“Freedom is living without government coercion. So when a politician talks about freedom for this group or that, ask yourself whether he is advocating more government action or less.” - Ron Paul, ignorant or mendacious?
Among the more cringe-worthy aspects of the contemporary American Right is its preferred ahistorical narrative of lost liberty. Once, goes such thinking, before the income tax and the IRS, before welfare, the FBI, and Social Security, before occupational licensing, and before rent control, there was freedom; noble, independent, Jeffersonian freedom. It wasn’t perfect, of course, with the whole slavery unpleasantness marring the American experiment, but at least most Americans - or rather, white, male, heterosexual, protestant Americans - weren’t on the Road to Serfdom. Liberty nostalgia is most pervasive among the libertarian set but not exclusive to it; presumably the guys who dress up to look and smell like the Founding generation aren’t doing so to make a fashion statement, but to make a point about reclaiming Revolutionary freedoms supposedly lost to the maws of growing government.
More sophisticated advocates of small-government reject the most extreme version of this narrative, recognizing that low tax rates could never make up for the existence of slavery, Jim Crow, and coverture laws. They understand the United States is more free today than it’s ever been in the past. What’s sometimes missing is the recognition that an empowered federal government is what made these advances in freedom possible.
Coercion is at the heart of all wars, and the suspension of habeas corpus, military conscription, and introduction of the first US income tax, meant the Civil War would be no different, but it’s impossible to disassociate these facts from the War’s aims and consequences: the salvation of a Union free from slavery. States’ rights and property rights were attentuated at the barrel of a gun - federal guns! federal guns purchased with tax increases and the printing of greenbacks! federal guns held by conscriped soldiers! - but to see this as anything but an expansion of liberty is to be a special kind of blind. The federal government grew more muscular and the nation became more free.
A century after Appomatox, an empowered central government again coincided with an expansion of liberty. The Civil Rights Acts outlawed state-sanctioned and enforced racial discrimination, trampling on community control. The laws went further: they regulated private behavior, with Title II of the1964 Civil Rights Act forbidding discrimination in ”public” accomodations and Title VII banning discrimination based on race in the terms and conditions of employment. Again, “more government action” meant more freedom.
None of this is to say that every new law, regulation, and agency spending plan is a strike against tyranny. Most of what the federal government does has little to do with enforcing civil rights laws. The justification for the rest of the welfare state has to be made separately - though it’s not difficult to justify in freedom-enhancing terms, either. The important point is that we should be wary of those who make blanket statements about the coincidence of government power and personal freedom. Sometimes, Washington is the oppressor. And some times, it’s the guardian of liberty.
(Image: Coca-Cola machine labelled “whites only”)
Gosh, I was familiar with white-only fountains, toilets, lunch counters, etc., but Coke machines?? I am having trouble actually reading Ilya’s post because my eyes keep wandering back to that bloody Coke machine.