Positive Liberty

There’s an interesting, if a bit baroque to folks outside the libertarian cult, debate taking place as to whether or not it makes sense to regard some point in the 19th Century United States as a golden age of human freedom. Will Wilkinson argues no in a series of good posts on the subject. Still, it strikes me that even Wilkinson’s mode of argument winds up conceding far too much to the nostalgia party.

The deepest problem with lost age of liberty thinking is highlighted in some of Bruce Bartlett’s comments on economic growth:

On the other, I think we tend to underappreciate the ways in which technology frees us. The blessings of things like cellphones, PDAs and the Internet compensate for an enormous amount of waste and inefficiency elsewhere in society and the economy. To the extent that technology boosts productivity, it makes the burden of government more bearable. Another thing we tend to forget is the great benefit of the wealth that almost all Americans have today. Not that many years ago, people had to spend an enormous percentage of their waking hours simply acquiring and preparing food. Now, even among poor households, obtaining adequate food is a minor concern. Indeed, obesity is a far bigger problem among the poor than malnutrition. The freedom to do things other than grow crops, raise livestock and cook on a wood stove is not one to be underestimated.

This is the rub. Even if you want to completely leave race and gender issues out of the picture, to say that the average adult white male in 1880 had more economic freedom than does the average adult white male in 2010 you need to completely ignore the beneficial results of 130 years of economic growth and technological progress. After all, very poor people in 2010 probably pay little if any in net taxation but nobody thinks they’re better off than highly-taxed NBA stars. The vast and unprecedented freedom enjoyed by 21st century Americans is largely encapsulated in the fact that a 21st century American can easily call his dad in New York or fly to Miami or turn on the air conditioning or buy blueberries year round or drive across town. In 1880, people didn’t have electrical lights or flush toilets.


There’s obviously an important debate about economic policy to be had. Perhaps we’ve grown richer despite the growth in the size of government and would be richer and freer still if we hadn’t established a welfare state. But that’s a totally different argument from trying to say that in the real world people today are less free than our impoverished farm-dwelling ancestors.