As you know from following this pointless blog, recently, Reason Magazine recently carried an article by David Boaz, in which he expressed a healthy skepticism that there was ever a Golden Age of Freedom in America, at least by libertarian standards. He quite sensibly argued that, big government or no, the average person is far more free than at any point in the nation's past, and brings up slavery as one of the blind spots in the tendency of most free-marketeers to glorify the good old days.
It's incomprehensible why this perfectly reasonable argument would be in the least bit controversial, but the last two weeks, we have been plagued by Libertarians attempting to prove that various eras, usually ones plagued by misery and human suffering, were virtual Gardens of Free Market Eden. (I suppose this is a slight improvement on Paul Craig Roberts' argument that slaves in the antebellum South were more free than modern-day American millionaires, but as a PR move, changing your role model from Nathan Bedford Forrest to Henry Clay Frick isn't exactly a winner.) We've already discussed Jacob Hornberger's bizarre attempt to claim the 1880s as an idyllic wonderland of maximized human freedom, but along comes Professor Bryan Caplan with the even more ludicrous thesis that women were more free in the Gilded Age than they were today.
Caplan anticipates the most obvious argument -- that women in the 1880s could not vote -- and then, echoing the disembodied head of Gerald Ford in Futurama, makes the laughable claim that in terms of freedom, voting is not really an important part of the process. Spoken like a white man whose right to vote has never been questioned; spoken, further, like a Libertarian, to whom the only measure of freedom that counts is the freedom not to pay taxes. To defend this completely asinine argument, he makes the even more asinine claim that despite having no suffrage, and despite having no voice and no representation whatsoever in the halls of power, women could still engage in contracts, or, if they were married, they could essentially henpeck their husbands into doing their bidding. (I urge you to view the article, lest you think I am exaggerating or misstating his argument.) He additionally argues that women could avoid all of the oppressive social strictures of the day through a system of contractual resolutions, which, even if they were legally binding (which they wouldn't be, because property laws at the time essentially treated women like chattel) would only work if the woman in question had a huge supply of ready cash, but that's not all that surprising, since the libertarian argument assumes as a first principle that the only way you should get to enjoy freedom is if you can afford to pay for it. Completely ignoring all the other complications that plagued the lives of women in the 1880s, he concludes with the downright deranged statement that a woman of that period -- who was literally barred from doing almost everything -- was "freer than they are on Sex and the City", a show in which the women are allowed to do almost anything.
Not surprisingly, even Caplan's fellow free-marketeers found this argument laughable, especially those who happened to be (a) women or (b) even a tiny little bit historically aware. They heaped tons of shit on his moronic article, so he was obliged to issue a follow up, which began thus, providing me with a good ten minutes of hysterical laughter this morning:
There's been a lot of pushback against my claim that women were freer during the Gilded Age than they are today. I'm standing my ground.
There's been a lot of pushback against my claim that dishtowels are more intelligent than Einstein. I'm standing my ground.
Marital rape was brought up as a major objection; one of Caplan's cronies made the hilarious argument that this could be addressed via contract ("Subsection III(b): Party of the first part agrees not to rape party of the second part"), but Caplan is even more dismissive, claiming that rape is "a symbolic issue" and that marital rape, both in the 1880s and today, is basically not important enough for him to factor into his freedom calculations. Ditto spousal abuse and cohabitation: since Caplan finds little evidence that they were prosecuted by the authorities, they must not have been a big problem. Again, look at the article, if you suspect I'm making this up.
So, having dismissed voting as irrelevant, chattel marriage rights as meaningless, rape as a "symbolic issue", physical abuse and laws against cohabitation as minor issues, and lack of legal representation as unimportant compared with the female power to nag, Caplan wraps everything up in a nice little ribbon and sits back, satisfied that he has 'proven' women were at their freest during the Gilded Age. Presumably, had he bothered to address them, he would have equally glib answers for issues such as these:
- Women had no voice in the government, law enforcement or the judiciary
- Women were not allowed to serve in the military
- Women could not have abortions, and had no say in the raising of their children that the law was bound to recognize
- Women had next to no representation whatsoever in the corporate world, and they faced a stigma for working at all
- Women were subject to extreme social pressure if they deviated even a little from their traditional roles (Caplan would probably tell Edith Wharton not to be so hysterical)
And just when you think the whole thing can't get any more absurd, lost in this whole argument about women is Caplan's equally stupid claim that Jews were free in the 1880s:
However, it's hard to see why Jews belong on the "freer than they used to be" side of the ledger; 19th-century America not only had legal religious toleration, but as far as I'm aware, pogroms and other private anti-Semitic violence were virtually absent.
Caplan's as-far-as-I'm-awareness obviously does not encompass General Order #11, the numerus clausus policy, the Johnson-Reed Act, the lynching of Leo Frank, or the discrimination against Jews in housing, club membership, the professions, education, medicine, and politics that began during the Civil War and continued until the 1970s. By Caplan's standards, the lack of massive violence against Jews is the same as saying they were enjoying the same freedom as everyone else.
And this cuts to the heart of the matter: over and over again, Caplan and his cronies keep saying "by libertarian standards of freedom", by which they obviously mean "ignoring all reasonable measures of freedom other than the right to own property and not have your income taxed". Even leaving aside the question of how a political movement can have any intellectual credibility whatsoever when its leading lights argue that taxation is worse than chattel slavery, that the Gilded Age was the peak of human freedom, and that women had it better in the 1880s than they do today, who gives a shit about a party whose definition goes as far as "I should get to keep all the money I can get my hands on" and no farther? Fuck these people. If that's the extent of your 'freedom', you can have it; I'm looking for more.