David Boaz on Historical Blinders among Libertarians

April 6, 2010

Reason.com: “Up from Slavery: There’s no such thing as a golden age of lost liberty

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. Take R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., longtime editor of the American Spectator. In Policy Review (Summer 1987, not online), he wrote:

Let us flee to a favored utopia. For me that would be the late 18th Century but with air conditioning….With both feet firmly planted on the soil of my American domain, and young American flag fluttering above, tobacco in the field, I would relish the freedom.

I take it Mr. Tyrrell dreams of being a slave-owner. Because as he certainly knows, most of the people in those tobacco fields were slaves.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Eric H April 6, 2010 at 9:33 pm

The Golden Age of Lost Liberty is the moment immediately before any new regulation takes effect. We are living in a constant stream of Ages of Lost Liberty. The anachronistic Mr. Tyrell is wrong of course, but it’s unfair to pick on him; his motivations are born of the fear of living in a perpetual state of Lost Liberty.

I don’t think we are freer now because we live under a paunchy leviathan who makes no explicit claims to our productivity. The outright terror of slavery and lynching has been replaced by the implicit terror of bureaucratic nitpicking. Death by one brutal slash versus death by a thousand tiny cuts.

There is a rough equivalence between a government squandering the potential of hundreds of millions by forcing them to navigate through thousands of pages of regulation and a government squandering the potential of millions through outright murder and enslavement. Boaz denies that equivalence when he asks us to choose between a nation with a department of labor and a nation with slavery.

Cabinet posts and departments of labor and energy have never been predicates for the emancipation of slaves or the realization of human potential. It is therefore right for those who love freedom to argue against them.

TC April 6, 2010 at 10:16 pm

“If you had to choose, would 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?”

How about neither?

Charles N. Steele April 6, 2010 at 10:41 pm

I think Boaz does a pretty good job on this. But the idea that we can have an objective aggregative measure of whether there was more freedom at one time than another is mistaken. Freedom is multidimensional, and not each person has the same freedom. There’s no single “right” way to sum this up.

This actually is an aspect of what Mises was talking about when he said historical/empirical questions require judgment.

I do think libertarians ought to take slavery seriously as the crime it was (and is). A free American man in 1850 was quite free, while an enslaved man lived in circumstances less free than the average Soviet citizen under Brezhnev.

Jude April 7, 2010 at 12:54 am

Eric H,

You’re missing the point of the Boaz piece entirely. Anyone who has read Boaz’s work or spoken to the man knows that he favors severely limiting the size and scope of the State, and he would sleep sounder if our regulatory overlords found other day jobs. However, we libertarians do ourselves no favors by pretending that the 18th century was in the aggregate “freer”, as whole segments of American society were denied the most fundamental of rights, and thus when we speak of moving towards a more libertarian world, we would do well not invoke the days when chattel slavery permeated American society.

You write “Boaz denies that equivalence when he asks us to choose between a nation with a department of labor and a nation with slavery.” This is simply false. Again, Boaz would rather a world both without slavery *and* without a department of labor. But the truth is, one the whole, the average American of any gender, race, religion, and sexual orientation, is freer today than in the 18th century. This is not to deny the ways in which today we are less free, but Boaz was making a macro point, not a micro one.

Daniil Gorbatenko April 7, 2010 at 3:27 am

To me, the issue is more subtle than Boaz suggests.

I think that what we call freedom has always been developing in two dimensions – extensively and intensively. Up to the late 19th century these processes went hand in hand, but then they diverged, and have been largely going in opposite directions.

A metaphor of freedom as an economic good may be in order. Since the Civil War every American has got access to it, but its quality has diminished.

A more important problem is that while David Boaz understands that it is possible at the same time to lament the loss of quality of freedom, and applaud the extension of access to it, he does not make it sufficiently clear.

In other words, the question that should be asked is not whether the present overall quantity of freedom is greater than it was in, say, 1860, but whether it could have been much greater than it is now, had it not been for the rise of the interventionist state.

Adam Allouba April 7, 2010 at 8:52 am

Tom, this post is spot-on. Last Thursday the Daily Show ran a video clip mocking those who criticize the census for being too intrusive. They assembled a “panel” that included a libertarian, a tea party member, etc. (who didn’t appear to be in on the joke). The tea party member said with a straight face that the original three census questions (the third of which was “how many slaves do you own?”) show how much freer we were back then. Of course, the audience burst out laughing.

When the interviewer said “unless you were a slave” he hesitated and said “yes, unfortunately, we did have slavery” like he was talking about bad weather. Then when she said “unless you were a woman” he was tongue-tied and finally stuttered, “I’m not going to get into this with you.” So all he did was confirm the audience’s belief that the less-government movement is made up of wingnuts who want to go back to the days when “we” were free (“we” being straight, Protestant, white, property-owning men).

Eric H April 7, 2010 at 10:53 pm

Jude,

I’m not missing Boaz’s point, and I don’t pine for an ancient time of freedom. No such animal existed. Tyrell’s piece–written 23 years ago–represents a strain of thought Boaz doesn’t agree with. The root cause of that strain of thought is the slavery lullaby sung to us almost continuously over the last 80 years. I believe human beings can gently glide into slavery as surely as they can be marched into it at gunpoint.

The video that introduced me to Tom’s writing and thought featured Tyler Cowen discussing Realizing Freedom. David introduced Tyler with a playful “Tyler doesn’t want to privatize the beltway, so you know what kind of libertarian he is!” I think this is funny too. But not funny enough to convince me that Tyler is right that we shouldn’t fear big government, or rather that big government is an inevitable consequence of the way things are.

I am relatively unschooled, and have read too little, or perhaps too much, of Hayek to accept quantitative comparisons of sociological “facts” like amounts of freedom through time.

Jude April 7, 2010 at 11:17 pm

Eric,

“I am relatively unschooled, and have read too little, or perhaps too much, of Hayek to accept quantitative comparisons of sociological “facts” like amounts of freedom through time.”

So I suppose you would not be willing to say that today’s Germany is more free than the Germany of 1939, right? Or that the China of today is more free than the China of the 1960s.

Greg April 8, 2010 at 1:28 am

It is all a day dream… fantasy… he, we, they all dream of a time when we may have had more freedoms than that of today or in the future. Are we so deep into our analysis that we need to subvert the thought with days of slaves or women not voting … or child labor… or having to actually work in the fields… take it for what its worth, not literal based on current/past events or even history. Romanticize it a bit… Other wise, there NEVER has been a time in history that was perfect. Save the coming of the Christ and our living in Heaven.

Curt April 8, 2010 at 12:01 pm

“I … have read too little, or perhaps too much, of Hayek to accept quantitative comparisons of sociological “facts” like amounts of freedom through time.”

Actually Hayek makes constant comparisons of the greater and lesser degrees of freedom among various societies. As I recall, these discussions are scattered throughout both CL and all 3 volumes of LLL.

Eric H April 9, 2010 at 1:00 pm

Curt–

So then I’ve read too little! I’ve just purchased CL and and saving for the complete LLL set!

I am slowly working my way through the collection “Individualism and Economic Order.”

The essay “The Facts and the Social Sciences” came to mind while reading David’s piece. I would embarrass myself by holding forth on “The Facts and the Social Sciences” like I knew what I was talking about, but I found within it a source of courage for skepticism about any kind of historical claim.

As much as I–as a libertarian–agree with David’s claims, I am uneasy with the sense of righteousness that agreement allows me to feel.

RL April 11, 2010 at 3:01 pm

I think of Jeff Hummel’s excellent book on the Civil War, “Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men” (which is from a Lincoln quote). Hummel sees the Civil War as a turning point: prior to the war the general secular trend had been toward less government; after, toward ever increasing government. Certainly, the freedoms remaining have been equalized, so as to be shared by all, but the freedoms themselves have been diminishing.

Before the Civil War, Hummel notes the average white man might go his entire life without interacting with the federal government save for getting his mail from the post office. Now we are all equally free–man and woman, white and black, gay and straight–to not be able to practice medicine without a license, to not work more than the established maximum number of hours per week, to not carry concealed in DC, to not be allowed to work if underage, etc., etc., etc. If a draft is brought back, it seems it too will now be applied equally. It is not exactly Spencer’s law of Equal Freedom…

Eric H April 11, 2010 at 5:36 pm

Nice point, RL. I haven’t read Hummel’s book, but it looks like a new “must” for me.

From the blurb on its Amazon page:

“Slavery’s elimination is the only morally worthy justification [for the Civil War]…but it was on its way out in any case. Not only was it a political liability, but the institution’s many-faceted costs (social cost, enforcement, uprisings, mistreatment) outweighed any profits.”

I read somewhere about a riverboat captain who was technically a slave but had all the responsibilities and, well, “liberties” of a free riverboat captain. He made purchases to supply his boat, which he hired out for freight hauling and personal travel, and he hired and managed a crew of freemen. He was essentially engaged in a profit-sharing venture with his “owners.” This isn’t an argument for slavery but a data point suggesting that slave owners may have found it increasingly necessary to practice slave ownership that mimicked contractual relationships. I wish I could remember where I read or heard this story. Stories like it suggest to me that declaring an era more or less free should be tempered by understanding real changes through time, not just the binary changes of slavery vs. no slavery or department of transportation vs. no department of transportation.

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