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« "The economic ideas that have been developed over the last 200 years have proven inadequate to the task of the financial crisis."* | Main | Liberty After Goldman? »


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An important point regarding restoration vs. progression is that, however unfree people were, the pre-1880 period was one of much more dominant LIBERAL SEMANTICS. The key words of the civilization -- freedom, liberty, liberal, justice, rights, property, contract, consent, equality, equity, rule of law -- were generally understood in classical-liberal ways, or, at least, much more so than subsequently. The social-democratic cultural reaction to liberalism made tatters of those semantics. In an important sense, the liberal cause is primarily about a restoration of liberal semantics.

My comment is even later.

David was of course right to raise the question. And Bryan Caplan was correct to note complexities. Even he treats marriage and property law as though it were uniform across the states and based on British common law. Not true.

Spain, France and Germany had different property rules for married women and they were exported to their colonies. In the U.S., they became community property law. A wife immediately acquired title to half her husband's property (and v.v.). That covers many states, especially in the West.

Moreover, individual common law states modified the law in the 19th century. With respect to white women, the trend of liberty was upwards in the 19th century. (I'm talking process.) That is especially so when one takes account of the impact of the frontier.

The U.S. found itself in an institutional dead-end with slavery. That was in contrast to the UK.

In the post-bellum South, blacks suffered from Jim Crow but also suffered economically because the South had been devastated. As blacks moved North, they made progress. The trend of liberty was upwards.

Progressivism reversed the trend of liberty for all, but especially blacks. Many Progressives were racist, notably President Wilson. The 1920s saw the return to normalcy and the reversal of Wilsonian authoritarianism. Under FDR, however, blacks suffered again.

Meanwhile we all have lost economic liberties. Prior to Wilson, no substance was illegal and there was no income tax. Or a central bank. Etc.

It is great that suffrage has spread, but Wilson threw his political opponents in jail and deported others. FDR put his opponents on trail and tried to have them jailed.

I won't open a hornet's nest by discussing the recent record. (I refer readers to the discussion at TM.) But I cannot fathom the case for a gain of liberty in the 20th century for Americans.

Are there many more personal freedoms and civil liberties "today" than in the 19th century "yesterday"?


But . . . let us not forget what they are an outgrowth of: The classical liberal revolution in ideas and institutions that began in the 18th and 19th centuries.

It is the liberalism of the 19th century that brought about the end to that evil institution of slavery that had plagued mankind for all of recorded history. (And except in America, with very little violence to bring it to an end.)

It was 19th century liberalism that also brought to an end the denial of civil and economic liberty to the Jews of Europe.

It is liberal industrialism that began the liberation of women by offering commercial opportunities for employment outside of the father or husband-controlling household. And that the law came to reflect the emergence of contractual relationships between women and employers.

It is 19th century liberalism and its commercial liberty that (as Peter Berger, for example, has emphasized) created something never known before in history: childhood. Parents were now able to earn enough that children did not have to begin earning their own way at a very early age. Instead they had the financial means to allow their children to have a time for play and education before entering the responsibilities of adulthood.

It was 19th century liberalism that created the opportunity for growing literacy through education (at first primarily without the state, as E.G. West showed)that generated the profitability for a growing mass media (the "penny press).

It was 19th century liberalism that began the process of reform of the criminal law system and its use of "cruel and unusual punishments," and that began the more humane treatment of the insane and mentally handicapped.

It was 19th century liberalism that fostered than notion of "rules of war" to protect the rights and property of non-combatants, and more proper treatment of prisoners of war. And that earlier liberalism helped set standards for limits on what types of methods of warfare might be used in battle.

And let us not forget that 19th century liberalism -- that "cruel" error of self-interested individualism -- saw the emergence and development of a vast network of private sector charity and associations for "self-help," especially in Great Britain and the United States.

It was, after all, the expanding prosperity of 19th century liberal commercial society that began the process of lifting humanity out of age-long poverty and disease.

Before we turn out back on, and condemn any appreciation of or "nostalgia" for that 19th century liberalism, let us remember that none of the greater freedom or opportunity that even more people may enjoy today could not have even come about if not for the historical and momentous process that began in the 18th century and blossomed in the 19th century.

Read those 19th century liberals before you condemn them. They are not merely "apologists" for economic freedom. Most of them -- I would say the vast majority of them -- view commercial liberty as part of the wider call for the freedom, dignity and respect for the individual, as a whole. And their defenses of freedom are as concerned, most of the time, for personal and civil liberty as for economic liberty.

Everything good in our world, I say with no apology or "guilt," we owe to those liberals who not only made the case for freedom, but helped push the reforms or introduce the changes that began raising humanity out of bondage, ignorance, and poverty.

I hail them -- their ideas and their achievements -- as the finest in the human spirit and the will to improve the conditions of mankind.

Were they inconsistent, compromising, confused, and misguided at times? Yes. But so what? Any reasonable historian of ideas must see that the good they did and began far outweighs their mistakes and even hypocrisies, and the incomplete tasks they left behind.

Let us not throw out the baby with the bathwater, as we compare their era with ours.

Richard Ebeling


No one, well not me anyway, is saying anything but that those great 19th century liberals were inconsistent in the application of their ideals. I'm certainly not suggesting we condemn them in any sense. After all, I'm the guy writing the book on how capitalism and the industrial revolution liberated women and transformed the family from something of a horror show into its modern, largely peaceful, form.

The point at issue is whether the battle begun by those folks has, on net, added to or subtracted from the sum of human freedom since some time in the 19th century (depending on which thread of the debate one picks up). I think the answer is clear: the net result is significant gains and that describing the last 150 years or so as a period of "lost liberties" is both bad history and bad rhetoric. We can properly appreciate the great good that those thinkers did without falling into nostalgia about the real conditions on the ground for the majority of the population in the 19th century.

Hi Steven,

Regarding your 2x2 matrix: were not many Irish members of the "white men" category? Am I the only one who learned about the age of "no Irish need apply"? Thus, can you really say "less freedom" for all white men?

I think this supports your general thesis, but I'm sure someone will tell me why it doesn't.

Best regards,


We need to make some distinctions, if I may suggest.

Why were the conditions of many "hard" in the 19th century? Partly because the liberal reforms had not, as yet, made more progress.

And partly because the "natural" conditions of life were just harder then.

Have we "lost" a variety of civil and economic liberty between, say, 1910 and 2010? We cannot deny that that has occurred.

For example, before 1914 people could travel virtually anywhere in the world (except for the Russian and Ottoman Empires) without passports and visas.

Tax burdens were far lower. The estimates that I've read say that in 1910 in Great Britain and the United States, all levels of government took not much more than 5 percent of national income (and in the U.S. that was, also, no income tax).

And while Herbert Spencer was waxing eloquent already in the 1880s and 1890s about growing government controls in his own country of Great Britain, that fact was that the British and American people had far, far less government regulation and control over many areas of commerce, industry, and employment.

It may be due to the advancement of technological advancements that are how at the disposal of government nowadays, but surveillance and government "snooping" into our private and personal affairs was far less in that older era.

Government was far less centralized in that earlier era than it became in the 20th century (see, the first couple of chapters in Robert Nisbet's "This Present Age"), and individuals were less seen and treated as the property of the national government.

Yes, it is true that state government's and local communities would be intrusive (see, J.S. Mill's discussion of the "oppressiveness" of custom and tradition in his essays "On Liberty"), but people could "vote" with their feet in moving to different parts of the country or around the world. And this had the advantage, then, that the types and degrees of political paternalism were not as pervasive or uniform as today.

(In the 19th century, you could escape from various forms of political, civil and economic oppressions in the "old world" by coming to the United States. Where do you go today for a similar degree of difference? Mars?)

My mother's parents were Russian and Lithuanian Jews, who came to America as small children with their families in the years before the First World War. They escaped from state-sponsored Antisemitism and pogroms.

Were they free from discrimination here in America? No. My grandfather (my mother's father) wanted to be a medical doctor. But he could not get accepted into a medical school because of Antisemitism, and informal "quotas." So, instead, he became a pharmacist, and opened and owned his own drug store before he became ill with a stroke in the 1930s.

My mother told me that in the America of the 1930s there would still be want-ads that would say, "Jews need not apply," when she was first looking for a job as a young girl.

(See the 1946 film, "Gentleman's Agreement" with Gregory Peck as an example of the type of informal anti-Jewish prejudice that was still practiced at that time.)

So what? It was still a far greater freedom than they would have enjoyed if her parents had stayed in that part of Europe, with many open opportunities in the market place of America.

In the last fifty years, enlightened "progressive" government has attempted to impose new quota systems (with the influence of law) through affirmative action. The state tries to impose new forms of "group-think": are you "straight" or "gay," male or female, one ethnic group or another? With various "rights" and privileges.

We all recently filled out the 2010 Census forms. The majority of the questions were all "race-based." I would like to know, what was asked on a Census form in, say, 1910?

A hundred years ago people may have practiced various forms of discriminatory tribalism, but except in the Southern states, perhaps, few really tried to rationalize it anymore as the basis of a "just society."

Today, gender- and race-based policies are far more rationalized as the basis of a "good society."

So things are not so "black" and "white," or as "bad" yesterday, "good" today.

Richard Ebeling


Yes, the category "white men" is over-simplified. For example, state-enforced discrimination against Jews was rampant as well, as Richard rightly notes above. One could argue, as some folks have, that in that sense Jews and many other immigrant groups from the "wrong" parts of Europe weren't seen as "white" in the way that others were. My matrix was admittedly an oversimplification, and your points are right on in pointing to some of the complexities.

As far as the rest of Richard's comments go, I'll just say that I think one can agree with many of the points you raise Richard but still believe that Americans (on the whole) are more free today than in 1880 or 1850. Comparisons to, say, post WWI are less clear. Even there, though, my judgment is that we are, in sum, freer than we were across all Americans and across all margins of action, but that's a harder case to make.

And your points about federalism are well-taken, at least to a degree. Many state and local governments were far more tyrannical than the federal government is now, and choices, especially for blacks, were very limited. And while it's true that "people" were not seen as property of the national government, for more than half of the 19th century, a portion of the population was the *property of other human beings*, which is far worse. And married women were, to some significant degree, still property of their husbands. Both of those situations were enforced by both the state and national governments.

The point is that looking only at what government did directly enables us to overlook the "private" and very deep/broad violations of liberty by others that it permitted.

The end of chattel slavery and the liberation of married women just seem to me to be such obvious huge gains in human freedom so as to dwarf whatever economic freedoms we have all lost that it's not even a close call. And despite your concerns about various social freedoms, I also find it nearly beyond debate that we are far more free on those margins today than 100 or 150 years ago, especially when one considers the thousands of local tyrannies of the time.


I think it depends on perspective and emphasis.

I see us moving down as "new road to serfdom," if present trends continue. And that fact that if may be more an "equal opportunity" servitude for all under the paternalistic, redistributive, interventionist state gives me no comfort.

Though, of course, it will not be an equality of servitude, since the State will invariably give various privileges and favors to some at the expense of others -- after all, what is the role of the State in modern "democratic" society if not differential "legalized plunder"?

A part of the problem, say, a hundred and fifty years ago was that (liberal) currents of ideas were running ahead of the general climate of opinion, which always tends to be the intellectual process in society.

Liberals were advocating, in principle, the rights of women (read both Mill's essay on the subjugation of women, and the chapters on the rights of women and children in Herbert Spencer's "Social Statics") and minority groups (read Thomas Macaulay's speeches in defense of civil liberties for Jews a little earlier) ahead of the beliefs, attitudes and behavior of the general public.

But the importance of these principles and ideas is that they slowly but surely ate away at the earlier prejudices and policies.

Women were freer in the 1860s or 1870s than they had been in the 1760s or 1770s. And the same applied to blacks in comparison to the earlier century before the second half of the 19th century.

My fear and concern is that Hayek continues to be right that we are on a road to serfdom because we continue to live in a counter-revolutionary epoch in revolt against the ideas and spirit of those early and mid-19th century liberal principles.

Part of its form is the mythology that in the long run we can preserve wide individual freedom and choice when growing corners of our economic life is planned or controlled by the State.

Unless we wish to abandon a key element of the classical liberal (and Austrian) critique of the nature of a collectivist political and economic order (that personal freedom, civil liberty, and economic freedom are connected in some essential ways), I don't know how we can not fear that these threats to economic liberty do not suggest dangers for other aspects of our individual freedom.

At a minimum, therefore, I think we need to all have a "nostalgia" for the ideas of those 19th century liberals who saw the connections between and the dangers from the collectivist trends, even if we disagree about the practical degrees of freedom various individuals or groups may have experienced during the 19th century.

Richard Ebeling

Well put Steve. I side with you on this one. I think the encroachments on our freedom, particularly economic freedom, in the US have really only been possible because we have gained enough wealth to be able to put up with them. We may not like the cost, be we can afford to pay for a lot of economic interventions because we can afford so much more of everything. This may not make the violations of economic liberty and less offensive, but it speaks to the overall trend of expanding freedom, which ironically sometimes leads to the prosperity that makes us less offended by new encroachments on our freedom, since we can more easily afford them.

I wonder how certain groups such as unskilled immigrants fare today as compared to say the 19th century in America? Do licensing requirements and DNS requirements make it harder to go "rags to riches" right off the boat, or are the under the table and undocumented transactions common enough to make the road to prosperity just as easy as it was in the past? Are the barriers to entry higher than they were in the past for such groups?

Are unskilled immigrants better or worse off in America today than they were 150 years ago?

I agree with you, Steve. I understand the counter-argument (oversimplified) as such: since women chose to get married rather than live life as femme soles, the property regulations were also accepted voluntarily and therefore not restrictions on freedom. Even if we take it for granted that marriage was voluntary, which I'm happy to do, the restrictions on married women's activities were still acts of regulation of the marriage market- regulation which declared large swaths of activity illegal and dramatically limited freedom.

I find saying that married women were free in the 18th century because they chose to marry akin to arguing that black Americans were free under Jim Crow because they chose to patronize "separate but equal" establishments. Or the TSA does not restrict freedom because we choose to fly. Or the FDA does not limit our freedom because we choose to patronize American doctors. In order to accept this voluntarism argument, it seems to me that one must be willing to advance that no regulation is a restriction of freedom.

Furthermore, although a husband could give his wife permission to circumvent these laws (a condition that still doesn't sound very rosy to me- for every good marriage there is a bad marriage, and how much more so in days when search was so much more costly and one could not obtain a no-fault divorce?), this permission would not have held up as a contracting away of the regulations in court. It was well into the 19th century before acting independently in a court of law was an option for women, and a contract that can only be enforced by one of the parties is not much of a contract.

Rather than going into more detail here, I'll recommend Women and the Law of Property in Early America by MaryLynn Salmon for anybody interested in learning more about exactly how much was reformed during the 19th century (and therefore, how alarming were the conditions before that time).

Thanks for letting me hi-jack your post to add in my two cents!

Jim Vernon, you have been deceived by a myth:

Steve Horwitz, Richard Ebeling's examples of state-enforced antisemitism are from outside America. Within America there was social discrimination instead.

I'm not sure I'd use the word "instead" TGGP. You are quite right that anti-semitism in the US was largely "private" compared to state-enforced in Europe. But that was *largely* the case. There were examples of state-sponsored anti-Semitism in the US, though, again, far fewer than Europe. So rather than "instead" how about "Within America is was predominantly social discrimination with some state-enforced as well?"

FWIW, I'm totally with you on this one, Steve. Maybe you recall my celebration of "Ted Kennedy's contributions to freedom." Here is the url:

Jerry gives us reasons to doubt that liberty was greater in 1920 or 1935 than in 1885, so there might be a case for adjusting the starting point in your accounting. On the other hand, my hunch is that local oppressions were so great in 1880-1920 that they swamp abuses of the national government here in the US. Consider, for example, the system of "debt peonage" in the South or, switching back to national policy, the oppression of the Indian populations in the US.

The recent trend is worrisome, however, as you probably agree. The Fraser Institute's index ranked the US #2 in economic freedom in 2000, but #8 by 2006. The US rebounded to #6 by 2007, the latest year measured. Unfortunately, however, the difference between #8 in 2006 and #6 in 2007 may not be significant since the numerical score rises only from 8.04 to 8.06. Considering all freedoms and the likely declines since Fall 2008, it seems more than probable that overall liberty has been declining since 2000. But in the decades prior to 2000, the trend was indeed positive overall.

Steve, Thanks for writing this. I read it awhile back and have been meaning to comment. I think this kind of optimism *and* reality based thinking is what sets us on track to more liberalism in the future. Thanks for reminding us of how we need to be thinking. I've profited much from this post.

Businesses may worry that taxes, regulations etc, are getting worse, so they may not feel they can afford to drop prices even more to pull in more customers, they may not be investing, expanding, etc.

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