1776 to 1984 Part I

by John Hospers

In 1776 there was a libertarian revolution in America. It occurred under an unusual concatenation of circumstances.

Intelligent and dedicated men, educated in classics and history, imbued with ideals of freedom because they all knew tyranny first-hand, gathered together to form a new nation. The constitution they devised was unique in history.

Although it provided for protection against individuals doing violence to one another, it provided primarily for protection against the abuses of government itself. Its main aim was to check the violation of the rights of citizens by their government. The tragedy of history, they knew, was that governments, which were supposed to protect human beings from violations of their rights, turned out to be the chief violators of rights–taxing, plundering, and enslaving. It was to be a severely limited government. Bind the government with the chains of the Constitution.

When these men talked about freedom, they meant freedom from oppression, freedom from tyranny, freedom of speech and peaceable assembly, freedom of the press, freedom from confiscation of property, freedom from arbitrary search. They wanted to make the decisions governing their own lives, rather than have officials in government make those decisions for them; they wanted their actions to result from their own choices, not from the choices of others. They wanted to institute a republic (not a democracy) whereby each person would be free to do anything except interfere with the equal freedom of others. And this, after all, is the essence of libertarianism.

It was these political freedoms that they had in mind in developing an American Constitution. They did not primarily have in mind economic freedom, the freedom of production and trade. Nevertheless, with government explicitly restricted in what it could do, it was not permitted to enact measures to prevent enterprising people from improving their own lot; and this they proceeded to do with such speed that within a century America was already the wealthiest nation in the world.

This did not result from its supply of natural resources – many other nations, still mired in poverty had far more – it resulted from the release of human energy, which freedom made possible.

At the beginning, the standard of living in America, as everywhere else in the world, was unimaginably low by today’s standards. George Washington never heard of calories or vitamins, he lived on meats and starches through every winter. He never saw a glass of orange juice, his diet was so deficient that he lost his hair and teeth at an early age. His clothes were uncomfortable and unhygienic. He traveled on foot, on horseback, or in a springless carriage. His house had no toilet or bathtub, no furnace or heating stove, no light except sun and candles. What was his standard of living? It was so high that for a hundred years not one American in ten thousand aspired to it.

The Revolution began here, in living conditions hardly changed since Nebuchadnezzar reined. Two centuries ago, here in this country, men carried men on their shoulders, as coolies still do in China. American women still cooked over open fires, as women had cooked since before history began, and as more than two thirds of the women on this earth are still cooking.

In 1850 in New York state every woman made her household’s soap and candles. Oil was always in this earth; men discovered it when Babylon was young; Romans knew it and saw it burning; no European had ever made kerosene. American women still spun thread and wove cloth with the spindle and the loom that were older than Egypt. Older than Egypt, the water-wheel and the millstone still ground the grain that American farms still cut with the knife and threshed with the flail that are as old as history. In one century, three generations, human energy has created an entirely new world.

What did the new-found freedom achieve? More than two thousand years ago, the Greeks knew the principle of the steam engine, but they lacked the technology to develop it. In Germany in 1704 a steamboat ran on the river Elbe, but the boatmen saw it as a threat to their livelihood, and they burned it; the inventor died in exile. So steamboats were developed in England, but there too they were under government control. The British government controlled their manufacture, sale, and use. The controls were sufficiently severe to make the manufacture unprofitable and the future uncertain. So it fell to America to develop the steam engine, and that is where it was done. Of course, the same attempts were made in America as elsewhere. Operators of sailing ships in New England demanded government protection against this new intruder, which would soon destroy their sailing-ship industry.

But there was a difference. In America any laws to control the steamships and protect the sailing ships were unconstitutional. Soon steamships were going up and down the Hudson, then the Great Lakes, and finally the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. Then they started to cross the Atlantic. They were fast, cheap, efficient — and they captured the world’s sea trade. Soon steamships were found in virtually every world port, carrying cargo faster and more reliably than any sailing ship had ever done. The uncontrolled American economy had achieved this. The controlled British economy had produced inferior ships. England was desperate. Parliament debated the issue hotly; it was now a matter of survival. “What had created the clipper ships? Not the American Government.

Not protection, but lack of protection. What made the British marine second-rate? Safety, shelter, protection under the British Navigation Acts. In 1849 the British Government repealed the Navigation Acts and opened British ports to the world.” (Lane, The Discovery
of Freedom, p. 238.)

“American clipper ships opened the British ports to free trade. Half a century of American smuggling and rebellion and costly ineffectual blockades, seven years of war in America, and the loss of the thirteen colonies; and all the sound and sensible arguments of English liberals and economists, could not break down the British planned economy. American clipper ships did it.

“They were the final blow that brought down that whole planned structure. The great English reform movement of the 19th century consisted wholly in repealing laws. There was nothing constructive in it; it was wholly destructive. It was a destruction of Government’s
interference with human affairs, a destruction of the so-called “protection” that is actually a restriction of the exercise of natural human rights.

“In that mid-19th-century period of the greatest individual freedom that Englishmen have ever known, they made the prosperity and power of the British Empire during Victoria’s long and peaceful reign.

“And to that freedom, and prosperity, and power, and peace; the American clipper ship contributed more than any other one thing.” (Lane, The Discovery of Freedom; p. 239.)

America’s political freedom made possible its economic freedom, and the economic freedom made possible a prosperity never before seen on this earth. In the years 1870-1890 the American standard of living doubled: that is, you could obtain twice as much for a dollar in 1890
as in 1870. And even so, the material standard of living was low by today’s standards.

In 1900 there was a $40-a-month mechanic, working 10 hours a day, six days a week, tinkering nights and Sundays in the woodshed behind his little rented house — no bathtub, no running water, no light but a kerosene lamp — in a far, cheap suburb of Detroit. Even Henry Ford did not imagine that his invention would change the face of the world.

There were no cars, no highways, no radios or planes, no movies, no tall buildings, no electric lights, no toothpaste, not many toothbrushes, no soda fountains, no bottled soft drinks, no hot-dog stands, no high schools, no low shoes, no safety razors or shaving cream, no green vegetables in the winter, and none in cans, no bakers’ bread or cakes or doughnuts, no dime stores, no supermarkets. An orange was a Christmas treat, in prosperous families. There was no central heating, and only the very prosperous had bathtubs; they were tin or zinc, encased in mahogany in the homes of the very rich. The rich too, had gaslights.

But the automobile changed all of American life, and life all over the world. The era of covered wagons and horses and buggies was over. The civilization that we know today, which we all take for granted, was in progress.

But when Mrs. Lane described this progress, she issued a warning: “Do you assume that this new world cannot vanish? This world that your grandfather could not imagine and that your children now take for granted. do you think that your grandchildren must surely inherit it?

“Do you imagine that the planes cannot be grounded, the factories close, the radio be silent and the telephone dead and the cars rust and the trains stop? Do you suppose that darkness and cold and hunger and disease, that have never before been so defeated and that are now defeated only on this small part of the earth, can never again break in upon all human beings? Do not be so short-sighted.

“The energies of living individuals must constantly create these defenses of human life and these extensions of human powers.

“Relinquish the free use of individual energies, and these defenses must vanish as the Roman galleys vanished.

This whole modern world must disappear completely.

Every effect ceases when its cause no longer operates.

“This whole modern civilization, that is not yet a century old, that is not yet established on any large part of the earth, can cease to exist.

“It must cease to exist, if individual Americans forget the fact of individual liberty, and abandon the exercise of individual self-control and individual responsibility that creates this civilization.

“Young Americans who had known nothing but this new world, naturally take it for granted. They see a great deal that is wrong in it; they can very easily imagine a better world. So can any honest person. The eternal hope of humankind is in the eternal human desire to make this world better than it is.

“But when they imagine that a control can exist which can be used over individuals to make a better world according to someone’s plan, they are falling into an ancient delusion–a delusion from which most persons on this earth have never wakened.”  — Continue –>