Let me continue the discussion I started in my previous thread. (Speaking of which, Arnold Kling showed up in comments – and most indignant. I await his explanation of what sane thing he can have been thinking, which caused him to write what he did, which caused me to write that he has a bizarre blind spot for major classes of infringement to liberty. If he has some sensible explanation for what he wrote I am willing to retract my assessment. [UPDATE: if it will help keep comments from derailing, I am happy to assume Kling doesn’t hate on freedom for women and black people. There is a reason I said I was critiquing blind spots. Namely, I assume that is what Kling is suffering from: a blind spot. He isn’t a neo-confederate or moral monster. The problem isn’t that he hates on freedom for women and blacks. I assume not. The problem is that he is unhealthily averse to giving credit, where due, to the people who fought on behalf of women and blacks, and lots of other regular plain old male white folks, too. So he wants to sort of pocket huge victories for liberty, without much fuss, and get back to the important business of grousing about the anti-libertarian motives of people who were instrumental in achieving them. This isn’t actually incoherent. But it produces sort of a screwy picture. And it causes Kling to read short, clear posts by Will Wilkinson without really getting what they are saying. But, all the same, I am sure he is fully in favor of rights for women and blacks and all the rest. Seriously. I’m sure he likes that stuff fine.]
While we wait: several people wrote in comments that it could be that ‘the 1880’s were Golden’ should be reconstructed more in the spirit of ‘yes, there was a lot that was wrong, but a few things were right, and we ought to try to get those things right again. Namely, small government.’ Firstly, this is total step-back from the Golden Age stuff. It admits the validity of the Boaz-Wilkinson criticism, which means this line really isn’t open to Kling (unless he says otherwise [UPDATE: and I sincerely hope he will!]). Beyond that, this line has further problems. Obviously there can be even smaller government any place that is experiencing total anarchy. The point has to be, rather, that in the 1880’s small government worked. So the attraction is that we have a kind of proof-of-concept. The problem with this (in case it isn’t obvious) is that the infringements to liberty in the 1880’s weren’t just some incidental accretion or contingent burden on the system at the time. The sorts of things Wilkinson and Boaz point to, as the reasons why the 1880’s weren’t a libertarian paradise, were the way society and politics and culture worked. It makes no more sense to say that we need the 1880’s, minus the infringements to liberty, and leave it at that, than it does to make Louis “the Sun King” XIV your libertarian ideal on the grounds that: dude had a lot of liberty. If what makes liberty possible for some is lack of liberty for many, then you can’t just wave away the latter as some incidental problem. Piecemeal proof of concept only makes sense if the pieces really function in isolation.
So the problem with holding up the 1880’s and saying ‘we need to restore this … minus a few incidental faults’ is that it is, so far, not even a concept, let alone proof of concept. (And then there’s the additional problem that the 20th Century hasn’t even started yet, to say nothing of the 21st. And the bigness and connecteness of all that is the real challenge.)
Jacob Levy made a very good point in comments, so I’ll quote him:
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.
Let me try to boil that down: you give people an A for effort, so long as they are aiming high, even if their practice is sort of lousy in spots. Which is maybe not such a sensible grading scheme – but this is America. Love it or leave it. But it gets worse once you start doubting people’s ideals. You keep applying that old scheme, which purports to grade achievement, but emphasizes ideals over practice, and you end up giving F’s for effort, to people who are fighting hard for liberty, and winning concrete, lasting victories on major fronts. Because you suspect they really want to put us on the Road To Serfdom.