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David Boaz and Will Wilkinson vs. the Crazed 1880s-Loving Libertarians of Doom

John Holbo writes about Jacob Hornberger, Arnold Kling, and company:

Adventures in Libertarian Blind Spots: Last week David Boaz had a post/article.... Jacob Hornberger... hearkens to the good old days of the 80’s – 1880’s, that is: "Let’s consider, say, the year 1880... a society in which people were free to keep everything they earned... free to decide what to do with their own money... free to engage in occupations... 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.... As a libertarian, as far as I’m concerned, that’s a society that is pretty darned golden."

To which obvious mistake Will Wilkinson made the obvious correction: "Nope. Sorry... the female half of the population.... Slavery was gone in 1880, but systematic state-enforced racial apartheid was going strong... the government’s campaign of murder, theft, and segregation against native populations continued.... 1880’s America was a society in which well more than half the population was systematically and often brutally denied basic liberty rights. If that’s golden, I’d hate to see bronze."

Arnold Kling responded, in defense of Hornberger, making the same damn obvious mistake... a third time.... "[I]t’s a swindle to suggest that if we had a libertarian polity we would be back in the days of Jim Crow or women’s subservience. Just as it is a swindle to suggest that if we had a libertarian polity we would be back to using outhouses and having our teeth pulled without anesthetic." To which Will [Wilkinson] makes the obvious rejoinder. The notion that the way things would be in an ideal libertarian polity constitutes some sort of defense of how things actually were in 1880 is... well, not to be made sense of. As Will put it in the earlier post: “restoration is a conservative project and liberty is a fundamentally progressive cause.”

Obviously Kling and Hornberger could not have done a better job of proving Boaz’s original point. It’s tempting to accuse them of just not caring about liberty for anyone except white men. How else could they miss this stuff? But I doubt that’s it... the most probable explanation of this truly bizarre blind spot... is a sort of strange entrapment.... If the 20th Century was the Road To Serfdom, it can hardly have been a long march to increased freedom. If progressives and liberals are the authoritarian enemy, it can hardly be that their victories have, on the whole, made us more free. Since the 20th Century was when the bad stuff really got going, how can it NOT be appropriate to be thoroughly nostalgic for the 1880’s as a Lost Golden Age? I guess I’ll leave it at that... basic intellectual hygiene, surely.

UPDATE: Jacob T. Levy writes:

There’s a basic American understanding of history that says: the Founding created The Freest Society Known To Man, and then adds in bracketed footnotes “except for some problems which were real problems but were destined to work themselves out as the logic of liberty unfolded”... the U.S. had a telos of freedom that counted in its favor even when there was a lot of unfreedom about... slavery is deeply discounted, Jim Crow is deeply discounted, and comparisons between 18th/19th c US and either contemporaneous peer societies or the modern era are deeply screwed up.... The Progressive Era or the shift from the Lochner court to the New Deal court becomes a breaking point in the history of freedom. It no longer seems that the idea working itself out is a libera[tarian] idea. And so you can find even libertarians like Hornberger and Kling--who, as Boaz says in his article, are not part of the Confederacy-worshipping cult of pseudo-libertarians--unable to really grasp what Boaz and Wilkinson are on about.

Me, I don't see the difference between "strange sort of entrapment... progressive and liberals are the authoritarian enemy" and "just not caring about liberty for anyone except white men." John Stuart Mill certainly did not see the 1880s as any sort of a golden age, and progressives and liberals are "the authoritarian enemy" if and only if you "just don't care about liberty for anyone except white men." Trying to put daylight between those two positions--which John Holbo is trying to do--seems to me to be as fruitless a task as trying to establish that the 1880s were a golden age for liberty.

It seems to me that the right analogy to draw is between Arnold Kling, Jacob Hornberger, and company--claiming that 1880s America's political-economic order was preferable to the present--and people like the English Marxist E.P. Thompson, maintaining in 1973 that the Soviet Union was still the Hope of Humanity and the Wave of the Future:

E.P. Thompson: "Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski": It is impossible at any given moment of history to compare contemporary societies because what must be taken into account is not only the formal status quo but the potentiail; not only what they appear to be but what they are capable of becoming.... [E]ven if we judge from today's standpoint... it is possible to argue that Soviet society... is more advanced... through the [development of] the full democratic process... state ownership [could] become ownership in common and... planning... cease to be authoritarian manipulation and... become self activity.... To be a utopian, in 1973, is to be written off... as a romantic and a fool.... But... to lose faith in man's reason and in his capacity to act as a moral agent is to disarm him.... it remains for men to act and choose.... [My] criticisms of socialist reality have always been made in socialist journals.... [N]o matter how hideous the alternative may seem, no word of mine will wittingly be added to the comforts of that old bitch gone in the teeth, consumer capitalism.... I know that that beast is not changed: it is held in the fragile but well-tempered chains of our own watchfulness and actions...

I think it is fair to say that E.P. Thompson, in 1973, did not really care about the victims of GULAGs and terror-famines. He did not really see them. They were not really real to him--the actual people were much less really real to him than the ideological vision. The victims of the GULAGs and the terror-famines were hidden, for him, behind the shining blaze of cultish ideology.

And so I think that it is fair, today, to say that Kling, Hornberger, and company do not really care about women and African-Americans. They do not really see them. They are not really real to them--the actual people are much less real to them than the ideological vision. Women and African-Americans are hidden, for them, behind the shining blaze of cultish ideology.

Same disease. Same judgment.