Adventures in Libertarian Blind Spots

by John Holbo on April 11, 2010

Last week David Boaz had a post/article up at Reason, pointing out that there is something odd – that would be one word for it – about deploring the erosion of American freedom without noticing that, in fact, there is pretty obviously more of the stuff than there used to be, by any reasonable measure. Boaz’ title and subtitle pretty much say it all, to the point where you wonder whether it even needs to be said at all: “Up From Slavery – There’s no such thing as a golden age of lost liberty”.

One of Boaz’ fellow libertarians, Jacob Hornberger – cited by Boaz as a case in point of this odd Golden Age-ism – made a response which made the same damn obvious mistake all over again. His post – “Up from Serfdom – How to restore lost liberties while building on the positive strides America has made since 1776” – hearkens to the good old days of the 80’s – 1880’s, that is:

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.

To which obvious mistake Will Wilkinson made the obvious correction:

Nope. Sorry.

How about the female half of the population? By 1880 coverture laws, which basically denied married women any meaningful property rights, were still in place in many states. (Coverture laws persisted in some states until the 1920s.) And there were plenty of further paternalistic regulations on the sort of work women were allowed to undertake. Of course, women in 1880 had almost no meaningful rights to political participation, ensuring that they were unable to demand recognition and protection of their basic liberty rights through the political system.

Slavery was gone in 1880, but systematic state-enforced racial apartheid was going strong. The economic and political rights of blacks were severely curtailed under the various antebellum state Black Codes and then under the Jim Crow laws. What formal rights Southern blacks did have were often denied in fact by extralegal enforcement of racist norms by lynch mobs and other campaigns of terror.

By 1880, most of the the U.S.’s imperialist efforts to secure North American territory against the claims of competing European imperial powers were complete. But the government’s campaign of murder, theft, and segregation against native populations continued.

One could go on and on in this vein in gruesome detail. But this is enough to establish the point: 1880’s America was a society in which well more than half the population was systematically and often brutally denied basic liberty rights. If that’s golden, I’d hate to see bronze.

To which Arnold Kling responded, in defense of Hornberger, making the same damn obvious mistake that Hornberger already made twice, a third time:

I would rather live with the group-status configurations that we have today than with those that prevailed in 1880. For that matter, I would rather live with the plumbing and dentistry that we have today than that which prevailed in 1880. But it’s a swindle to suggest that if we had a libertarian polity we would be back in the days of Jim Crow or women’s subservience. Just as it is a swindle to suggest that if we had a libertarian polity we would be back to using outhouses and having our teeth pulled without anesthetic.

To which Will makes the obvious rejoinder. The notion that the way things would be in an ideal libertarian polity constitutes some sort of defense of how things actually were in 1880 is … well, not to be made sense of. As Will put it in the earlier post: “restoration is a conservative project and liberty is a fundamentally progressive cause.”

Obviously Kling and Hornberger could not have done a better job of proving Boaz’ original point. It’s tempting to accuse them of just not caring about liberty for anyone except white men. How else could they miss this stuff? But I doubt that’s it. (Anyway, aren’t they Jewish? It’s hard for me to imagine men named Kling and Hornberger seriously believe they, personally, would be made more free by being transported back to the late 19th Century.) It seems to me the most probable explanation of this truly bizarre blind spot – it really is bizarre and there’s no other word for it – is a sort of strange entrapment in the conservative ‘restoration’ narrative, but perhaps induced by Hayekian rather than conservative rhetoric. If the 20th Century was the Road To Serfdom, it can hardly have been a long march to increased freedom. If progressives and liberals are the authoritarian enemy, it can hardly be that their victories have, on the whole, made us more free. Since the 20th Century was when the bad stuff really got going, how can it NOT be appropriate to be thoroughly nostalgic for the 1880’s as a Lost Golden Age?

I guess I’ll leave it at that. Libertarians really ought to know better than to try to argue against the utterly obvious points Boaz made in that post. That’s just basic intellectual hygiene, surely.

{ 136 comments }

1

ScentOfViolets 04.11.10 at 4:44 pm

This seems to of a piece with another libertarian notion that people would much rather be making $30 K/year if they only had to pay 5% of that in taxes as opposed to making $60 K/year and paying 20% of that in taxes.

2

ChrisJ 04.11.10 at 4:46 pm

Ah, the Gilded Age. When men were free to dump toxic mine wastes in public waterways, and children were free to labor in those mines 12 hours a day. Back in those wonderful days folks were free to buy adulterated meat, serenely free from knowing if there were dead rats in it. And so on.

3

Nathan 04.11.10 at 4:46 pm

I think you mean Wilkinson in the last paragraph, not Boaz.

4

kth 04.11.10 at 4:49 pm

Why can’t one say, “take out apartheid and second-class status for women, and the Gilded Age was pretty awesome”? I don’t agree with it, and moreover find that mental exercise implied in the proposition wholly uninteresting and shedding meager light on any question of contemporary relevance. But the assertion as I’ve phrased it isn’t obviously self-contradictory, is it?

5

riffle 04.11.10 at 5:04 pm

kth, don’t you mean “but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order… what have the Romans done for us? “

Worker’s rights, child labor laws, public education…. and viniculture!

6

nolo 04.11.10 at 5:05 pm

I’ll be the snotty one and go right ahead and state the obvious — the average libertarian is nostalgic for a world where entitled white males got to do pretty much what they wanted, while paying very little in taxes. Because, of course, they assume that in any such world they would be the entitled white males.

7

Sprizouse 04.11.10 at 5:12 pm

But even if you factor in only whites, the 1880s weren’t a truly “free” or “utopian” time or place to live for a majority of their population. Does Hornberger believe that labor unions, OSHA, and the departments of education and commerce were all created with only retardation of economic growth in mind? Of course not, they were created because they were necessary!

I don’t know why libertarians don’t go back and look at history and see the near slavery that the industrial revolution forced upon workers across the world until governments stepped in with regulations and occupational enforcements.

For an educated man you’d think Hornberger would have had at least a passing association with one of the six Romantic Poets… who ALL railed against the inescapable inhuman labor conditions forced upon the lower class. In fact, Blake said the Industrial Revolution inflicted more pain on the lower classes than anything any monarchy had done to the populace since the Spanish Inquisition.

8

bianca steele 04.11.10 at 5:23 pm

“It’s hard for me to imagine men named Kling and Hornberger seriously believe they, personally, would be made more free by being transported back to the late 19th Century.) “

My guess: I think your suggestion that Hayek has something to do with it is absolutely correct, and that they are nostalgic for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, for some idea that each village was ethnically homogeneous, each ethnicity had some degree of autonomy, and German culture was the only respectable elite culture. This explains the distaste for national (e.g. Hungarian) elites, and a lot of other things besides. And the dominance of Austrian and German emigres like Arendt fits too. They tend to call 19th century Germany and Vienna “Victorian,” and Himmelfarb and others try to read Victorian modes of charity into it too. I’m not quite sure yet why an American WASP would be attracted to that kind of thing.

9

Roger Albin 04.11.10 at 5:23 pm

But the libertarians have to make these claims, otherwise they’d have to concede that expanded freedom is a result of government action in mixed economy states developed by liberals (in the modern sense) and social democrats.

10

bianca steele 04.11.10 at 5:24 pm

I don’t mean Kling and Hornsberger specifically, but why Jewish Americans of a certain age might.

11

Jason McCullough 04.11.10 at 5:25 pm

It’s not a mystery; Kling sotto-voice says admits they “keep having this blind spot” because they don’t think it’s a blind spot – they just don’t give a shit.

<blockquote cute="http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2010/04/group_status_an.html"If what you really, really care about are group-status issues, and you really, really think that those battles should be fought politically rather than culturally, and if you are really, really scared of where you think some older Americans stand on those group-status issues, then you can end up where Will Wilkinson is–deeply frightened of the Tea Party movement in spite of its libertarian focus.

The obvious interpretation of this, to me at least, is that women’s rights, slavery, and organized state terror against a racial group are “group status” issues. From the oppositional phrasing (not sure if that’s the right term?) it’s obvious Kling doesn’t care about them, and if you for some crazy reason care about them, it’s clearly obvious to King that these issues shouldn’t be resolved politically – they should be resolved “culturally.” Whatever in the fuck that means; I suspect it’s not good.

12

Substance McGravitas 04.11.10 at 5:25 pm

It’s understandable that as libertarians who point at a science-fictional utopia get laughed at some will try to point at history and get laughed at.

13

Heur 04.11.10 at 5:28 pm

In Hornberger’s response, he comes close to what kth was suggesting, when he argues that his main point is that the U.S. should strive to keep the progress made in the area of civil rights while reclaiming the economic liberty of the 1880s (nb I am not endorsing this view).

But he does reiterate his view that society in the 1880s was somehow the freest in history, notwithstanding “exceptions” such as slavery and women’s rights.

I think the best explanation here is that the the “exceptions” conflict with his long-held, dominant narrative of American history. Contradictions to accepted narratives, absent conscious effort, tend to be marginalized. So in Hornberger’s view the enormous contradictions to his narrative become exceptions, footnotes to the main story, rather than full chapters in that story.

14

piglet 04.11.10 at 5:45 pm

This is one of the more grotesque notions in the US-Libertarian canon of beliefs. Gore Vidal wrote something like the erosion of American liberty started around the 1960s, when suddenly airline passengers were required to show ID before boarding a plane. Anybody who thinks showing ID is the worst of tyranny must be rather oblivious to the history of oppression practiced in the “land of the free” ever since it came into existence. What is weird is that Vidal is probably aware of things like slavery and institutional racism, or am I giving him too much credit? It just seems that the “erosion of liberty” rhetoric is somehow irresistible for people of his temperament. The challenge is perhaps to acknowledge that “liberty” never exists as a general characteristic. It is always somebody’s specific liberty that is at stake. Oddly, libertarians such as Hornberger seem to prefer maximum liberty for a small, privileged group rather than less than perfect liberty for the masses. Or perhaps this isn’t that odd after all if these “libertarians” are really interested in justifying privilege and liberty is only used as a rhetorical device.

15

Henri Vieuxtemps 04.11.10 at 5:49 pm

Was it around that time Oscar Wilde said that America went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between?

16

jrc 04.11.10 at 5:51 pm

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed that the debate about freedom has shifted ground a good deal. When I was an undergraduate, much of our discussions about freedom seemed to locate the problem in the general arena of social class struggle: how are groups made more free, how can we free ourselves from the social powers of ours or other groups, how does distribution of wealth limit freedom. Achieving liberty was a fight against the power of both social group marginalization and groups own social mores, a kind of combined political/existential exercise within oneself.
Sometime around the bank bailouts and the election of a half-African President, the struggle for “liberty”, all of a sudden, seemed to become the struggle against paying taxes, the struggle for as much economic independence as possible, the struggle against the very concept that our liberties were all tied up together, and only a very narrow, completely self-interested, inhumanly individualistic conception of liberty began to take hold. It had never occurred to me, before a couple of years ago, that any intellectually serious human being could believe (maybe just argue) that income taxes were more of a constraint on liberty than lack of access to health care or (even more frighteningly) segregation or political disenfranchisement. After all, how free can someone be if they are dead or can’t even vote?
It has occurred to me more than once that an intellectual fixation on the idea of liberty is often tied to a feeling of powerlessness. And it has also been empirically notable to me how bad people are at thinking about freedom and liberty right after they are made to feel powerless (or realize their own powerlessness) and before they have had any real time to engage with the problem in a sustained context (think of those really excitable freshman humanities undergrads). Perhaps that has something to do with it.

It would be very nice if one of you smarter-than-me intellectual historians has something more nuanced to say about this shift in the thought-space of freedom, about the context in which freedom is discussed, and about the trajectory in the history of ideas (or rhetoric or what have you) that brought about this phenomenon.

17

Jacob T. Levy 04.11.10 at 5:52 pm

I’ve been back-and-forthing about this on a libertarian profs e-mail list, and I’ve been pushing something like the view heur just expressed. I think it has less to do with Hayek than it does with American Whiggism, of which American libertarianism is sometimes a species.

There’s a basic American understanding of history that says: the Founding created The Freest Society Known To Man, and then adds in bracketed footnotes “except for some problems which were real problems but were destined to work themselves out as the logic of liberty unfolded.” The combination of an official American ideology of liberty and the genuinely broader franchise in the US than in peer societies get conflated into an idea that the U.S. had a telos of freedom that counted in its favor even when there was a lot of unfreedom about.

This means that slavery is deeply discounted, Jim Crow is deeply discounted, and comparisons between 18th/19th c US and either contemporaneous peer societies or the modern era are deeply screwed up.

This much isn’t unique to libertarians. I think it runs deep in white American Whiggism all around– which is to say almost all of white American political thought other than southern conservatism.

For libertarians there’s then the subsequent step of seeing the 20th century as an era when the official ideology ceased to be (in our sense) liberal and progressive, and so things started moving in the wrong direction. Once you’ve elevated ideology over practice so far that slavery was an anomalous footnote to be worked out, you’re bound to overreact to this intellectual shift. The Progressive Era or the shift from the Lochner court to the New Deal court becomes a breaking point in the history of freedom. It no longer seems that the idea working itself out is a liberal idea. And so you can find even libertarians like Hornberger and Kling– who, as Boaz says in his article, are *not* part of the Confederacy-worshipping cult of pseudo-libertarians– unable to really grasp what Boaz and Wilkinson are on about.

18

Substance McGravitas 04.11.10 at 5:59 pm

No Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, bailouts, or so-called stimulus plans.

Hooray for death and collapsed economies.

19

DanSeattle 04.11.10 at 6:06 pm

I am not a libertrian, by any meas. But I sort of think that the direction he’s going is utopian, rather than nostalgic. 4&5 both have it right: they want to keep elevators and hydration and possibly even voting status for blacks and women, while losing the freedom-infringing statutes (the CIA, ID on airplanes). Similarly, I want to go back to the 1990s (back when we thought Torture Was Evil) without getting back the Cold War (when Communists Were Evil). Progress is obviously not linear: can’t I want both?

20

alex 04.11.10 at 6:14 pm

I pretty much think you can have the 1990s without the Cold War, it being over by then. More’s the question, can they get the 1880s without the Haymarket Martyrs, for example? Now there’s a real persecution of men who knew what ‘libertarian’ meant, and the Federal Government nowhere in sight…

21

Nick 04.11.10 at 6:16 pm

Perhaps it could be argued that the US moved fairly continuously from a system of privatised slavery to the nationalised slavery of the the draft and the income tax. There has since been some success at constraining the worst elements of this method of expropriation.

22

alonzo 04.11.10 at 6:28 pm

“No torture or cruel or unusual punishment” is just bizarrely ignorant. Prisoners at that time were routinely tortured. Admittedly, it was a time of great freedom for wardens and guards — as well as police, bosses, hired goons, petty authorities of all kinds — to treat anyone under their thumb just as they pleased

23

Arnold Kling 04.11.10 at 6:33 pm

WTF?

Where did I say I was nostalgic for the 1880’s?

You don’t know me at all. You don’t know my life, my friends, my family, their friends. You just make these baseless insinuations that what I’m really about is white male domination.

It’s fine if you want to disagree with my politics. But stop dehumanizing me. For people who claim to be all about treating all human beings with dignity, you guys are doing a pretty bad job of it.

24

john c. halasz 04.11.10 at 6:46 pm

“Intellectual hygiene”? Cleanliness is next to godliness?

25

Russell Arben Fox 04.11.10 at 6:57 pm

I think it runs deep in white American Whiggism all around—which is to say almost all of white American political thought other than southern conservatism.

Well said, Jacob. There’s a reason why I have my students in American Character read the Twelve Southeners at the same time they read Emma Goldman and Norman Thomas: when it comes to crafting narratives of American political thought, anarchists and socialists and reactionaries all have to hold together.

26

Mitchell Rowe 04.11.10 at 6:57 pm

Nice to see you here Kling.
You wrote:
“But it’s a swindle to suggest that if we had a libertarian polity we would be back in the days of Jim Crow”
Do you really believe that Jim Crow would have ended without massive government action? I would argue that change would never have happened without the involvement of the federal government in the issue.

27

Marc 04.11.10 at 7:10 pm

In defense of Vidal: we really have given up a tremendous amount of ground over the last 40 years for “security”. And this has been a cause pursued, to varying degrees and purposes, across the political spectrum. We have routine drug testing for jobs and security cameras everywhere in the public sphere (the UK feels like a police state to me for this reason alone.) The process of air travel has become, frankly, degrading. People support routine wiretapping of phones enthusiastically, red light cameras inflicting automatic tickets, and most depressingly the broad popularity of torture.

You don’t have to enthuse for Jim Crow to think that all people have lost quite a bit from the combination of right-wing security theatre and left-wing paternalism.

28

Francis 04.11.10 at 7:19 pm

Excerpts from Dr. Kling’s blog:
This fragility of tumescent government is what many otherwise thoughtful commentators fail to notice. … A robust society would have more public goods delivered by the voluntary associations that Tocqueville noticed were characteristic of America. … Imagine a world where you could opt out of Social Security by mailing in an extra form, hire an unlicensed doctor after signing a waiver, or legally buy cocaine if you sit through one of the DEA’s educational videos. We wouldn’t be in Libertopia, but we’d be 95% of the way there.

Really?

29

Mitchell Rowe 04.11.10 at 7:21 pm

27:
Well of course I mean who cares about unlicensed doctors? I mean it won’t anyone important who will have to go see them if they get sick….

30

kth 04.11.10 at 7:26 pm

Mr Kling, I think the passage of yours that has generated the most interest here is this one:

But it’s a swindle to suggest that if we had a libertarian polity we would be back in the days of Jim Crow or women’s subservience. Just as it is a swindle to suggest that if we had a libertarian polity we would be back to using outhouses and having our teeth pulled without anesthetic.

But that burden is on your side, to show that what was awesome for white folks with a lot of property in those days derived chiefly from the relatively limited government and not from the discrimination and anti-union legislation. After all, you guys brought it up in the first place. All of the issues of how those Gilded Age policies would map onto the present day are yours for raising them, not those of your opponents noting that they coincided with a lot of things that were indefensible even from the narrow vantage of libertarianism.

31

john c. halasz 04.11.10 at 7:31 pm

“This fragility of tumescent government”- another metaphor alert.

32

ScentOfViolets 04.11.10 at 7:35 pm

Marc@26: That’s the way I read Vidal too. He’s not saying that the beginning of the 60’s when ID suddenly began to be required for all sorts of things was not less free than any time in the 19th Century; he’s saying that’s when the pendulum stopped swinging to the left and began moving back to the right. Still well to the left of anything from 100 years ago, just moving in the direction of less freedom rather than more.

33

Alice de Tocqueville 04.11.10 at 7:35 pm

The website anti-war.com, if not explicitly libertarian, certainly attracts a lot of them, and I remember Scott Horton castigating Medea Benjamin, when she’d just returned from Afghanistan and repeated concerns she’d heard from Afghans, especially women, that we should perhaps think about how we leave there, that perhaps it’s not so simple, as Horton kept insisting, that we JUST LEAVE. She started to say something about the Taliban, and he cut her off with, “What has the Taliban ever done?”

“What?” (Benjamin)
Horton: ” What has the Taliban ever done TO US?”
There was very little discussion there about the morality or lack of it of the invasion, it was all about ‘just get out’.

34

piglet 04.11.10 at 7:35 pm

Marc 26: “We have routine drug testing for jobs” indeed and Libertarians say that Wal-Mart has every right to require every applicant for a minimum wage job to submit to routine drug testing. I don’t by any means disagree that there are freedom-decreasing tendencies in today’s society that we should be fighting against. What is grotesque however is the hyperbole emanating from libertarians, the lack of perspective, the focus on a very narrow class of liberty-infringements (the kind that most of the less privileged people in the world wouldn’t even recognize) and the focus on the government as the culprit. More liberty is being trampled on in the US by private employers than by government agencies and that is fine with libertarians. Otoh, the undeniably liberating effect of certain government interventions (e. g. Medicare, anti-discrimination laws) are ignored or explained away. All that in pursuit of a silly romantic ideal of liberty that has never existed in reality.

35

ScentOfViolets 04.11.10 at 7:38 pm

It’s fine if you want to disagree with my politics. But stop dehumanizing me. For people who claim to be all about treating all human beings with dignity, you guys are doing a pretty bad job of it.

After reading your linked piece, all I can say is: look in the mirror.

36

Yarrow 04.11.10 at 7:58 pm

Arnold Kling @ 22: “Where did I say I was nostalgic for the 1880’s? . . . It’s fine if you want to disagree with my politics. But stop dehumanizing me.”

It’s true that only the Hornberger quote expresses nostalgia for the 1880’s, while your defense of his nostalgia is a bit more nuanced. But even if the accusation of nostalgia for the 1880’s were completely baseless (rather than arguably inexact), how does it dehumanize you? If anything, Holbo accused you of a particularly human folly (unless it’s escaped my notice that some animal or plant has recently been found capable of nostalgia for that particular decade).

37

Alice de Tocqueville 04.11.10 at 8:13 pm

I discovered this website after reading a George Scialabba review of a book by John Kampfer called Freedom For Sale: How We Made Money and Lost Our Liberty, about how those who are pretty well off themselves and can even afford to live in gated communities aren’t put off all that much by police-state accoutrements like surveillance cameras everywhere. But I guess that wouldn’t be liberatarians.

38

Colin Danby 04.11.10 at 8:33 pm

Just to name the problem, Kling’s blind spot (a polite way of saying hypocrisy) can be seen in his use of the bland catchall term “group status issues” to gloss the systematic oppression of women and nonwhites raised by Wilkinson. He then makes the Burkean move of doubting whether such “group status issues” “should be fought politically rather than culturally”. Wilkinson, of course, had gone out of his way to point out that 1880s oppression of women and nonwhites *was* political, was done by the state.

39

JLR 04.11.10 at 8:33 pm

> “This fragility of tumescent government”- another metaphor alert.

Poised to pop like a purulent pimple.

40

silentbeep 04.11.10 at 8:33 pm

@Arnold:

A lot of people didn’t like what you wrote. I found it mildly off-putting at best and on the verge of offensive at worse. It would be nice if you took some responibility for the piece, maybe even stood by it, and stopped whining about how others are what? hurting your feelings? “dehumanizing” you? btw that was a nice sweet touch when you called Wilkinson an asshole on his own blog. Getting some thicker skin would be nice too.

Take your lumps and move on.

41

JLR 04.11.10 at 8:45 pm

Of course, what economic liberty there was in the 1880s was ultimately based on the wholesale theft of property so recent and so blatant that it could hardly be excused by the sanction of immemorial custom. Perhaps our current degeneration from the libertarian utopia of the gilded age is due to it now being somewhat harder to simply take what we want from those having the temerity to underutilize natural resources.

42

ben 04.11.10 at 8:56 pm

I’ve been back-and-forthing about this on a libertarian profs e-mail list

Wacky.

43

Stuart 04.11.10 at 9:03 pm

I think it is indicative of how near sighted libertarians are, than in a conversation that includes treating women as property, slavery, etc. that having your blog post criticized is “dehumanizing”. Talk about complete lack of perspective.

44

Brad DeLong 04.11.10 at 9:08 pm

Arnold Kling writes here: “WTF? Where did I say I was nostalgic for the 1880’s? You don’t know me at all. You don’t know my life, my friends, my family, their friends. You just make these baseless insinuations that what I’m really about is white male domination. It’s fine if you want to disagree with my politics. But stop dehumanizing me. For people who claim to be all about treating all human beings with dignity, you guys are doing a pretty bad job of it.”

But Arnold Kling wrote there: “If what you really, really care about are group-status issues, and you really, really think that those battles should be fought politically rather than culturally, and if you are really, really scared of where you think some older Americans stand on those group-status issues, then you can end up where Will Wilkinson is–deeply frightened of the Tea Party movement in spite of its libertarian focus. In that case, your plan is to slip something into the ruling intellectuals’ drink to make them amenable to your free-market seductions. Good luck with that.”

I read Kling’s passage there as saying: libertarians need to get behind the Tea Party bigtime. It’s true that the Tea Party ‘group status issues’ but that’s a minor consideration which should be dealt with “culturally” and not “politically.” Thus it seems to me that the most charitable reading one can give Kling is that he doesn’t think white male domination is a big problem.

45

Chris Edmond 04.11.10 at 9:08 pm

Kling’s comment on Wilkinson’s blog:

“You’re not just wrong. You’re an asshole for even insinuating it. We need to have a talk off line.”

I don’t know anything about you Arnold, but someone who’d write that in public (rather than just dropping Will an email) is not creating a good impression. To put it mildly.

Let’s hope Will isn’t affected by this pathetic bullying.

46

zebbidie 04.11.10 at 9:23 pm

Anti-Libertarian and anti-Apple posts: the Hamburger Helper of comment numbers.

Dammee if I don’t love them just the same.

47

Elf M. Sternberg 04.11.10 at 9:29 pm

Why is it that every writers who thinks the 1880’s were more free, for some definition thereof, always make the same mistake as those who think the world would be better if only he/she were in charge? “Every dream of utopia begins with the belief that the dreamer would end up the ruler, and not the ruled.”

I can’t help but believe that Hornberger buys into David Frum’s “Dark Satanic Millian” conception of capitalism, “the ethico-political theory that says laissez faire capitalism is good if and only if under capitalism the masses are forced to work in environments that break their will to behave in a self-assertive, celebratorily individualist manner. ” When the poor and ignorant knew their place. The golden days of liberty.

48

soapy jukebox 04.11.10 at 9:31 pm

Is Hornberger even right by his exclusive metric of liberty, ‘freedom to spend all one’s money how one likes’?

Certainly much more to spend it on, now. Certainly, all sorts of things are cheaper.

49

soapy 04.11.10 at 9:49 pm

* should be: ‘”‘freedom to spend all Hornberger’s money how Hornberger likes”‘, sorry.

50

Mrs Tilton 04.11.10 at 9:56 pm

Chris @44,

but one must of course treat Kling with sympathy, with understanding. As one can see in his post upthread @23, his feelings have been terribly hurt. His wounded lashing about is understandable.

Kling @23,

You don’t know me at all. You don’t know my life, my friends, my family, their friends

It’s true that I don’t know your life, your friends, your family or their friends. Nor is it clear to me why any of that matters here; your friends and family, and their friends, are none of my business, really. But the words you write in public tell me as much about you, or at least about your character, as I need to know.

51

fishbane 04.11.10 at 10:13 pm

“should be fought politically rather than culturally”

I have to say that I don’t even understand this distinction.

I’ll admit to libertarian sympathies, in the sense of asking whether a given problem is better solved by private action than government before asking the government to do something. (I know that’s not terribly libertarian these days, so in the grand tradition of making up new names, call me a hyukian.)

But anyway, given the existence of government (“First, assume the existence of a can opener.”), what else is it other than an expression of ruling class culture? How could it be anything else?

Isn’t that one of the libertarian critiques of communism, that machinery will be operated by those who most wish to operate it?

In a way, I prefer Belle’s loopy utopians to this hankering for a mythical past crap. Yes, I like having teeth, *and also* I like my life partner to be free to do her own thing, vote against my narrow interests (actually happened, once), and would prefer not have “cultural fights” over whether we should be married, or that my class of folk don’t talk to black people (also happened) and so on.

Really, as I see it, the problem for libertarians is not so much that people are dumb and politicians are professionals (even if both of those are true). The problem is that government naturally expands to encompass the predominant mode of communication, and expresses the will of the people too well. As it turns out, most people are not libertarians.

I hope you don’t think badly for me saying this – some of my best friends are libertarians.

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bianca steele 04.11.10 at 10:15 pm

Are these libertarians also interested in throwing out all the labor and corporate law cases decided in US courts after 1880? I mean, prior to those cases, it was an open question whether pro-labor and similar legislation would be acceptable.

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Doctor Science 04.11.10 at 10:24 pm

I am attempting not to hurt anyone’s feelings, but I don’t understand:

I would rather live with the group-status configurations that we have today than with those that prevailed in 1880

In what way are “the group-status configurations” different from “the expansion of liberty”? I am a married, white woman. I have *substantially* more freedoms that libertarians hold dear — the right to own private property, the right to vote, the right to publish without anyone else’s permission — than my great-great-grandmothers did in 1880. Were I a libertarian, how could I conceivably say, as Hornberger does, As a libertarian, as far as I’m concerned, that’s a society that is pretty darned golden.?

The “group-status configurations” to which Mr. Kling refers are about access to libertarian liberties. They’re not about *status*, they’re about *freedom*. More people can experience liberty *as libertarians define it* now, as compared to 1880. How is that not an increase in liberty?

The answer seems pretty obvious to me, but perhaps I’m missing something.

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Matt Austern 04.11.10 at 10:25 pm

As others have pointed out, the blind spot is pretty simple: the failure to see that a legal regime in which 80% of the country is legally unfree has anything to do with an infringement of liberty. It’s pretty clear that “liberty” in this context must be code word referring to only some of the things that most people mean by that word. (What might it mean? Well, I don’t think it’s too hostile a reading to say that the 1880s seem like a pinacle of liberty if what that means to you is that an 1880s tycoon could do whatever he wanted.)

And that’s why I’m pretty skeptical of the organized libertarian movement. I don’t think that what they mean by liberty is the same thing I do. I’m pretty sure that a world in which their idea of liberty was maximized is one I would find much less free than the world I live in.

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Minor nonsense 04.11.10 at 10:26 pm

Take any political stance and they all have blind spots big enough to sail a supertanker ship through.

There really is no difference. They all totally unworkable.

Politics is like religion, when you believe in a specific program you become totally blind to reality.

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Minor nonsense 04.11.10 at 10:27 pm

Take any political stance and they all have blind spots big enough to sail a supertanker ship through.

There really is no difference. They are all totally unworkable.

Politics is like religion, when you believe in a specific program you become totally blind to reality.

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Myles SG 04.11.10 at 10:37 pm

“It would be very nice if one of you smarter-than-me intellectual historians has something more nuanced to say about this shift in the thought-space of freedom, about the context in which freedom is discussed, and about the trajectory in the history of ideas (or rhetoric or what have you) that brought about this phenomenon.”

You really ought to figure out the difference between negative and positive liberties, and why positive liberty is impossible without a modicum of negative liberty, i.e. negative liberty is more crucial, before talking. This is beyond amateurish.

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Rob 04.11.10 at 10:37 pm

Well, this is a weird discussion. It seems as though everyone is wilfully adopting the most uncharitable reading possible of their opponents’ positions – understandable, but also rather obvious and unenlightening.

What I take as being Kling et al.’s point is this: There was a time when, if one happened to be a white male, one had a level of liberty that exceeds anything that any individual has today (correcting for differences in, say, technological progress); this does not imply that every other aspect of society at that point in time was good or admirable or even tolerable to us today, but on the narrow question of personal liberty, libertarians would argue that the “most free” people of the 1880s were more free (or less interfered with) than the most free today. They presumably then argue that it should be possible to increase freedom today without bringing back the bad things that existed in the 1880s and, on the face of it, I can’t see how that is necessarily incorrect.

Suppose we did roll back various measures from the last 30-40 years – reduced the national security infrastructure, reduced the military-industrial complex and reduced taxation along with it. This would increase the “maximum liberty” enjoyable by citizens, without having any great negative impact on anyone else. We would, technically speaking, be “restoring” liberties lost since the 1880s without losing those other liberties gained since the 1880s. This seems like something perfectly desirable to libertarians but also not immediately objectionable to anyone else.

What the libertarians seem to be arguing about is how to present this idea: some believe that the appeal to the lost liberty of the 1880s works best, and if one identifies with white men then it probably does work on some level (and hey, I’m a white male and I at least don’t have any trouble understanding the idea). Wilkinson is arguing that this argument fails to win support because a majority of people in any Western society are not both white and male, and many white men don’t particularly identify with their 1880s forebears anyway. I think they’re both arguing for the same basic policy prescription though: that liberty should be increased for all. The thing is, if they’re both arguing for the same thing and the only difference is about how this argument is explained (either by comparison to the 1880s or comparison to an imagined future) then I’m not sure it’s a problem fundamental to libertarianism, it’s just a problem fundamental to the presentation of libertarian ideas. The disagreement says almost nothing about whether the proposed increases in liberty would be a good or bad idea. On that basis, it’s silly to make Kling the “bad” libertarian and Wilkinson the “good” libertarian; all you’re really saying is that you like Wilkinson’s presentation more.

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g 04.11.10 at 10:57 pm

There was a time when, if one happened to be a white male, one had a level of liberty that exceeds anything that any individual has today…

There was a time when, if one happened to be a Sun King of France, one had a level of liberty that exceeds anything that any individual has today.

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Russell L. Carter 04.11.10 at 10:58 pm

I think the yearning for a libertarian Arcadia concretely located somewhere within US history comes from the need to avoid the perception that libertarian polities are strictly theoretical.

And the 1880s is the best interval they have found. In other words, it’s good to be a kingwhite male tycoon.

I also find it interesting that the lack of health insurance and all medical doctor certification is considered splendid… evidently the state of medicine in the 1880s was satisfactory. So we get this tension between “libertarian” forward looking “Dynamist” types who get serious elective surgery to strictly help others and backward grasping people like Kling who think you (and your children, and your aging parents) should get the medical treatment that you can afford, no exceptions.

Since Frum is the current darling apostate of all those important centrists, it should be pointed out that Holbo (The Windy One) covered the concepts underlying the above libertarian yearning, comprehensively and devastatingly and at times hilariously, in his epic (of course) classic post on Frum’s noble Donner Party Diners:

http://examinedlife.typepad.com/johnbelle/2003/11/dead_right.html

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ScentOfViolets 04.11.10 at 11:04 pm

I’ll admit to libertarian sympathies, in the sense of asking whether a given problem is better solved by private action than government before asking the government to do something. (I know that’s not terribly libertarian these days, so in the grand tradition of making up new names, call me a hyukian.)

This is the odd part to me – most people, even self-described “liberals” operate the same way. If something needs doing, I don’t think “How should the government get this done?” No, I don’t tend to think about that option until all others have been exhausted. For some reason, a lot of libertarians appear to think otherwise.

Really, as I see it, the problem for libertarians is not so much that people are dumb and politicians are professionals (even if both of those are true). The problem is that government naturally expands to encompass the predominant mode of communication, and expresses the will of the people too well. As it turns out, most people are not libertarians.

I think that’s it in a nutshell. I used to have libertarian sympathies myself – back before I could legally drink. I think most people come around in the end to the notion that having the services that only a large government can provide is preferable to not having a large government and none of those services. Libertarians like to argue that those services could be rendered privately, but as you say, people don’t buy it. To say that this is because libertarians haven’t been persuasive enough is actually kind of insulting.

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ScentOfViolets 04.11.10 at 11:12 pm

And that’s why I’m pretty skeptical of the organized libertarian movement. I don’t think that what they mean by liberty is the same thing I do. I’m pretty sure that a world in which their idea of liberty was maximized is one I would find much less free than the world I live in.

Bingo! I think a lot of people are understandably suspicious of what the libertarians are peddling simply because they use a lot of nonstandard definitions. Take coercion: A woman through no fault of her own is stranded in the desert and is doomed to die of dehydration until a Good Samaritan comes along and offers her a ride back to civilization. However, he won’t do it for free. His price is $50,000 and access to her favors for the next 20 years, starting now in the back of his Jeep. Is this woman being coerced? Most people I know would say yes. Libertarians would say that while the Good Samaritan is a despicable human being, he is not coercing her in any way.

With these sorts of definitional sidesteps, is it any wonder people don’t tend to trust libertarians?

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PHB 04.11.10 at 11:15 pm

I find it very hard to credit ‘libertarian’ arguments with honesty.

We have just watched the biggest assault on civil liberties in a generation under the Bush regime. Telephones were tapped without court supervision, torture and imprisonment without trial were employed, the leaders of the state engaged in deliberate and systematic deception to obtain support for a war of choice while the war against the people who attacked us was unfinished. Where were these so-called ‘libertarians’ then?

US ‘Libertarianism’ is just a way to justify the greed and self interest of the modern GOP without sullying themselves with the hypocrisy, racism and religious bigotry.

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Lee A. Arnold 04.11.10 at 11:17 pm

Aside from libertarianism’s neglect of the despairs of the 1880s and its neglect of improved freedoms in our time, I don’t understand the general libertarian argument as a way forward into the future. I don’t think a single human brain can hold all of the information required to have a libertarian society in Boaz’ sense (i.e. some “golden” era, as he writes, of having no Social Security, Medicare, public schooling, and the rest of his list.) I don’t think it was really viable in the 1880s either, especially if the prose of people like Babbage, Mill and Marshall gives any sense of the complexification that people were already experiencing by mid-century or so. The needs had already arisen. Because markets don’t calculate the kinds of information which those non-market institutions provide. I have a strong conviction that if Hayek, an honest proto-systems-theorist, had lived long enough to see the present magnitude of our coming environmental and systems-complexity issues, and how difficult to estimate as can be, then he would have been the first to point out that individuals don’t have enough time to gather enough information on a daily basis to properly formulate demand in every market — and that this would make prices false. Then he’d be writing “Why I am not a libertarian.” Someone conversant with the valid intellectual cases for both markets AND governments is a classical Western liberal but NOT a U.S. libertarian.

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bianca steele 04.11.10 at 11:18 pm

@54
Are Kling and Wilkinson arguing for basically the same thing? DoesWilkinson’s presentation make him the “good” libertarian?

I confess to being confused by Wilkinson’s recent support for what he calls “liberaltarianism,” an alliance between liberals and libertarians, given his usual emphasis on culture and local institutions. I could make it work but not without effort.

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Crystal 04.11.10 at 11:25 pm

I’ve known several people who claim “Libertarianism” because they want to be able to grow and smoke pot without the risk of being arrested. I can certainly get behind tossing out the whole “War on Drugs” cr@p – but then again, so can many people of all political stripes. Most of these people realized that “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” doesn’t automatically mean one is a “libertarian.”

It’s blindingly obvious to most people that, as has been commented many times – that the 1880’s were a sweet, sweet paradise of liberty for maybe 5% of the population. This seems to be a human failing in general – the idea that somewhere, in some time, there was this paradise that has been lost to Evil Modernity. Ken Wilber calls this the “Regress Express.” See: Garden of Eden, also Ovid with his Gold, Silver, Bronze and now we’re in the Iron Age, oh woe. Some strands of Hindu mythology also claim that we’re in the Kali Yuga, aka The Worst and Suckiest Times.

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Colin Danby 04.11.10 at 11:32 pm

Why stop in the 1880s, Rob? Roll back another 30 years and your hypothetical white man has the freedom to own other human beings, if he’s living in a slave state.

Criticism of Kling’s evasions is *in no way* equivalent to arguing that current gov’t is optimal.

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Mike Huben 04.11.10 at 11:33 pm

Much as I despise Boaz, Hornberger is even worse here. His response is ludicrously erroneous in its history. He claims no department of education or agriculture in 1880. The Department of Education was created in 1867, and in 1862 the Department of Agriculture was established. Hornberger writes “people were free to keep everything they earned, because there was no income tax.” As if there were no other taxes? He writes that there were “few systems of public schooling”, while Massachusetts had a statewide compulsory attendance law in 1852.

You can’t trust ANYTHING from these libertarian propagandists: they are as bad as creationists in their abuse of history and fictitious “facts”. But I’m mildly surprised that nobody here at CT commented on these gross historical inaccuracies.

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John Quiggin 04.11.10 at 11:36 pm

One striking feature of the last decade has been a massive loss of legal rights, which hasn’t (yet) actually impinged on more than a handful of Americans. There is now a bipartisan consensus that the President is an absolute monarch who can order the seizure, torture and murder of anyone at all, that the government decide what, if any, kind of trial accused criminals will receive and so on. But apart from the possibility (impossible to evaluate) that their phone is being tapped, these powers have so far only been used against a very small number of people.

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Kieran Healy 04.11.10 at 11:39 pm

This all reminds me of that bit about Magrathea in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — ” In those days spirits were brave, the stakes were high, men were real men, women were real women, and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were real small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri. And all dared to brave unknown terrors, to do mighty deeds, to boldly split infinitives that no man had split before — and thus was the Empire forged. Many men of course became extremely rich, but this was perfectly natural and nothing to be ashamed of because no one was really poor — at least, no one worth speaking of.”

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John Holbo 04.11.10 at 11:44 pm

Arnold Kling writes [my responses in brackets]: “WTF?

Where did I say I was nostalgic for the 1880’s? [You objected strenuously to a post that made the simple, obvious point that the 1880’s weren’t exactly a golden age. Why did you do that? I see you have an update saying you misread Wilkinson. But how is that possible, and what did you take him to have written instead that would make your response make sense?]

You don’t know me at all. You don’t know my life, my friends, my family, their friends. You just make these baseless insinuations that what I’m really about is white male domination. [I did say in the post that I doubt it is all about while male domination, but you must admit that what you wrote exhibited a bizarre blind spot. What is YOUR explanation for that blind spot?]

It’s fine if you want to disagree with my politics. But stop dehumanizing me. For people who claim to be all about treating all human beings with dignity, you guys are doing a pretty bad job of it.” [I pointed out that you seem to have a serious ideological blind spot. Is that beyond the pale? Why? Would you never say that about anyone, where politics was concerned? That they had a serious ideological blindspot?]

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Robert Waldmann 04.11.10 at 11:47 pm

I have a guess as to how Kling and Hornberger managed to overlook … well most people in the USA in 1880. African Americans and Native Americans were excluded from the debate. Women were almost entirely excluded. This means that if you look at the debate about what was to be done, most of the proposals were to move away from libertarian policies. Following old debates one can fail to here the people who were silenced.

Think of an mid 18th century European considering the pros and cons of democracy (then a pejorative term) . He would note that the demagogue Cleon was a bloody war criminal (which he was) but overlook the fact that Cleon was also a slave owner. That went without saying and Cleon’s opponents didn’t mention it. His slaves probably had complaints (you try being enslaved by a mass murderer) but those complaints weren’t written down.

I think such blind spots are quite common and not a particular problem of libertarians.

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just thinking 04.11.10 at 11:59 pm

I would say two things:

1) the reason why the post and commenters thus far have not given the libertarian view the benefit of the doubt is because the point of the Hornberger article/post that CT talked about and quoted above was designed, I think, to *sell* libertarianism using an historical argument, rather than generate discussion or debate. For me, I can’t give the benefit of the doubt to an author who is trying to make a point by picking, choosing, and ultimately whitewashing history before he glorifies it for political points. In other words, I think it is irresponsible to celebrate the “what” (no taxes!) without also talking about the “how” and “why” (race, gender, and class oppression).

2) while we’re at it, even if we were to set aside the issues that people above bring up– women shut out of everything, child labor, Dawes Act, racism– wasn’t the result of the 1880s that Hornberger talks about a massive depression in 1893? Also, throughout the 1880s was there not a Populist Party, or Farmer’s Alliance that formed in order to rebel against a financial system that completely shut them out and put them into debt for life?

In addition to the oppression of women, and PoC, it ends up that the 1880s weren’t so good for most white males, either.

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John Holbo 04.11.10 at 11:59 pm

Also, Jacob Levy’s point is very good.

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mulp 04.12.10 at 12:01 am

So, was the true real American of the late 19th century really living in a libertarian utopia, or even one better than they live today? Were their property rights sacrosanct?

Take for example Goyahkla, or Goyaałé: “one who yawns”, known by most today by the name his enemies gave him, Geronimo. Which libertarian today would like to be one of the best known men of the 1880s, Goyahkla, or one of his followers, seeking to exercise their rights to liberty and property?

And how was it that the true Americans like Goyahkla had lost nearly all their liberty and property in the 19th century if government was such a force for the things libertarians consider great about the 19th century?

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joel hanes 04.12.10 at 12:04 am

I think that much of the libertarian-paradise aspect of late-nineteenth-century America [ for white males ] was a unique product of the frontier and a century of westward expansion and homesteading. During that never-to-be-repeated time, any enterprising and independent young man could take his axe and rifle and light out for the territories, confident that (by virtue of enormous government land giveaways and subsidized railroad expansion), he and his family would be able to carve a new life out of the American Indian landscape.

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Bloix 04.12.10 at 12:14 am

The 1880’s were the period of the most violent labor unrest in American history. Beginning with the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, the next twenty years saw over 10,000 strikes, many of them put down by government militia and police with unrelieved ferocity, and with the assistance of judicial murder (as in the Haymarket Affair of 1886).

In 1895, one white male gave a speech on liberty to an audience of over 100,000, most of them also white males. The speaker was Eugene V. Debs and the occasion for the speech was his release from prison, where he had served a sentence for helping to lead the Pullman Strike of 1894. Did Debs think that he was living in a time of unparalleled liberty for white males? Here’s what he said:

I greet you tonight as lovers of liberty and as despisers of despotism. I comprehend the significance of this demonstration and appreciate the honor that makes it possible for me to be your guest on such an occasion. The vindication and glorification of American principles of government, as proclaimed to the world in the Declaration of Independence, is the high purpose of this convocation…

I confess to a serious doubt as to whether this day marks my deliverance from bondage to freedom or my doom from freedom to bondage. Certain it is, in the light of recent judicial proceedings, that I stand in your presence stripped of my constitutional rights as a freeman and shorn of the most sacred prerogatives of American citizenship, and what is true of myself is true of every other citizen who has the temerity to protest against corporation rule or question the absolute sway of the money power. It is not law nor the administration of law of which I complain. It is the flagrant violation of the constitution, the total abrogation of law and the usurpation of judicial and despotic power, by virtue of which my colleagues and myself were committed to jail…

The theme tonight is personal liberty; or giving it its full height, depth and breadth, American liberty, something that Americans have been accustomed to eulogize since the foundation of the Republic, and multiplied thousands of them continue in the habit to this day because they do not recognize the truth that in the imprisonment of one man in defiance of all constitutional guarantees, the liberties of all are invaded and placed in peril. In saying this, I conjecture I have struck the keynote of alarm that has convoked this vast audience.…

Strike the fetters from the slave, give him liberty and he becomes an inhabitant of a new world. He looks abroad and beholds life and joy in all things around him. His soul expands beyond all boundaries. Emancipated by the genius of Liberty, he aspires to communion with all that is noble and beautiful, feels himself allied to all higher order of intelligence and superstition, a new being throbbing with glorious life.…

It is in no spirit of laudation that I aver here tonight that it has fallen to the lot of the American Railway Union to arouse workingmen to a sense of the perils that environ their liberties…

It must be borne in mind that the American Railway Union did not challenge the government. It threw down no gauntlet to courts or armies—it simply resisted the invasion of the rights of workingmen by corporations. It challenged and defied the power of corporations. Thrice armed with a just cause, the organization believed that justice would win for labor a notable victory; and the records proclaim that its confidence was not misplaced.

The corporations, left to their own resources of money, mendacity and malice, of thugs and ex-convicts, leeches and lawyers, would have been overwhelmed with defeat and the banners of organized labor would have floated triumphant in the breeze.
This the corporations saw and believed—hence the crowning act of infamy in which the federal courts and the federal armies participated, and which culminated in the defeat of labor.…

From such reflections I turn to the practical lessons taught by this “Liberation Day” demonstration. It means that American lovers of liberty are setting in operation forces to rescue their constitutional liberties from the grasp of monopoly and its mercenary hirelings. It means that the people are aroused in view of impending perils and that agitation, organization, and unification are to be the future battle cries of men who will not part with their birthrights and, like Patrick Henry, will have the courage to exclaim; “Give me liberty or give me death!”

I have borne with such composure as I could command the imprisonment which deprived me of my liberty. Were I a criminal; were I guilty of crimes meriting a prison cell; had I ever lifted my hand against the life or the liberty of my fellowmen; had I ever sought to filch their good name, I would not be here. I would have fled from the haunts of civilization and taken up my residence in some cave where the voice of my kindred is never heard. But I am standing here without a self-accusation of crime or criminal intent festering in my conscience, in the sunlight once more, among my fellowmen, contributing as best I can to make this “Liberation Day” from Woodstock prison a memorial day.

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Substance McGravitas 04.12.10 at 12:35 am

an alliance between liberals and libertarians

It’d be swell if a large group of reasonable people could come to a compromise with a small group of kooks ordinarily used as cover by Republicans.

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bianca steele 04.12.10 at 12:50 am

I’ve yet to see an even minimally convincing argument in favor of the idea of a golden age.

The best “arguments” I can come up with are fictional: Thomas Pynchon’s tiny window of time before what he describes as proto-fascist corporatism stamps out all hope of real liberty of any sort for most people, and The Martian Chronicles. You could read TMC–which is a kind of allegory of the opening and closing of the West–as supposing a kind of golden age was really sustainable, rather than a tragic, Camelot-like brief moment. But that’s still not a very good argument. And Deadwood is probably a lot more realistic about that “golden age” anyway.

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ScentOfViolets 04.12.10 at 12:51 am

I confess to being confused by Wilkinson’s recent support for what he calls “liberaltarianism,” an alliance between liberals and libertarians, given his usual emphasis on culture and local institutions. I could make it work but not without effort.

I’m really showing my age here, but believe it or not, Bianca, there was a time when this was not only effortless, but just about the only game in town. In, say 1976, you had libertarians that were very concerned with the government’s trampling of civil liberties. Yeah, a lot of them thought dope should be legalized. They were right. They were also concerned about a government that had no problem with drafting millions of non-voting-age young men and sticking them on the front lines of some nasty war somewhere to further “American interests”. They were concerned about the ability of the government to tap into private communications – and it’s willingness to do so. They were in short, civil libertarians, a term I use to contrast them with what came later.

Fast forward five years to 1981. Almost all of the old guard are gone from college campuses. They’ve been replaced with a new breed who don’t share the old concerns. They’re not going to get drafted, the government’s not going to spy on them, and as for smoking pot, well, let’s just say they’re neither poor nor black. In short, they are relatively unaffected by the old issues. Those sorts of bad things happen to someone else. No, these new guys start going on about “economic freedom”, meaning giving businesses and the wealthy a free pass all the way. And again, why not? They picture themselves as being “those guys”. They are also not nearly as well educated as my old comrades and frankly, not nearly as clever either. They are what I would call the “economic libertarians”. And here I think you are exactly right, because even the term “libertarian” is a dog whistle that has a different meaning to the initiated. That meaning doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the sort of freedoms you or I might like to think we could make a common cause.

No, libertarians won’t really go along with the whole civil liberties thing, because that’s not really what they’re all about. Otherwise, they’d be behaving differently.

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Barry 04.12.10 at 12:53 am

Matt Austern 04.11.10 at 10:25 pm
” Well, I don’t think it’s too hostile a reading to say that the 1880s seem like a pinacle of liberty if what that means to you is that an 1880s tycoon could do whatever he wanted.)”

Unless he ran afoul of a bigger tycoon – last I heard, both business and politics back then were very brutal.

Similarly for most white men – unless they owned significant property, so as to be self-sufficient, life was rough.

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fishbane 04.12.10 at 12:55 am

This is the odd part to me – most people, even self-described “liberals” operate the same way. If something needs doing, I don’t think “How should the government get this done?” No, I don’t tend to think about that option until all others have been exhausted. For some reason, a lot of libertarians appear to think otherwise.

Fair enough – I express myself so well. I meant a sort of in built hostility to government action, the assumption being that, presented with a problem, the government(tm) would like as not identify a comfortable person on the side, make them a bit more comfortable, and go for a vigorous handwashing.

I think that hostility is useful. I also think most of the outspoken libertarians are the autistic grandchildren of railroad money. So to speak.

One striking feature of the last decade has been a massive loss of legal rights, which hasn’t (yet) actually impinged on more than a handful of Americans. There is now a bipartisan consensus that the President is an absolute monarch who can order the seizure, torture and murder of anyone at all, that the government decide what, if any, kind of trial accused criminals will receive and so on. But apart from the possibility (impossible to evaluate) that their phone is being tapped, these powers have so far only been used against a very small number of people.

I wonder. Obviously, ninjas on ziplines aren’t taking out our breadwinners, and the deathcamps for grannies are only still a pipedream of our central planners.

But I wonder if, presented with the idea that their calls to relatives were recorded and reviewed, most people in the U.S. would have a problem with it. I think, generally, most of them wouldn’t. At least if you framed it correctly.

You know, seven steps foward, five back and all that, we’ve come a long way, but this is my life, and I rather like the liberty we have. I like taking pictures where I like, and I like telling cops to fuck themselves at their own convenience when they attempt to intimidate me from doing so. (That’s my fight, and you might not think it interesting, and that’s fine. Fight on your own terms.)

I guess it is strange to me that a lot of dug-in intellectual types who have no fear of really ever doing without wish to keep at bay what the rest of the developed countries seemed to have figured out – that a soft nation ain’t so bad.

If I were looking at motives, I might think that an absurdly muscled superpower might occasionally lash out and say things like Suck. On. This. or perhaps claim that it is important to throw a country against the wall every 10 years or something just to prove we have a metaphoric penis, but that would probably be uncharitable. Nay, outright uncivil. And we can’t have that ’round these parts, can we?

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Sebastian 04.12.10 at 1:08 am

Just to be clear, for those who don’t know all the players… Will Wilkinson is a libertarian too.

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jrc 04.12.10 at 1:12 am

Myles:

I’m going to assume that my pre morning coffee post came off wrong and that it ended up sounding snarky or something. Otherwise, I don’t really see why it would have made you so mad. My point was simply this: it seems to me that in the last couple of decades the debate about the question of liberty (the question of what impedes our liberty, what keeps us from being free) has shifted ground. The public debate has moved from the problem of political exclusion to the problem of economic regulation. Basically, given the public debate today, it might seem like defeating single-payer health insurance is a bigger boon to freedom than the 1964 civil rights act.
When I asked for people smarter than me to comment, I was really just asking more knowledgeable people if they thought they saw the same trend and had more interesting things to say about it.
Personally, I think that kind of pre-occupation with money in the debate about liberty is a little bit silly. But the point of my post was simply that I don’t think, fifteen years ago, a public debate about freedom or liberty would have included discussion of marginal tax rates. And I think that is an interesting development in the history of the idea of liberty in America.
I would be happy to have someone show me good evidence to the contrary. I make zero claim to any expertise here.

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bianca steele 04.12.10 at 1:14 am

ScentOfViolets,
You’re right. On the other hand, by 1985, in New York, college students may well have been able to buy pot whenever they liked, but beer was another story. Trivial, I know.

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Sebastian 04.12.10 at 1:24 am

“But the point of my post was simply that I don’t think, fifteen years ago, a public debate about freedom or liberty would have included discussion of marginal tax rates. “

I’m not so sure. The original break with England was over taxes, right?

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roger 04.12.10 at 1:32 am

Putting aside the pesky problem that in freedom utopia, more than half the population couldn’t vote or count on elementary civil rights – there’s the other problem that the state had, in fact, just created an economic boom by its amazing wartime financing of the civil war; that the government simply claimed the territory west of the Mississippi – apparently, the Indians had no sovereign rights – and was giving it away in something called the homesteaders act; that in every big city, the government was involved in doing things like building sewers and trying, at least, to provide clean water, probably the biggest factor in creating healthcare up until the 1950s. The biggest industry of the time was the railroads, and one doesn’t have to be an afficianado of the Adams Bros. Chapters of Eerie to know that the government was used in a warlord type way by every one of the greedy capitalists, from Vanderbilt to Gould, who would have laughed at the notion that the state should stay out of the economy – as quaint as suggesting that all wars should be fought with bows and arrows. Now, it is true that the state operated to support the wealthiest, and this is essentially what Libertarians today are groovy about – you can be a female, black or Chinese millionaire, and they will still fight for your freedom. Otherwise, though, the idea that the government was not a large presence (and an armed and dangerous one if you were a Sioux) everywhere is so much hokem.

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Francis 04.12.10 at 1:32 am

I’ve come to understand that what libertarians see was so great about the govt in the 1880s was that it was entirely for the benefit of the most powerful. These days, if you want to sell spoiled meat, or fix the stock market, or mistreat your employees, or dump poison into the environment, the g*dd*mn middle class has got laws passed that prevent you from doing so.

Look at what Levy wants — public goods delivered by NGOs. So, when a poor man needs hospital care, he needs to go cap-in-hand to the rich man for a little charity. He cannot, indeed MUST NOT, expect that he is entitled to receive care due to his status as a citizen. No savings when you hit 65, because you had a lousy job, or a sick sister, or your bank went broke? Not to worry, just go cap-in-hand to the Boss and he’ll provide. But put a system in place where an income stream is guaranteed by the government to be there when you’re old or disabled? Can’t have that; it would interfere with the Boss’s freedom to decide whether you merit his charity.

Frankly, our govt does a pretty lousy job, compared to other industrial countries, of being by the middle class, of the middle class, and for the middle class. But we’ve come a long way from the apotheosis of “freedom” that libertarians have wet dreams over.

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roger 04.12.10 at 1:39 am

PS – I forgot to mention the subsidy of land grants to railroads. Which of course makes the govenrment support for General motors look like peanuts.
I don’t, however, want to blame Arnold Kling for his ignorance of elementary economic history. After all, he is an economist.

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Alex 04.12.10 at 1:42 am

This is interesting. After Chris Grayling’s recent gaffe about gays and B&Bs, the UK libertarians (predictably) came out arguing we should get rid of all economic discrimination laws (i.e pre-1960s at least). They seemed okay with the idea that that would lead to “NO IRISH”-type signs. So why is it that British libertarians have come to terms with the consequences of their medicine more than Americans libertarians have?

Arnold Kling seems quite angry in his comment. Is Bargaining and Depression next?

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Doctor Science 04.12.10 at 1:43 am

Robert Waldmann:
I think such blind spots are quite common and not a particular problem of libertarians.

The blind spot you’re talking about definitely does exist, and is frequently found e.g. in stories about past lives — which are *much* more likely to involve having been a member of the aristocracy (if not royalty) than statistics would predict.

But it *is* a particular problem for libertarians, and is not IMHO a forgivable mistake in people who claim to be putting forth their political philosophy.

In Albion’s Seed, David Hackett Fischer quotes a colonial-era Virginia planter who said:

I am an aristocrat: I love liberty; I hate democracy.

This planter was exactly the sort of person, as you said, who despised Creon as a democratic tyrant. The big difference between him and the libertarians at Reason is that the planter *knew* he favored aristocracy, and said so. The boys at Reason are actually proponents of aristocracy (or plutocracy+), because that’s what you call it when liberty for the top 10% of society is more important than its lack for 90%. They call themselves “libertarians”, but what they’re selling is plain old aristocracy in new bottles.

+in practical terms: If you believe that wealth can and should be inherited, you believe in aristocracy. If you believe that the rich should rule but not inherit, you believe in plutocracy. Interestingly enough, both Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are leaving the vast bulk of their vast fortunes *away* from their children: they are plutocrats who reject aristocracy. This is extremely rare.

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ScentOfViolets 04.12.10 at 1:43 am

My point was simply this: it seems to me that in the last couple of decades the debate about the question of liberty (the question of what impedes our liberty, what keeps us from being free) has shifted ground. The public debate has moved from the problem of political exclusion to the problem of economic regulation. Basically, given the public debate today, it might seem like defeating single-payer health insurance is a bigger boon to freedom than the 1964 civil rights act.

and:

Personally, I think that kind of pre-occupation with money in the debate about liberty is a little bit silly. But the point of my post was simply that I don’t think, fifteen years ago, a public debate about freedom or liberty would have included discussion of marginal tax rates. And I think that is an interesting development in the history of the idea of liberty in America.

Except for the fifteen years ago (make it more like twentyfive), that’s exactly right. Which is yet another reason why people are suspicious of libertarians. For a group that’s all dang fired up about liberty and freedom, why were they so silent during the Bush years? And why did they vote against Kerry on the strength that he would “raise taxes”? Iow, it’s not just the fact that focus has shifted from civil liberties and little things like torture and lying to initiate a needless and stupid war; it’s that raising the top marginal tax rates by less than five percent is regarded by these people as a more egregious assault on “liberty and freedom”. Maybe you can argue convincingly that this is the case. If so, I haven’t yet seen it.

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Alex 04.12.10 at 1:48 am

That should be “Are… next?”

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Alex 04.12.10 at 2:05 am

Except for the fifteen years ago (make it more like twentyfive), that’s exactly right. Which is yet another reason why people are suspicious of libertarians. For a group that’s all dang fired up about liberty and freedom, why were they so silent during the Bush years? And why did they vote against Kerry on the strength that he would “raise taxes”? Iow, it’s not just the fact that focus has shifted from civil liberties and little things like torture and lying to initiate a needless and stupid war; it’s that raising the top marginal tax rates by less than five percent is regarded by these people as a more egregious assault on “liberty and freedom”. Maybe you can argue convincingly that this is the case. If so, I haven’t yet seen it.

I bet you could make an an economic argument that compares the potential life earnings of Iraqis versus the extra tax revenues from that tax increase. But that’s the problem with libertarianism: it reduces humans to nothing but dollar bills to be exploited.

“From each according to his biomass, to each according to the Plutocrat’s Difference Engine.”

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Rob 04.12.10 at 2:09 am

“We have just watched the biggest assault on civil liberties in a generation under the Bush regime. Telephones were tapped without court supervision, torture and imprisonment without trial were employed, the leaders of the state engaged in deliberate and systematic deception to obtain support for a war of choice while the war against the people who attacked us was unfinished. Where were these so-called ‘libertarians’ then?”

OT (and not really directed at the commenter quoted above): All true, but where are the progressives now that Obama is authorizing extra-legal assassination (as alluded to by John Quiggin above). I’m pretty shocked that more people haven’t reacted as Greenwald has. The only explanation I can think of is that there is a similar double-standard at work. This Obama assassination doctrine seems to be significantly worse than anything that Bush implimented. Where’s the outrage? Where are the so-called progressives now?

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Myles SG 04.12.10 at 3:08 am

“Personally, I think that kind of pre-occupation with money in the debate about liberty is a little bit silly. But the point of my post was simply that I don’t think, fifteen years ago, a public debate about freedom or liberty would have included discussion of marginal tax rates. And I think that is an interesting development in the history of the idea of liberty in America.
I would be happy to have someone show me good evidence to the contrary. I make zero claim to any expertise here.”

Sorry. Quite simply, the positive-liberty programme of the latter half of the Civil Right era impinged upon negative liberties. And so the focus now is negative liberty.

Or to be succinct: in the drive for greater political liberty, which in recent times has taken on a distinctly positive-liberty flavour, has significantly reduced negative liberty; i.e. higher taxes to fund Great Society (positive liberty), or forced and mandatory school busing (positive liberty), or affirmative action, are all reductions of negative liberty, or liberty from external coercion. And this is the reduction which negative-liberty advocates wish to ameliorate. The first half of Civil Rights, the integration of buses and universities and so on, was negative liberty; the latter half was positive liberty, which is more ambiguous insofar as it infringes on negative liberty.

I suggest that you read Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts of Liberty”; he made a very important point as to the conflicting nature different liberties; and lower taxes is one form of liberty, just as affirmative action is another. But this isn’t just “we were complaining about political exclusion before, now we are complaining about economics”; this is quite more serious than that.

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dr ngo 04.12.10 at 3:15 am

Gore Vidal’s 1998 complaint about requiring ID for air travel as a harbinger of the decline of liberty seems to me to echo AJP Taylor’s point made more than thirty years earlier in English History, 1914-1945 about the effects of World War I on British society: “Until August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policeman. He could live where he liked and as he liked. He had no official number or identity card. He could travel abroad or leave his country for ever without a passport or any sort of official permission. He could exchange his money for any other currency without restriction or limit. He could buy goods from any country in the world on the same terms as he bought goods at home. For that matter, a foreigner could spend his life in this country without permit and without informing the police. Unlike the countries of the European continent, the state did not require its citizens to perform military service. An Englishman could enlist, if he chose, in the regular army, the navy, or the territorials. He could also ignore, if he chose, the demands of national defence. . . .

Now Taylor was no libertarian (mostly a Labourite, IIRC), and it is by no means clear that he viewed with alarm or disdain all of the developments he describes (of which this is but a small sample), but his observation of how life changed for “a sensible, law-abiding Englishman” who took pride in *not* having an ID card or a passport also implies, if not blindness, at least tone-deafness to the concerns of others who did not thus qualify as the Right Sort of Englishmen.

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Ceri B. 04.12.10 at 3:24 am

I want to call attention to something else disgusting in the quote from Kling:

In that case, your plan is to slip something into the ruling intellectuals’ drink to make them amenable to your free-market seductions. Good luck with that.

Suggesting that your opponent prepared to rape their targets isn’t cool. Not even as a metaphor. Never mind that it’s a really fucking lousy metaphor for the kind of advocacy Wilkinson is trying to do; it’s a really disgusting thing to use any old time. If it was thought out, then there’s something deeply screwed up in Kling’s appraisals of his rivals; if it was careless, then it confirms the biases we’ve been talking about on the basis of other passages. It’s shameful in either case.

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jrc 04.12.10 at 3:52 am

Myles:

I think I understand the distinction between liberties you are employing. But the line “and so the focus now is on negative liberty” is exactly the phenomenon that is interesting to me. Why is that? And (more to my point) why is the negative liberty debate existing only in economic spheres? There does not seem to be the same fervor among libertarian groups in support of the legalized marijuana movement as there is against health insurance. Or something like the right to die, which has been regulated away through anti assisted suicide laws? Or even more obviously and more importantly, why no real fuss about the government infringements on habeus corpus and wire tapping in the war on terror realm?

So the interesting history question to me is: why are we now seeing a shift in rhetoric from social freedoms to economic ones? It isn’t all a positive/negative liberty argument, unless I really don’t understand the distinction as you are using it.

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Myles SG 04.12.10 at 4:02 am

“So the interesting history question to me is: why are we now seeing a shift in rhetoric from social freedoms to economic ones? It isn’t all a positive/negative liberty argument, unless I really don’t understand the distinction as you are using it.”

Because it is not as permanent or powerful a threat. Eventually, probably within 50 years, euthanasia will be, if not legal, fully decriminalized. Pot legalization is a foregone conclusion, an eventuality so obvious that enthusiasm has actually sapped. And no one, beside crackpots, genuinely believes that absent serious war in the mold the World Wars, that habeas corpus and other rights will become more and more reduced.

It is not, however, for economics. Here the trend is tower bigger and bigger government, rather than the opposite; higher and higher taxes; more and more government involvement in private, economic spheres. Where as the overall trend in the social sphere is latitudinarianism, the overall trend in the economic sphere is more coercion and government power.

Seriously, does anyone believe that pot will remain illegal in the long run? And now could one say the same about rising government involvement in economics?

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Ceri B. 04.12.10 at 4:10 am

For what it’s worth, Myles, I’m willing to go on record as fearing very greatly that it will turn out that the period from, oh, 1960-2000 or so was an abnormal one for procedural justice, and that by the middle of this century it will again be taken for granted that police and court power is functionally unlimited except by bribe and the counter-pressure of matching authorities. I expect to see the unrestrained powers used against terrorism become more and more mainstream, and that white mainstreams will learn more and more of what life has always been like for minorities and outsiders when it comes to hostile authorities.

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piglet 04.12.10 at 4:14 am

“lower taxes is one form of liberty” is another egregious attempt at redefining liberty. Given that tens of millions are too poor to pay taxes, whose liberty is he talking about? What is the reference point for “lower”? Can somebody who writes stuff like this possibly care for liberty at all? This is so embarrassing.

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piglet 04.12.10 at 4:16 am

“Pot legalization is a foregone conclusion, an eventuality so obvious that enthusiasm has actually sapped. And no one, beside crackpots, genuinely believes that absent serious war in the mold the World Wars, that habeas corpus and other rights will become more and more reduced.”

Welcome extraterrestrial. You may want to spend a few minutes on planet earth before reporting back “mostly harmless” to your publisher.

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Henry (not the famous one) 04.12.10 at 4:24 am

This is as good a place as any to repeat Lincoln’s parable on the meaning of liberty:

The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty. . . .

Address at Sanitary Fair, Baltimore, April 18, 1864.

And while we’re discussing that golden era of liberty, let’s remember what then federal Judge William Howard Taft wrote to his wife in 1894: “it will be necessary for the military to kill some of the mob. … They have only killed six … as yet. This is hardly enough to make an impression.”

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Colin Danby 04.12.10 at 4:25 am

“Overall trend” is way too vague, Myles. If you plot, say, gov’t spending over GDP with data points from 1900 and 2000, then sure, it’s getting bigger. What gov’ts do has changed. OTOH I could point out that international trade has become a lot freer over the last half century, capital movements much much freer, and teh internet has allowed all kinds of new business big and small to flourish. *Effective* freedom of enterprise on a global basis — the ability of entrepreneurs around the world to start new businesses, get financing, source inputs and labor, and sell output, is greater than it has ever been. But y’all won’t take yes for an answer.

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Myles SG 04.12.10 at 5:01 am

“Welcome extraterrestrial. You may want to spend a few minutes on planet earth before reporting back “mostly harmless” to your publisher.”

I am not sure there is any sane person in the West who actually, sincerely believes that pot will not be legalized as a realistic matter. Despite my personal ambivalences, I cannot but think you are pulling my leg here.

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geo 04.12.10 at 5:19 am

Bloix @77 — splendid quote. Many thanks for posting it.

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piglet 04.12.10 at 5:24 am

Sigh. What I “actually, sincerely” believe is that millions in this country are prosecuted for minor drug violations, many of them being deprived of their liberty, and that people calling themselves libertarians prefer to get worked up about the “injustice” of wealthy people being taxed a few percent of their wealth, and calling for a revolution against making health care affordable for all, rather than start a revolution for the right to use marijuana.

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Doctor Memory 04.12.10 at 5:38 am

MylesSG@106(& elsewhere): obviously vouching for my own sanity is a dubious enterprise, but even absent that guarantee I am more than willing to go out on a limb and predict that we will not see pot de jure legalized in this country in our lifetimes. Like fusion power, marijuana legalization has been just around the corner for, I suspect, longer than the actual lifespan of most of the commentors on this thread. It was, once upon a moon, even an official plank of the Democratic Party’s national platform, circa the Carter administration. Enthusiasm for the matter among that chattering classes has waxed and waned in a nicely sinusoidal fashion since the 1960s, but the “power economics” of the problem have remained brutally straightforward the entire time: those who have power do not have to worry about prohibition, and find it an incredibly convenient cudgel to use against those without power, and there has never been any political downside to campaigning against the demon weed, nor is there any sign that one is about to develop.

In my more optimistic moments, I can envision a patchwork of state-by-state legalization and decriminalization initiatives which during certain administrations manage to reach some sort of temporary detente with the feds, but I wouldn’t bet on any such stalemate lasting.

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Lee A. Arnold 04.12.10 at 5:50 am

Bloix @77 — I am struck by how that Debs speech might have been spoken in the centuries before by a victim of enclosures in the primitive accumulation.

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Phil 04.12.10 at 8:13 am

dr ngo – [Taylor’s] observation of how life changed for “a sensible, law-abiding Englishman” who took pride in not having an ID card or a passport also implies, if not blindness, at least tone-deafness to the concerns of others who did not thus qualify as the Right Sort of Englishmen

Which others, and which concerns, did you have in mind? Apart from anything else, I don’t think Taylor was claiming that the pre-1914 era in Britain was a golden age (which would lay him open to a whole range of criticisms), simply that it was one with a much less intrusive state.

(I still take pride in not having an ID card, btw.)

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fishbane 04.12.10 at 9:31 am

Sigh. What I “actually, sincerely” believe is that millions in this country are prosecuted for minor drug violations, many of them being deprived of their liberty, and that people calling themselves libertarians prefer to get worked up about the “injustice” of wealthy people

To be fair, the Reasonoids are on the right side of this one – I suspect that the old hack about libertarians being Republicans who smoke pot is true for some folks – but as an example, Radley Balko is on the side of angels with his reporting on the injustices of the drug war, and has done a lot of good by shining a spotlight on some horrible government behavor. If you’re (for values of “you” meaning anyone I’m waving my hands at) unfamiliar with it, googling “Corey May” will get you started.

I’m generally willing to forgive most of Reason’s faults so long as they keep funding him.

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Ceri B. 04.12.10 at 9:39 am

Phil: The state wasn’t nearly so kind to Englishwomen, servants, non-whites, convicts, many non-English subjects from the rest of the United Kingdom, and on and on. Taylor describes a liberty available to a relatively small fraction of the population, and takes it as normal.

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Phil 04.12.10 at 9:45 am

Ceri – in what specific ways? As I said, Taylor wasn’t saying everything in the garden was rosy before 1914, just that the state didn’t do (or forbid) lots of things which it later came to do (or forbid). To prove Taylor wrong you need to show that the state did actually do/forbid some of those things, just not to white Anglican males.

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Ceri B. 04.12.10 at 10:12 am

Phil: Sigh. Okay. Here’s the quote again.

“Until August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policeman. He could live where he liked and as he liked. He had no official number or identity card. He could travel abroad or leave his country for ever without a passport or any sort of official permission. He could exchange his money for any other currency without restriction or limit. He could buy goods from any country in the world on the same terms as he bought goods at home. For that matter, a foreigner could spend his life in this country without permit and without informing the police. Unlike the countries of the European continent, the state did not require its citizens to perform military service. An Englishman could enlist, if he chose, in the regular army, the navy, or the territorials. He could also ignore, if he chose, the demands of national defence. . . .”

So let’s see.

The Married Women’s Property Act let women retain ownership of wages and property earned through their own effort. That was in 1870; before that, it all became the property of their husbands.

I don’t have a date for women enlistment in the armed forces, but combat integration happened in the last 20 years.

The Vagrancy Act of 1824 let the police detain people for begging, and for sleeping on the street. This remains in effect, by the way. As for the free practice of one’s trade, the act also bans peddling without a license, fortune-telling, and a bunch of other stuff.

The Irish were really, really not free to manage their own destinies, to put it mildly.

And so forth and so on. Even where the specific features Taylor describes were widely available, they do not add up to a story of actual, accessible, usable independence for a whole lot of subjects.

(I had hyperlinks for these but on preview they were all breaking. The titles are exact, though, so you can get full texts yourself easily enough. Sorry for the inconvenience – I do believe in citation.)

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Tim Worstall 04.12.10 at 10:22 am

As with Taylor, Keynes said something similar:

That happy age lost sight of a view of the world which filled with deep-seated melancholy the founders of our Political Economy. Before the eighteenth century mankind entertained no false hopes. To lay the illusions which grew popular at that age’s latter end, Malthus disclosed a Devil. For half a century all serious economical writings held that Devil in clear prospect. For the next half century he was chained up and out of sight. Now perhaps we have loosed him again.

What an extraordinary episode in the economic progress of man that age was which came to an end in August, 1914! The greater part of the population, it is true, worked hard and lived at a low standard of comfort, yet were, to all appearances, reasonably contented with this lot. But escape was possible, for any man of capacity or character at all exceeding the average, into the middle and upper classes, for whom life offered, at a low cost and with the least trouble, conveniences, comforts, and amenities beyond the compass of the richest and most powerful monarchs of other ages. The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth, in such quantity as he might see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep; he could at the same moment and by the same means adventure his wealth in the natural resources and new enterprises of any quarter of the world, and share, without exertion or even trouble, in their prospective fruits and advantages; or he could decide to couple the security of his fortunes with the good faith of the townspeople of any substantial municipality in any continent that fancy or information might recommend. He could secure forthwith, if he wished it, cheap and comfortable means of transit to any country or climate without passport or other formality, could despatch his servant to the neighboring office of a bank for such supply of the precious metals as might seem convenient, and could then proceed abroad to foreign quarters, without knowledge of their religion, language, or customs, bearing coined wealth upon his person, and would consider himself greatly aggrieved and much surprised at the least interference. But, most important of all, he regarded this state of affairs as normal, certain, and permanent, except in the direction of further improvement, and any deviation from it as aberrant, scandalous, and avoidable. The projects and politics of militarism and imperialism, of racial and cultural rivalries, of monopolies, restrictions, and exclusion, which were to play the serpent to this paradise, were little more than the amusements of his daily newspaper, and appeared to exercise almost no influence at all on the ordinary course of social and economic life, the internationalization of which was nearly complete in practice.”

He does note that these freedoms and liberties were limited to those who could afford them. But it does mean that Kling et al are not the only ones capable of looking back to a time when some things were better, even if not all were.

And it’s not as if libertarians are the only ones who do so look back. A large part of the Green movement seems to think that some (all? most?) things were better before all this globalisation and industrial farming stuff. Heck, some of them seem to think that we should all go back to being peasants knee deep in the shit of our own animals.

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Phil 04.12.10 at 11:26 am

Ceri – I still think you’re setting up a straw-Taylor. He’s not saying that Victorian England was heaven on earth. He’s clearly not talking about Ireland, or about the Vagrancy Act (which, as you say, has remained unchanged, so isn’t really available to either side of the argument). What he is saying is that things changed in Britain in certain specific freedom-reducing ways, apparently for good, during and after the First World War.

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Phil 04.12.10 at 11:37 am

Admittedly, Taylor does gesture towards a larger claim than the specific one I’m defending, but he’s very free with his saving clauses: a fair amount is excluded by “sensible” and “law-abiding”, and “beyond the post office and the policeman” is a rather capacious exception. If we’re looking for actual blind spots, I think gender is the only one we can really hang on him – and even there, suffragists were one of the groups for whom things got quite dramatically worse after 1914. The ethnic minority population of Britain before WWII was minute; the main category of recent immigrants were East European Jews, the group at whom the Aliens Acts were aimed.

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Ceri B. 04.12.10 at 12:59 pm

Phil, I think you’re straining at gnats and swallowing camels, so I’m not going to pursue this. Take this as a concession if you wish, I guess.

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piglet 04.12.10 at 1:52 pm

“He does note that these freedoms and liberties were limited to those who could afford them. But it does mean that Kling et al are not the only ones capable of looking back to a time when some things were better, even if not all were.”

There’s a difference between indulging in fond memories, and making nostalgia the cornerstone of an ideological movement. I don’t think it is fruitful to further dissect these quotes by Taylor and Keynes. They describe certain aspects of the life of a member of the privileged class. These memories are historically interesting but probably somewhat distorted and need to be understood in context. As to the possibility that some things may have been better in period X, that is hardly in dispute. Sure, there was a time when there was no drug prohibition. It doesn’t follow that that particular historic period constitutes a model to be emulated in general. And you will have to look hard for a “part of the green movement” that would make that sort of claims.

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sg 04.12.10 at 2:05 pm

He could secure forthwith, if he wished it, cheap and comfortable means of transit to any country or climate without passport or other formality, could despatch his servant to the neighboring office of a bank for such supply of the precious metals as might seem convenient, and could then proceed abroad to foreign quarters, without knowledge of their religion, language, or customs,

what a charming chap he is, this British man who owns a servant and visits foreign countries without knowing how to say please or thank you in the local lingo. Such a shame his time has passed, he no longer has a servant and he has to show those uppity foreign countries the decency and respect of learning a few basic greetings and cultural mores before he plonks himself, shod, in their temple.

And oh the joy of knowing that the “politics of imperialism” would play the serpent to this paradise, which of course was not created on the back of anything so vulgar as imperialism or racial disparities, oh no, not at all…

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Ceri B. 04.12.10 at 2:29 pm

The funny thing here is that I actually feel toward the Taylor quote something like the way a lot of libertarians seem to feel about the Gilded Age. I recognize, more clearly than most of them seem to, how much the privileges he describes were privileges, but I’d love to see many of them renewed and extended to others. And I think that when it comes to freedom of movement and not being tracked and so on, a lot of that is very much less an “only at the expense of others’ misery” kind of deal.

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parse 04.12.10 at 2:42 pm

“lower taxes is one form of liberty” is another egregious attempt at redefining liberty. Given that tens of millions are too poor to pay taxes, whose liberty is he talking about?

I don’t think this is true in the U.S. if you include sales taxes.

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protected static 04.12.10 at 6:05 pm

@123: or state taxes, Federal payroll taxes, use fees, and so on…

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Alex 04.12.10 at 8:00 pm

I am not sure there is any sane person in the West who actually, sincerely believes that pot will not be legalized as a realistic matter. Despite my personal ambivalences, I cannot but think you are pulling my leg here.

It’s hard to refute your incredulous stare.

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djr 04.12.10 at 8:37 pm

It’s perhaps worth noting that the Keynes quote is from The Economic Consequences of the Peace, published in 1919. Looking back at August 1914 from the perspective of 1919 and seeing a high water mark is very different to looking back to the 1880’s from the perspective of 2010 and seeing the same.

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HTML Mencken 04.13.10 at 6:37 pm

But then Taylor also said just a bit later:

The state intervened to prevent the citizen from eating adulterated food or contracting certain infectious diseases. It imposed safety rules in factories, and prevented women, and adult males in some industries, from working excessive hours. The state saw to it that children received education up to the age of 13…it provided a meagre pension for the needy over age 70… it helped to insure certain classes of workers against sickness and unemployment…

So he wasn’t quite crying about the loss of the libertarian golden age. Not by a long shot. He was just lamenting loss of some freedoms (individual freedom of travel) and praised the loss of other, crappy, libertarian kinds of freedom (the freedom to exploit and abuse others because their alternative is starvation).

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daelm 04.14.10 at 3:54 pm

@Mike Huben

I think the reason that ‘the 1880’s’ is selected has, as you point out, not much to do with any historical fact. facts disprove the claim handily. But I think I remember the same claim and the same time period in an Ayn Rand essay. I can’t be sure which one, because I read it as a teenager, but if I remember right, it’s a central axiom of hers that the kind of Golden Age she posited was only briefly ever in existence, and that was in the 1880’s. If that is the case – that this idiot’s sole source for the claim is an Ayn Rand flight of fancy – then the entire presentation is self-discrediting and attempts to discern meaning in it are wholly wasted.

@fishbane

I really wish people would stop using ‘autistic’ as a pejorative. It simply betrays your lack of knowledge about autistics. And if you know nothing about us, what qualifies you to label your enemies as like us?

d

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Phlinn 04.14.10 at 6:40 pm

@62, I think you are mistaken. A strict application of the dictionary definitions of coercion and force to the situation you described does not make the offer coercion. However, as near as I can tell, strict dictionary definitions are not what most people use in their own heads when deciding on word usage, even if most people asked to give a definition would provide the strict dictionary one. It’s not that libertarians have unusual definitions, but rather that they consistently stick to them when trying to construct their rule system. I think this is generally accurate for libertarians who come from a math or computer background. It may not be accurate for one of the subdivisions of libertarians.

Here’s more or less how I parsed your example in my own head.
Let X=an action you perform on my behalf
Y=an action I engage in on your behalf
Z=an action I take to harm you, and
V() is a function describing how you value any given action .

Your scenario is in the form “If X, then Y”. V() is not given, but it’s clear that the valuation of both actions is extremely negative. The structure of this scenario is the same as “If you give me cash, I will give you a hamburger”. The specific values of X and Y do not change the structure, nor does the value of V(X) and V(Y). “If not-X, then Z” is a different structure, because Z is an element of a different set than Y. Not doing something to help you is not the same as harming you for the same reason non-positive is not the same as negative. The general effect of conflating the two is to justify coercion against people who merely aren’t as nice as other people would like.

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Phil 04.15.10 at 8:03 am

I think most people (including a lot of people who would like to claim the title of libertarian, e.g. me) see “driving away and leaving the woman to die” as a fairly clear-cut example of Z. I certainly think that’s how she would see it.

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daelm 04.15.10 at 8:44 am

phlinn, your comment is exactly why we need more than dictionaries for most of the big questions.

d

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Phlinn 04.15.10 at 4:25 pm

Phil, although not stated, presumably the driver isn’t responsible for her being stranded in the desert initially. If a rock is rolling down hill, and I could stop it but don’t, I’m still not responsible for it rolling in the first place, nor for the consequences when it stops moving at the bottom of the hill. In no way does failure to help someone cause them harm. Inaction cannot cause harm, because inaction can not cause anything. By the definition and meaning of ’cause’. At the very most, making the offer would cause some additional psychological distress, but it would not in any way cause her death if she turned it down and hoped for another solution. You may not want to face the logical consequences of sticking to strict definitions, but that is where they lead.

Daelm, there was no big question there. It was explicitly about a message claiming that libertarians use different definitions than other people. I merely argued that in fact they use the same definitions but are more consistent about it, and tried to break down the scenario to demonstrate as much. I’m happy to concede that most people intend a meaning for some words which is incompatible with it’s definition, although I would argue that it is a bad thing that this is the case.

Would you agree that the purpose of language is to enable communication? And that agreed upon meanings are necessary for it to work? Unacknowledged variations in meaning serve only to increase confusion. English a plethora of different words with slightly different meanings to distinguish things. For instance, exploitation and coercion. However, a number of people would prefer to pretend that exploitation is a subset of coercion instead of a distinct set, so that they can engage in coercion proper in a vain attempt to make other people be good.

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Phil 04.15.10 at 9:51 pm

If a rock is rolling down hill, and I could stop it but don’t, I’m still not responsible for it rolling in the first place, nor for the consequences when it stops moving at the bottom of the hill.

Good luck in court.

I’m happy to concede that most people intend a meaning for some words which is incompatible with it’s definition, although I would argue that it is a bad thing that this is the case.

While I’m feeling generous, I’ll also wish you luck finding other humans with whom you can communicate in your purified language of words defined correctly. Seriously, didn’t typing that sentence make you feel at all silly?

Obviously this isn’t about strictness or otherwise of definition, but about our starting assumptions. Yours appears to be that you have no interest in or responsibility for anyone else’s welfare, and no one else has any interest in or responsibility for yours: if your inaction leads directly to an otherwise preventable death, what of it? I’m happy (and in this case I really am happy) to note that this starting assumption is very, very rare.

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Phlinn 04.16.10 at 3:47 pm

The only reason I might have felt a little silly writing that is that it should be clearly obvious to anyone who’s ever had to deal with a misunderstanding. And I still wish people used the definition of words as their meaning instead of acting like Humpty-Dumpty. I’d also like a unicorn.

“Obviously this isn’t about strictness or otherwise of definition, but about our starting assumptions. Yours appears to be that you have no interest in or responsibility for anyone else’s welfare, and no one else has any interest in or responsibility for yours: if your inaction leads directly to an otherwise preventable death, what of it?”

Actually, you are reading more into the post than was actually there. SOV’s note that libertarians would consider the driver a bad person lulled me into a false sense of security, so I left out the disclaimers that should be obvious. 1. Helping people is a good thing. (this right here sets me apart of objectivists I believe) 2. preventing death of an innocent is an extra-good thing. 3. doing so without demanding some sort of monstrous payment is the right thing to do.

Now, for the less obvious conclusions: Never lifting a finger to help an individual like that driver is also not coercion, and is a legitimate method of punishing them. Without help from other people, he would almost certainly live a life that is nasty, brutish, and short. But never doing anything on his behalf is categorically different from imprisoning or arresting him.

See, I do have an interest in other people’s welfare. I even feel there is something akin to a duty to help them. And nothing I said at any point indicates otherwise. Caring about other people doesn’t change anything in my previous comments. I used the meaning of responsibility that is synonymous with ‘at fault’, not the one you used later to indicate a duty, which should have been obvious. It is impossible for a person to be the cause of something that would have happened the exact same way if they didn’t exist in the first place or weren’t there. For a more topical variation: if someone has a medical condition that is going to kill them, and they don’t receive medical care, it’s still the condition that kills them, not the lack of medical care. Regardless of whether it’s good to help them or not.

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geo 04.16.10 at 5:24 pm

Phlinn,

Do you mean that driving away should be subject to no legal (rather than merely moral) sanction? I don’t think you can circumscribe the definition of legal “harm” that way. It’s perfectly reasonable to start the legal-obligation clock ticking not at the moment that the woman fell into peril but at the moment the driver encountered her. Then the legal situation is: X can refuse to assist, leaving Y to die; X can assist; if X refuses to assist for good reason (ie, refusal necessary to save other lives), no legal liability; if no good reason, legal liability.

Yes, it matters whether you’re responsible for her peril in the first place. If you are responsible for the woman being in peril and you drive away, then you are guilty of murder. If not, and you drive away, then you’re guilty of (presumably) manslaughter.

Would libertarians object to such legal definitions, and if so why?

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Brian N. 04.17.10 at 1:39 pm

@63
“Where were these so-called ‘libertarians’ then?”

You can’t be serious. You’re joking. Start here(Balko) and read the Bush years archives. Or go to Antiwar and read Raimondo’s essays or pretty much anyone’s essays from that site.

“US ‘Libertarianism’ is just a way to justify the greed and self interest of the modern GOP without sullying themselves with the hypocrisy, racism and religious bigotry.”

This is certainly true of some. Eric Dondero, alias ‘Master Shake’ (think Aqua Teen Hunger Force) thanks to the hilarious put downs of Mike Blessing, is a poster boy of what you describe. His attempts to wed the fortunes of the libertarian movement and ideology to the conservative movement generally and the Republican party specifically has produced rubbish almost beyond the absurd…he once stumped for Rudy Giuliani. There used to be a parody site mocking his output, which is now defunct, but it hardly worked as parody because Dondero went far beyond the realm of self-parody long ago.

@68

“He writes that there were “few systems of public schooling”, while Massachusetts had a statewide compulsory attendance law in 1852.”

Massachusetts had such a law when it was still a colony. Perhaps the reason no one jumped on it is that it is not the massive error you claim. In 1880 there were 38 states in the union and less than half had compulsory education laws. Wyoming, the 13th to pass such a law, was still a territory when it passed it and remained so throughout the decade. It was also the only one to pass such a law. The problem with Hornberger’s statement is that it is vague to irrefutable. Relative to the present he is certainly correct, but it is not a very objective judgment on its own.

All that said, I think this storm-in-a-teacup is rather silly; Boaz’s article could best be described as mush. That Caplan or Kling (or anyone else) felt the need to seriously respond to any of it shows just how empty their schedules must be.

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