President Donald Trump’s signature campaign slogan in the 2016 presidential race was “Make America Great Again.” The mantra touched the chords of millions of Americans and helped get him elected president. At the risk of raining on Trump’s parade, however, it just isn’t going to happen. Trump is not going to make America great again, because his conservative philosophy and positions on both domestic issues and foreign-policy issues run counter to the principles of liberty and prosperity that make a nation great and that once made America great.
In terms of freedom and prosperity, the greatest era of American history was the 30-year period from around 1880 to around 1910. It is impossible to overstate how unusual the country was during that period of time. Never has there been an era so different from all others throughout history. Never has there been so much liberty and prosperity anywhere in the world.
In fact, that 30-year period was the closest the world has ever gotten to a totally libertarian society. Americans living in those years proved that it is entirely possible for a society to adopt and implement libertarian principles within the context of a governmental system.
- No federal income tax. Americans were free to keep everything they earned, and there was nothing the government could do about it. There were no income tax returns. No one needed to concern himself with tax deductions or with running to the post office to meet the April deadline for filing his income tax return. There was no IRS to harass abuse, terrorize, or incarcerate American citizens for failing to file income tax returns or for failing to send a portion of their income to the U.S. Treasury.
- Sound money. When the U.S. Constitution called the federal government into existence, it established the most unusual monetary system in history. It was called the “gold standard” but in actuality it was a “coin standard” — specifically, gold coins and silver coins serving as higher-denomination money, with nickel coins and copper coins serving as lower-denomination money.
Today, many people think that the gold standard was a monetary system based on paper money that was convertible into a certain quantity of gold. Not so. By the express terms of the Constitution and by the monetary laws that were enacted immediately after the federal government came into existence, the Framers and early Americans made it very clear that a paper-money system would be illegal and inappropriate under our form of constitutional government. America’s monetary system was to be based on coinage and coinage alone.
For example, the Constitution failed to delegate any power to the federal government to issue paper money or “bills of credit,” which was the term used at that time for paper money. Instead, it simply delegated the power to coin money to the federal government. To ensure that the states did not issue paper money, the Constitution specifically prohibited the states from emitting bills of credit and from making anything but gold and silver coins lawful money or “legal tender.”
The coin standard was in effect for most of the 19th century and into the 20th century, including the 30-year period from 1880 to 1910.
- Few economic regulations. No minimum-wage laws. No occupational-licensure laws. No price controls. No drug laws. People living in America were free to engage in economic enterprises without governmental permission and control. That is what was meant by the term “free enterprise.” It denoted economic enterprise that was free of governmental interference.
- Open immigration. Through most of the 19th century, America maintained a system of open immigration, one by which unrestricted numbers of people from around the world were free to come to the United States. At Ellis Island in New York City, foreigners could freely enter the United States so long as they weren’t carrying a communicable disease or weren’t so mentally defective that they would be a charge on society. In the American Southwest, there were no immigration controls at all between Mexico and the United States. The same held true on the West Coast through must of the 19th century.
- Freedom of education. No U.S. Department of Education. In fact, with a few exceptions, no systems of public schooling and mandatory-attendance laws in the United States. While there was state support of colleges and universities and sometimes local support for schools, education of children was primarily under the control of families.
- No Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare, farm subsidies, foreign aid, or other welfare-state programs. Charity was considered no business of government, an institution founded on force. Charity was left in the realm of voluntary choice, with each person being free to choose what to do with his own money.
- No SBA loans, government-business partnerships, corporate grants, subsidies, and bailouts, or any other program of “crony capitalism.”
- No U.S. departments of Housing and Urban Development, Energy, Transportation, Health and Human Services, or Homeland Security.
- Free trade. The Constitution established the largest free-trade zone in history by prohibiting the states from imposing trade restrictions, import controls, or tariffs on goods and services provided by people in other states. While there were tariffs on foreign goods, they were oriented more toward raising revenue for the federal government than for protecting U.S. companies from overseas competition.
- No Pentagon, no enormous and permanent military establishment, no U.S. military bases in foreign countries, few foreign interventions, no CIA, no NSA, and no war on terrorism. America was founded as a limited-government, constitutional republic, one with a relatively small military force.
- No gun control. Americans were free to own whatever weapons they desired.
- No federal power to arbitrarily arrest people or incarcerate them without due process of law, trial by jury, or other procedural prerequisites.
- No federal power to assassinate or torture people
- No federal power to control or censor what people read or wrote.
- No federal power to regulate, control, mandate, or subsidize religious activity.
Whatever might be said of that 30-year era in American history — 1890 to 1910 — there is one thing that no one can dispute: It was the most unusual political and economic system in history. There has never been anything like it.
The result? Not just the freest society in history but also the most prosperous and most charitable society ever. During that 30-year period, the standard of living of people living in the United States grew by leaps and bounds — doubling and then doubling again. A dynamic and exciting economic system, one that was raising millions of families out of poverty for the first time in history. New inventions that were making people’s lives better were coming out every year. More charitable activity and organizations than the world had ever seen.
It is not surprising that people all over the world marveled at what was considered to be nothing less than an economic miracle. Millions of foreigners left their homelands and their families to come and work and live here. Penniless immigrants from around the world, many of whom could not speak a word of English, were flooding American shores, eager to live and work in a society in which everyone had a chance to get wealthy or, at the very least, sustain and improve his own lot in life and that of his family. The quality of health care and education soared. Average life spans grew.
What was the reason for this tremendous outburst of economic activity and enormous surge in people’s standard of living? Free enterprise — that is, enterprise that was free of governmental control. Americans, whether wittingly or unwittingly, had stumbled onto the solution to a problem that had bedeviled mankind since the beginning of civilization — how to eradicate or alleviate poverty.
Throughout history people had suffered enormous poverty. To use the words of Thomas Hobbes, life for most people had been nasty, brutish, and short. Death by starvation, illness, or government oppression was the norm.
What was the reason for history’s widespread poverty and misery? Big government. Oppressive government. High taxation. Massive regulation. Trade restrictions. Paper money or debased currency. Government-provided welfare. Massive military establishments that embroiled societies in perpetual war. Gun control, which impeded people’s ability to overthrow tyrannical regimes.
That is what kept mankind mired in poverty and misery throughout the ages. Yet, now came the American people, who were pointing the way out of this centuries-old morass — individual liberty, free markets, private property, and a constitutionally limited-government republic.
Now, that’s not to say that the period 1890–1910 was a perfectly pure libertarian society. We all know that it wasn’t. For example, there were government-business partnerships — what today we would call “crony capitalism” — by which the federal government provided special privileges, subsidies, and benefits to big corporations. There were land grants to the railroads. There were some protective tariffs. There were federal canals and state highways. There was the power of eminent domain. There was governmental delivery of mail. There were economic regulations at the state and local level. Women were not allowed to vote and lacked full legal rights. There was the Mexican War, which enabled the United States to steal the entire northern half of a foreign country. There were the military conquests of the Indians as part of “manifest destiny.”
Nonetheless, the fact remains: Notwithstanding various violations of libertarian principles, that period of time — 1880–1910 — remains unique in history. Not only did Americans experience the widest ambit of liberty ever, they also experienced the most dynamic and growing economic prosperity in history, one that brought into existence the most charitable nation in history.
Flight from freedom
Obviously, that is not the type of society in which Americans live today. Modern-day Americans live in a society that is characterized by a massive income tax, an IRS, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, subsidies, irredeemable paper money, a regulated and centrally planned economic system, trade restrictions and protectionism, subsidies and political privileges, immigration controls, hundreds of welfare and regulatory federal agencies and departments, restrictions on gun ownership, and a massive and ever-growing national-security establishment consisting of a permanent military establishment, the Pentagon, the CIA, the NSA, foreign military bases, foreign aid, and foreign interventionism.
Americans now also live under a governmental system in which the president, the Pentagon, and the CIA wield the omnipotent power to assassinate them or take them into custody, torture them, incarcerate them indefinitely as “terrorists,” and execute them, all without due process of law or trial by jury. The federal government also wields the power to secretly spy on Americans and keep secret files on their activities, all in the name of keeping them safe.
What happened? What brought about this fundamental change in America’s governing system and way of life? Why are things so different now than they were in the period from 1880 to 1910?
The answer lies in a conflict of visions and a war of ideas that began taking place in the late 1800s, continued into the early 1900s, and ultimately culminated in the 1930s and 1940s. It was a battle between those who wanted to continue expanding on the principles of liberty, free markets, and a constitutionally limited-government republic and those who wished to replace that way of life with one based on socialism, interventionism, and imperialism.
There was nothing inevitable about the outcome. It was simply a matter of which philosophy and which set of ideas would prevail. On the one side were arrayed those who were defending the ideas of economic liberty, free enterprise, free markets, private property, and limited government. On the other side were arrayed those who were defending the opposite.
Those who were arguing for the opposite obviously had an enormously difficult task. They had to convince their fellow Americans to abandon a system that had produced a unique way of life in history, one that had brought Americans ever-growing liberty and prosperity. Nonetheless, no matter how difficult the challenge, those who were advocating socialism, interventionism, and imperial- ism steadfastly persevered and ultimately succeeded in moving the United States in their direction.
Some of the seeds for change were planted during that free and prosperous 30-year period of time. For example, in 1890 the Sherman Anti-Trust Act was enacted, which prohibited companies from merging and combining with other companies. The law was a direct violation of the principles of private property and economic liberty. Why shouldn’t private owners do whatever they wanted with their own resources and companies? The statists argued that the needs of “society” predominated over the wishes of private owners.
In 1882, Congress enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act, the very first immigration-control law, one that was based on law, one whose enactment was partially motivated by racial prejudice.
In the late 1800s, states began enacting Jim Crow laws, which entailed mandatory segregation as well as restrictions on the ability of blacks to freely compete against whites in the provision of goods and services.
In 1889, the Department of Agriculture was elevated to a cabinet position.
In 1898, the U.S. government entered into the Spanish-American War, which then led to the U.S. government’s forcible acquisition of the Philippines, Cuba, Guam, and Puerto Rico as imperialist colonies.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, some states began adopting income taxation, minimum-wage laws, maximum-hours legislation, occupational-licensure laws, government-established monopolies, and other economic controls and regulations.
In 1903, the departments of Commerce and Labor were called into existence.
The intellectual, philosophical, and political battle continued into the 20th century. At the heart of the battle was the critically important question: What should be the role of government in American society?
Ultimately, the socialists, interventionists, and imperialists prevailed. The Sixteenth Amendment and the establishment of the Federal Reserve System in 1913. U.S. interventionism in World War I. The adoption of Social Security and a welfare state, the expansion of immigration controls, the imposition of a regulated economy, protectionist trade measures, the rejection of the gold standard, and the adoption of a paper-money standard in the 1930s. U.S. interventionism in World War II, leading to the conversion of the federal government to a national-security state. The Cold War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the CIA, the NSA, foreign interventionism, foreign aid, foreign alliances, and defense treaties. Of course, ever-growing spending, debt, and inflation to pay for the ever-growing welfare state and warfare state.
The wrong stuff
Why will Trump not make America great again? Because like conservatives and like American progressives, he is a firm and ardent believer in the welfare-warfare state way of life. What he just doesn’t get is that it is precisely that way of life that is the root cause of America’s descent into tyranny and economic morass.
Trump and his supporters are convinced that he’s going to be the president who finally, once and for all, makes the welfare-warfare state work. He’s going to preserve Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the welfare state. He’s going to expand immigration controls and trade restrictions. He’s going to strengthen governmental controls on economic activity. He’s going to raise the overall level of taxation on the American people. In the process, Trump is going to try to exhort, bully, order, dictate, and direct people toward freedom and prosperity.
It is not going to work. The welfare-warfare state, which is based on a combination of socialism, interventionism, and imperialism, is an inherently defective paradigm. As the root cause of impoverishment and loss of liberty, it is inherently incapable of producing freedom and economic prosperity. No one, including Donald Trump, can make something that is inherently defective work.
Ever since I founded The Future of Freedom Foundation 27 years ago, I have heard people say that the problem was that America just wasn’t electing the right people to public office. During every election cycle, there have been those who have called for throwing the rascals out of Congress and replacing them with good people. The same with respect to the president.
However, every time that new people have been elected to Congress or to the presidency, the same lament about the need to elect better people to public office has followed.
Today, most Americans are extremely dissatisfied with the state of affairs in America. The problem, however, is that they fail to see that the problem is a structural one, not one that involves getting better people elected to office. Unless the structure itself is changed, it doesn’t matter who is elected to Congress or to the presidency. If the structure remains the same, Americans will remain mired in an increasing loss of liberty and economic despair no matter who is elected to Congress or who is elected president.
Our American ancestors pointed the way to what is needed to restore America’s greatness: a way of life based on individual liberty, free markets, free enterprise, and a constitutionally limited-government republic. That necessarily means: the repeal of the federal income tax and the abolition of the IRS; a separation of economy and state, much as our ancestors separated church and state, which would mean no more price controls, minimum-wage laws, drug laws, subsidies and political privileges, or other economic regulations; a separation of charity and state, which would mean no more Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare, or any other welfare-state program; a dismantling of the entire Cold War-era national-security establishment, including the Pentagon, the military-industrial complex, the CIA, and the NSA, and an end to foreign military bases, foreign aid, and foreign interventionism; a separation of school and state, which would mean a total free market in education, one in which the state would play no role whatsoever. In other words, libertarianism.
Is such an idea utopian, as statists sometimes suggest? Of course not. Utopia connotes a problem-free world, something that is obviously impossible to attain. The American people who lived from 1880 to 1910 proved that it is entirely possible to have a society based on libertarian principles.
The mistake Americans made was in not expanding on those principles — for example by ending the corporatism that violated America’s free-enterprise system. If they had moved in that direction, rather than moving in the opposite direction, just try to imagine the enormous standard of living and degree of freedom that Americans would be experiencing today.
Consider all the money that has been taken from Americans through taxation and monetary debasement for the past 100 years. Imagine that all that money had remained in private hands and gone into productive capital. Imagine that the international borders had been open to the free movements of goods, services, and people. Imagine that economic enterprise had been totally free of government regulation, control, and interference. Imagine that there had been no involvement in foreign wars and no conversion to a national-security state. Imagine that there had been no paper money and monetary debasement. Imagine all that, and then imagine the unbelievable surge in the standard of living that would have occurred.
Donald Trump, like all other modern-day U.S. presidents, will fail to make America great again because he is committed to maintaining the structure that prevents America from becoming great again. Only by dismantling that structure — the welfare-warfare-state structure — and embracing a way of life based on individual liberty, free enterprise, free markets, private property, voluntary charity, and a constitutionally limited-government republic to our land can America be restored to greatness.
This article was originally published in the April 2017 edition of Future of Freedom.