No Golden Age

David Boaz makes this excellent point at Reason:

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 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.

I guess Bob McDonnel needs to read this too. A state of liberty, natural law theory to the contrary, is not man’s natural state. It’s only through great effort and never ending struggle that we keep ourselves in this artificial state. This country’s history is about that very struggle, and as Mr. Boaz correctly observes, at various times in our nation’s history, liberty has had the upper hand. But which society would you rather live in?

[W]ould you rather live in a country with a department of labor and even an income tax or a Dred Scott decision and a Fugitive Slave Act?

I said that white Americans probably considered themselves free. But in retrospect, were they? They did not actually live in a free society. They were restricted in the relations they could have with millions of their—I started to say “their fellow citizens,” but of course slaves weren’t citizens—their neighbors. They lived under a despotic power. Liberalism seeks not just to liberate this or that person, but to create a rule of law exemplifying equal freedom. By that standard, even the plantation owners did not live in a free society, nor even did people in the “free” states.

Go read the whole thing.

5 thoughts on “No Golden Age”

  1. “[W]ould you rather live in a country with a department of labor and even an income tax or a Dred Scott decision and a Fugitive Slave Act?”

    It depends. If I choose the latter, am I a time-traveler? Can I bring all of my futuristic time-traveling weapons? How about a bunch of my time-traveling buddies and their weapons?

  2. Not to diminish the unprecedented severity of American slavery, but I don’t know how relevant the issue is in this matter unless we assume that 1776-level liberty is inseparable from slavery, or universal citizenship from 2010-style hyperregulation.

    In practical terms, we’ve moved on from slavery and coverture (leaving aside finer arguments about how much of that journey we’ve finished), and consider all people citizens with equal standing under the law. We’re asking “what level of freedom is desireable: the limited government free Americans enjoyed in 1776, or the regulatory planned-society we’re sprinting into in 2010?”

    Just who was considered a free American in 1776 seems like a tangential issue of limited value to that discussion.

  3. The choices are:

    Some of us free and some slaves


    All of us Serfs

    Hmmm. Is there a another choice?

  4. I don’t think Boaz is unconcerned about the creeping state. I mean, he’s a Cato guy, after all. But the point is more than there’s no libertarian golden age, and that we’ve had to struggle for liberty for this country’s entire history.

  5. I think it is a false choice between individual freedom for some, slavery for others, versus infringements on everyone’s freedom to some degree. But the point of the article is that freedom anywhere, anytime, depends upon continuing great efforts to achieve and maintain it for as long as it lasts, and as far as it goes.

    I would aim always for laws that increase or at least protect individual freedom, and trust that the outcome would be an improvement upon statism. And of course, robbing one person to benefit another is anathema to individual freedom for either party.

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