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Hornberger's Blog is a daily libertarian blog written by Jacob G. Hornberger, founder and president of FFF.
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Was the 19th Century a Golden Age of Liberty?


Whenever libertarians point out certain fundamental differences between 19th-century America and modern-day America, critics oftentimes reply, “The 19th century was not a golden age of liberty. There were many violations of libertarian principles during that time.”

Such detractors, however, miss the point. Nobody is saying that the 19th century was a golden age of liberty. There was slavery, which obviously is the biggest violation of liberty. There were tariffs. There were land grants to the railroads. There were subsidies to big corporations. There were regulations at the local level. There were restrictions on the rights of women.

So, the issue is not whether 19th-century America was a golden age of liberty.

Instead, the issue is: Was 19th-centuy America fundamentally different than modern-day America with respect to certain critically important aspects of liberty, such as economic liberty and military empire?

I don’t see how anyone can deny that it was.

Consider income taxation. Yesterday, Americans were rushing to the post office to file their income-tax returns and send in the taxes owed on the amount of money they earned during the past year. That’s because modern-day Americans have embraced income taxation, a system by which the federal government seizes whatever portion of people’s income it wants. If people refuse to comply, they go to jail. If they resist with force, they’re killed.

That certainly wasn’t the case with our American ancestors. Imagine: For more than 100 years and with just two exceptions (including Lincoln’s income tax), Americans were free to keep everything they earned. No income tax, no IRS, no IRS audits, and no rushing to the post office on April 15 or any other date to file income tax returns and pay income taxes.

So, why did our American ancestors reject income taxation?

One big reason: They knew that income taxation is antithetical to freedom. If the government has the power to seize any portion of people’s income it wants, there is no way that people in that society can genuinely be considered free.

What about Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, farm subsidies, food stamps, welfare, foreign aid, public (i.e., government) schooling, and other parts of what we call the “welfare state”?

They didn’t exist in 19th-century America. That is a big difference between our American ancestors and modern-day Americans. Our ancestors didn’t believe that it was the rightful role of government to force people to be good, caring, compassionate, or charitable. They understood that when it comes to charity, freedom necessarily entails freedom of choice, not force.

Yet, look at our society today. It’s riddled with federal programs that are based on the concept of force, a total denigration of the great God-given gift of free will.

Welfare statists say that modern-day Americans are bad people who cannot be trusted with freedom. Without federal force, they say, Americans would never be willing to help others in need. They need to be forced to do so, they claim.

I say that that’s ridiculous. If Americans are as bad as the statists say they are, then why do those bad people support a welfare state? More important, however, is the concept of freedom, which holds that people have a fundamental right to make voluntary choices when it comes to charity. That’s what free will is all about—the right to say either yes or no when someone asks for help.

Second, welfare statists say that what people do with their money should be subject to majority vote. But that totally ignores the concept of fundamental, God-given rights that, morally speaking, are beyond the reach of the majority. After all, we don’t let the majority tell us that we have to attend church on Sunday. Why should we permit the majority to dictate to us what we do with our own money?

Consider the enormous standing army, overseas empire of military bases, foreign aid to dictatorships, Pentagon, CIA, NSA, and the entire national-security state apparatus, along with indefinite detention, torture, assassination, coups, invasions, occupations, and wars of aggression that come with them.

Our American ancestors said no to all that because they understood that such a system would be a grave threat to their freedom and well-being.

So, again, the issue is not whether or the 19th century was or wasn’t a golden age of liberty. Instead, the issue is: Who was right when it comes to income taxation, coerced charity, and a warfare state—our American ancestors or modern-day Americans? Which system is the free system — the one in which the government is seizing people’s income, forcing them to be good and caring, and detaining, torturing, and assassinating them without due process of law and trial by jury or the system in which people are free to keep everything they earn and decide for themselves what to do with it on a voluntary basis and a system in which there is a constitutional republic where government is constrained with limited powers?

While the 19th century was certainly not a golden age of liberty, our ancestors clearly had it right and modern-day Americans have it wrong when it comes to income taxation and the welfare-warfare state. We ought to build on what our ancestors started by repealing, not reforming, the income tax and the welfare-warfare state monstrosity that the income tax funds.


This post was written by:

Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.