Tracing consequences both seen and unseen.
John W. PayneDoes This Count as Optimism?
Posted at 12:02 am on April 7, 2010, by John W. Payne

Cato Institute executive vice president David Boaz warns libertarians against the imagined limited government utopias of America’s early days that were actually far less libertarian than today in many important ways:

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.

This is vitally important information to keep in mind.  Sure, there was no Federal Reserve, income tax, or drug war in 1800, but the government still did plenty of unspeakably awful things back then.  Of course, some people go too far in the other direction and claim that we have only gotten freer over the years.  Although there might be a general trend towards liberty in the last four centuries or so, that trend has never been constant, and it is in no way a necessary fact about the world.

I truly believe that we can make it to a society of maximum individual freedom, but we won’t get there by looking for it somewhere in the past.  Certainly we can and should make use of the past to show the tragedies of state control and the successes of civil society and the market, but to the best of our knowledge, there has not yet been a completely free human society.  A few have come close, and many more recently have allowed people to be freer than the vast majority of humanity that has ever lived, but freedom is an idea that still has yet to be tried in its totality.

Cross-posted at Rough Ol’ Boy.

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Comments: 3 Comments


  1. I’m guessing the mantra “learn from the past to avoid repeating it,” applies here. Regardless of our current philosophical bent, we can look to the (non existent) past with rose colored glasses, environmentalists to a time of tip-toeing through the tulips, conservatives to when everyone followed a literal interpretation of the Bible, and Libertarians to when everyone was king of their own little kingdom. Perhaps our society will be considered truly civilized when we can look to the past with objectivity.

    It does appear that humanity is moving toward increased individual freedom, yet the form of that freedom isn’t clear, as right now, our best freedom for a rapidly growing section of humanity is freedom from an early miserable death. It seems as we increase our general knowledge, our freedom from the shackles of nature increase.

    Comment by Steve Burrows — 2010-04-07 @ 10:33 am

  2. This dovetails well with a book I was just looking into: Property, Freedom, Society — especially Gottfried’s essay. You can find it on if this link gets chopped:

    Comment by Doug Milam — 2010-04-07 @ 9:34 pm

  3. I’d go further than Boaz. By contemporary standards (lib or otherwise), the early American Republic would be worthy of conquest by today’s altruistic policeman state, America the Empire. The U.S., and their citizens, were engaging in genocide as well as mass slavery along racial lines. Whereas one could say that the issue of women’s liberation was a cultural lag, which could only take time, slavery and mass expropriation were obviously against the idea of “equal liberty” that the founders held as some sort of an ideal.

    Against the ideal of liberty, most Americans fell short, especially in the first century of our history.

    Indeed, much of our falling from original conceptions may be attributed to the manners chosen to (a) deal with one of those issues and (b) NOT deal with the other (slavery and genocide, respectively).

    Comment by Wirkman Virkkala — 2010-04-08 @ 3:20 am

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Henry Hazlitt"[T]he whole of economics can be reduced to a single lesson, and that lesson can be reduced to a single sentence. The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups."
Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson






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