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Reason Foundation

Up from Serfdom

How to restore lost liberties while building on the positive strides America has made since 1776

Jacob Hornberger
April 9, 2010

Editor's Note: On April 6, Reason published David Boaz's "Up From Slavery: There's no such thing as a golden age of lost liberty," which argued that libertarians who omit or minimize slavery and other past depredations against individuals from their discussions of American history cannot fully appreciate increases in liberty and freedom we enjoy now. One of the writers he criticized was Jacob G. Hornberger, founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. Reason invited Hornberger to comment and we're happy to continue the discussion by running his response.

In his article “Up from Slavery,” David Boaz points out that in my article “Liberal Delusions about Freedom” I failed to except American slavery from my reference to the freedom enjoyed by early Americans.  

His point is valid and well taken. In the past, I have always made a point of mentioning that tragic exception when discussing the history of American freedom. (See, for example, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

This time, however, I made a mistake and neglected to include the slavery exception in my article and then failed to catch the omission before the article went to press for The Future of Freedom Foundation’s journal, Freedom Daily.  

Boaz raises another point that needs addressing: He attempts to diminish the significance of what our American forebears achieved.

It is true that the principles of liberty on which our ancestors founded the U.S. government were not applied to everyone, especially slaves; and there were, of course, other exceptions and infringements on freedom, such as tariffs and denying women the right to vote.

But should those exceptions and infringements prevent us from appreciating and honoring the fact that our ancestors brought into existence the freest, most prosperous, and most charitable society in history?

I don’t think so. I believe that it is impossible to overstate the significance of what our American ancestors accomplished in terms of a free society.

Let’s consider, say, the year 1880. 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. There were few federal economic regulations and regulatory agencies. No Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, bailouts, or so-called stimulus plans. No IRS. No Departments of Education, Energy, Agriculture, Commerce, and Labor. No EPA and OSHA. No Federal Reserve. No drug laws. Few systems of public schooling. No immigration controls. No federal minimum-wage laws or price controls. A monetary system based on gold and silver coins rather than paper money. No slavery. No CIA. No FBI. No torture or cruel or unusual punishments. No renditions. No overseas military empire. No military-industrial complex.

As a libertarian, as far as I’m concerned, that’s a society that is pretty darned golden.

Boaz entitled his article “Up from Slavery,” which raises the question: How do we libertarians living today free ourselves from the serfdom of the welfare/warfare/regulatory state under which we live? That is, how do we build on the magnificent, albeit far from perfect, achievement of our ancestors?

That, of course, raises the important issue of methodology.

I have long maintained that the key to our success lies in strict adherence to libertarian principles. Nothing worse can befall a good cause than for its supporters to compromise its principles.

Thus, ever since our inception some 20 years ago, The Future of Freedom Foundation has focused not on proposals designed to reform, modify, improve, or reduce the welfare state, regulatory state, and warfare state but instead on raising people’s vision to a much higher level, one that focuses on the libertarian principles of a free society and a constitutional republic—e.g., the separation of economy and the state, of health care and the state, and of education and the state; the right to keep and bear arms; the protection of civil liberties; and the restoration of a noninterventionist foreign policy.

Notwithstanding slavery and other violations of liberty, our American ancestors brought into existence the freest society in history. The question is: How do we restore the lost liberties, especially economic liberty, that characterized their society while retaining and building upon the positive strides that have been made since then, such as in the area of civil rights, so that all aspects of liberty are enjoyed by everyone? By hewing to our principles, libertarians have the opportunity to use what our ancestors accomplished as a foundation for leading the world to the highest reaches of freedom ever seen by man.

Jacob Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. This column first appeared at Reason.com.



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