There’s an amusing, and instructive, kerfuffle going on in libertarian blogistan.Â David Boaz started it with a devastating critique of the “lost Golden Age of liberty” trope, pointing out that Framer-worship means, in effect, admiring a society that embraced slavery and offered little in the way of personal liberty to women.
Jacob Hornberger replied, rolling the Golden Age forward into the post-slavery period:
Letâ€™s consider, say, the year 1880. Here was a society in which people were free to keep everything they earned, because there was no income tax. They were also free to decide what to do with their own moneyâ€”spend it, save it, invest it, donate it, or whatever. People were generally free to engage in occupations and professions without a license or permit. There were few federal economic regulations and regulatory agencies. No Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, bailouts, or so-called stimulus plans. No IRS. No Departments of Education, Energy, Agriculture, Commerce, and Labor. No EPA and OSHA. No Federal Reserve. No drug laws. Few systems of public schooling. No immigration controls. No federal minimum-wage laws or price controls. A monetary system based on gold and silver coins rather than paper money. No slavery. No CIA. No FBI. No torture or cruel or unusual punishments. No renditions. No overseas military empire. No military-industrial complex.
As a libertarian, as far as Iâ€™m concerned, thatâ€™s a society that is pretty darned golden.
[Don’t you love “Few systems of public schooling” as an object of nostalgia? No doubt poor children are happier growing up ignorant.]
Hornberger admits 1880 wasn’t quite perfect; there were, he says,
other exceptions and infringements on freedom, such as tariffs and denying women the right to vote.
[Because, of course, raising revenue by taxing imports rather than by capitation is as grave an insult to liberty as denying the franchise to half the population.]
How about the female half of the population? By 1880 coverture laws, which basically denied married women any meaningful property rights, were still in place in many states. (Coverture laws persisted in some states until the 1920s.) And there were plenty of further paternalistic regulations on the sort of work women were allowed to undertake. Of course, women in 1880 had almost no meaningful rights to political participation, ensuring that they were unable to demand recognition and protection of their basic liberty rights through the political system.
Slavery was gone in 1880, but systematic state-enforced racial apartheid was going strong. The economic and political rights of blacks were severely curtailed under the various antebellum state Black Codes and then under the Jim Crow laws. What formal rights Southern blacks did have were often denied in fact by extralegal enforcement of racist norms by lynch mobs and other campaigns of terror.
By 1880, most of the the U.S.â€™s imperialist efforts to secure North American territory against the claims of competing European imperial powers were complete. But the governmentâ€™s campaign of murder, theft, and segregation against native populations continued.
One could go on and on in this vein in gruesome detail. But this is enough to establish the point: 1880â€™s America was a society in which well more than half the population was systematically and often brutally denied basic liberty rights. If thatâ€™s golden, Iâ€™d hate to see bronze.
Right. The main occupation of the U.S. Army between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the Spanish-American war was “Indian fighting,” or, as we call it today, “ethnic cleansing.” Of course Wilkinson blames it all on “the government,” as if much of the work hadn’t been done by free individuals exercising their right to keep and bear arms in defense of the private property they were engaged in stealing.
But even if we look only at heterosexual males of European descent, and even if we agree to treasure such rights as the right to grow up without schooling and to be free of employment discrimination against eight-year-olds, the right to consume adulterated food and drugs, and the right to starve to death if incapacitated from earning a living by misfortune, disease, or old age, in one respect the 1880s were much less free than, say, the 1950s. In 1880 any attempt to form a labor union was treated by the courts as a criminal conspiracy. It was also likely to be met with extra-legal violence by the Pinkertons (and sometimes the national guard). Today, however, the right of workers to organize is an internationally-recognized human right (except in El Salvador and Libertarianland).
In practice, the right to unionize has been under siege from union-busing consultants, aided by capital mobility and a complaisant NLRB. But even post-Reagan, American workers remain free, in principle, to try to bargain collectively with their employers. This is not, of course, a right that libertarians cherish; Brink Lindsey lists the collapse of private-sector unions as a gain for liberty. But the utter helplessness of a railway worker, textile operator, or coal miner of the 1880s (who enjoyed, thanks the the “fellow sevant” doctrine, the right to be injured at work without receiving compensation) in the face of the tyranny of the boss and the foreman is not a condition to which all of us aspire to return.