A Lesson from 19th-Century Americans
by Jacob G. Hornberger
Ever since I founded The Future of Freedom Foundation 25 years ago, people have periodically said to me things like: “Jacob, FFF’s uncompromising approach to libertarianism sounds good but it just isn’t practical. Ideals are fine but since they are impossible to achieve, it’s a waste of time to be advocating them. Better to spend your time advocating what is possible and what people will accept, which means accepting and reforming our welfare-warfare state way of life.”
But that criticism ignores an important point: Many of the uncompromising principles of libertarianism that we advocate here at FFF were actually adopted by our American ancestors in the 19th century. They proved that it is entirely possible to have a society in which there was no welfare-warfare state.
Let me first make something clear: I am not suggesting that 19th-century America was a pure libertarian paradise. We all know that it wasn’t. There was vast corporatism — i.e., partnerships between big business and the federal government. There were tariffs — very high ones. There were land grants to the railroads. There were government-built canals. There was a concocted war to steal the entire northern half of Mexico. There was the Sherman Antitrust Act. There were economic regulations at the state and local level. Women were denied the right to vote. Indeed, there was slavery for over half the century.
That 19th-century America wasn’t a pure libertarian society is not the point, however. The point is that 19th-century Americans lived without most of the statist programs that we associate with the modern-day welfare-warfare state. Our American ancestors proved that a society can survive and prosper without the welfare-warfare programs that we here at FFF advocate dismantling, not reforming.
Consider what constitutes the greatest part of the welfare-warfare state: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, farm subsidies, education grants, foreign aid, drug laws, immigration controls, public (i.e., government) schooling, income taxation, IRS, economic regulations, Federal Reserve, FDIC, fiat money, CIA, DEA, NSA, gun control, secret surveillance, military industrial complex, overseas military bases, torture, foreign interventionism, and a vast standing army.
As longtime supporters of FFF know, we have long advocated dismantling these programs rather than “reforming” them or “reining them in.”
Critics have suggested that such a goal is “pie in the sky” — that no society could or would ever do such a thing.
Really? But the fact is that our American ancestors did do it! They lived in a society that had none of those things! And for more than 100 years!
Click on this link. It is an A-Z index of federal departments and agencies today. Without studying them carefully, I’d bet that at least 99 percent of them did not exist in 19th-century America. Our American ancestors proved that having a society without such departments and agencies is possible. How can an idea be “pie in the sky” when it’s already been proven to work?
Sometimes people say to me that the abolition of all these welfare-warfare state programs, departments, and agencies would be equivalent to anarchy. But doesn’t anarchy mean the absence of government? The federal government existed continuously throughout the 19th century, proving that a society can live without all those welfare-warfare state programs, departments, and agencies and still maintain a government whose powers are few and extremely limited.
The problem is that modern-day Americans have become so accustomed to and so dependent on the welfare-warfare state apparatus that was attached onto our original governmental structure (without a constitutional amendment, I might add) that the thought of living without it seems to them to be anarchy. Actually, it would simply be a limited-government republic.
One of the most fascinating aspects of these two, opposite ways of life involves the concept of freedom.
19th-century Americans believed that they were free and modern-day Americans believe they are free.
Obviously they can’t both be right given that our 19th-century ancestors lived in a society without a welfare-warfare state and modern-day Americans live in a society with a gigantic welfare-warfare state.
The truth is that it was our ancestors who were free and today’s Americans who are not free.
The reason modern-day Americans think they’re free is that they have been indoctrinated into believing that Americans have always lived under the same type of system — i.e., a welfare-warfare state — and that living under a welfare-warfare state constitutes freedom. The plight of modern-day Americans can be summed up with the words of Johann von Goethe: None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.
What Americans should do today is achieve what our American ancestors achieved by dismantling the welfare-warfare state apparatus under which we live and then go beyond what they accomplished by ending the corporatism, the grants, the regulations, and other compromises of liberty that existed in 19th-century America.
Americans have the opportunity to lead the world out of the statist morass in which it is mired. Freedom, free markets, and a limited-government republic are our heritage. We should be embracing pure libertarian principles rather than spending our time figuring out ways to reform or refine the welfare-warfare state way life that has proven to be so destructive to our liberty and our prosperity.