A bit of background: Reason recently published a piece by David Boaz, who pointed out that the Libertarian nostalgia for the Grand Old Days of the Republic Past are frequently viewed through a special brand of rose-colored glasses that prevent you from seeing black people who where enslaved for most of that period. Fine, responds Hornberger: so maybe the United States wasn't the very image of free-market perfection before 1865. But do you know what was the very spirit an image of Libertarian Nirvana, or as he puts it, "a society that is pretty darned golden"? 1880!
That's right, folks, you heard it: for the freewheeling free-marketeer, 1880 was the year America reached its pinnacle of freedom, liberty and greatness. Hornberger explains how: "Here was a society in which people were free to keep everything they earned, because there was no income tax. They were also free to decide what to do with their own money — spend it, save it, invest it, donate it, or whatever. People were generally free to engage in occupations and professions without a license or permit...No IRS. No Departments of Education, Energy, Agriculture, Commerce, and Labor. No EPA and OSHA...Few systems of public schooling...No federal minimum-wage laws or price controls...No slavery....No torture or cruel or unusual punishments...No overseas military empire. No military-industrial complex."
Now, of course, just on the fact of it, this is complete nonsense. It paints a typically Libertarian portrait of the world as a wonderful place if you happen to be one of the lucky rich; it's hard to imagine a poor person thinking there's anything delightful about a society in which quack doctors could poison you with impunity, where only children of privilege could get an education, and where there were no repercussions whatsoever for an employer who exposed you to deadly hazards on a daily basis. The idea that America had no imperialist pretensions by 1880 is startlingly naive, and even Lincoln was warning about his era's version of the military-industrial complex before the Civil War. People were free to do whatever they wanted with their money, provided they had any; otherwise, they were free to go to the workhouse, or starve. Cruel and unusual punishment was the rule rather than the exception due to a total lack of laws protecting the accused, and lynching was still legal in much of the country. And even then, if they were unlucky enough to live in certain places, they had to pay the company rent and buy at the company store, which few people would characterize as an ideal market solution.
But leaving all that aside, assuming we have room on the side for such a giant heap of pernicious bullshit, this image of TYOOL Eighteen-Hundred-and-Eighty as the nation's most halcyon era of freedom from coercion is still a bunch of ravenous buncombe. You have to ignore a whole vast chunk of reality to think that, even through a libertarian lens, the 1880s were a golden paradise. Like:
- Free-market capitalism largely dominated by monopolistic robber barons who ruthlessly squashed competition, usually in collusion with the federal government.
- Any attempt by workers to organize could be brutally crushed, often with lethal force, in collusion with state police.
- Communicable disease rates were at an all-time high thanks to lack of public health care, government-run immunization programs.
- Lack of public education slowed growth of technology, private-sector growth.
- Conscription still legal, and rich people could hire replacements.
- Lack of professional standards and regulations meant corruption, cronyism, and shabby workmanship by everyone from doctors to architects.
- Food safety standards among the worst in history, creating public health crisis which could not be properly addressed thanks to lack of government support system or funds to operate same.
- Economically productive species were hunted to extinction or poisoned out of existence
- No federal law enforcement meant no sharing of information between authorities, so dangerous. criminals could go completely unpunished and organized crime operated with virtual impunity.
- Are you Jewish, Latino, American Indian, Chinese, or a woman? Enjoy your "freedom"!
I bet you can think of some. GO!