Bryan Caplan  

Independence Day: Any Reason to Celebrate?

Best Counter-Example to the Me... The Consequences of Pessimisti...

Can anyone tell me why American independence was worth fighting for?

Most libertarians interpret the Revolutionary War as a libertarian crusade. But when you ask about specific libertarian policy changes that came about because of the Revolution, it's hard to get a decent answer.

In fact, with 20/20 hindsight, independence had two massive anti-libertarian consequences: It removed the last real check on American aggression against the Indians, and allowed American slavery to avoid earlier - and peaceful - abolition.

If libertarians have little reason to celebrate American independence, who does? Leftists? They ought to take the Indian and slavery issues seriously, too. I guess getting rid of titles of nobility and such was a step toward greater equality, but a step worth shedding blood over?

How about conservatives? They're likely to say "This war created our country - of course it was worth it!" But without the war, conservatives would still have a country to get misty-eyed over - it would just be Britain instead of America. If you're going to love whatever country you're born in, it's hard to see the point of fighting to make a new one.

My favorite example: In Lawrence of Arabia, Lawrence keeps telling the Arab tribes to stop fighting each other: "You're all Arabs! You should join forces against the Turks!" But he could just as easily have said: "You're all Turko-Arabs! None of you have anything to fight about!"

In short, whatever your political orientation, it's hard to see why American independence was worth a war.

Now I don't mean to rain on anyone's parade. I won't be waving any flags, but I'll still be lighting off a big box of fireworks tonight. If I can celebrate an atheist Christmas, why not an anarchist 4th of July?

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COMMENTS (25 to date)
Seamus McCauley writes:

I'm with Bill Hicks on patriotism: "I was over in Australia and everyone's like "Are you proud to be an American?" And I was like, "Um, I don't know, I didn't have a lot to do with it. You know, my parents ****ed there, that's about all." (see

Pretinieks writes:

This side of the Big Puddle, where school history books typically devote about two pages to American Revolution, it's common wisdom it started with Boston Tea Party and was all about taxes. :)

That might be an oversimplification, yet still today American tax burden is somewhat lower than British one, and over all these years you've probably avoided paying trillions, if not quadrillions.

Of course, independence is not the only way to lower taxes. :)

TGGP writes:

I'm not sure how the world would have turned out without the American War of Independence. We were the first colony to gain independence, and it was apparently a big inspiration for France (I don't know if that was a good thing). I'm in favor of having more states and smaller states to minimize exit costs and induce policy competition. I'm glad I live on my side of the pond since the US is ranked freer by Fraser than the UK, plus I get to play with guns!

TGGP writes:

By the way, I take Rothbard to task for his stupidly libertarian take on the war here. The mafia movie reference is because of this.

What Pratinieks said, taxes, and self-government. According to Gerald Gunderson, the 1765 per capita tax burden on American colonists was less than 1/5 of the burden on residents of Britain. The colonists liked being left alone by Britain. All that began to change after the French were defeated. The colonists revolted to avoid changes in policy, particularly an increase in taxes to British levels.

If you want a more complete list of particulars, read the Declaration of Independence.

Mark writes:

My understanding is the American Revolution set the ground for large strides in the establishment of democracy, constitutional government, and a system of checks and balances on said government's powers. While history has shown that this resulted in something far from the libertarian utopia, I think most can agree that the resulting system is far more conductive to libertarian principles than the alternatives available at the time.

ryan writes:

Why not count other additional policy changes? Was Britain always more libertarian than the US? I should think it'd go the other way (though this difference might have been established pre-independence -- but that argues for the Revolution as more or less maintaining the status quo). And don't you also sort of have to say that if the US had stayed a colony, it would have had equal or greater levels of economic growth and immigration? Further out, you have to explain how there's no WWII or how Britain would have won (maybe the former is an easier case to make), and similar such for the Cold War, right? Surely there are some definite downsides to US power as far as world liberty is concerned, but compared to a counterfactual of most other great powers, I'm not sure I'd want to swap out "US as great power" for another.

ben writes:

Well wouldn't Articles of Confederation and US Consititution be where the libertarian preferred policy changes occurred? Its seems a little weird to avoid this when asking what libertarian policy changes came from the revolutionary war. I think the decentralization of the Articles of Confederation was pretty libertarian as well as the checks on state power in the Bill of Rights, and of course simply not being subjects to a king.

If you want to play the counter factual history game and say that this political independence didn't require the revolutionary war, well that takes more of an argument. As well, one might argue that the American aggression against the Indians was inevitable whether we stayed an English colony or not (Canada stretches coast to coast) and if the American colonies were still an English constituency that wanted to continue slavery then perhaps England wouldn't have outlawed slavery as early as they did. Since England had the dominant navy at the time this would have affected slavery in many other countries.

AJ writes:

Bryan, you have either succombed to the dominant "groupthink" of our day or you are ignorant of history.

In the world in 1775: Where was self government?

In the world in 1775: Where was the notion that each citizen had equal legal rights?

In the world in 1775: Where was the notion that each person could hold their own opinion about the government and express it?

In the world in 1775: where was the notion that every citizen should have a role in selecting the government or representatives?

In the world in 1775: where was the notion that disputes should be peacefully settled through rule of law vs. strongman?

In the world in 1775: Where was the notion that commerce, business, and wealth were something to be freely pursued by all citizens?

In the world in 1775: Where was the notion that individuals could choose their work and indeed, were responsible for doing so?

In the world in 1775: Where was the notion that one community or nation should actually have multiple religions and that individuals were free to worship as they please?

In the world in 1775: Where was the notion that one person in a society is not inherently "better" than another?

O.k. now ask: did the United States and the principles upon which it was founded not become a beacon for this for a long time and arguably many vestiges left in our current society?

You should read deTocqueville who traveled widely in the U.S. in the first decade of the 19th century, scarecly 25 years after the country was created.

How much of this would have occurred had the revolutionary war been lost? Would Britain have carried this forward? Get real! The alternative world might still have some of these ideas, but to say that we would have anything like the freedom we have now, or that many other countries would have such freedom now that it is completely taken for granted -- is ridiculous.

Of the many human virtues, the extended baby boom generation of today values not freedom nor does it value personal responsibility. Lenin, Marx, Freud, Veblein, et al have triumphed in our inner thinking so that we don't even see the air because we are swimming in the ocean. We celebrate victimhood in all its forms today. Turn on the media today to see independence day coverage and I predict you will see a celebration of the many forms of victimhood that are now the respected orthodoxy. America must be bad; it must be made fun of -- because its traditional heritage is a repudiation of victimhood. America and American ideals must be denigrated in every cultural forum because they are still the major threat to the zeitgest of our times. If civilization survives, a thousand years from now, historians will look upon the intellectuals of the twentieth century as more bizzare than the midievil propagators of superstition.


Carl Marks writes:

how about investing a little time and reading the declaration of indepenace for once, in it they list all of the reasons for the revolution, and most are along libertarian lines. Seems as though a lot of (small) things changed, though it took until after the war of 1812 for our sailors to no longer be pressed into service. Also, there was little evidence during the revolution that we couldn't have solved the slavery problem in a peaceful way.

dcpi writes:

It seems that many intelligent and thoughtful colonists believed that, once started, the revolution was worth fighting. Who am I to question their judgment as we all, by definition, know far less of the circumstances than those who fought?

It is also worth noting that many of the colonists tried to resolve their differences with the British government peacefully through petition and were rejected.

I am mostly happy with the country that we have and believe in our ideals -- which are profoundly libertarian (but not anarchist).

As for freedom and liberty, only one in ten English owned property in 1775 compared to nine in ten American colonists. Without property, and the rights to control it, who among us possesses liberty?

Remember too, Edmund Burke was on our side, not the Crown's.

Sheldon Richman writes:

I always liked the line from The Patriot: If I don't trust one tyrant 3,000 miles away, why would I trust 3,000 tyrants one mile away?

Thought-provoking post, Bryan.

Sheldon Richman writes:

Another thought: Merrill Jensen, the great historian of the Articles of Confederation and pre-Constitution America, pointed out that the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence were not the same as those who wrote the Constitution.

Ben Rast writes:

The Declaration of Independence is one of those documents everyone talks about and nobody reads. In the spirit of the 4th of July, and in answer to Bryan's question, I offer the meaning of the original document expressed in modern language.

Date: July 4, 1776

To: Posterity

CC: Government

From: Second Continental Congress, Philadelphia

Subject: "We're Not Going to Take it, Anymore"

God knows, sometimes a man has to stand on his own two feet. We think that time is now. Let us explain what we're about to do and why. We know you'll understand.

Who do you think should run your God-given life? You, or the government? The answer is as plain as the nose on your face: you should. The government is here to protect your life, not to run it. When it tries to, you have the right to say no. If it gets really bossy, you have the right to tell it to drop dead. Of course, you shouldn't cause big trouble for nothing. It's best to put up with most of the crap in the world. It's not a perfect world and never will be. But when a government keeps insisting that it owns your life and all your stuff too, you have the right to start a revolution.

Well, we're starting one. Here's why. If this list won't convince you, nothing will:

1. The government is ignoring its duty to protect us.
2. The government won't allow us to handle the business that it ignores.
3. The government won't allow us the right to vote on our laws and our taxes.
4. The government has made it difficult for us to protest.
5. The government has stripped all power from any of us who disagree.
6. Power to the people! But until we get this mess straightened out, the government is inviting all kinds of trouble, and we're the ones who are going to have to deal with it.
7. The government refuses to let us live where we want to.
8. The government refuses to let us peacefully settle our own disputes in our own courts.
9. The government insists on treating our judges like its puppets.
10. The government is growing too big, too fast, and it cost too much.
11. We are occupied by the government's army.
12. The government keeps us quiet at the point of a gun.
13. No matter what we say, the government keeps trying to run our lives. For example:
a. There are a lot of soldiers with guns around here
b. These soldiers are killing people, and nobody does a thing.
c. The government won't let us trade with the rest of the world. We can't earn a living.
d. We have to pay taxes, but don't have any say in which ones or how much.
e. Kangaroo courts.
f. Kangaroo justice.
g. The government intimidates innocent people.
h. The government makes up its own rules.
i. The government usurps the power of the people.
j. The government kills innocent people.
k.The government kills more innocent people, and destroys their property.
l. The government kills even more innocent people.
m. The government takes innocent people captive, and forces them to kill other innocent people or be killed.
n. The government encourages Indians to kill innocent people.

It's not our fault that it has come down to this. God knows we've tried to get along. But the government insists on treating us like slaves.

The rest of the civilized world isn't listening to us. We've warned them about what's going on. We've asked for their help, begged for it, really. But they have ignored us, even though we speak the same language and share many family ties. Now we have no choice. Reluctantly, we are forced to call them our friends if they don't fight us, and our enemies if they do.

That's the way we see it. Who are we? We represent the united states of America. We ask the Big Guy upstairs to help us do the right thing for the right reasons. Power to the people! The old government is finished. It doesn't matter anymore. If we want a war, we'll decide that, no one else. If we want peace, we'll decide that, too. It's our business if we want to trade and make money.

As of right now, it's our country. We hope like hell we're right and this thing works.

peter jackson writes:

You're question is tantamount to asking whether we'd better off if the world had two Canadas instead of one Canada and the US.

I don't think the two Canada world would be more libertarian than the one we have today, I think it would be less. And there's your answer.


Randy writes:

Celebrating an Atheist Christmas and an Anarchist 4th of July. Good one!

Floccina writes:

One of the complaints in the declaration of independence was that the king refused to institute laws that the colonists deemed necessary but having said that I think that Britain had left us alone because we where relatively unimportant and where ruining India my guess is that at some point we would have drawn their attention had we not broken away. Also I think that the founders where probably more resistant to big Government than Britain.

Karl Smith writes:

Well, there are three big questions I have

1) How would this have effect immigration to the United States? Would there have been as much multi-ethnic immigration if the US were a colony.

2) Would the US remaining a colony have slowed economic growth. Britain was pushing mercantilist policies at the time that might have effect growth and indirectly immigration as well.

It is notable that the other British off-shoots still lag the US and I think I remember that their growth accelerated rapidly after independence.

3) Perhaps, most importantly how would that have effected the evolution of world politics.

I can see to ill effects depending on how the US grew.

A) The US could have grown more slowly with less immigration and less productivity due to its colonial status. This would have reduced the ability of the West to combat Nazism and Communism.

B) The US would have grown just as rapidly and tipped the balance of power towards the British Empire. Britain would have remained an Empire in the mold of Rome and had all of her resources sucked into maintaining dominance over its colonies until the entire thing cam crashing down.

Paul writes:

That all men are created equal. Those six words were the culmination of 200 years of argument and reasoning, and despite the Declaration's contention, they were not self-evident then and they still aren't self-evident in too many parts of the world today. That alone is why July 4 is worth celebrating, that's what we need to remember when we celebrate our independence and that's what we need to focus upon as we fight Al Queda.

Matt writes:

Without the revolution, today there would be a one world government with a seat of power in London. There would have been no Communist revolution. American manpower would have meant China would become like India. With no world wars, the Empire would be alive today, likely conquering Africa and South America in the process.

Mark Seecof writes:

Why do you think a continuation of British rule (over what really became the USA) would have saved the American Indians or ended slavery earlier?

In 1833/34 the British freed the relatively few slaves they held because they could do so cheaply. They continued to trade for the produce of other countries' slaves. The cotton gin would have made slavery in the North American cotton belt just as profitable under British-domination as under USA control, so there would likely have been just as much resistance to abolition. If the British had possessed the cotton belt and its slave labor force, they would not likely have abolished slavery in 1833--and might have maintained it until 1860-1870. You will recall that the British actually came within a whisker's-breadth of recognizing the Confederacy in 1862--if they had owned North America, how eager do you think the British would have been to shoot their own cow while it still gave milk?

As for the Amerinds, it seems most unlikely that Britain's policy of restraint after the French & Indian War (Seven Years War) could have survived for long. Perhaps if Britain had crushed the American Revolution, that would have forestalled the French Revolution and all its sequelae right through Napoleon's empire--but in that case either the weakness of the French or the avarice of Britain's North-American administrators probably would have allowed rambunctious white settlers into Indian territory by the early 1800's. You offer no reason to suppose otherwise, given the economic patterns of the time.

I see no reason to belabor the point, but as others here have indicated, even a modest amount of historical reading will provide you with ample reasons to revere the American Revolution (which was indeed cited and emulated by people everywhere during the 18th and 19th Centuries, even into the 20th, as they shook off the descendants of the medieval aristocracies which oppressed them for centuries).

dearieme writes:

The proposition that it was all about lower taxes takes a bit of a hit when you learn that the Boston Tea Party was staged by tea-smugglers who were annoyed that the duty on tea had been reduced to almost zero so that they could no longer undercut the legal importer, the East India Company. It was probably "about" many things, particularly frustration at being constrained from taking more land from the Indians, and fear that the Mansfield decision put slavery at risk. Both of these were big pocket-book issues for many of the gentry who plotted treason.

Stan writes:

America is the only country on earth established upon pure principles, rather than happenstance of history and war. I hardly think you have a point at all...

Not to mention without freedom you would likely not be typing on a computer, or using the internet...

vacuumenergy writes:

I think it's fairly obvious that the Left was the beneficiary of the American Revolution for most of its antebellum history. The most dominant American political movement between 1800 and the 1850s was the pro-slavery pro-South wing of the Democratic party. A typical pro-slavery pro-South Democrat would have believed some variant of the following package of ideas during this era:

1). That it was legitimate for the United States to initiate economic and military warfare against other nations for its own aggrandizement, espescially if this meant the annexation of territory.

2). That it was legitimate for the United States to initiate military warfare in order to "defend the revolution" from its enemies. The War of 1812 is the major case in point.

3). Equality for the majority could only exist for long on a basis of human slavery.

4). Violations of civil liberties ranging from postal and political censorship (i.e. the "Gag rule") to intracommunal violence were necessary to maintain civil order.

As you might have inferred from this list, the slave-holding ideology of the American South had quite a bit in common with what we nowadays call the "Hard Left".

TGGP writes:

vacuumenergy, wasn't it Lincoln who destoyed newspapers he disagreed with? Haven't we gone around the world getting into wars (even if we don't actually declare war) much more after the Civil War than before? In terms of ideological lines of descent, I think Mencius Moldbug is more on the money than you.

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