Friday, February 3, 2012

"Golden Age of Liberty" and Today

One of the half-serious questions I have long had was, "How do the policies advanced by Libertarians differ from the reality of the United States after the Civil War?"  Serious because the economic, social, and military policies in the decades after the Civil War are very similar to what Cato, Reason, and other groups advance.  It was always a bit of a joke because it's a little rude to ask a Libertarian True Believer to defend child labor.
A few years ago, many Libertarians started to take seriously the notion that America had what they consider a "Golden Age of Liberty" in the 19th Century.  One could no longer feel rude for asking a Libertarian to defend child labor when so many advocated for it.  There was some nuance in this argument, though, as many would say that if you were to overlook the treatment of African Americans, women, Native Americans, Jews, and various other groups (although I have yet to read an article that included children as one of these wronged parties) that there existed a period of liberty and freedom in the 1880s that remains unprecedented in history.  This argument is fairly widespread but the majority of this critique is directed at two articles by Jacob Hornberger, "Liberal Delusions about Freedom" and "Up from Serfdom".

I don't want to quibble too much over the argument that if you must ignore over half the population in order to say there was a "Golden Age of Liberty" that there was no such period of liberty.  It's easy, and correct, to say that no such period of time could be considered a "Golden Age of Liberty" if such liberty did not extend to most, if not all, of the people.  A Libertarian may use that argument, as Aaron Ross Powell does, to brush aside any talk of Libertarian theory as applied in history since the consequences of these policies are quite terrible and they would understandably not want the horrors of life in the Industrial Revolution compared to their ideology.  Liberals would likewise use this critique of an historical "Golden Age of Liberty" to simply mock the assertion.  It is very easy to simply mock and laugh at most things Libertarians say, it's something I've been prone to do, but it is not sufficient to simply laugh at an ideology that is becoming more widespread in the United States.

Hornberger, in "Up from Serfdom", describes the conditions under which such a "Golden Age of Liberty" could come about:
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.
Hornberger was very kind to list out what he considers essential to his (and many Libertarians) very specific idea of liberty.  Most would have a hard time pointing out how OSHA, the EPA, public schools, paper money, Social Security, and other items referred infringe on personal liberty.  In fact, many of these items that Libertarians believe infringe on liberty exist to protect the liberty of the individual from other entities.  Instead, Libertarianism is less concerned with individual liberty than it is with laissez-faire capitalism and the ability of an individual or a corporation to avoid democracy.
I think we should set the scene for what life was like in the 1880s.  Hornberger is right that there was no Department of Education or much in the way of public schooling.  Public schools would likely not be very well attended as many children worked in grotesque environments.  Children, in this glorious time, could work as a breaker boy, as a textile mill laborer, as a prostitute, or in many other occupations that demanded 12+ hour work days.  It's a shame society has fallen so far from this apex of liberty.

Adults were also free to sell their labor in this marketplace as well.  Many thousands of free men and women who were unshackled by government interference would die each year in factories and mines that looked like they were designed for a modern-day horror movie.  Often, the lucky ones were given a quick death at the hands of grotesque gears, whereas those that survived did so with permanent injury and illness that tortured them until they died at the ripe old age of 40.

The 1880s were truly a "Golden Age of Liberty" as they were free from the tyranny of city governments working on public sanitation projects that greatly expanded the length and quality of life.
Democratic government cleaning up this mess would diminish liberty!
Hornberger's assertion that there was "no torture or cruel or unusual punishments" is flatly wrong, as such actions were indeed taken by private firms against their workers.  Children, particularly, suffered greatly:
Both boys and girls who worked in factories were subject to beatings and other harsh forms of pain infliction. One common punishment for being late or not working up to quota would be to be "weighted." An overseer would tie a heavy weight to worker's neck, and have them walk up and down the factory aisles so the other children could see them and "take example."
Adults, likewise, suffered greatly at the hands of their employers.  Workers who threatened or went on strike found themselves murdered by Pinkertons or other hired thugs.
Prison conditions were also deplorable and would easily be considered both cruel and unusual today.  Hornberger's claim here is so ridiculous that it is difficult to even be sarcastic about it.

Most of his other claims, such as about money and the EPA, are also quite baffling.  One could spend days just going through and pouring over how incredibly awful it would be to live in this "Golden Age of Liberty".

This period is very exciting as there is a lot of movement and activity by American heroes who fought for the rights of workers, children, women, African Americans, and everyone else.  This period showed the excesses of capitalism and the reaction the American people eventually had against these monstrosities.  That modern Libertarians now advocate for the same policies which brought about these horrors, while also fighting against democratic government and trade unionism, is incredibly sad.

You can expect a lot more writing in the future dealing with this time, the heroes that rose from it, and how this period is so very relevant today.


  1. You proceed from from the false assumption that Libertarians support the type of child labor that you decry. Protecting children is the role of their parents or guardians, not the state.

    Your contempt for capitalism notwithstanding, capitalism and free markets have provided more benefits to more people at lower cost than any other economic system devised by humans. It is not perfect, but like democracy, it beats every other system that has ever been tried--with apologies to Winston Churchill.

  2.  So, Libertarians are in favor of society and government protecting children from exploitation? I'm honestly confused: You seem to assert that Libertarians are against child labor (or at least don't support it?) but believe that this should only be regulated by their parents?

    I've seen Libertarians try to have it both way on entirely too many issues. I've met Libertarians who claim to care about the environment but don't wish to exercise any sort of democratic authority to protect it, instead opting to merely ask for people to also care about the environment.

    And, yes, Aaron Ross Powell is a nice enough guy but he constantly wants to talk about philosophy and other crap so as to avoid the actual issues. It's pointless intellectual masturbation that betrays a bourgeois lack of empathy and understanding.

    Unregulated capitalism has not provided all these benefits to society. Democratically regulated capitalism has helped many, not all, segments of society.

    And, yes, I'm in favor of democracy. That's why I'm not a capitalist. Unless you believe that democracy should only exist as a technical apparatus by which government exists to do nothing but protect property rights and enable unlimited capitalism? Which seems pretty unrecognizable from any sort of democratic society most normal people would imagine.

    I do appreciate the comment, though. Thanks a lot for commenting, Keith, since I blog about such disparate topics I rarely expect comments and am genuinely thankful when I get one. Thanks!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...