Reason magazine recently featured an article by Jacob Hornberger in which he made short work of one of my key complaints about libertarianism – namely, that it is less a political philosophy than a religion because it argues the merits of an imaginary society while criticizing a real one. My view has been that arguments in favor of libertarianism are largely nonfalsifiable because libertarians are unable to point to a working example of the government-free Utopia they espouse.
Not so, says Hornberger:
Let’s consider, say, the year 1880. Here was a society in which people were free to keep everything they earned, because there was no income tax. They were also free to decide what to do with their own money—spend it, save it, invest it, donate it, or whatever. People were generally free to engage in occupations and professions without a license or permit. There were few federal economic regulations and regulatory agencies. No Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, bailouts, or so-called stimulus plans. No IRS. No Departments of Education, Energy, Agriculture, Commerce, and Labor. No EPA and OSHA. No Federal Reserve. No drug laws. Few systems of public schooling. No immigration controls. No federal minimum-wage laws or price controls. A monetary system based on gold and silver coins rather than paper money. No slavery. No CIA. No FBI. No torture or cruel or unusual punishments. No renditions. No overseas military empire. No military-industrial complex.
As a libertarian, as far as I’m concerned, that’s a society that is pretty darned golden.
So there you have it: the United States in 1880 was a “golden” example of a libertarian society.
Taking Hornberger’s lead, Mark Sumner, a Daily Kos contributor, weighs in on the virtues of this “golden” example of libertarianism in an excellent diary:
Ah, the 1880s. I can hear people getting wistful from here.
It was a golden age without labor laws in which only 5% of people faced the awful restriction of an 8 hour work day while 3 times that many were blessed with a workday that was 12 hours or longer. Many industries, breweries for example, had a standard workday of 15 hours. And with all the extra freedom of that age, many children were able to experience the blessings of back-breaking labor starting every day by the time they reached the age of 10, with more than a third generating freedom dollars before they turned 15.
Of course, that wasn’t hard since this was a golden age of few public schools. Except it wasn’t. Public education was common across the country, even in remote communities. Even the tiniest frontier village rarely went long without a school, many states had organized school districts, and in a good number of areas the ratio of teachers to students was actually higher than in our own socialistic era. Perhaps what Hornberger meant to say was that there were few schools available to minorities. In many areas minorities lived with “compulsory ignorance,” as they were not only excluded from public schools, but discouraged (often violently) from seeking education. That accounts for a literacy rate of less than 40% among African-Americans in 1880. As laws changed and more schools became available for all, that rate grew by more than 30% over the next three decades. However, white literacy remained about the same — not surprising since whites were already suffering from those socialistic public schools well before 1880.
It truly was a golden age. One in which, thanks to that lack of nasty safety requirements and the troublesome health organizations, the average lifespan was all the way up to 40! An age in which, unfettered by the shackles of regulations on clean water and Hitler-like restrictions on sewage, 50,000 Americans died of cholera. An age in which parents could experience the ultimate freedom endowed by watching 1 child in 5 die in infancy, and 1 out of 3 fail to reach adulthood. Those numbers are for white Americans. Minorities experienced even more of the freedom that comes from burying your children.
An age without communist limits on commerce or immoral government tests, where thousands of Americans each year died from tainted food. Where you didn’t need no stinkin’ license to hand out medicines. An age free from the horrors of the FDA where parents could feel good about using a childrens’ cough remedy laced with opium, cocaine, formaldehyde, and wood alcohol. An age when nobody told us how much lead we could have in our water, or how much soot we could have in our air. An age where the injured and elderly had the God-given right to starve.
It was a golden age of rights for women in which… oh, wait. Sorry. I forgot for a moment that women don’t count when measuring freedom. Good thing, since in 1880 they couldn’t vote, were excluded from many occupations, faced restrictions on their ownership rights, and were often treated as the property of their husbands. Naturally, their reproductive rights consisted of the right to reproduce — or die trying.
[A]ctual Libertarians realize that for individual rights to have any meaning, they require the presence of a body that can ensure those rights. They know that freedom can’t be maintained in an absence of information, and that there must be agencies that create the transparency needed for effective individual action and ensure there are consequences to dishonesty. Real advocates of the free market realize that term has no meaning unless the market is free from coercion and the law is not defined by “might makes right.” They know that individual freedoms are incompatible with a system where corporations are treated as super-citizens and that Libertarianism requires that workers be more valued that abstract entities that live only on paper.
The difference between actual Libertarians and Republicans hiding from their tarnished name is quite easy. Actual Libertarians are concerned about the freedom of individuals. Conservatives use Libertarian as a code word meaning “I want to continue to enjoy all the privileges I do now, but I don’t want to share them with you and most of all I don’t want to pay any taxes.” Push come to shove, they’re happy to abbreviate that to “Screw freedom. I just don’t want to pay taxes.”
Pulling snippets doesn’t do the article justice. It’s worth reading in its entirety.