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Jul 4, 2005 11:10 pm

Celebrating Our Nonexistent Freedom

[cross-posted at Austro-Athenian Empire]

In 1852, Frederick Douglass famously asked: what, to the slave, is the Fourth of July?

In the same spirit, we can ask today: what, to the libertarian, is the Fourth of July?

For my answer, see once again my 2003 Fourth of July editorial.

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Anthony Gregory - 7/5/2005

My Independence Day article was optimistic, and advanced the view that the American Revolution became increasingly realized throughout the 19th century, only to reverse during the 20th. Now I see people increasingly appearing to see themselves as outside and independent from the State. The post-9/11 wartime insanity has by itself given us the worst years for liberty in decades -- all the reason that I consider war the most important issue -- but I am still hopeful for the future.

Kenneth R Gregg - 7/5/2005

Of course! I was mulling over some of the "Mother Earth" essays recently when I did a piece for Goldman's b-day. She, de Cleyre and Parsons (Lucy, that is) were wonderful wordsmiths. Voltairine's essay is great--and a good example of anarchist thinking about the DofI.

It would not be difficult to put together a collection of various Declarations of Independence framed by the DofI. I've read many of them, as I'm sure you have as well.

Just a thought--7/4 and out!
Just Ken

Roderick T. Long - 7/5/2005

I should add that I don't, of course, share de Cleyre's apparent view that economic interdependence per se, apart from the question of government involvement, is a bad thing. But the piece in general is dandy.

Roderick T. Long - 7/5/2005

This seems a good context in which to link to Voltairine de Cleyre's wonderful 1908 reflections on the principles of '76.

Roderick T. Long - 7/5/2005

Heck, I think I'm generally more optimistic than most of the libertarians I know. (Bob Higgs keeps saying our cause is hopeless, for example; though he fights the good fight nonetheless. Whereas I think the death clock has been ticking for the state ever since Al Gore imprudently invented the Internet.) But the fatuous posturing of our leaders on the 4th of July, as though their policies had some organic connection with thye Declaration of Independence, makes me grumpy.

Kenneth R Gregg - 7/5/2005

Charles said: "But it does mean that on a day specifically devoted to the Declaration that eloquently put forward those lost principles, there is plenty of reason to take a mournful pause."

And perhaps a hopeful pause as well. The Declaration of Independence (DofI) is a polestar pointing in the right direction. It has not been completed; perhaps it will never be fully completed within our lifetime and not in our own country. But the principles and strategy elicited are ones that are right and true.

There is much more in DofI which should give us pause for reflection on our own possibilities. Take, for example, the curious phrasing from the second paragraph:

"But when a Long Train of Abuses and Usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a Design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their Duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future Security."

If we consider each sentence within the first two paragraphs for their implications, it can be seen how modern the DofI becomes. This sentence moves us further from merely seeking to "institute new Government," to "new Guards." Does this take us to anarchism? There is certainly an element of this in the underlying principles of both the American Revolution and the DofI.

When one looks into the American Revolution, with its multi-cultural elements, black (and other) sailors humiliating British authorities, Scotch-Irish in the Western lands, and farmers in Western Massachusetts, the same that brought upon Shay's Rebellion, and who would later help touch off the Whiskey Rebellion throughout the new Republic against the Federal Government--well nigh the first American civil war, there were radical elements which our Founding Fathers were afraid of, nearly as much as they feared and hated the British! Were these anarchists? Not all but, yep, they were there.

These were people who looked at Jefferson as a middle of the roader, someone who, if not watched, would give his allegiance not to liberty, but to the burgeoning state. But he was the main author of the DofI, so they were willing to give him a chance. And they liked the "Principles of '98."

Did they like the DofI? Yep. Did they understand the DofI?

You Betcha!

Just a thought.
Just Ken

Tom G Palmer - 7/5/2005

Nonetheless, those principles are substantially realized today, more so than when they were articulated and arguably more so than elsewhere in the world. Why is that not also something to celebrate? Why be so dour? Dour people tend to lose, you know. Perhaps you have a moral obligation to be optimistic.

Roderick T. Long - 7/5/2005

I agree with both Tom and Charles that there is more freedom on average today than in 1776. That's why I spoke of the principles of '76, not the policies of '76. For me the point of comparison is not USA 2005 vs. USA 1776, but USA 2005 vs. the USA 2005 we would have had if the USA had stuck consistently to those principles.

The US was (to my knowledge) the first nation ever to be founded on explicitly libertarian principles. There was, of course, an enormous gap between those principles and existing sociopolitical conditions. But the principles were so explicit that, had the US kept faith with them, they would have had to revise their existing policies more and more to square with the principles.

And of course this in many ways is just what did happen; it's no coincidence, for example, that the Seneca Falls Declaration borrowed the language of 1776 to defend women's rights in 1848.

But it's also true that by the mid-19th-century the officially reigning political ideologies (in both north and south, incidentally) no longer bore any resemblance to the principles of '76. Given the tension between principle and practice, they chose, all too often, to abandon the principle.

Tom G Palmer - 7/5/2005

I have no quarrel with the formulation above. It seems eminently reasonable. I merely wanted to point out that although the ideals may have less resonance today among intellectuals than they did then (although I'm not entirely sure about that; it may be that many of the principles are simply taken for granted), they are probably more generally realized today than they were then, and the greater extent of the realization of those ideals is something that should please us.

All in all, despite some bad years, I'm an optimist about the prospects for liberty. The objective evidence is too strongly in favor of it. What has happened over the last few years tends to weigh more heavily on us than what has happened over the decades preceding, and bad news is generally more memorable than good news, which is why lots of libertarians seem so depressed so much of the time. But they shouldn't be. Over the past fifty years, forty years, thirty years, twenty years, even ten years, the general trend has been positive, especially so when we look out beyond the U.S. to the rest of the world, notably to the former Communist bloc and to Asia.

Charles Johnson - 7/5/2005

"... do you seriously think that we enjoy less freedom today than did the people of 1776, a substantial percentage of whom were in chains? The principles of 1776 are the same today as they were then, but in many, many ways they are realized to a far greater extent today than they were then."

Tom, this is an important point that needs to be stressed. Given the absolute subjection of (1) most Black people and (2) all women under government-backed private tyranny in the 18th and 19th century, and the breathtaking gains that struggles for the emancipation of both have made (bear in mind that this represents well over 50% of the population of the country) it probably is the case that the freedom enjoyed by the average person in America is much higher than it was in 1776, and it is certainly case that the worst case that could be faced is today far, far milder than it once was.

That said, though, there are lots of good reasons for Roderick to point out the abandonment of the principles of '76 over time and the political consequences of that abandonment. It may very well be true that the average case and the worst case are better than they used to be; but it's also the case that the best case (the amount of freedom enjoyed by those whose free citizenship was recognized and socially protected) has gotten substantially worse. That doesn't mean that the vast decline in freedom for those recognized as free citizens is more important than, or should make us neglect, the immense increase in freedom for those who were once not recognized as free citizens but who now are. But it does mean that on a day specifically devoted to the Declaration that eloquently put forward those lost principles, there is plenty of reason to take a mournful pause.

Tom G Palmer - 7/4/2005

You're a smart guy and all, Rod, but do you seriously think that we enjoy less freedom today than did the people of 1776, a substantial percentage of whom were in chains? The principles of 1776 are the same today as they were then, but in many, many ways they are realized to a far greater extent today than they were then. The actual experience of most people (including those who were not in chains) was rather far from the ideal set out in the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution.

There have been ups and downs during the intervening years, but it seems overall that the last 30 years have been an up period. The last few have been rather terrible, but I really don't think that you should let that lead you to see an overall decline from 1776 to now in the liberty experienced by the bulk of the people who inhabit the USA.