07 April 2010

Cast off your single-dimensional analysis

Reason | David Boaz | Up from Slavery: There's no such thing as a golden age of lost liberty

The Cato Institute's boilerplate description of itself used to include the line, "Since [the American] revolution, civil and economic liberties have been eroded." Until Clarence Thomas, then chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, gave a speech at Cato and pointed out to us that it didn't seem quite that way to black people.

And he was right. American public policy has changed in many ways since the American Revolution, sometimes in a libertarian direction, sometimes not.


When we look at our own country's history—contrasting 2010 with 1776 or 1910 or 1950 or whatever—the story is less clear. We suffer under a lot of regulations and restrictions that our ancestors didn’t face.

But in 1776 black Americans were held in chattel slavery, and married women had no legal existence except as agents of their husbands. In 1910 and even 1950, blacks still suffered under the legal bonds of Jim Crow—and we all faced confiscatory tax rates throughout the postwar period.
My take is that there are two orthogonal dimensions on which to evaluate liberty: what people are free to do, and who is free to do it. I think, as a general trend, the slate of freedoms available to Americans has been decreasing, but what is available has been offered to a larger proportion of the population.

I am certainly in favor of the latter half of that trend, and would like to see it continue with respect to homosexuals, foreigners, youth and others. I would like to see the former half of the trend reverse course with all possible alacrity. Most immediately though I would like to see people on both sides of this debate acknowledge that these are two separate questions and to stop treating freedom as if it is a scalar quantity.


  1. *cheers wildly*

    Agreed. My usual description breaks down as (a) what rights does a person have, and (b) who counts as a person.

    This is, of course, the exact place where abortion debaters fall flat on their collective faces (in general).

  2. "(a) what rights does a person have, and (b) who counts as a person"

    Very succinctly put. I may have to use that.