Bryan Caplan  

Against Libertarian Nostalgia

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David Boaz has a very nice attack on libertarian nostalgia in Reason:
The Cato Institute's boilerplate description of itself used to include the line, "Since [the American] revolution, civil and economic liberties have been eroded." Until Clarence Thomas, then chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, gave a speech at Cato and pointed out to us that it didn't seem quite that way to black people.
He goes on:
I've probably been guilty of similar thoughtless and ahistorical exhortations of our glorious libertarian past... 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... 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.
I'm sure that David would be happy to add genocide against American Indians to the list of historical crimes that libertarians ought never forget.  But I wonder whether he'd join me in condemning the American Revolution itself as yet another unjust war that yielded nationalist - not libertarian - fruit.


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COMMENTS (14 to date)
razib writes:

this aspect of libertarianism bothered me when i was into politics. the problem is that a lot of young libertarians (myself included) think of the ideology as a total system, and so get weighed down by history. to resolve the issue all that stuff gets pushed aside.

Rachel writes:

David, thank you so much for highlighting Boaz's article. I think it will likely be the new "must read" for my (younger) generation of liberty activists.

The_Orlonater writes:

Is this some kind of positive allusion to the effects of Civil Rights legislation? How can any "libertarian" support this? I also agree that it might be a little naive to always refer to "the past," but there are some wonderful aspects about the past that should be lauded or at least contrasted to the present system in greater detail. Although, Libertarians should seriously avoid generalizations of the past of how "free we were," or else we'll become as delusional as some of those Progressives who generalize the past and today's prosperity because of smart government "regulation, infrastructure(building America...), and legislation." The main point is that we shouldn't be committing fallacies of debate over examination of history.

Hunter writes:

While minorites may have more liberty than they did in the past, are they as free as white men were in the past? In short while some segments of the population are becoming more free, are some segments becoming less free? So, we have a leveling of freedom but we're not as free as we could be overall.

I would grant that in some social aspects we're gaining as a country but in some aspects, notably economic freedom, we're losing. And I have to ask if would anyone think that this is a necessary trade off.

SydB writes:

I'm not a fan of historical arguments any more. I think they are fallacious and contrived. Even Caplan is prone to them, what with his obsession with the USSR and his frequent creating of hypothetical arguments using it as a reference. I'd prefer it if libertarians were more honest, as Caplan is in this post. There is no libertarian nirvana in the past, and the argument made as such is no different than communitarians arguing that people once lived together in harmony or new age fanatics arguing that we were all one when worshiping the goddess.

I think libertarians should focus on core principles and policies derived form them. Unfortunately, libertarians are obsessed with a policy-free world and, because of that, are often useless when it comes to contributing to policies that will eventually be formed in the real world.

And for the people arguing above that the right of women to vote or african americans to own themselves must be balanced against the declining rights of the white man and economic rights in general: you sound like utilitarians, not libertarians.

spencer writes:

The law in its majesty bans the rich as well as the poor from sleeping under bridges.

Libertarians are just like the law, to you freedom is something you purchase. If you do not have the wealth to purchase freedom under your philosophy it is just tough and those without wealth do not count.

You guys have no idea what freedom is.

rapscallion writes:

On a tangential note, I agree that what happened to the Indians should be considered genocide, but as much as you hammer America for it, I'd like to know what you think American's policy toward Native Americans OUGHT to have been. Both of the following seem reasonable to me given the little that I know about history:

1) If America hadn't forcibly stolen the land, someone else would have.

2) Negotiating for the land in good faith--unlike what was done--probably wouldn't have worked.

From a consequentialist perspective, then, I think you've got to admit that things wouldn't have been much better for the Indians or the world even if America had just contented itself with the 13 colonies, so it's not clear to me how heavily the taking of the land and the genocide against the Indians should fall on America.

Again, I don't pretend to be an historical expert and I have no particular desire to see the U.S. shown in a good historical light. It's just seems to me that America's taking of the West is a bit of a problem for consequentialists, because I think bad things would have happened to the Indians anyway and it's arguable that the world is better off with America having the land than anyone else having it.

If anyone with good historical knowledge can make a case that that's wrong, I'd be happy to hear it.

BZ writes:

@rapscallion - weren't there a few scattered cases of purchases made? Wouldn't that have been an acceptable model?

@SydB - have you not been here long? In my experience, most libertarian arguments from economists tend to be utilitarian in nature (can we call that "Millian"? Is that a word?) If you are looking for Rothbardians, they just don't work at GMU.

On the rest, I'm sorry, but while I agree there was no utopia, or anything even close, the inference seems to be that we can only condemn past actions and states, and never praise. That seems a bit foolish. We deserve the income tax rate of the 1890s, the civil rights of the 1990s, the National government Expenditures of the 1780s, the property rights respect of the 1850s, the (seeming) wealth of 2006, and, dammit, the Spirit of 1776 (Sic Semper Tyrannus!)

ziel writes:

If libertarians believe that the (various incarnations of the) Civil Rights act is a good thing, is there much point in being a libertarian? You're basically saying you don't believe there should be laws restricting people's freedoms, unless they're good laws. Well isn't that pretty much what everyone thinks?

Andy Hallman writes:

SydB wrote:
And for the people arguing above that the right of women to vote or african americans to own themselves must be balanced against the declining rights of the white man and economic rights in general: you sound like utilitarians, not libertarians.

Are you opposed to weighing the effects of legislation on everyone affected by it, or do you not like the particular examples cited? I, for one, think the expanded rights of women and blacks in the last 200 years far outweigh whatever the negative effects the civil rights movement caused.

I'm reading Richard Epstein's book "Simple Rules for a Complex World," and he points out a number of problems with how anti-discrimination laws work in practice. So yes, I think we do have to look at both the costs and benefits of a law before deciding whether or not it's appropriate.

rapscallion wrote:
2) Negotiating for the land in good faith--unlike what was done--probably wouldn't have worked.

Are you in favor of liberal eminent domain laws then?

Han Solo writes:

What does slavery have to do with a massive federal government? Slavery could have been easily eliminated in the USA without killing nearly a MILLION of our own men. The public in western civilization was waking up and changing their positions on the morality of slavery. Why did every other country in western civilization eliminate slavery without killing their own people? Heck given how much the elites in the US desired to be so much like the 'more civilized Europeans' all the time, the fact that Europe started to consider slavery to be barbaric would start to embarrass Americans enough to make it unpopular.

And from what I see, instead of ending slavery, big government has just moved the slaves to the welfare plantation to keep producing never ending crops of democrat votes.

And who says libertarians are against protecting people?

The core foundation of libertarianism is that the main true purpose of government is to protect the people and their property. Protection of ALL PEOPLE is a primary goal of libertarianism. Its the left who always seems to think that fairness means that some people are more fair than others.

You people must have very little real understanding of libertarianism except its scary because they want to take all your government handouts, power and freebies away.

rapscallion writes:

BZ and Hallman,
No, I don't favor liberal eminent domain laws. The problem was that the Indian/Settler case was obviously different because Indians didn't have a formal legal system and well-developed property rights.

Googling around on the subject, I came upon a fascinating book:

How the Indians lost their land: law and power on the frontier

You can read some of it on google books. It points out that most land acquisitions took the legal form of property sales, not seizures. Threats of force were often more implicit than explicit. It details the many conflicts and problems that arose early on when settlers tried to buy property from Indians: Often, individuals Indians would sell land that their tribe would claim they had no right to; it was common for uneducated Indians to sell huge tracks of land for almost nothing, not realizing the implications of what they were doing. Over time, the many abuses and conflicts that arose lead the government to take a bigger and bigger role in land acquisition.

Han Solo writes:

Why is it that the Indian populations in the US had so much trouble compared to the populations in Mexico/Central America?

In those countries the populations are much more integrated into society today?

Is it because those Indian populations didn't put up such a fight and in fact in the end were actually more integrated and were able to hold on to more of their native heritage than the ones in the USA?


Loof writes:

Agree with David Boaz on libertarian nostalgia: “There’s no such thing as a golden age of lost liberty.” There is, however, a lost golden age in movement towards liberty – and perhaps forever lost: since society is in complete reverse now, among libertarians and liberals alike, when corporations are persons in economical methodologies and positive law.

The golden year was 1776 for movement towards liberty in two theoretical conceptions (vis-à-vis Isaiah Berlin) and four practical ways. Regarding negative liberty as the absence of coercion: freedom economically, from the coercion of corporations like the East India Co.; freedom politically, from the coercion of the English Crown. Regarding positive liberty in the movement towards each person having freedom of choice: economically, in the movement towards freedom to enterprise; and politically, the movement towards freedom in choosing who governs the society of which one is a part.

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