Were the Good Old Days Free?

It pains me when some of my fellow loyal champions of liberty speak as if liberty were something in America to which we could perhaps return. As if those good old days were rife with individual liberty across the land.

Well, the country may have had a few more favorable speeches promoting individual liberty, yes. That is one thing that I do miss'we didn't only hear a few vapid words in support of the idea, say, on the Fourth of July. Some prominent folks who managed to get themselves on radio and television, and even a few who ran for public office, actually embraced the notion that human beings should not be coerced to serve their fellows. Yes, there was even resistance to the idea of universal entitlement, so that kids didn't grow up taught to expect that the government would bail them out whenever they got into trouble.

Yet there were some serious blemishes as far as America's reputation as a free country is concerned. The starkest of these was, of course, slavery. In this 'leader of the free world' it was for a very long time possible for some persons to literally, legally, own others. And it happened with millions of human beings, not just a few here and there. The rank horror of this simply must not be overlooked and it is embarrassing when so called champions of human liberty plain forget the matter, act as if it never happened or didn't amount to anything terribly significant.

Even after slavery ended'and I am not all that concerned at this point to endorse the way it ended, only that it did end finally'there was no libertarian paradise in America. Freedom of the press, for example, wasn't vigilantly maintained, even as other advances toward liberty were being made. Freedom of political participation tended to be rather selectively secured for the citizenry, with a good many finding their right to participate in the political process ignored and violated. The law tended, also, not to show respect for the property rights of millions of American, mainly women, who were treated as second class citizens. In all the glowing rhetoric about liberty, these were elementary contradictions, so I hesitate to endorse the notion that in the good old days freedom decisively reigned across America.

True enough, in the area of economics, the various governments'municipal, county, state and, especially, federal'tended not to flex their muscles so much as they now do. The idea of free enterprise had some hold on even politicians and bureaucrats, as well as the citizenry. Even when I came to the USA, back in the mid 50s, I recall that people teaching in schools and writing for publications tended to be aware that what made America special is that it, unlike that other powerful country in the world, the Soviet Union, didn't embrace central planning of people's economic affairs. Socialism and communism were seen as violating basic principles of individual rights and sound economy.

Yet, here, too, one must tread carefully. In those good old days there had been a near consensus among academic economists that a sound economic arrangement involved a good dosage of government tinkering'Keynesianism'and that the Great Depression was caused by too much liberty. This is a view no longer so confidently peddled in the academy.

Many years ago I read a book, written in 1840, about the American economy, concerned mainly with free trade. What stood out for me is that this book amounted to a long list of laments about how the ideals of economic liberty had been compromises in America! In 1840!

Perhaps we should be more careful about thinking that America at one time was far more free than it is now. Probably some areas of human affairs were indeed left to individuals to govern for themselves. But others, including many involving significant numbers of peaceful Americans, didn't enjoy the liberty that we all should and now often do.

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Tibor R. Machan's picture
Columns on STR: 70

Tibor Machan is a professor of business ethics and Western Civilization at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and recent author of Neither Left Nor Right: Selected Columns (Hoover Institution Press, 2004).  He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.