A Little Post-Independence Day Treason For You


Peacenik economist (and sometimes Reason contributor) Bryan Caplan wonders if the Revolutionary War was worth it:

Can anyone tell me why American independence was worth fighting for?

Most libertarians interpret the Revolutionary War as a libertarian crusade. But when you ask about specific libertarian policy changes that came about because of the Revolution, it's hard to get a decent answer.

In fact, with 20/20 hindsight, independence had two massive anti-libertarian consequences: It removed the last real check on American aggression against the Indians, and allowed American slavery to avoid earlier—and peaceful—abolition.

If libertarians have little reason to celebrate American independence, who does? Leftists? They ought to take the Indian and slavery issues seriously, too. I guess getting rid of titles of nobility and such was a step toward greater equality, but a step worth shedding blood over?

How about conservatives? They're likely to say "This war created our country—of course it was worth it!" But without the war, conservatives would still have a country to get misty-eyed over—it would just be Britain instead of America. If you're going to love whatever country you're born in, it's hard to see the point of fighting to make a new one.

NEXT: Sustainability Semantics

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Establishing a country without a national religion and no monarchy was a massive libertarian milestone.

    1. +100

      No shit. Telling the monarchy (and Princess Di worshipping fuckbrains) to go take a leap was more important than many people realize.

      1. Is that so?

        1. ‘Sho is.

  2. But when you ask about specific libertarian policy changes that came about because of the Revolution, it’s hard to get a decent answer.

    (1) Separation of church and state.

    (2) Representative government for Americans. This being a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for a decently limited government.

    (3) The Articles of Confederation/Constitution, both of which established an actual limited national government of enumerated powers.

    (4) The BOR, which, whatever its flaws, at least enumerates (some of) the core natural rights.

    Was that so hard? I’m pretty comfortable saying that these came about “because of” the Revolution, so what’s the problem? Now, if you want to argue that we would have, eventually, wound up pretty close to where we are now libertarian-wise (pretty much like Canada, only with better weather), go ahead, but looking at the immediate aftermath of the Revolution, I think it was a government for America that was relatively more libertarian than it would have been, for awhile.

    1. Actually, I think the best argument for the revolution is that it created another state in North America, which encourages more competition in government.

      Now if only we could break the USA into 10 different countries, that would make the founders proud.

      1. Now if only we could break the USA into 10 different countries

        I had a long conversation about that with some folks yesterday. I think you’re being sarcastic, but it’s not a terrible idea…though not necessarily because of the resulting “competition”.

      2. If we can make each of the 50 states an independent nation, have EU style free trade and free migration between these nations, and vote as a block in the UN, that would not be too bad.

        1. Well each state is technically (is supposed to be) a sovereign entity. There is free trade and free migration between these sovereignties and they vote as a block at the UN. So I guess it’s already like you desire.

    2. The Bill of Rights seems like it should be on the list too. I wish it was more surprising that someone could be this ignorant of the libertarian principles instilled in the Constitution, but apparently people are still this stupid.

      1. See (4) above.

        1. Ah, I missed it. Sorry RC.

    3. Now, if you want to argue that we would have, eventually, wound up pretty close to where we are now libertarian-wise (pretty much like Canada, only with better weather), go ahead,

      Except it’s possible that if not for the American Revolution, even Canada wouldn’t have ended up like Canada. A friend of mine who was raised and educated in Australia told me he learned in history class that the American Revolution made Britain re-think its policy toward the rest of its colonies. Without the cautionary example of the American revolt, who knows what policies Britain would have maintained toward what are now the British Commonwealth nations?

    4. 5. No gay-ass soccer. At least, not so anyone has to notice.

    5. This article proves that trolling isn’t just for the comment section.

  3. Damn ye, Bryan Caplan, you treasonous Anarcho-capitalist cur!

  4. If you’re going to love whatever country you’re born in, it’s hard to see the point of fighting to make a new one.

    A lotta guys might consider that a big “If.”

  5. And establishing a country with the no taxation without representation and freedom of speech things, maybe the whole Bill of Rights. Not that those really matter anymore.

    1. establishing a country with the no taxation without representation

      Sure… try bringing that up when I have to deal with my city taxes. I get to pay in the city I work in as well as the city I live in. In fact, I get to write a check for one of the quarterly bills this month.

  6. Yeah, this premise doesn’t appear to be very well thought out at all.

  7. The concept of limited government, built into the very structure of the government itself. The idea of the freedom of the individual being built into the core of our political system. Et cetera.

    1. That sounds like a joke these days.

      1. It’s a quaint and absurd notion, no doubt, but that’s the way we libertarians operate: quaintly and absurdly.

  8. Let’s not forget that because we are the US, and no longer subject to British rule, we also get to defend ourselves.

    1. Along those lines wouldn’t we have gotten dragged into WWI right at the start (like Canada) if we had remained a British colony or commonwealth?

      This seems to me to be a pretty odd argument for a “peacenik” to make.

      1. Thank God we had a war to ensure we never entered World War I.

        1. Well, I suspect that we would have had more killed from 1914-17 (when we effectively entered the war) than we had killed during the entire revolution (probably be several orders of magnitude).

          On balance that would seem to be something a “peacenik” might appreciate.

          1. With something as significant as becoming an independent nation vs. being a part of the British Empire, I’m not so sure you can just assume the history of the 20th century would played out exactly the same to the point of having two world wars. I’m not saying it would have been better or worse from the standpoint of wars, just that whatever did happen would be sufficiently different that such a simple analysis is ultimately unconvincing one way or the other.

            1. Well maybe, but not knowing how history might have played out makes almost any argument moot.

              If we use Canada as some sort of template to compare what happened to a commonwealth country as opposed to an independent U.S., then it seems reasonable enough to me to point out such a big difference as how the UK was able to influence policy in this area as any other.

              1. Well I think the first sentence is right. Saying we would have lost either more or less in wars a hundred and fifty years after the fact is so frustrated by uncertainty as to be pointless. Ultimately it does not weigh one way or the other.

                1. OK-but again, we don’t know if history would have been significantly different or not. All we know is what did happen to Canada vs. the U.S.

                  Canadian casualties, as a percentage of population, were slightly higher than American casualties in WWI and this is at least in part because they took part in bloodbaths like Ypres, the Somme and Vimy Ridge before we were involved in the war.

                  A “peacenik” can’t factor something like that into their calculus of whether the Revolution was worth it?

          2. If we had entered the war in 1914, it would have been over rather sooner than 1918.

            1. Under British command?

              Well, maybe. But the Brits had to learn some expensive lessons in modern warfare that we avoided (and we already knew about from our experience in the Civil War).

              In any event my point was that we would have had greater losses if we would have been in it at the beginning and I think if you factor in the extent to which the German war effort was exhausted by the time we got in I feel pretty confident in making that assertion.

              1. True, the Brits learned some hard lessons, but so did we, starting in 1917.

                My thinking is based largely on sheer numbers: the number of men and arms we sent was decisive, and if they had arrived three years earlier, they’d have had a similar effect. (I think. I’m not much of a WWI buff.)

      2. We would also have been stuck sending troops several other wars. Including the Second Mahratta War, the Peninsular War, the Napoleonic Wars, the First Afghan War, the First Sikh War, the Second Sikh War, the Crimean War, the Second Afghan War, the Zulu War, the First Boer War, the Egypt and Sudan campaign, and the Great Boer War. Sadly, most people don’t realize that countries besides the USA go to war too.

        1. Good point.

        2. Very doubtful there would have been a French Revolution without an American Revolution. At least not one similar. Maybe no Napoleon etc.

  9. Leftists? They ought to take the Indian and slavery issues seriously, too.

    Nope. As Tony reminded us, that was what the majority wanted, so it was cool.

  10. Or the whole premise of the defense of natural rights as the founding premise of a nation state.

  11. If you’re going to love whatever country you’re born in, it’s hard to see the point of fighting to make a new one.

    So if someone were to someday abolish the Congress and declare himself to be a dictator-for-life, we should be OK with that because we were born here?

    Most conservatives don’t conflate the country with the government any more than libertarians usually do. Epic fail.

  12. Yes, it wasn’t just “titles of nobility” that were abolished. It was repudiation of the divine or hereditary right of kings and lesser nobles — and the class system that such a “right” supported.

    Also, the ideas that governments are instruments of the people and serve only as long as they secure people’s rights, and that governments should be strictly restrained by written constitutions, were huge libertarian advances. Maybe no single libertarian aspect of what we got after the revolution was worth shedding blood over — it’s hard to say — but the entire package was definitely worth it.

    Would slavery have ended sooner, had the US remained part of the British Empire? Maybe might have passed more peacefully, but it might have endured as long or longer, just because the “peculiar institution” was so thoroughly entangled with economies of the southern colonies. It took massive internal unrest and decades of international sanctions to eliminate apartheid in the modern day, you’ll recall. Also, British control of India did not eliminate the caste system there. It is not beyond imagination that, instead of a US Civil War, the British Empire might have had to put down insurrection in the Southern Colonies, or that the latter might have seceded anyway, ultimately to have faced Britain and possibly other countries in some kind of war that might have been started on other pretexts but would, at heart, have been fomented by the persistence of slavery in the “breakaway republic.”

  13. While this is certainly open for all sorts of arguments, respectful and non-respectful, Caplan is talking about specific POLICY differences of great libertarian significance, to a people who had been British subjects, not subjects of some generic bill of rightsless, separation of church and state ignorant tyranny.

    1. Well, let’s see. Specific policies.

      –no more unelected, unaccountable monarchs. And don’t forget that 18th Century British monarchs did a lot more than wave during parades.

      –a more representative legislature than parliament (even with the more restrictive voting requirements of the early USA)

      –an independent judiciary.

      –fewer restrictions on property ownership.

      –near-absolute freedom of religion

      And that’s just for starters. It’s important to remember that the Britain of 1770 was a very different country than it is today. If anything, the liberal reforms of the USA influenced the mother country over the years. Would any of that have happened without the USA?

      1. Again, he’s worried about POLICY; the actual experiential liberty of humans on earth.. He’s an anarchist, those process things like monarchy and rep legislature aren’t at the top of his list of concerns. And again, we’re talking about British laws and governing practices in the late 18th and early 19th century.

        1. The process of monarchy included state-recognized class distinctions that restricted social movement and empowered a class of useless twits. A member of the nobility had rights that commoners did not. Does that qualify as a policy distinction?

        2. Also, I haven’t seen any response to my point that liberal reforms in the USA drove reform in Britain (and the rest of Europe) during much of the 19th and 20th Centuries.

          Caplan seems to ignore that Britain itself would be a very different, and probably more illiberal, place had the USA not declared its independence.

      2. Well, with due respect, the first three are not libertarian policies but structural differences which may or may not lead to more libertarian polices. For example, an absolute monarch could in principle certainly institute policies that are more libertarian than an “accountable” executive. Electing a president is not, in itself, libertarian.

        Same argument applies to the next two points. Neither are, in and of themselves, libertarian and they are certainly not “policies”. Nothing about a “more representative” legislature is guaranteed to produce more libertarian policies.

        As for the judiciary, one can make a pretty good argument that English Common Law, as created by the English judiciary, is relatively libertarian-friendly. Certainly much more so than most 20th century American judicial decisions. Not to mention the 20th century transformation to a statutorily and administratively dominant approach to law making brought about by your more representative legislature.

        The fourth point is a fair one it seems. That is a policy that was more libertarian friendly I suppose, but maybe not by all that much when you look at the restrictions of the era.

        The last point is valid as clearly more libertarian in principle.

        1. An independent judiciary equals judicial review. Even in modern Britain, there is no check on legislative excess.

          1. Checks and balances are not quite the cornerstone of the British system that they are of the American one. Case in point: the PM is an MP.

    2. Perhaps peripheral to the actual question (I’m certainly not going to dig into the two countries’ law history and make an exhaustive comparison for Caplan’s sake), but the American colonies were widely supported by the Radical Whigs in Great Britain: arguably the most libertarian poltical group at the time (Hayek famously described himself as an “Old Whig”). As such, there was a great degree of intellectual exchange between the Whigs in Great Britain, and the American leaders, both before and after the war. Therefore, the conversation should be, would a Radical Whig-fashioned country have been worth fighting for, over rulership with more moderate (Tory/Whig) rulership, in addition to the philosophical legacy of the revolution (democracy, seperation of church and state, etc.)? IMO, the answer is yes, especially if you factor in (as others have noted) the “ripple effect” of the American Revolution on other countries and colonies.

  14. When I look at American vs. Canadian culture, Americans tend to have a much more entrenched concept of individualism, distrust of gov’t & authority, just a scrappier kind of fuck-you arrogance that’s very refreshing compared to Canadian politeness & political correctness. I always thought that had a lot to do with how each country came into being.

    And Mr. Caplan has it wrong- it’s not just about loving whatever country you’re born in. The guts and vision it took to demand a whole new kind of government is an amazing human achievement, no matter your nationality.

    1. Violent overthrow of the British government produced so much good in the world.

      Anyone who says otherwise is a liar.

  15. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. ? That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, ? That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

    1. I can’t think of a better reason to start a country.

    2. “”But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.””

      We would except you allowed the government suspend habeas in times of rebellion. 😉

    3. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

      This makes me wanna throw Molotov cocktails right now.

  16. This article appears to be an attempt to troll H&R.

    1. Bottom of the barrel.

  17. Caplan’s wrong about slavery & the Indians. Slavery first:

    * Before the American Revolution, slavery was legal in all the US colonies. Afterwards, it was abolished (peacefully) in all the northern states, only remaining on the South on the eve of the Civil War.

    * British Emancipation was only earlier and more peaceful because the Brits could afford to buy out the slaveholders, and that was only because there were only 800K slaves in the Empire to buy. Adding the 4 million or so in the USA at the time to the bill would’ve made it a lot less affordable. Also, slaves lived longer in the USA than in the West Indies, so not only were the West Indies more dependent upon slave importation, but slaves were also worth less there than in the USA.

    As for the Indians:

    * I’m part Mohawk. My ancestors were engaged in imperialist aggression, capturing, torturing, enslaving, and raping their neighbors long before you Euro-American boat people got here. We were happy to do the same with you Euro-American boat people, playing off the Dutch, English, & French against each other as suited our convenience. Our aggression was only finally put a stop to when we were conquered. That conquest was as much defensive as it was aggressive, and it was hardly genocidal; there was no attempt to exterminate all the Indian tribes as such, although there certainly was plenty of massacre, mistreatment, and treaty-breaking.

    1. I just read an article about an ancestor of mine who lived in the late 18th century in Tennessee. Turns out that he was an Indian fighter. So, not satisfied with being descended from slave owners, I’ve taken the next step into social oblivion by having ancestors who killed Native Americans.

      I do think our guilt tends to blind us to the reality that the native population and the blacks who were forcibly brought here were all humans, too, flawed and full of not-so-nice qualities. Indians killed each other, blacks sold each other into slavery, etc. Our species is effed up, whatever ethnicity you choose to focus on.

      1. viruses with shoes…

        1. When you think of the stupid things we do, individually and collectively, it’s amazing that we’re still around.

  18. Gee, Brian, I would think “No more king” is a pretty significant and libertarian policy difference.

    1. What libertarian policy would that be?

  19. “But without the war, conservatives would still have a country to get misty-eyed over – it would just be Britain instead of America”

    This guy is nuts.

    Britian has no guaranteed freedom of speech or right to keep and bear arms or a bunch of other things that are critical differences between the United States and Britian.

    Conservatives don’t get “misty eyed” over the country just because it is a country. They believe in the founding principles of individual freedom.

    Let Caplan move to Britian and see if he get’s all “misty eyed” about the way they run things over there.

    1. Actually, I think conservatives do “get misty eyed” (or however you want to describe it) over their country just because it is their country. I think that is part of what conservatism is: attachment to tradition and the way things have been done in the past.

    2. As has been mentioned, Caplan is an anarchist– I don’t think his eyes will see a nationalistic mistingany time soon.

  20. “””Let Caplan move to Britian and see if he get’s all “misty eyed” about the way they run things over there.”””

    If he gets too misty eyed, the anti-social cops will ticket him.

  21. First of Bill of Indictments: “He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.” My comment: yeah, right.

  22. Peacenik economist (and sometimes Reason contributor) Bryan Caplan wonders if the Revolutionary War was worth it:

    Bryan Caplan is an idiot.

    Just the 1st amendment alone makes the Revolutionary war worth fighting.

    Look at England today, and tell me they are in a better state when it comes to freedom of speech and freedom of expression.

    What an absurd, contrarian for the sake of being contrarian article.

    1. Writers have to eat too.

    2. Bryan Caplan is an idiot.

      Just the 1st amendment alone makes the Revolutionary war worth fighting.

      Finally something we can agree upon….now, if I can just convince you that the 2nd admendment is equally sound.

      1. 3rd thru 10th are also pretty fucking awesome if followed.

        1. We need to have the language of the 3rd changed to simply “Get off my lawn!”

      2. And let’s hear it for the Commerce Clause!

    3. x2 chitom. I’m preplexed. I’m guessing Caplan is already retreating from this one.

      Even if you have disdain for everything America has done since its independence, it has nothing to do with why a people might want to fight for it.

  23. So basically, he’s assuming that 1) England would still have abolished slavery even if it still had a hugely profitable slave-economy colony in the South, and 2) nobody else would ever have wanted the Indians’ land, which is why, say, the Spanish or the French never came to the New World, I’m sure.

    1. I was thinking the same thing about slavery. I rather doubt abolition would’ve been so easy for the British if they still had the American Colonies to consider.

    2. Yeah, that’s my issue with his argument. While I understand the point he’s trying to make, even though I don’t agree with it, he’s making some really big assumptions with regards the Indians and slavery. And it’s important to also keep in mind that not every former British colony made out as well as Canada.

    3. It’s particularly galling when you consider that the UK and the French mildly favored the CSA due to its exports, and didn’t intervene only because the Union made it an impossibility in many ways. I don’t see slavery going away in Caplan’s mirror universe.

  24. Again, he’s worried about POLICY; the actual experiential liberty of humans on earth.

    Experiential liberty, or any improvement in it, isn’t “policy,” or any result of it, definitionally. Policy is the opposite of liberty.

    If he’s an anarchist like you say, then he knows that, or he “knows” it axiomatically, anarchist-style. That’s what that shit means.

    So he’s trolling, and he should be handed a bag of dicks to eat.

    1. Yeah buddy. Go go go.

  25. The USA is not perfect, and the UK is very good, but the USA beat the Brittish Empire to several important freedoms. Religious freedoms for starters. The Brittish Empire had religious tests for office well into the the 19th century. It still has an official Church. Then there is the right own guns. Freedom of speech is better here to. It’s rather easy to win a libel suit in the UK, and the UK has restrictive “hate speech” codes. The process of admitting states into the union was better than England’s relation to the colonies for most of the time that she possesed them.

  26. It led to California no longer being part of Mexico, so ya, I would say it was worth it.

    1. Really? Because at this point I’d have no problem selling California back to them at a highly discounted rate.

  27. Britain is currently way more nanny-statist than America. Really, during the entire time period since the Revolution, Britain was overall a way worse place to live if you care for liberty.

    So, yeah, it was an improvement.

  28. Given the relative population growth of the US and Britain since the Revolution, it’s likely that “British North America” would have far greater influence than Britain itself if we had remained united with them. So the current state of UK law is not inevitable.

    With regard to guns, 100 years ago the current state of UK law on the subject would have been unthinkable.

  29. I’m pretty glad we don’t have ASBO….yet.

  30. Can anyone tell me why American independence was worth fighting for?

    Have you seen England lately?

  31. But seriously, what’s his point? North Koreans shouldn’t bother fighting to throw off the yoke of their government because in the aftermath something bad might happen on the road to freedom? What the fuck?

    1. I mean, fuck, staying with England would have kept us in parcel with countless atrocities committed in the name of The British Empire, the Boer Wars etc.

      This may be the dumbest thing I’ve ever read on Reason.

  32. Umm, we stopped our courthouses from being burned to the ground, and troops form being quartered in our homes, and…

    He’s a troll. Ask him politely to move to Canada.

    1. Why do I have to be polite about it? This guy is something worse than an idiot.

  33. Can anyone tell me why American independence was worth fighting for?

    Bryan Caplan can’t find a way to justify any wars. Or any national boundaries. He’s an anarchist.

    He’s also a blithering idiot, of a less honest variety than some other anarchists I know (and whom I’m able to at least respect — unlike this blithering idiot).

    Bryan doesn’t like war. War is a Big Meanie. But if you cover your eyes and don’t look at the Big Meanie, it won’t see you either. Then it will just go away and we’ll have a happy day again.

  34. Caplan is a contrarian. He has in the past argued that women were more free in the 19th century than they are today, and thta he has a right to clone himself and raise the clone as his child, among other things. This is fairly mild for him.

  35. Actual policy changes?

    There was an end to Bills of Attainder. This one is huge. You were guaranteed a right to trial by jury. That’s in the constitution for a reason — because Parliament would often simply vote someone a criminal, and then begin seizing their property.

    Soldiers were no longer stationed in homes. Again, this one is in the constitution for a reason — the British were doing it. That is a real, anti-libertarian thing — and it’s living in your kitchen, eating your food, slaughtering your livestock, and oogling your daughter.

    Finally, the right to keep and bear arms. Remember that the revolution started because the British came to Lexington to seize the town’s arms.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.