Bryan Caplan  

Conceived in Tribalism

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Here's a puzzling reaction to my doubts about the wonders of American independence:

The chief goal of libertarianism is not low taxes or any specific public policy outcome but rather liberty.
Actually, the libertarian view is that liberty consists in specific public policies: self-ownership, private property, and free markets - or perhaps to be more precise, liberty consists in the absence of public policies that interfere with self-ownership, private property, and free markets.
Winning the war gave us, as Abraham Lincoln proclaimed four score and seven years later, “a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

As a consequence of the war, we gained our independence from the British crown, free to decide our own public policy.

Huh? If we'd remained British, "we" would still be as free (or unfree) to decide "our" public policy as we are now. The only difference is that "we" would be Britons practicing "self-government," instead of Americans.

All this brings me back to my main point: The "freedom" of the American Revolution had little to do with individual liberty. Instead, it was about tribalism: the "freedom" of the newly-created American tribe to rule Americans.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (16 to date)
Dennis Mangan writes:

Boy, you must really hate this country, Bryan.

TGGP writes:

Bryan, what about our the United States' higher ranking in the Fraser Institute's Index of Economic Freedom? What about policy competition from breaking up a governed territory into multiple units? I think you'd like this Gary North piece though.

It's quite funny to try using Abraham Lincoln as an example of liberty, considering his protectionist/spending-happy ways, his suspension of habeas corpus, his smashing of newspapers he didn't like as well as a bunch of other things. I suspect this will continue to be the case as long as we feed children the Jaffa instead of Mencken take on Lincoln.

Academician writes:

Bryan, what about the advantages of increased decentralization?

Steve Sailer writes:

Right, Americans were ready to rule themselves, so they did. And did a good job of it.

So, George Washington, et al, weren't Ayn Randers. What else is new?

Richard Pointer writes:


Having listened to your podcasts with Dr. Roberts, I remember your attack against the welfare states of Europe. So in my view this question about what is so good about American is about the truth of the narrative. In my view, most narratives are propaganda or at the very least they are the hard-sell version of the story. Interestingly, you have a line in your second podcast where you explain the logical fallacy into which most people fall; if you take a skeptic's view of a claim then you must be a supporter of the extreme opposite view. See Dennis Mangan's comment for a fresh example.

It's the same with every nation. Nations are constructs and they must be justified. Unfortunately, people like Dennis aren't willing to indulge a bit of skepticism.

Recently, with my own studies, I have been interested by ecology. Think of species as nations. Humans claim supremacy. But every other species has survived the same evolutionary gauntlet. We certainly have developed some recent advantages but they are not proven to help us survive mass extinction events. Indeed, we might be advanced but are we robust?

John S Bolton writes:

Since there are no rational arguments as to why American sovereignty should be denigrated, what remains is to smear it as 'tribalism'.
This is what is found most often with anti-American
statements made by Americans: the conclusion we're supposed to go along with is that we don't owe loyalty to fellow citizens against foreign aggressors, nor to the net taxpayer, nor to those of our citizenry who want freedom-from-aggression here.

Sheldon Richman writes:

For some people back then, it was about freedom. But, alas, those were not the people who ended up calling the shots. See the Merrill Jensen quote at your last post on the subject.

Robin Hanson writes:

Bryan, you continue to make an excellent but very simple point that many people clearly just do not yet get. This is a perfect topic for you to repeat, repeat, repeat, as you advise economics teachers to do.

Edward Dahlberg writes:

If the goal of the American Revolution was independence from Great Britain, then it was largely a success.

If the goal of the American Revolution was liberty and limited government, then it must be judged as a failure.

Yes, America is more free by most measures than most nations in the world; but compared to an absolute standard, how free are we? How can a central government that spends 3 trillion dollars be considered limited?

With each new Congress, there are more rules, regulations, and laws passed. More and more of the Constitution is ignored and violated. Government grows and freedom diminishes.

"It is a fact that a hundred years ago only a few people anticipated the over-powering momentum which the anti-libertarian ideas were destined to acquire in a very short time. The ideal of liberty seemed to be so firmly rooted that everybody thought that no reactionary movement could ever succeed in eradicating it." Ludwig von Mises

The journey from independence to our current welfare-warfare-regulatory state need not to have occurred. "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty", unfortunately most Americans have refused to pay that price.

To greatly reduce (or hopefully eliminate)the welfare-warfare-regulatory state there will have to be a major paradigm shift in how the public views the American government.

Once Americans start valuing liberty over security it will happen.

Sheldon Richman writes:

Different people had different goals. Some just wanted their own country and eventual continental empire. The Articles of Confederation weren't bad. But the Constitution was a giant step backward. Why are so many freedom-lovers stuck on the Constitution? It was clear a regression.

Will writes:

Those specific policy objectives stem from the overriding libertarian mindset--liberty.

I would contend some of the greatest achievements as a result of the revolution have been trial by jury and the justice system.

Sure, the ideals have deteriorated. At least it slowed the progress (or distress) down.

I think that the article I'm Prepared To Give My Life For This Or Any Country is apropos to this discussion:

"As a true patriot, I would gladly die in battle defending my homeland. I love my country more than my own life. But I would also be more than willing to give my last breath in the name of, say, Mexico, Panama, Japan, or the Czech Republic. The most honorable thing a man can do is lay down his life for his country. Or another country. The important thing is that it's a country."

Perhaps it will help those who fail to see that it is secure property rights, individual liberty, and free markets that should be celebrated, not attachment to a particular tribe in a particular geographic location.

dearieme writes:

"some of the greatest achievements as a result of the revolution have been trial by jury..": what on earth do you mean?

Gary Rogers writes:

The problem I find with Bryan's hypothesis is that you cannot change an input to a dynamic system and assume this would not change the outcome. We can only speculate about what our lives would be like if it had not been for the founding of our country, but I would bet that Canada would not have followed the same route in building its government nor would England have the government it has today. Our country was founded on ideals that originated in Europe, but were written into a new constitution in a form that had never been tried before. Many of these ideals were incorporated into other governments without revolution, resulting in benefits for everyone. The freedom to try new ideas in government is just as important as the freedom to try new ideas in enterprise. Two competing entities will bring out new ideas where a single monolithic entity will remain stagnant.

Chris writes:

I think the benefit of the American Revolution is that North America did not become another South America or Africa where the continent became fractured into several small countries along colonial lines. For example, I have a hard time believing France would have agreed to the Louisiana Purchase had America been ruled by a British government.

The end result would have been once the British and French tired of their colonies in America, we would have been left with at least a British country and a French country all on one continent. Perhaps they would have gotten along, but probably not. A united, non-Eurpoean government allowed the U.S. to push the entire continent full steam ahead into the industrial revolution without fear of war with a major neighboring power (like what happened in Europe during the 1800s and 1900s). Plus, is it likely that America would have enjoyed such a vital influx of immigrant labor during the 1800s and early 1900s had we been ruled by a British government?

TGGP writes:

The reason the United States is the United States and South America and Africa are South America and Africa is that the former was colonized by populated by the English (who mostly wiped out the original inhabitants, intentionally or not), while the latter are populated by South Americans and Africans and colonized either extensively by the Spanish and Portugese or to a much lesser degree (less institution building, mostly resource extractment) by a bunch of different European powers. Until recently, Rhodesia and South Africa (both controlled by the British at some point) were the wealthiest nations there. The overthrow of the remaining Brits in Rhodesia gave us Mugabe's Zimbabwe, which South Africa might start resembling years from now. The fractured nature of Europe is possibly the factor that allowed it to outpace China and other rivals. I don't think it would have been such a bad thing in North America.

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