Reason.com

Free Minds & Free Markets

We've Got Good News...

A look at the victories we've won in the last half-century

If you were drafted in 1968—and in fiscal year 1968, about 334,000 Americans were drafted into the U.S. armed forces—the government controlled the next two years of your life. Assuming you lasted two years, that is. In 1968 more than 16,000 Americans died in the Vietnam War. (The Vietnamese had it worse. Their death count that year was well over 200,000.)

Joanna AndreassonJoanna AndreassonEven if you weren't conscripted, the government owned a piece of you. Officials used draft deferments to steer people in what were seen as socially beneficial directions, such as teaching and engineering.

A host of other rules limited people's lives in more direct ways. Entrepreneurs faced artificial entry barriers aimed at protecting entrenched industries from competition. If you wanted to buy a truck and start hauling goods for a living, there were a bunch of bizarre restrictions on what products you could carry. If you wanted to run a bus route across state lines, you had to ask the Interstate Commerce Commission for permission; if they granted it, you had to petition them again any time you wanted to raise or lower your rates.

And if you wanted to take a vacation from whatever work you wound up doing, you might have trouble finding an affordable flight. The Civil Aeronautics Board decided which airlines could go to which cities and how much they could charge for trips, and it did this with far more regard for the health of a handful of air carriers than for the pocketbooks of passengers.

The government didn't recognize same-sex marriages back then, but that was hardly the biggest problem that gays and lesbians faced. In every state but Illinois, it was a criminal offense to have sex with someone of the same gender. In much of the country, you took a legal risk just by dancing with someone of the same gender—or by being in the presence of such dancers. Vice squads regularly raided gay bars.

And the government sure wasn't about to let an openly gay person adopt a kid. The best you could hope for was to have an experience like that of Bill Jones, a gay man who adopted his son in 1968 and later described the process for NPR. "You know, I think homosexuals would make very good parents," a social worker told him. "But if I was told that [someone was gay], the committee would be obligated not to make the placement. So I hope that if a homosexual ever wants to adopt, they don't tell me." Wink, wink.

There were some tight constraints on how heterosexuals raised their kids too. Homeschooling was so stringently regulated that for many Americans it was effectively illegal. If you sent your child to a public school, you almost certainly didn't have a choice in which school the kid would attend. Today's mix of charter schools, voucher systems, backpack funding, and more has opened up possibilities hardly dreamed of in 1968.

Sirintra_pumsopa/iStockSirintra_pumsopa/iStock

Some people weren't allowed to reproduce at all. While the peak years for eugenic laws were in the rear-view mirror, several states still forcibly sterilized the allegedly unfit.

And then there was the state of the media. There were only three commercial TV networks, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) didn't look kindly on anyone trying to offer alternatives. The technology for cable TV existed in 1968, but regulators did their best to ensure it wasn't used for anything except improving rural reception. They didn't want it to compete with the big networks, and they certainly didn't want it to become a place where programmers could ignore the commission's content controls.

The technology for cellphones also existed in 1968, but the FCC was a roadblock there as well. It wouldn't start the process of allocating spectrum for the service for another two years, and it wouldn't finish the process until the '80s.

Speaking of phones: Did I mention that there was just one telephone company?

Companies were not yet allowed to launch their own communications satellites. No state had decriminalized marijuana. The Supreme Court had not yet recognized gun ownership as an individual right. It was illegal to own gold, and you needed a permit to brew beer at home.

And outside America? Half the planet was run by Communist dictatorships. And while the other half liked to call itself "the free world," much of it was run by anti-Communist dictatorships. If you were persecuted for your political beliefs, you might not care whether the jailers torturing you answered to a right-wing junta in Greece or a Marxist-Leninist party in Romania.

In 1988, when Reason turned 20, then–Editor in Chief Bob Poole looked back at the year the magazine was founded and listed dozens of ways that American life had improved since then. He covered several of the topics I mentioned above and a lot more besides, from tax rates to bankers' hours. "Self-service gas stations were illegal in most places," he recalled, and "you could get arrested for displaying contraceptives or advocating their use."

Now that another 30 years have passed, it's striking how many liberties we have today that hadn't taken hold yet in '88. That's especially true if you live in, say, Prague. But even here in the U.S. we've seen enormous gains in everything from the rights of women to the rights of unschoolers. And then there's the little matter of the internet, which existed in 1988 but had not yet been opened to the masses.

Many foul practices and institutions of the '60s are still around, from empire to eminent domain abuse to police brutality. Others seemed to have been vanquished but then returned. Some have even gotten worse. Far more Americans are in prison now than 50 years ago. Government surveillance is much more intense. There are new limits on everything from land use to unsupervised childhood play.

But let's not forget the victories we've won in the last half-century. Maybe in another 50 years we'll have overcome those other oppressions too.

Photo Credit: Sirintra_Pumsopa/iStock

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.

  • Earth Skeptic||

    Interesting. So tell me why 30% of Americans want to return to the right-wing past and 30% want to restore the left-wing past.

  • JFree||

    Because 30% believe aliens killed JFK and 30% believe aliens abducted Elvis.

  • SQRLSY One||

    Well, can you prove these 2 things to be untrue? So there!

    Also, I believe that Government Almighty Loves me Dearly!!!!

    Scienfoology Song… GAWD = Government Almighty's Wrath Delivers

    Government loves me, This I know,
    For the Government tells me so,
    Little ones to GAWD belong,
    We are weak, but GAWD is strong!
    Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
    Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
    Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
    My Nannies tell me so!

    GAWD does love me, yes indeed,
    Keeps me safe, and gives me feed,
    Shelters me from bad drugs and weed,
    And gives me all that I might need!
    Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
    Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
    Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
    My Nannies tell me so!

    DEA, CIA, KGB,
    Our protectors, they will be,
    FBI, TSA, and FDA,
    With us, astride us, in every way!
    Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
    Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
    Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
    My Nannies tell me so!

  • sharmota4zeb||

    Yeah, the goyim have more fun at Sunday school. We get Holocaust education and a check list of the principles we're supposed to die for when we're preparing for our bar miztvahs. That's why we get good grades in high school and college. AP Physics is enjoyable compared to what we studied on the weekend as elementary school students. I mean, if we finish reading that Holocaust memoir before the bell rings, there's always the Spanish Inquisition.

  • Naaman Brown||

    "The Supreme Court had not yet recognized gun ownership as an individual right."

    My state's constitution protected the right of the citizens of the state to keep and bear arms. Specifically self-defense and military marksmanship training preparatory to volunteer military service but also protecting all traditionally lawful reasons to own or use arms (not just guns, arms, weapons of offense or defense): hunting, defense of livestock from predators, recreational shooting, keepsakes or heirlooms, collection as curios or ornaments. The legislature was reserved the power to regulate with a view to prevent crime, but regulations had to impact crime without being an undue burden on traditional lawful ownership or use.

    I am actually saddened that it took the SCOTUS til '2008 to recognize 2A as an individual right.

  • Arizona_Guy||

    And, at the start of 1968, the only federal gun law was the NFA.

    1968 passed the GCA which made the feds gatekeepers for the sale of new firearms. It just got worse from there.

    And while carry laws have been liberalized in many states, no fed gun laws have been repealed. I don't count the '94 AWB, since it automatically sunsetted.

  • CE||

    In 1968, the federal government spent 178 billion dollars.
    50 years later, the federal government spends 4.1 trillion dollars, 23 times as much per year.

    In 1968, the federal government's debt was 348 billion dollars.
    50 years later, the debt has grown to 21.5 trillion, 62 times as much.

  • CE||

    In case you're wondering about inflation, the BLS inflation calculator pegs it at 7.1 times in the past 50 years.

  • CE||

    self service gas stations are not an improvement.

  • IceTrey||

    It allows more cars to be fueled in less time.

  • oldtimer||

    Civil asset forfeiture. Is abolition instead of superficial reform about to become mainstream?

  • Fancylad||

    you took a legal risk just by dancing with someone of the same gender
    The Zeibekiko, Horah and Hopak hardest hit.
    Or would be if the claim wasn't bullshit. Men also did parody dances with one dressed up as an ugly girl at weddings, anniversaries and other parties all the time.

    It had to be in a gay bar and overtly romantic or sexual before vice was interested, and by that point it wasn't the actual dance you were being booked for.

  • Shirley Knott||

    Lived through it. The claim is not bullshit. Stop misrepresenting history you neither experienced nor understood.

  • Fancylad||

    Stop misrepresenting history you never experienced
    By that logic you're limited to lotus-eaters born after 1996.
    Anyway, it's by no means a misrepresentation, my credulous little demagogue. The hagiography of the gay rights movement is full of false martyrs, bogus pogroms and stories stolen from the civil rights movement.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    What is a right-wing bigot doing at a libertarian site?

  • SQRLSY One||

    But in those days one could at least sing, "Don we now our gay apparel" without being suspected of being queer!

  • Jesse Walker||

    Fancylad has taken a passage about raids on gay bars, taken out the part where I explicitly say I'm talking about gay bars, and then complained that the remainder of the quote isn't true of various situations that took place away from gay bars.

  • sharmota4zeb||

    Yep, even in this day and age, LGBT individuals with darker skin in my NJ town will ask for cab fare home the next morning so they can tell their friends they did it only for the money to avoid a beat down from those friends.

  • sharmota4zeb||

    In the 1980's and 1990's, "no homo" was the phrase that kids used after same-sex sexual harassment to make it clear that the harassment was motivated purely by a desire to enforce social norms through humiliation and not by lust. Messed up stuff like that happens in a society that worries about thoughts and words rather than actions.

  • IceTrey||

    But slavery is still legal as a punishment for crimes.

  • SQRLSY One||

    Tax slavery is alive and well as well!!!

    Combine local, state, and fed taxes, and USA "free" peoples are "owned" by Government Almighty folks at about the 50% level, especially if you include the costs of regulations!!!

  • SQRLSY One||

    What does it take? They take away 99.9% of what your earn or create, and that's not slavery? They take away 100% of the cotton you pick, but they "pay" you with a handful of grits and some chitlins? (Pig's guts?) Is that not slavery? What IS slavery, in your mind? What top tax rate? Or is even 100% of your income to taxes, NOT slavery? 100% of your income and all you own, PLUS carve you up for organs, is THAT finally slavery?

  • SQRLSY One||

    I just want to be left alone. I want my taxes to support ONLY the essential functions of government (courts, national defense, protection against fraud and violent crimes), and the REST of what I am taxed for, now, I want to decide FOR MYSELF what to spend it on! NOT the "will of the people"!!!

    When the "will of the people" provides me with "free" breakfast, we will be faced with having to VOTE on what all we eat for breakfast every day!!! Democracy not-equal freedom! Hello!

    "How much does Bill Gates and Warren Buffett pay for just you?"

    They pay butt-loads of $$$$ to Government Almighty parasites, and NON of it reaches me!

  • Robert||

    Since 1988 in the USA alone:

    several drugs & devices switched from Rx to OTC federally
    syringes allowed OTC by states
    many more drugs & devices permitted by FDA
    more jurisdictions w legal fireworks
    more interstate milk sales allowed
    Uber & Lyft make medallion regimes a dead letter
    more shall-issue states
    federal inheritance tax cut
    FFDCA exemption for saccharine made permanent

  • SQRLSY One||

    "many more drugs & devices permitted by FDA"

    I like to hear upbeat thinking and hate to rain on your parade, but I MUST speak up to keep you (and others) protected from the Flute Police!!! (The Flute Police only fight to protect us from non-prescribed cheap plastic flutes, in the good ol' USA, and NOT in ANY other nation; are you NOT grateful for our soldiers who fight to keep us FREE?!?!?)

    DO NOT DO THIS, IT MIGHT BE ILLEGAL!!! But please note that I have added a new page, to tell you the details about how you should NOT make a homemade lung flute for yourself, at http://www.churchofsqrls.com/DONT_DO_THIS/ ...

  • Robert||

    But the lung flute was not previously OTC, so that one's a wash.

  • SQRLSY One||

    The lung flute is less intrusive into your body than a toothbrush is! If a toothbrush was invented today, the FDA would require you to get a prescription for one! There is ***NO*** excuse for how the FDA treats us all as a bunch of incompetent babies!!! W/respect to the lung flute, we are the ONLY nation treating its citizens like babies, this way!!! North Korea has more lung-flute freedoms than the USA does!!!!

  • ||

    And, in 1968, you could get shanghaied and shipped halfway around the world and forced to fight in a war.

  • sharmota4zeb||

    That was true in 1915 too, but few people complained, and no historians complain about it today, because White people are worth saving according to American social norms. For a similar reason, few people praise the draft riots that happened during the Civil War or criticize Lincoln for starting the draft. No one wants to say that Black people weren't worth saving. Furthermore our history books don't mention much about the Cultural Revolution in China or the Killing Fields in Cambodia, because we don't have a large East Asian population clamoring to teach those facts to their kids.

  • Hank Phillips||

    Yes, Reason and the Libertarian Party have improved the nation in much the same way the Anti-Saloon League, Prohibition Party and Socialist parties made it worse--and with roughly the same number of votes over a similar timeframe. The closest thing ever before was the Liberal Party formed in 1930, whose 1931 repeal platform ended prohibition when it elected the Dems. Jesse fails to mention the way the LP secured some birth control rights for women by writing the plank that later became the Roe v. Wade decision (with an extra week of protection from coercion tacked on for good measure). Just the thought that women, gays or hippies could vote libertarian and cause the worst party candidates to LOSE via spoiler votes was a huge incentive for some deft repealing of evil laws. The alternative is losing the kleptocracy entirely.

  • sharmota4zeb||

    Having a Libertarian candidate on the ballot changes the dynamics of the campaign by removing the value of mud slinging. In a three way race, the totalitarian who tries to win by throwing mud at his opponent ends up looking like a paranoid control freak who thinks everyone but him is evil.

  • sharmota4zeb||

    Far more Americans are in prison now than 50 years ago.

    Yep. Did you hear about the American who got locked up by a rural local government for selling land to Jews? That's your federal tax dollars at work.