The Golden Age of Debates Over Whether There Was Ever a Libertarian Golden Age is Now!


Those who enjoyed the back and forth here on Reason Online between David Boaz and Jacob Hornberger about the propriety of framing the 19th century as a libertarian golden age (especially given the legal status of women and blacks then) will enjoy Boaz's lengthy compilation of commentary and argument from various other libertarian thinkers generated by those articles.


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  1. That’s it. I’m joining the Confederacy.

  2. How depressing. It looks as though a “solid majority” of folks in WA state support an income tax on “high earners.” Sorry, OT, I know. But now I want to run over a kitten, soak it in poison, and feed it to a panda bear.

    1. Following the rule of thirds, I’ll assume that one-third of WA voters really want an income tax, one-third of WA voters oppose it, and the other third are stupid enough to believe that the state income tax would forever stay only on “the rich.”

      1. Well, it’s one third against and two thirds in favor. Right you are.

  3. Great debate, thanks for posting it.

  4. I don’t care how you cut it, governments at all levels, from the feds all the way down to homeowner associations have vastly more power over your actions in virtually every aspect of your life than they ever did before in US history. There is not a single aspect of your life that government at some level claims authority over. Yes, it’s not slavery and yes it’s not formal subordination of women, but it is still tyranny and it still pervades our lives.

    1. But, but, they give us free stuff.

    2. To someone actually living under real tyranny you’d probably sound like a whiny entitled little bitch, you do realize that?

      1. Tony wants to show you what he means. That’s why he votes for statists.

      2. Jeeze Tony, maybe you could explain to me what real tyranny looks like and how to distinguish it from the trivial tyranny we have in the US.

  5. One thing to note is that state governments tended to have a lot more power over people and businesses than they do today. I think there’s overall more government intervention in life today, but the difference isn’t as profound as one would think, if all you focus on is the federal government.

    1. I’m not sure I agree, Pro L. The statute and regulation books, and the enforcement arms, of state government, are vastly larger now than they have ever been. I take that as a sign that state government are more intrusive than they have ever been.

      Sure, their theoretical jurisdiction may have been greater in the past, before it was hemmed in by the federal government in various ways, but their actual exercise of power is trending up. And up.

      1. I just meant that it wasn’t all libertarian love and peace back then and that the states wielded powers then that the federal government wields today. No doubt at all that people were much freer back then–the usual disclaimers for blacks, Native Americans, Chinese, and women, of course.

        1. It’s always great to make a general claim about the “people” and then dismiss an actual majority of those people with a disclaimer…

          1. Oh, please. Do you think we’d have a more universal view of human rights today without the people that came before us?

  6. “Times were much more free then, with the exception of most of the people, it was terrible for them back then.”

    1. And that is the fault of Libertarian philosophy?

      1. You must be lost, posting on the wrong thread. This thread is about whether we were more free 200 years ago or not.

  7. You’re also conflating different groups in different situations. The lot of women improved steadily over the 1800s, and the really big issue for them was the vote, not so much other fundamental rights. States began recognizing women’s sufferage long before the federal government did. Being a free woman beat the hell out of being a slave, in any event. So, essentially, the great majority of people were freer than they are today.

    Today, we have some rights that are stronger–speech is the biggee–but we’re much less free in any number of ways. Also, as a practical matter, the difference between what government could do back then and what it can do now is dramatically different.

    1. “So, essentially, the great majority of people were freer than they are today.”

      This is just plain wrong. Women+blacks+Native Americans+Asians were easily a majority of the US population. The latter three were enslaved or segregated at the time, their freedom has increased immensly. As to women you are wrong yet again. As late as the 1880’s women were barred from practicing law, had their property defaulted to husbands often, could not serve on juries and a host of other civil disabilities (think of the messed up divorce laws for one). And of course, God help any woman (or man) who was gay at the time and did not hide it well enough.

      1. Awww women couldn’t serve on juries.Blacks and Native Americans could (and did) own slaves. Slave ownership is the only “right” lost that existed in conflict with the liberty of others.All other rights of property and contract once held by free men were lost (or not extended to) everyone else as well.

        1. “All otherlost rights of property and contract once held by free men “

        2. But slave ownership was a deprivation of liberty of a magnitude much greater than the growing of liscensing law. It was the total subjugation of over a tenth of the population. Women’s rights were greatly circumsribed: their rights to dispose of their property as they wished, to enter a wide variety of occupations, contract law there were archaic treatments, and they were excluded from a host of civic participation. For you to make light of these says much about you SIV, but little any long time reader of your posts had not already gleaned.

          1. Glean THIS!

            Sale or possession of a few metal parts or chemical compounds, that were perfectly legal property at one time, can result in the State imprisoning you for life.

            The collectivist positive rights “libertarian scholars” seem to think having to locate your 19th Century brothel out-of-sight of the Presbyterian Church is as a great an infringement on liberty as getting your kids seized by the state because you didn’t make them wear bicycle helmets, or something like that. No, there’s way more liberty today + iPods! and iPads!

        3. Saying the “right” of slave holding conflicted with the rights of others is like saying Manson’s rights to knife play “conflicted” with Sharon Tates,

        4. The right to slave ownership still legally exists at the federal level, it’s just recognized that slavery itself is an abrogation of natural rights, and therefore requires due process.

          1. It’s just bizarre to ignore the fact that without the system and the culture you’re criticizing so completely, the no one would’ve been freed from oppression in the first place. Do you think we magically achieved universal suffrage, for instance?

  8. I think I am going to have to go with: there was no golden age of anything, unless you are a poet. In that case, who cares because you are a freakin’ poet.

  9. a free man didn’t need…an operator’s license to drive his wagon, or a license plate for his horse.
    Doesn’t Brad Smith see the fallacy? You still don’t need a license for a horse. You need one to drive a car, but back then there weren’t any cars.

    Is it really fair to count liberties as lost because there’s legal regulation of things that didn’t use to exist? And if you think about it, you see that’s a lot of what’s involved in discussions of secular trends in freedom.

    People might as well claim that 10 million years ago there was more freedom because there was no gov’t regulation at all, forgetting that that’s because there were no people at all either. And clearly we’re actually freer than our animal forebears, who usually exist in dictatorial societies with totally arbitrary oppression and no protection at all from aggression.

    If the discussion is limited to technologies and institutions that exist over the entirety of whatever time frame is in question, it’s practically a monotonic increase in liberty. Usually after a very brief unregulated period, new technologies are subject to anything from a ban to stringent restrictions, and then the restrictions are gradually lifted over time.

    1. I see the fallacy as plain as day. But we Lawn Gnomes don’t drive cars or ride horses.

  10. Since the marauders invented tithes, we have never been free.

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