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Except for blacks. And women. And natives. And … uh, never mind.

April 13, 2010, 8:58 am

The new round of arguments by libertarians that American liberty was at a high-water mark in 1880

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.

—has been ably met by the appropriate choruses of “are you high?’ Because you’re leaving out African Americans, and women, and whole classes of people who didn’t enjoy this vaunted liberty.

But this is a tedious and silly argument even if we stick to looking at honky men.

(1) In 1880, you had a protective tariff, a.k.a. industrial policy, a.k.a. machinery for corruption by taking the voters’ money, such that tariff duties collected ran to about thirty percent of the value of imports (as opposed to around 2 percent today). It’s worth noting that the argument for an income tax was not just to punish the rich for making so much money; it was to replace the tariff as a source of federal revenue.

(2) In 1880, you had powerful governments willing to break strikes and extensively regulate business practices; these governments make up a strange class of entities that in this country we know as states and their powers are visible in the 1873 Slaughterhouse cases, as elsewhere.

(3) In 1880 you had restrictions on immigration under the Page Act of 1875, keeping out convicts and prostitutes (hey, if you’re going to be a libertarian) and also creating a permitting system for Chinese and Japanese immigrants. This latter provision was prelude to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Noting that leads finally to

(4) Picking 1880 is a bit of a con anyway; by 1882 you do have the Chinese Exclusion Act, and as recently as 1877 you still had the remnants of something resembling an activist government working on behalf of civil rights in the South.

So even if you grant all the wacky, racist, sexist premises here, and discount items 1-3 above, you’re still looking at a five-year anomaly 1877-1882, rather than the normal way things used to be.

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