Every time I think I have seen it all, I discover that I haven’t. Yesterday, for the first time in the 28-year history of The Future of Freedom Foundation, I was critiqued for what I wrote in a fundraising letter that we just sent out to our supporters. In the letter, we are asking our supporters to help us augment our Internet presence, with the aim of finding more people who are attracted to FFF’s principled methodology for advancing liberty.
The critique came in the form of a post on Facebook by libertarian professor Steve Horwitz, who teaches economics at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.
Here is Horwitz’s post:
Quiz time. What’s wrong with the argument below and how can it help explain the problems libertarians face in expanding our numbers? (The irony is that it’s in an appeal to help this organization find more libertarians!)
“My favorite period in U.S. history is the latter part of the 1800s. It wasn’t a pure, 100-percent libertarian society by any means, but it is the closest that mankind has ever come. Imagine: No income tax, IRS, drug laws, DEA, Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid; no farm subsidies, licensure, welfare, public schooling, gun control, immigration controls, Federal Reserve, paper money, minimum wage, or price controls; no military-industrial complex, CIA, NSA, TSA, FBI, Homeland Security, foreign aid, foreign wars, or foreign interventions. That was the most dynamic, exciting, invention-filled, prosperous, charitable, and free society ever.”
At first, I assumed that Horwitz was criticizing our methodology of advancing liberty, which is by presenting the uncompromising case for the libertarian philosophy. That certainly has been one of the criticisms that people have leveled against FFF ever since our inception in 1989. I cannot begin to tell you the number of times people have recommended to me that we compromise, water down, or conceal our libertarian principles in order to attract more supporters. Recommendations have included such things as calling for reduction in income taxation or an increase in deductions and tax credits rather than calling for the abolition of the income tax; or endorsing school vouchers instead of the total separation of school and state; or calling for more government-screened immigrants rather than for open borders; or calling for the legalization of only marijuana rather than the legalization of all drugs.
We have always rejected those recommendations. It has been my conviction that libertarian principles should never be abandoned for any reason and certainly not for the sake of expediency. I continue to hold that the best way to achieve the free society is by making the principled case for the free society. After all, if people are not exposed to such ideals as the separation of school and state, the separation of economy and the state, the separation of money and the state, and the restoration of a limited-government republic and instead are relegated to reforming the tyranny of the status quo, why would we expect them to begin thinking about what freedom is all about? To achieve a genuinely free society necessarily entails raising people’s vision to a higher level, one that involves libertarian ideals and principles.
Does this make our job more difficult here at FFF? Well, duh! I cannot begin to tell you how many people we have lost over the years because we call for totally open borders, or full drug legalization, or a complete end to foreign interventionism, or the dismantling of the national-security state apparatus that was grafted onto the federal governmental structure after World War II. In fact, in our very first year of publication of our monthly journal Future of Freedom (which was called Freedom Daily back then), we were losing so many subscribers and supporters that Richard Ebeling, who was serving as FFF vice president of academic affairs, remarked jokingly (I think) to me, “By the first year of our operation, we will have lost all of our subscribers and supporters, and then I’ll do my best to get rid of you.”
But actually, we succeeded in attracting a base of supporters who were attracted to ideals and principles as the way to advance liberty. They are the ones who have kept us going for 28 years. They haven’t always agreed with us on every issue, but they have continued to support us because they understand the importance of principles and ideals when it comes to achieving a free society.
As Leonard Read, founder of The Foundation for Economic Education, used to point out, it has always been an infinitesimally small minority of people, relying on ideals and principles, who have brought us the glorious achievements of liberty, such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, due process of law, and habeas corpus.
As it turns out, however, Horwitz wasn’t taking me to task for our uncompromising approach to libertarianism. In fact, I think he actually agrees with us on that. Instead, he was criticizing me for saying that 1880s America was my favorite time in history and for my pointing out that that was the freest period in history, given that Americans in the 1880s lived in a society in which there was no income taxation, Federal Reserve, immigration controls, trade wars, torture, assassination, enormous permanent military establishment, foreign wars, foreign military bases, drug war, gun control, fiat (i.e., paper) money, economic regulations, minimum-wage laws, Social Security, Medicare, and welfare.
As I pointed out in my fundraising letter, it certainly wasn’t a pure libertarian society by any means. We all know that. There were corrupt land grants to the railroads. There were tariffs. Women didn’t have the right to vote and their property rights were restricted. States were enacting Jim Crow laws. Congress enacted the first immigration control act in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act, which suspended the immigration of Chinese laborers. The Sherman Antitrust Act would be enacted in 1890. And there were other infringements on liberty. Nonetheless, there has never been a society that has come closer to achieving the principles of economic liberty than the American people living in the 1880s.
But Horwitz says that we shouldn’t extol this decade for its positive achievements because of the fact that people’s rights were being infringed in other areas.
I couldn’t disagree more. What is wrong with focusing on the positive even while condemning the negative? What’s wrong with pointing to the positive achievements as a standard to work toward and building on that minimal standard?
In fact, that is precisely what I also wrote in my fundraising letter but, for some unknown reason, Horwitz decided to omit that part from his Facebook post. Here is the excerpt he omitted:
Americans proved that it can be done. That is our baseline here at FFF. We want to restore those principles and build on them. We want America to lead the world to even greater heights of freedom and prosperity.
Ever since I founded FFF 28 years ago, critics have said words to this effect to me: “Jacob, you are advocating a pie-in-the-sky utopia. Get real. Advocate something that isn’t impossible to achieve.”
Pie-in-the-sky utopia? Impossible to achieve? Our ancestors in the 1880s proved that a society without income taxation, IRS, DEA, public housing, welfare, Social Security, ICE, Medicare, farm subsidies, Pentagon, CIA, NSA, torture, assassination, foreign wars, central bank, fiat money, public schooling, immigration controls, minimum-wage laws, and economic regulations can be achieved. They did it! How can something be a pie-in-the-sky utopia and impossible to achieve when there was once a society that achieved those principles?
That’s one reason I favor pointing to the 1880s as a model. No, it wasn’t a pure libertarian society, but those Americans showed that it is entirely possible to achieve a society that isn’t based on the welfare state and the warfare state and all the massive coercion that comes with them.
Horwitz points out that in the 1880s women didn’t have the right to vote and had their property rights extremely restricted. That’s one reason why he feels that Americans live in a freer society today, where women have the right to vote and own and control property, notwithstanding the fact that they, along with everyone else, live under a government that wields the power to seize everything they earn, put them in jail and confiscate their assets for ingesting non-government-approved substances, seize them and force them to fight in wars of aggression in faraway lands, incarcerate them indefinitely, torture them, Abu Ghraib them, punish them for traveling to certain countries and spending their money there, and forcing them to care for others through mandatory, government-enforced “charity.”
Fair enough. Value is subjective. If Horwitz feels freer living under a massive welfare-warfare state where the government wields omnipotent power to control and destroy people’s lives but where women have the right to vote and whose property rights are recognized, who am I to question his values?
But let’s pose the issue more starkly in a hypothetical: Imagine that we are faced with the choice of living in an imperfect world consisting of two different societies:
In Society One, everyone has the right to vote but the government wields the power to seize everyone’s earnings, implement mandatory charity, control where people travel and how they spend the money that the government permits them to keep, punish people for ingesting harmful substances, plunder people with the inflation of fiat currency, control entry into occupations and professions, regulate economic activity, and conscript both everyone to serve in wars in faraway lands.
In Society Two, the government doesn’t have the power to do any of those things but people are denied the right to vote.
Presumably, Horwitz would choose to live in Society One. I would choose Society Two. Which society would you choose?
Here is another hypothetical. Suppose that archeologists suddenly discover that there was once a society that was modeled on pure libertarian principles, with just one exception: Farriers (people who specialize in shoeing horses) were required to secure a license from the state.
Upon discovering such a society, I wouldn’t hesitate to remark, “Wow! That has got to be the freest society in history,” to which Horwitz would undoubtedly respond, “Hornberger, that is outrageous. How can you extol freedom in such a society when the farriers were denied freedom by being required to get a license?”
And therein lies the problem. When I think of the 1880s, I see a glass that is 80 percent full. When Horwitz thinks of the 1880s, he sees a glass that is 20 percent empty.
Think about what was going on. Slavery had been brought to an end some 20 years before. During the succeeding two decades, blacks were benefiting from the same free-market principles that everyone else was benefiting from — they were free to engage in economic enterprises and keep everything they earned, not even being forced to “pay into” Social Security and Medicare because there was no welfare state.
The result? Former slaves were prospering economically, just as thousands of penniless immigrants who were flooding American shores were. Consider what Professor Loren Schweninger, professor emeritus of history at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, writes in his scholarly article, “Prosperous Blacks in the South, 1790-1880”:
Formerly free blacks in the upper states therefore were not tied to the fortunes of the white aristocracy. More self-confident, able to mix more easily with former slaves, and viewing the formerly dominant class with suspicion and skepticism, they could more easily build on their past experiences during the postwar era, to advance not only their own cause but the cause of freedmen as well. Even though these regional differences reveal how property-owning antebellum free blacks adjusted to postwar conditions, the question of how significant numbers of lower-level free blacks and former slaves were able to enter the highest economic group during the postwar era remains. This development seems all the more remarkable since it occurred in the midst of declining land values, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and other such groups, the refusal of whites to sell land to freedmen and women, and the declining fortunes of the antebellum planter class. The paucity of scholarly works on black enterprise during the middle period makes answers somewhat tentative, but it appears that, ironically, some postwar difficulties may have actually been beneficial to blacks. Improved farmland sold for between $15 and $25 per acre before the war; it now sold for between $2 and $8 per acre. In addition, during the war, nearly one out of five Southern white males ages thirteen to forty-three had died, and tens of thousands of others had returned home physically disabled or mentally impaired. Free blacks and emancipated slaves also suffered during the war and its aftermath; but the comparative death rates, at least from what we know, paled by comparison. Moreover, with freedom came a new energy, a new enthusiasm for determining one’s own fate in life and acquiring an economic stake. Black leaders urged their people to become economically independent and self-sufficient. Although none of these conditions necessarily resulted in economic improvement, and the masses remained landless, in every section of the South enterprising blacks achieved a measure of prosperity by acquiring significant amounts of land and property. During the 1870s, these trends continued…. formerly free blacks and former slaves in the Upper South continued to gain entry into the most prosperous group of farmers, skilled artisans, and small business people. During the 1870s, despite the economic problems of the era, the most prosperous group continued to expand, especially in towns and cities.
Or consider this excerpt from the Encyclopedia of Chicago:
Formal segregation in Chicago slowly began to break down in the 1870s. The state extended the franchise to African Americans in 1870 and ended legally sanctioned school segregation in 1874. A state law against discrimination in public places followed in 1885, but it was rarely enforced and did nothing to address widespread employment discrimination. While not yet confined to the city’s nascent ghettos, blacks generally found housing available only within emerging enclaves. A new cadre of leaders emerged from the business and professional elite to address these issues. In 1878 prominent attorney Ferdinand L. Barnett established Chicago’s first black newspaper, the Conservator, which championed racial solidarity and militant protest. Ida B. Wells possessed a history of militant activism long before she moved to Chicago and married Barnett in 1895. Once in Chicago, Wells continued her long-standing antilynching campaign, joined the women’s suffrage, club, andsettlement house movements, and played a key role in the conference establishing the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1900. Reverdy Ransom, who ministered to the city’s black elite at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, shared Wells’s dedication to social causes and, with the help of white activists, established the Institutional Church and Settlement in 1900 to provide a range of social services to the black community.
Or consider this timeline of African American history in the 1880s from Wikipedia:
- In Strauder v. West Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that African Americanscould not be excluded from juries.
- During the 1880s, African Americans in the South reach a peak of numbers in being elected and holding local offices, even while white Democrats are working to assert control at state level.
- April 11– Spelman Seminary is founded as the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary.
- July 4 – Booker T. Washingtonopens the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama.
- Lewis Latimerinvented the first long-lasting filament for light bulbs and installed his lighting system in New York City, Philadelphia, and Canada. Later, he became one of the 28 members of Thomas Edison‘s Pioneers.
- A biracial populist coalition achieves power in Virginia(briefly). The legislature founds the first public college for African Americans, Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute, as well as the first mental hospital for African Americans, both near Petersburg, Virginia. The hospital was established in December 1869, at Howard’s Grove Hospital, a former Confederate unit, but is moved to a new campus in 1882.
- October 16– In Civil Rights Cases, the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down the Civil Rights Act of 1875 as unconstitutional.
- Mark Twain‘s Adventures of Huckleberry Finnis published, featuring the admirable African-American character Jim.
- Judy W. Reed, of Washington, D.C., and Sarah E. Goode, of Chicago, are the first African-American women inventors to receive patents. Signed with an “X”, Reed’s patent no. 305,474, granted September 23, 1884, is for a dough kneader and roller. Goode’s patent for a cabinet bed, patent no. 322,177, is issued on July 14, 1885. Goode, the owner of a Chicago furniture store, invented a folding bed that could be formed into a desk when not in use.
- Ida B. Wellssues the Chesapeake, Ohio & South Western Railroad Company for its use of segregated “Jim Crow” cars.
- Norris Wright Cuneybecomes the chairman of the Texas Republican Party, the most powerful role held by any African American in the South during the 19th century.
- October 3– The State Normal School for Colored Students, which would become Florida A&M University, is founded.
What’s wrong with looking at the positive, instead of dwelling on the negative? In fact, consider this excerpt from a website of the U.S. House of Representatives entitled “The Women’s Rights Movement, 1848-1920”:
During the 1880s, the two wings of the women’s rights movement struggled to maintain momentum. The AWSA was better funded and the larger of the two groups, but it had only a regional reach. The NWSA, which was based in New York, relied on its statewide network, but also drew recruits from around the nation largely on the basis of the extensive speaking circuits of Stanton and Anthony. Neither group attracted broad support from women or persuaded male politicians or voters to adopt its cause. For instance, suffrage movement leaders knew that this was a significant impediment to achieving their goal. Susan B. Anthony and Ida H. Harper cowrote, “In the indifference, the inertia, the apathy of women, lies the greatest obstacle to their enfranchisement.” Historian Nancy Woloch described early suffragists’ efforts as “a crusade in political education by women and for women, and for most of its existence, a crusade in search of a constituency.”
The turning point came in the late 1880s and early 1890s, when the nation experienced a surge of volunteerism among middle-class women—activists in progressive causes, members of women’s clubs and professional societies, temperance advocates, and participants in local civic and charity organizations. The determination of these women to expand their sphere of activities further outside the home helped legitimize the suffrage movement and provided new momentum for the NWSA and the AWSA. By 1890, seeking to capitalize on their newfound “constituency,” the two groups united to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).6 Led initially by Stanton and then by Anthony, the NAWSA began to draw on the support of women activists in organizations as diverse as the Women’s Trade Union League, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, and the National Consumers League.
Consider this excerpt from the website of the National Park Service entitled “Women’s Suffrage History Timeline”:
A Woman Suffrage Amendment is introduced in the United States Congress. The wording is unchanged in 1919, when the amendment finally passes both houses.
The NWSA and the AWSA are reunited as the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) under the leadership of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. During this same year, Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr found Hull House, a settlement house project in Chicago’s 19th Ward. Within one year, there are more than a hundred settlement houses–largely operated by women–throughout the United States. The settlement house movement and the Progressive campaign of which it was a part propelled thousands of college-educated white women and a number of women of color into lifetime careers in social work. It also made women an important voice to be reckoned with in American politics.
Ida B. Wells launches her nation-wide anti-lynching campaign after the murder of three black businessmen in Memphis, Tennessee.
Hannah Greenbaum Solomon founds the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) after a meeting of the Jewish Women’s Congress at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois. In that same year, Colorado becomes the first state to adopt a state amendment enfranchising women.
Here’s an important question: Why were blacks and women able to become wealthy, establish schools, and fight for the recognition of their rights in the 1880s? Or another way to ask that question is: Why aren’t people in North Korea doing the same thing today?
Two reasons: first, economic liberty in the 1880s (i.e., no welfare-warfare state, regulated economy, income taxation, central bank, foreign wars, and fiat money) provided the financial base to enable blacks and women to do those things. When people are starving to death, the only thing they are focused on is how to feed themselves and their families. They cannot afford to engage in social causes. That’s one reason why that sort of thing isn’t happening in North Korea. The second reason is the First Amendment, which prohibited the federal government from punishing people for demanding the recognition of their rights. If people do that in North Korea, they are immediately jailed.
Why can’t we recognize the positive in all this? Liberty comes in fits and starts. Two steps forward and one step backward and then two steps forward. The fact is that both women and blacks were making tremendous strides in the 1880s, both economically and in the fight for equal rights.
In fact, that’s one of the main reasons that Jim Crow laws began to multiply in the 1880s and 1890s — precisely because many blacks (like many immigrants) were getting wealthy in the marketplace, which was upsetting some whites. It’s also the reason why states began enacting mandatory segregation laws—because they could see that the free market was breaking down racial barriers naturally. After all, if the free market was bringing into existence a segregated society in, say, Alabama, why would it have been necessary to use the law to mandate segregation?
Were the 1880s a perfectly pure libertarian society? Of course not. But despite the exceptions and violations, those generations of Americans did set a standard to aim for and to build upon.
Unfortunately, socialism and imperialism ended up changing the direction of the country with respect to economic liberty. Sure, women got the right to vote and blacks, after suffering for decades under segregation and Jim Crow, secured civil rights, but most everyone at the bottom of the economic ladder is now suffering economically, not to mention the racial bigotry and viciousness of the drug war. It’s worth mentioning the horrible chronic unemployment that minimum-wage laws have brought to black teenagers and the horrible damage that public schooling has done to the minds of so many inner city youth.
What’s wrong with keeping civil rights and women’s rights and restoring the principles of economic liberty that existed in the 1880s, and the building on all this to lead the world to the highest reaches of freedom that mankind has ever reached?What’s wrong with looking at what our ancestors accomplished in the 1880s as a glass 80 percent full rather than 20 percent empty?