For many libertarians, "the road to serfdom" is not just the title of a great book but also the window through which they see the world. We’re losing our freedom, year after year, they think. They (we) quote Thomas Jefferson: “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.” We read books with titles like Freedom in Chains, Lost Rights, The Rise of Federal Control over the Lives of Ordinary Americans, and yes, The Road to Serfdom.
The Cato Institute's boilerplate description of itself used to include the line, "Since [the American] revolution, civil and economic liberties have been eroded." Until Clarence Thomas, then chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, gave a speech at Cato and pointed out to us that it didn't seem quite that way to black people.
And he was right. American public policy has changed in many ways since the American Revolution, sometimes in a libertarian direction, sometimes not.
Brink Lindsey talks of an "implicit libertarian synthesis" in American politics today in his book The Age of Abundance. He argued in 2007:
Nevertheless, the fact is that American society today is considerably more libertarian than it was a generation or two ago. Compare conditions now to how they were at the outset of the 1960s. Official governmental discrimination against blacks no longer exists. Censorship has beaten a wholesale retreat. The rights of the accused enjoy much better protection. Abortion, birth control, interracial marriage, and gay sex are legal. Divorce laws have been liberalized and rape laws strengthened. Pervasive price and entry controls in the transportation, energy, communications, and financial sectors are gone. Top income tax rates have been slashed. The pretensions of macroeconomic fine-tuning have been abandoned. Barriers to international trade are much lower. Unionization of the private sector work force has collapsed. Of course there are obvious counterexamples, but on the whole it seems clear that cultural expression, personal lifestyle choices, entrepreneurship, and the play of market forces all now enjoy much wider freedom of maneuver.
Has there ever been a golden age of liberty? No, and there never will be. There will always be people who want to live their lives in peace, and there will always be people who want to exploit them or impose their own ideas on others. If we look at the long term—from a past that includes despotism, feudalism, absolutism, fascism, and communism—we’re clearly better off. When we look at our own country's history—contrasting 2010 with 1776 or 1910 or 1950 or whatever—the story is less clear. We suffer under a lot of regulations and restrictions that our ancestors didn’t face.
But in 1776 black Americans were held in chattel slavery, and married women had no legal existence except as agents of their husbands. In 1910 and even 1950, blacks still suffered under the legal bonds of Jim Crow—and we all faced confiscatory tax rates throughout the postwar period.
I am particularly struck by libertarians and conservatives who celebrate the freedom of early America, and deplore our decline from those halcyon days, without bothering to mention the existence of slavery. Take R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., longtime editor of the American Spectator. In Policy Review (Summer 1987, not online), he wrote:
Let us flee to a favored utopia. For me that would be the late 18th Century but with air conditioning....With both feet firmly planted on the soil of my American domain, and young American flag fluttering above, tobacco in the field, I would relish the freedom.
I take it Mr. Tyrrell dreams of being a slave-owner. Because as he certainly knows, most of the people in those tobacco fields were slaves.
Take a more recent example, from a libertarian. Jacob Hornberger of the Future of Freedom Foundation writes about the decline of freedom in America:
First of all, let’s talk about the economic system that existed in the United States from the inception of the nation to the latter part of the 19th century. The principles are simple to enumerate: No income taxation (except during the Civil War), Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, economic regulations, licensure laws, drug laws, immigration controls, or coercive transfer programs, such as farm subsidies and education grants.
There was no federal department of labor, agriculture, commerce, education, energy, health and human services, or homeland security.
Then he writes:
Why did early Americans consider themselves free? The answer is rooted in the principles enunciated in the Declaration of Independence. As Thomas Jefferson observed in that document, people have been endowed by their Creator with certain fundamental and inherent rights. These include, but are certainly not limited to, the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.