Reason.tv: Robert Higgs on The Decline of American Liberalism—the Independent Institute's new edition of a libertarian classic


Reason.tv's Nick Gillespie recently sat down with the Independent Institute's Robert Higgs, the author of such classics as Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government and Depression, War, and Cold War: Challenging the Myths of Conflict and Prosperity.

The topic at hand was the Independent Institute 's reissuing of Arthur A. Ekirch's The Decline of American Liberalism, a brilliant reading of American history from a libertarian perspective that was originally written in 1955. Ekirch, writes Higgs in his foreword to the new edition, argued that liberalism (in its original 18th and 19th century meaning) "had reached its apogee…at the time of the War of Independence and that despite a certain amount of ebb and flow thereafter, the tendency was toward its decline." The result was an ongoing battle between forces of centralization and decentralization in all aspects of American political, social, and economic life. Despite writing during the 1950s, a time of wide-ranging repression of speech and the individual, Higgs says that Ekirch was far from a pessimist. In fact, his revelation of how the government routinely used crises to amplify its power is the starting point of challenging that very dynamic.

Higgs also talks about the new paperback edition of his own invaluable Depression, War, and Cold War and gives his take on the government reaction to the current financial crisis.

Approximately 10 minutes. Shot by Dan Hayes and edited by Roger M. Richards.

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  1. ‘…liberalism (in its original 18th and 19th century meaning) “had reached its apogee…at the time of the War of Independence and that despite a certain amount of ebb and flow thereafter, the tendency was toward its decline.”‘

    If by “liberalism” you mean “white men stealing land from red men and enslaving black men to work it for them,” well, yes, I’d agree with you. Otherwise, not. Take a walk outside, Nick. Life is pretty good.

  2. Alan’s right. Racism didn’t exist before white people glorified property rights in their governments built on the backs of the colored. What you call “liberalism” is really “robber baronism”. Take a walk and repent to Black Jesus for your anscestors’ sins.

    You can’t argue freedom has anything to do with your policital philosophy when someone who’s been dead for hundreds of years picked their nose. That’s just gross.

  3. Higgs did a 3 hour interview/call-in show on C-SPAN a few weeks back. Good stuff.

  4. I think he’s being heard off of Nick’s mic and not his own.

  5. If by “liberalism” you mean “white men stealing land from red men and enslaving black men to work it for them,”.

    That’s not what I mean by classical liberalism.

    Get a life, Alan. Or at least a little perspective.

  6. What a disappointment. What a waste of ten minutes. But I should have expected it from Nick. Why bother reporting on the OHB/VF connection, when you can do fluff pieces like this?

    Where are the hard questions? What about the MexiConspiracy to destroy America? That’s the real Leviathan of our Crisises! I posted about this in my blog. Ask the right questions, not the NickSoftballs.

  7. I thoroughly enjoy every opportunity to read or hear anything by the venerabl Robert Higgs. The man is a giant! I fondly remember reading Crisis and Leviathan as a sophomore in my US History survey class at Liberty University just about 8 years ago. Mr. Higgs was required reading in our social studies department back then… I wonder if he’d be surprised to find out about all of his fans at that generally despised institution. I for one loved my time there, and have seen bought several copies of Crisis and Leviathan. In fact, as a high school history teacher I often give it as a gift to my most successful students.

  8. Alan Vanneman : “If by “liberalism” you mean “white men stealing land from red men and enslaving black men to work it for them,” well, yes, I’d agree with you.

    Are you really saying that red men never stole anyone’s land, and blacks never sold any blacks into slavery?

    To impugn liberalism (classic liberalism ,rights for and power to individuals , not government or kings)in such a way is to totally lack an understanding of human history. But for some I guess , embracing the meme that ‘whitey’ is the source of all evil in the world is just too strong to resist.

  9. Ekirch’s books is an excellent history of America from a libertarian perspective. Laissez Faire Books is selling copies at a reduced price, well below Amazon’s. You can find it here:


  10. The problem with Robert Higgs is that he is anti-American. His views on foreign policy differ little from those of the radical left.

    The Higgs line is that since the US is not a libertarian utopia Al Qaeda are the good guys. There are two sorts of libertarianism. There is intelligent adult variety of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. And there is the libertarianism of those like Robert Higgs whose minds have never developed since those stoned bull sessions about Murray Rothbard or Ayn Rand in the sophomore dorm.

  11. To Alan Vanneman: some notes for you to take down while you’re religiously group identifying, obsessing over “white men,” and evidently, still stuck in 1970’s mediocrity learning history from collectivist controlled assets:

    “In 1769, I became a member of the legislature by the choice of the county in which I live, & continued in that until it was closed by the revolution. I made one effort in that body for the permission of the emancipation of slaves, which was rejected: and indeed, during the regal government, nothing liberal could expect success. Our minds were circumscribed within narrow limits by an habitual belief that it was our duty to be subordinate to the mother country in all matters of government, to direct all our labors in subservience to her interests, and even to observe a bigoted intolerance for all religions but hers. The difficulties with our representatives were of habit and despair, not of reflection & conviction. Experience soon proved that they could bring their minds to rights on the first summons of their attention. But the king’s council, which acted as another house of legislature, held their places at will & were in most humble obedience to that will: the Governor too, who had a negative on our laws held by the same tenure, & with still greater devotedness to it: and last of all the Royal negative closed the last door to every hope of amelioration.” – Thomas Jefferson

  12. To my surprise, there is no article on Arthur A. Ekirch in wikipedia. It would be nice of good folks in Independent Institute to start one.

  13. Please fix your sound system.
    Many reason interview videos are simply too difficult to watch because of the poor sound balance.

  14. Jlm Gill: I think it’s because one of your speakers is out.

    Barry Loberfeld: Thanks for great links. GREAT WORK!

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