have looked up. Other that that, it was fine.

The Roots of the Tea Parties

The sight of middle-class Americans rallying to protest overtaxing, overspending, Wall Street bailouts, and government-directed health care scares the bejeezus out of a lot of people. The elite media are full of stories declaring the Tea Partiers to be racists, John Birchers, Glenn Beck zombies, and God knows what. So it’s a relief to read a sensible discussion (subscription required) by John Judis, the decidedly leftist but serious journalist-historian at the New Republic. Once the managing editor of the journal Socialist Revolution, Judis went on to write a biography of William F. Buckley Jr. and other books, so he knows something about ideological movements in the United States. Judis isn’t happy about the Tea Party movement, but he warns liberals not to dismiss it as fringe, AstroTurf, or a front group for the GOP:

But the Tea Party movement is not inauthentic, and—contrary to the impression its rallies give off—it isn’t a fringe faction either. It is a genuine popular movement, one that has managed to unite a number of ideological strains from U.S. history—some recent, some older. These strains can be described as many things, but they cannot be dismissed as passing phenomena. Much as liberals would like to believe otherwise, there is good reason to think the Tea Party movement could exercise considerable influence over our politics in the coming years.

Judis identifies three strains of American thinking that help to define the Tea Party movement:

The first is an obsession with decline. This idea, which traces back to the outlook of New England Puritans during the seventeenth century, consists of a belief that a golden age occurred some time ago; that we are now in a period of severe social, economic, or moral decay; that evil forces and individuals are the cause of this situation; that the goal of politics is to restore the earlier period; and that the key to doing so is heeding a special text that can serve as a guidebook for the journey backward.

I’ve offered a dissent from the common libertarian perception that we have declined from a golden age of liberty, but declinism is certainly a strong theme in conservative thought. (Not to mention in Club of Rome environmentalist thought.) Judis suggests that declinism often takes conspiratorial form and wonders “how could a movement that cultivates such crazy, conspiratorial views be regarded favorably by as much as 40 percent of the electorate?”

That is where the Tea Party movement’s second link to early U.S. history comes in. The Tea Partiers may share the Puritans’ fear of decline, but it is what they share with Thomas Jefferson that has far broader appeal: a staunch anti-statism.

And the final historical strain that Judis identifies:

They are part of a tradition of producerism that dates to Andrew Jackson. Jacksonian Democrats believed that workers should enjoy the fruits of what they produce and not have to share them with the merchants and bankers who didn’t actually create anything….

During the 1970s, conservatives began invoking producerism to justify their attacks on the welfare state, and it was at the core of the conservative tax revolt…. 

Like the attack against “big government,” this conservative producerism has most deeply resonated during economic downturns. And the Tea Parties have clearly built their movement around it.Producerism was at the heart of Santelli’s rant against government forcing the responsible middle class to subsidize those who bought homes they couldn’t afford…. Speaking to cheers at the April 15 rally in Washington, Armey denounced the progressive income tax in the same terms. “I can’t steal your money and give it to this guy,” he declared. “Therefore, I shouldn’t use the power of the state to steal your money and give it to this guy.”

Judis could have cited Ayn Rand’s analysis of “producers” and “looters” in influencing this strain of Tea Party thought. Not to mention a much older classical liberal version of class analysis, one that predated Marx’s theory, which focused on “conflict between producers, no matter their station, and the parasitic political classes, both inside and outside the formal state,” or “between the tax-payers and tax-eaters.”

Judis concludes on a note of despair:

their core appeal on government and spending will continue to resonate as long as the economy sputters. None of this is what liberals want to hear, but we might as well face reality: The Tea Party movement—firmly grounded in a number of durable U.S. political traditions and well-positioned for a time of economic uncertainty—could be around for a while.

There’s plenty for libertarians to argue with in Judis’s essay. But it’s an encouraging report for those who think it’s a good thing that millions of Americans are rallying to the cause of smaller government and lower spending. And certainly it’s the smartest, most historically grounded analysis of the Tea Party movement I’ve seen in the mainstream liberal media.

Mark Penn Mourns the Plight of Libertarian Voters

Mark Penn, who has been a pollster and consultant to the presidential campaigns of Bill and Hillary Clinton, John Anderson, and Ross Perot, writes about political discontent in Britain and the United States in the Washington Post today, noting that in this country

socially liberal and fiscally conservative voters believe, especially after what happened with health care, that they have no clear choice: They must sign on with the religious right or the economic left.

Exactly the point that David Kirby and I have been making in our studies on the libertarian vote, as in the first line of this January study:

Libertarian — or fiscally conservative, socially liberal — voters are often torn between their aversions to the Republicans’ social conservatism and the Democrats’ fiscal irresponsibility.

Libertarian-leaning voters are a large swing vote, and they do indeed find problems with both parties. As parties increasingly cater to their “base,” libertarian-leaning independents find themselves dissatisfied with both liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans. We noted in our first study, “The Libertarian Vote,” that according to the 2004 exit polls, “28 million Bush voters support[ed] either marriage or civil unions for same-sex couples” and “17 million Kerry voters … thought government should not … ‘do more to solve problems.’” That was 45 million voters who didn’t seem to fit neatly into the red-blue, liberal-conservative dichotomy.

But Penn is on less solid ground in his next line:

It is just a matter of time before they demand their own movement or party.

Movement, maybe. The Ron Paul campaign certainly appealed to antiwar, small-government voters. And the Tea Party movement focuses almost exclusively on economic and constitutional issues, making it more appealing to libertarians than typical conservative organizations. Meanwhile, as the Tea Party opposition to the Democrats’ big-government opposition surges, so does progress toward marriage equality and rational drug reform. Maybe those various libertarian-leaning groups will find each other. But a new party is a much bigger challenge. It’s no accident that the only third party that achieved even modest success in recent history was headed a billionaire who was also a celebrity, Ross Perot. Ballot access laws, campaign finance restrictions, exclusion of third-party candidates from debates and media coverage, single-member districts – all make it difficult to start a successful third party. It may also be the case that moderates, who tend not to be very angry, and libertarians, who don’t really much like politics, are particularly ill suited to undertake the massive amount of work that a new party requires.

But Penn is absolutely right to point to the plight of “socially liberal and fiscally conservative voters,” forced in every election to ”sign on with the religious right or the economic left.”

Ed Morrissey on The Struggle to Limit Government

Ed Morrissey kindly mentioned The Struggle to Limit Government and responds to the advice for Tea Partiers in my video.

Morrissey says:

I don’t think it’s accurate to say that some Tea Partiers “like” big government; it’s more like some aren’t enthusiastic about dismantling as much of the federal government as others, especially the more doctrinaire libertarians.

In the video I noted that polls showed a majority of the people who identify with the Tea Party movement also thought the entitlement programs were worth their cost. My colleague, Jagadeesh Gokhale, has estimated that paying for current entitlements would require 9 percent of GNP in perpetuity. This is unlikely. Entitlements will have to be changed since too much has been promised. People who think the programs have been worth their cost are not likely initially to support reining in the entitlements. In saying that, I expressed a concern, not a prediction. It may be that Tea Party people will also come to recognize, as Ed Morrissey does, that the entitlement state cannot continue.

I said in the video that Tea Party people should recognize that “Democrats are not always the enemy.” Morrissey rightly says I should not talk about enemies in domestic politics. He adds that the current House Democratic caucus does not deserve support because its leaders favor expanding government. He’s right. Divided government is what we need now. However, I had in mind the more centrist Democrats that supported the tax and spending cuts of 1981 and the tax reform of 1986. I am urging Tea Party people to avoid becoming too partisan. Perhaps some of them will still be in Congress in 2011.

Then there’s the question of foreign policy and defense spending. In the video I said that a limited government movement like the Tea Party should start thinking outside the box on spending. I suggested rethinking America’s expansive commitments in foreign affairs as a way to reduce our military spending.  I did not deny – who could deny it? – that the Constitution entrusts the common defense to the federal government. I also recognize that the United States continues to have enemies. The question is: what should the government do to provide the common defense consistent with limited government?

In the past decade, we have spent enormous sums trying to transform two nations and the entire Middle East into liberal democracies. This was our “forward strategy” for dealing with terrorism. It reminded me of past Progressive crusades at home and abroad.   The strategy was a domestic political disaster, and we shall see whether our massive outlays eventually produce stability in Iraq or Afghanistan. For my part, I remain partial to the conservative virtues of realism, restraint, and prudence in dealing with other nations.

The United States is currently spending about half of all military spending in the world. We have some room for restraint without endangering American lives. We will still have a Navy that protects trade routes to the extent they are threatened. As I said in the video, we need to rethink our overall place in the world if we are to corral the big government beast. The Tea Party folks can lead the way here.

The Pentagon is not most of the federal budget. It is the only part historically, however, that can vary downward as well as upward. Sometime soon, the non-defense parts of the budget are going to have to vary downward rather than just upward.  Being serious about limiting government, however, requires that all spending be considered. Since I think the Tea Party movement is serious about cutting government, it would be better if they had a look at all spending from the start.

Ron Paul, the Chamber of Commerce, and Economic Freedom

Tim Carney has a blog post at the Examiner that’s worth quoting in full:

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has issued its 2009 congressional scorecard, and once again, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Tex. — certainly one of the two most free-market politicians in Washington — gets the lowest score of any Republican.

Paul was one of a handful of GOP lawmakers not to win the Chamber’s “Spirit of Enterprise Award.” He scored only a 67%, bucking the Chamber on five votes, including:

  • Paul opposed the “Solar Technology Roadmap Act,” which boosted subsidies for unprofitable solar energy technology.
  • Paul opposed the “Travel Promotion Act,” which subsidizes the tourism industry with a new fee on international visitors.
  • Paul opposed the largest spending bill in history, Obama’s $787 billion stimulus bill.

(Rep John Duncan, R-Tenn., tied Ron Paul with 67%. John McHugh, R-N.Y., scored a 40%, but he missed most of the year because he went off to the Obama administration.)

I wrote about this phenomenon last year, when the divergence was even greater between the Chamber’s agenda and the free-market agenda:

Similarly, Texas libertarian GOPer Rep. Ron Paul—the most steadfast congressional opponent of regulation, taxation, and any sort of government intervention in business—scored lower than 90% of Democrats last year on the Chamber’s scorecard.

Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., had the most conservative voting record in 2008 according to the American Conservative Union (ACU), and was a “taxpayer hero” according to the National Taxpayer’s Union (NTU), but the U.S. Chamber of Commerce says his 2008 record was less pro-business than Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Hillary Clinton.
This year’s picture was less glaring, but it’s still more evidence that “pro-business” is not the same as “pro-freedom.” The U.S. Chamber is the former. Ron Paul, and the libertarian position, is the latter.

I suspect that on issues such as free trade agreements and immigration reform, I might be closer to the Chamber’s position than to Ron Paul’s. But to suggest that Paul is wrong to vote against business subsidies – or that DeMint was wrong to vote against Bush’s 2008 stimulus package and the $700 billion TARP bailout – certainly does illustrate how much difference there can be between “pro-business” and “pro-market.” Instead of “Spirit of Enterprise,” the Chamber should call these the “Spirit of Subsidy Awards.”

Was There a Libertarian Golden Age?

Recently I wrote an article arguing that there never was a golden age of liberty and that in particular libertarians should not hail 19th-century America as a small-government paradise, at least not without grappling with the massive problem of slavery. Jacob Hornberger, author of an article that I criticized, responded in Reason, and I then responded here. Meanwhile, an interesting discussion took place on a email list of libertarian scholars, and I’m pleased to have gotten the permission of several participants to include some of that discussion here:

Aeon J. Skoble: The ideals of freedom which led to the tangible improvements [Boaz] mentions – I’m concerned that those ideals are eroding/have eroded.  Example: say you have a robust theory of rights, but your society denies rights to women.  That’s a contradiction, and the strength of your rights theory contains the foundation for protesting the injustice and remedying it.  But if you don’t even have a robust rights theory in the first place, there’s no foundation for complaining about lost liberty.  So my concern is that, all the good progress notwithstanding, liberty as an ideal is weaker than it once was.  One thing that’s widespread, e.g., is the constant conflation of positive rights and negative rights.  And at the same time that positive rights are being accorded the status of negative rights, negative rights are increasingly being viewed as encroachable.

David Mayer: In terms of economic liberty and property rights, Americans today are certainly far less free than they were a century ago, or even two centuries ago.  What was once a vast realm of human activity that American law left to individuals’ freedom of contract (the whole realm of business activity as well as personal life, in terms of what substances individuals may choose to ingest in their own bodies, the wages and hours they can work, whom they can hire or fire, to whom they can sell their property or refuse to sell their property, etc., etc.), has now been almost wholly subjected to the dictates of government, thanks to the rise of the 20th century regulatory / welfare state.  Business owners today (to pick one obvious category of Americans – arguably, the most important category, if as I do, you agree with Calvin Cooolidge’s maxim, “The business of America is business”) are certainly far less free today than they were 100 years ago (before the “Progressive” era), or 70 years ago (before the “New Deal revolution”), or 50 years ago (before the “Civil Rights movement” and the various federal anti-discrimination laws), or 20 years ago (before, say, enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act) – or even a year ago (before enactment of the Democrats’ health insurance nationalization law).

Glenn Reynolds: I think that David’s piece is useful in another way:  If your narrative is one in which freedoms are always shrinking, and government always growing, it may tend to discourage people from working to make things better.  I see a lot of that kind of thing from people on the Right, and it irritates me no end.  I remember when the passage of the assault weapons ban was presented as just another downward ratchet in freedom, and yet now the gun issue is such that even lefty Dems are for the most part unwilling to touch it.  That, it seems to me, is an example of how freedom can expand even in the comparatively short term.

Steve Horwitz: The way I see this is that we’re trying to answer the question “Are we more free?”  To do so, we need to address both the “we” and the “free” pieces.  I read David as making two points:  1) We need to think carefully about the “we” and recognize, as we all have noted, the major gains in freedom for non-white, non-males (and maybe non-Christians too).  2) But he was also saying there are more freedoms in the calculus than the economic.  Even white men are freer along a number of dimensions than they were in the 19th century, when one takes the social realm seriously.  Some folks have noted those.

My own view is that one can look at this in the economist’s old tool:  the 2 x 2 matrix:

economic freedoms        social freedoms

White men           notable losses            good-sized gains

Others                       huge gains                    huge gains

I think by any accounting, the NW quadrant is smaller than the sum of the others.  We can debate over how much smaller, but if we could somehow aggregate these freedoms, I think there’s no question the total amount of freedom per capita is bigger today than “before.”

Mark LeBar: Speaking for myself, I don’t think it’s a matter of economic vs. other freedoms. If I were to put my finger on what I would say seems to me most significant in thinking the losses in NW swamp whatever gains there are elsewhere, I would say it has to do with the loss of respect for contract. That’s not to say there are no gains: as others have pointed out, 2 centuries ago I could not have contracted with women, or Africans, and to the extent non-whites and non-males have been accepted to the relevant moral community, that is indeed an expansion of my liberty as well as theirs. But, as I noted earlier, my authority to bind myself in ways that are not subject to veto by the state is a shadow of what it once was. I won’t enumerate the list again. But not only is that list much smaller, the rightfulness of the state to determine just how much smaller it may be continues to expand virtually without pause, as those on this list will need no reminder. I would say there has been a sea-change from the idea (however imperfectly implemented) that the flow of authority goes from individuals to the state, to just about exactly the opposite. And that is simply a catastrophic loss to liberty, not just for white males, but for everybody. It’s hard for me to see that there can be good reasons for rejecting either the claim that the authority relation is now generally seen as running the other way, or that that amounts to a massive loss of liberty. And I don’t see imminent prospects for broad change in those attitudes. Hence the pessimism.

David Olson: I think that perhaps I am missing something. In reading today’s exchange, I thought that people were working toward a consensus that had largely been reached and summarized by Steven’s email. But now Mark writes that liberty gains to everyone but straight white Christian males are swamped by the liberty losses to white males (and to hypothetical non-whites and females compared to the liberty they might have enjoyed if they’d had full equality 200 + years ago).

I’m very surprised by this statement. The logic of this would seem to lead to the proposition that it would be better if things were still as they were 200 years ago. Would anyone actually make that statement? If not, is there some value in addition to freedom that people are focusing on in deciding the question? (And let’s take medical and dental care advances out of the question to avoid skewing the answer.)

John Hasnas: I suspect that no one on the list would disagree with the assertion that between the time of the adoption of the Constitution and the present, the political and legal commitment to a government of limited, enumerated powers has greatly declined. I also suspect that no one on the list would disagree with the assertion that a vastly greater proportion of the population enjoys freedom from illegitimate political and legal restrictions and disabilities than was the case at the time of the adoption of the Constitution. Out of this universal agreement, we have managed to manufacture disagreement by asking a vague question that equivocates on the meaning of the word freedom; to wit, “Are we more free?”

It seems pretty obvious that to the extent that we are free, that freedom is much more widely distributed than in the past. It also seems pretty obvious that to the extent that there is less legal protection against the interference of the federal government with our activities, there is less freedom. Beyond this, the value of determining whether we are more “free” in some unspecified sense escapes me.

Aeon Skoble: Actually, I wasn’t asking “Are we more free?” – I conceded David’s claim that we were.  I was expressing some concern over whether the trend will continue positively or negatively, given that the positive and negative senses of freedom are so frequently conflated (not by members of this list, but in general, both in the academy and among the general public), and that in many quarters the very concept of freedom is in disfavor, and the idea that all rights are subject to encroachment by the state, which is more and more thought of as having limitless power.

Steve Horwitz: I agree with Aeon’s concerns.  One way to put it is, as I think Mark LeBar did earlier, even if it’s true that we are collectively (per capita) more free, those gains have come at the weakening of the sacredness of certain principles that affect everyone’s freedom, especially in the long run.  I too share the concern that the last two years have accelerated that process in very problematic ways.

Stephen Davies: There’s actually general agreement here with the broad argument David made but some mild disagreement over the (probably unanswerable) question of whether the aggregate of total freedom is greater or larger. That wasn’t the main thrust of David’s piece as I read it though, he was talking about the implications and consequences of the (clearly wrong imho) line that for liberty it’s been downhill all the way since the later 18th century. This is a common line as we all know and I think its really problematic. As David says it means you come over as indifferent to the undoubted gains made in some areas by various groups and so as only concerned with the position of one subgroup. This may well be wrong but impressions matter. This line also shows a deeply conservative sensibility and mindset. If you are libertarian in the sense of not liking large or expansive government but deeply conservative in other ways (e.g on questions of social hierarchy or relations between the sexes or family organisation) then you will feel that it’s been downhill for a long time. …

I think the real problem though with the approach David criticises is the way it leads you to behave with regard to current events. Basically you are going to see yourself as playing defence all the time and probably as fighting a losing battle against an inexorable tide of rising coercive statism. This means you will come over as angry, negative, and despondent, which are not attractive qualities. Also you will let the other side set the agenda and then respond to them rather than taking the initiative. This means you spend all your time criticising and attacking proposals that are liberty hostile instead of spending most of your time advocating positive liberty enhancing changes. …

Finally, if I could put my historian’s hat on for a minute. We need to distinguish between two different measurements - the size of government (as shown by its share of GDP) and it’s extent or range (as shown by the number of activities or areas of life that are considered to be its concern). In the first case there’s a clear growth (we’ve all seen the graph). Even there there’s Tyler Cowen’s argument that a 40% share of a really big GDP is less bad than a 15% share of a much smaller pie. In the second case there’s been considerable gains as well as losses. Religious belief, observance etc was once seen as the central concern of government. Now it’s a private matter. Governments used to concern themselves with things such as dress, diet and public interactions (under sumptuary laws) and intimate details of people’s sexual behaviour (through both church and secular courts). This is no longer true. OTOH there are clearly areas where there’s been a shift in the wrong direction such as mood altering substances and firearms or where there’s a danger of a bad movement (diet for example).

The following comments are prompted by Jacob Hornberger’s response in Reason.

Brad Smith: Hornberger notes that the concept of what it meant to be free was much broader in the 19th century (something Aeon also touched on).  True, some people were not free – but for those who were, the concept had much more meaning.  That’s why I think one can agree with both perspectives, that freedom has both gained and lost ground in important ways.

Implicitly, Hornberger notes the extent to which government was simply not a presence in the lives of most people.  The average free man could go days, weeks, or even months with no direct contact whatsoever with the government. Hornberger might also have noted that a free man didn’t need a passport to travel, or an operator’s license to drive his wagon, or a license plate for his horse.  In most cases, he didn’t need a building permit to add to his home.   Even laws that might be on the books (but were perhaps not so ubiquitous as many think) laid lightly on people – laws against prostitution, sodomy, polygamy and such.  A gay man in the 19th century might fear great social sanction if his predilections or activities became known, but the idea that the government would interfere with his activities was not really an issue at all, whatever the state code might say.  In the 19th century, one certainly didn’t need to license one’s pets, and one was never harangued by government sponsored advertising to properly cook your eggs or spend time with your children.  Today, for white men and for women and minorities, government permeates every aspect of our lives, essentially 24/7/365.

Even as we have expanded the blessings of freedom to more people, society’s concept of freedom seems to have narrowed tremendously, to where even many self described libertarians seem to think a 39% income tax bracket is pretty darn acceptable.  The boundaries of what it means to be free seem to have retreated, and to have retreated enormously.  Thus, even as more people have benefited from freedom, the long term outlook for freedom seems in many ways much more grim.

Keith E. Whittington: The overseer or master exercised lawful, violent coercive force over the slave on a daily basis and did so with the full support and backing, if necessary, of the government.  Moreover, “the government” (such as slave patrols) often consisted precisely of ad hoc groupings of armed civilians operating under the titular direction of a government official.  And the government wasn’t always willing to stand ready protect people from coercive private groups who wanted to enforce social conformity.  So, on the one hand, some prostitutes might be tolerated if they kept to themselves in the wrong part of town, but on the other hand abolitionist newspapers editors could have their houses burned down and Catholics and Protestants could find themselves becoming armed gangs and rioting to secure their respective neighborhoods.  No level of government had an expansive police force in the 19th century, but that just means that social order was generally maintained by other mechanisms.  It doesn’t necessarily mean that people were free from social order.

Mark LeBar: David is certainly right that slavery and the legal subordination of women are blights on the very institutions that were modeling liberty, and especially for those directly affected it is a gross mistake not to recognize what those changes in law and society mean in gains in liberty. But that is an observation that pretty much any decent person, libertarian or not, can be expected to make. There is a distinctiveness to the point of insisting, as Hornberger and Brad do, that the very liberty that is reaching to more people is radically constrained in many ways. We can grant, it seems to me, that many people are freer in significant ways than they once were, while insisting that the point of liberty itself is in danger of getting lost in the process. That, it seems to me, is a case that libertarians are uniquely in position to make.

Eugene Volokh: Prof. LeBar writes, that “what it means to be free is a shadow of its former self.”  But is that right, even as to white males?  Economic regulation, including of a sort that libertarians much oppose, is not a novel matter.  Neither is taxation (which, to be sure, is at a much higher rate than in the past, but I’m not sure that the precise rate is that much a part of “what it means to be free”).  Neither is regulation of trade.  Neither is restriction on freedom of association.  Neither is regulation of guns.  Neither is regulation of personal behavior; alcohol prohibition first emerged in the U.S., for instance, in the mid-1800s, and of course the regulation of sexual behavior was far greater in the past tan today.

What’s more, all these were favored, I think, by people who believed in freedom, which meant to them (as it does to many lovers of freedom today) freedom subject to at least some constraints aimed at protecting the freedom of others and at protecting the well-being of society.  Liberty has long been respected and fought for by Americans; but that the late 1700s and late 1800s were liberty-loving times doesn’t mean that the legal systems of that era were particularly libertarian as we libertarians would want them to be.  “We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing.”  I don’t think there’s been a past Golden Age of Liberty, in which freedom was generally accepted as meaning something far deeper and broader than what it means today, even for white men.

Steve Horwitz: I do think part of what’s going on here are two cross-cutting conversations.  Or at least two distinct claims.

1.  “Americans, on the whole, are freer than they were, say, 150 years ago.”

2.  “Government is more obtrusive in a moment-to-moment or day-to-day way than 150 years ago.”

I actually think both of these are true.  The enormous restrictions on the freedom of blacks and women (and others) of 150 years ago, though ultimately backed by the force of the state, did not require the state to be, as it were, “in their faces” on a moment-to-moment basis, as slavery and the second-class status of women were simply part of the institutional furniture (and often policed “privately” as Keith noted and as I noted about domestic violence in my earlier comments).

So it seems to me 1 and 2 are both true if one accepts that slavery and patriarchy don’t require the kind of constant and widespread, if small on each margin, government intervention we have in our own time.

We are collectively more free, I would argue, even though the underlying principles that assured the freedom of those who had such freedom 150 years ago have broken down significantly.

Keith Whittington: There is no doubt that you can run through statutes, court decisions and executive actions in the mid-19th century and compare the total to the mid-20th century and conclude that there is more overall government regulation in the latter than the former.  The latter is more voluminous and more detailed.  My only qualification/concern on this would be to note that while the 19th century regulation is less detailed it could be extremely intrusive (Sunday laws literally shut down all commercial, social and transportation activity in large parts of several states during parts of the 19th century) and that formal government activity was supplemented with informal private activity that was equally stultifying.  Without a robust vision of individual self-ownership, to borrow from Mark, that combination of social and governmental regulation could be extremely restrictive of anything we would want to recognize as individual liberty.  The battle for the idea of individual liberty, as well as the legal and social reality of it, was an on-going one throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and I’m not confident how you net out the debits and credits.

Glen Whitman: Might it be helpful to ask why so many libertarians and conservatives want to say that America used to be more free than it is now?

Aside from sheer misplaced patriotism (which I’m sure is a big piece of the story), I think it comes from the desire to have an answer to the question, so often posed by statists, “When has a laissez-faire system ever worked?”  Rather than saying, “I’m advocating an untested idea,” we’d like to be able to say, “Yes, laissez-faire has indeed worked.”

And is that really wrong to say?  I think that with respect to specific issues, we can say that (a) the U.S. was freer before, and (b) somehow the country didn’t go to hell in a handbasket.  We can say, for instance, that drugs used to be largely legal and we didn’t become a nation of useless addicts.  We can say that labor markets functioned without extensive regulation.  (Of course, blacks and women were often excluded from those markets – but I’d say the markets functioned *despite* their exclusion, not because of it.)  We can say that there wasn’t a welfare state, and private charities and mutual aid societies did a fine job of helping those who fell on hard times.

None of which refutes David’s point.  Some groups were markedly less free, and everyone was less free in certain ways.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t sometimes point to history as a guide, which I suspect is what we really want.

Stephen Davies: I think Glen makes an important point here. Quite apart from the argument about how to quantify or compare different restrictions on liberty at different times and in different areas of lie is the question of rhetoric. Why present the story of liberty in the US as one of a decline from a golden age rather than as a story of slow growth in a positive direction or (my own favourite) one of decline in some areas and growth in others? Apart from the reason he gives I think one reason is the dominance of the jeremiad as a form of political argument. This isn’t confined to libertarians of course, in fact it seems sometimes that every political persuasion thinks things are going to the dogs. I think it’s a bad strategy however as well as being questionable.

I do think Mark and Aeon are on to something however in saying that there’s been a decline in the ideal of self-government or at least in the degree to which it’s articulated and the extent to which it’s understood as a complex idea rather than just a matter of doing your own thing. It was a much thicker concept in times past partly because it was associated with lots of other ideas of psychology (the notion of character) and sociology for example - there was a strongly held idea that you couldn’t be fully self-governing or independent if you were not economically self supporting and so the idea of freedom was tied in with all sorts of other ideas.

If you look outside the US, Dicey made the argument towards the end of the nineteenth century that there’d actually been a movement away from intrusive paternalistic regulation in the earlier nineteenth century followed by the growth of a new kind of intrusive state action after the later 1880s. He ralated this to public opinion which for him meant widely held but often unarticulated notions, beliefs and understandings on the part of the population at large or at least the politically active part of it. This kind of account makes more sense to me, particularly if you combine it with an approach that says that while freedom may have increased for some groups it declined for others and that at any one time it was growing in some areas of life while being in recession elsewhere. Complicated and messy but that’s history for you.

Loren Lomasky: To the extent that a consensus emerges in preceding comments it’s that the losses of liberty to white males over the past century or two are juxtaposed against liberty gains for people of color, women, some marginalized others.  Enjoying somewhat less than a genuinely full consensus is the proposition that on the liberty ledger the minuses of the former class are outweighed by the pluses of the latter.

Because the balance seemed so patent to me, I’ve said nothing previously.  I now wish to add, though, that it is far from obvious that even establishment white males suffered a liberty deficit over this period, and that not just because of gains with regard to social freedom but even with regard to core economic liberty.  Each of the following is an enormous gain for liberty:

1) The capacity to pursue one’s ends with willing others by forming corporations without any need of special legislative grants;

2) Rights of workers to associate freely with each other in pursuit of economic advancement  (unions, etc.)

3) Military services now performed by paid professionals who volunteer for the job rather than via a draft.

I could go on, but these themselves are not trivial.  Each is orders of magnitude more significant on the plus side than, say, Obamacare is on the negative.  An enormous number of state actions piss me off, but not to the extent that they blind me to the evident truth that the history of the United States since 1776 is a history of liberty in ascendance.

David Mayer: Albert Venn Dicey’s Law and Public Opinion in England in the Nineteenth Century does indeed identify a “golden age” for liberty, in (roughly) the middle third of the 19th century, when (according to Dicey’s analysis) classical liberal ideas were the dominant opinion (in terms of public policy).  That was a “golden age,” in Britain, because it was sandwiched in between (again, according to Dicey’s analysis) a period of “Old Tory” paternalism (the early 19th-century, continuing from the 18th century) and a period of “collectivism,” or socialism (with the rise of the late-Victorian-era welfare state in Britain, in the last third of the 19th century and continuing into the 20th century).

U.S. history is quite different.  We were founded as, essentially, a classical liberal nation:  the American Revolution was based on “radical Whig” ideas – the same ideas that so influenced British public policy during its classical liberal reform period (for example, many of the mid-18th-century radical Whigs who were friends of American independence – men like John Cartwright – were also leaders in the Parliamentary reform movement, culminating in the Reform Act of 1832).  But, as I have written elsewhere (see my essay on “Completing the American Revolution” (my Atlas Shrugged 50th anniversary essay) in Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, Spring 2008) the American “liberal” revolution of 1776 was far from complete.  Sure, we founded government explicitly on the protection of individual rights, and we instituted written constitutions to help limit the power of government (a huge advance in the history of world “political science”).  But, of course, as David and other participants in this discussion have noted, we did not consistently implement the “new science of politics” implied by the principles of 1776:  not only did we retain the institution of slavery and denied full legal equality to women but, in many ways, we retained in the law (mostly in the English common law as received and only slightly modified in American law) much of the older, paternalistic role of government that England had had for centuries and that had been brought over to the English colonies in America.  (One simple example:  the notion that government may regulate prices of businesses “affected with a public interest” – a concept from English law (one that in the early 17th century was used by apologists for royal absolutism to justify various kinds of economic regulations by the King’s government) not only survived in early American law but was used by the U.S. Supreme Court, in its 1877 decision in Munn v. Illinois, to justify government fixing of maximum rates for certain businesses – and ultimately, in the 20th century, to justify all sorts of needless government licensing and other restrictions on businesses.)

So, it’s quite true (as several participants in the discussion have noted) that there’s not been really any single “golden age” for liberty in the history of the United States.  Depending on how you measure it (by the size of government, the magnitude of taxes and spending, or the variety of forms of “legal paternalism,” for example), or what aspect you’re focused on (“economic” liberty versus “personal” liberty, for example, notwithstanding the artificiality of that distinction), or whose liberty you’re focusing on (business owners versus workers and/or consumers, men vs. women, whites vs. blacks, native-born Americans vs. immigrants, etc.), there’s no clear pattern:  liberty (as a whole) is at once on the ascendance, on the decline, and staying about even, in the American “mixed bag” of freedom/paternalism.  But (if I might be permitted to return to the main point of my original post) there’s little doubt that government regulation of business – government interference with the free market – at all levels, and especially at the national level, has been steeply rising, and thus a very important aspect of liberty (economic freedom) has been steeply falling, since the rise of the “progressive” regulatory/ welfare state in the early 20th century.  That part of American history (the past century or so) most closely resembles the age of “collectivism,” or socialism, that Dicey identified in Britain in the latter third of the 19th century.