Up from Slavery

And again I say, when he says “our American ancestors,” he’s thinking only of our white ancestors. Maybe only of our white male ancestors. Maybe even only of our white male property‐​owning ancestors. Many millions of Americans would read these paragraphs and say, “My ancestors didn’t have the right to worship in their own way. My ancestors didn’t have the right to keep and bear arms. My ancestors didn’t have the protection of centuries‐​old legal procedures. My ancestors sure as heck didn’t have the right to keep what they produced, or to pursue an occupation of their choice, or to enter into mutually beneficial trades. In fact, my ancestors didn’t even have the minimal right of ‘the absence of physical constraint.’ ”

I’ve probably been guilty of similar thoughtless and ahistorical exhortations of our glorious libertarian past. And I’m entirely in sympathy with Hornberger’s preference for a world without an alphabet soup of federal agencies, transfer programs, drug laws, and so on. But I think this historical perspective is wrong. No doubt one of the reasons that libertarians haven’t persuaded as many people as we’d like is that a lot of Americans don’t think we’re on the road to serfdom, don’t feel that we’ve lost all our freedoms. And in particular, if we want to attract people who are not straight white men to the libertarian cause, we’d better stop talking as if we think the straight white male perspective is the only one that matters. For the past 70 years or so conservatives have opposed the demands for equal respect and equal rights by Jews, blacks, women, and gay people. Libertarians have not opposed those appeals for freedom, but too often we (or our forebears) paid too little attention to them. And one of the ways we do that is by saying “Americans used to be free, but now we’re not” — which is a historical argument that doesn’t ring true to an awful lot of Jewish, black, female, and gay Americans.

But it’s not just a strategic mistake. It’s a mistake. Whether we were more free at some point in the past than we are now is a complicated issue. I would tend to argue that we were not. But at least it’s a difficult issue.

Hornberger lists a lot of federal agencies and programs that didn’t exist in the 19th century. But that doesn’t mean that the era was a libertarian paradise. As Jonathan R. T. Hughes wrote in The Governmental Habit Redux, “Most studies of modern nonmarket controls consider that the relevant history extends back to the New Deal. A few go back further, into the late nineteenth century. But in fact the powerful and continuous habit of nonmarket control in our economy reaches back for centuries. Thus, during the colonial period virtually every aspect of economic life was subject to nonmarket controls. Some of this tradition would not survive, some would become even more powerful, while some would ascend to the level of federal control. The colonial background was like an institutional gene pool. Most of the colonial institutions and practices live on today in some form, and there is very little in the way of nonmarket control that does not have a colonial or English forerunner.”

The dramatic issue of slavery reminds us that the level of taxes or the number of federal agencies is by no means the only measure of freedom. And we can imagine other examples where the common libertarian focus on economic issues could lead us astray.

Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne, Jr. offers this challenge to advocates of “smaller government”: Imagine a choice between “a dictatorship in which the government provides no social security, health, welfare, or pension programs of any kind” and “levies relatively low taxes that go almost entirely toward the support of large military and secret police forces that regularly kill or jail people for their political or religious views” and “a democracy with open elections and full freedom of speech and religion [which] levies higher taxes than the dictatorship to support an extensive welfare state.” “The first country might technically have a ‘smaller government,’ ” Dionne writes, “but it undoubtedly is not a free society. The second country would have a ‘bigger government,’ but it is indeed a free society.”

Now there are several problems with this comparison, not least Dionne’s apparent view that high taxes don’t limit the freedom of those forced to pay them. And the rarity in the real world of dictatorships with secret police forces that have low taxes. But let’s just look at which one might be called the “smaller government.” Measured as a percentage of GDP or by the number of employees, the second government may well be larger than the first. Measured by its power and control over individuals and society, however, the first government is doubtless larger. Libertarians want a government that is limited in size, scope, and power.

We often focus on the size of government, as measured in percentage of GDP taxed and spent by the government, which is an important and measurable concept. But our real concern is power. What kind of power does the government wield over the people? Powerful state institutions tend to be large, but that doesn’t mean that a larger state is necessarily exercising more power. Imagine a small town that adds two officers to its police force. Now it has more police officers, and that costs more money; the government is “larger.” But if the officers now do a better job of arresting violent criminals and protecting the lives and property of the people — and refrain from arresting or hassling non‐​criminals — then the government has not expanded its power. Indeed, better eight officers protecting lives and property than six officers enforcing drug laws and blue laws. We should focus on what is actually important — the exercise of arbitrary power over others. And in that regard slavery and conscription, among other things that marred parts of our American past, loom very large.

Read the Full Article here: >Cato Institute