Peel away the condescension in David Boaz’s column criticizing Jacob Hornberger and other libertarians for failing to talk enough about slavery and there is, under all the score-settling, a point worth arguing. While disclaiming any belief in a historical “Golden Age” of liberty — but who does believe in such a thing? — Boaz nevertheless makes clear that Americans have won important new freedoms since the Founding, in part because freedom now applies to racial and sexual minorities who were discriminated against, and worse, in the past. The government in Washington may have more departments, but Boaz argues that “the number of federal agencies” is less important a measure of freedom than is the amount of personal autonomy that everyone enjoys.
Boaz still opposes high taxes and the “alphabet soup of federal agencies, transfer programs, drug laws, and so on.” But a few questions need to be asked: aren’t high taxes worth it, if they are the price to be paid for a federal government large enough and powerful enough to guarantee individual rights to unpopular minorities? Indeed, wouldn’t it be worth paying even higher taxes and increasing the scope of the federal government even more in order to reduce discrimination still further? And if, as Boaz says at the end of his column, more police in a small town might help reduce crime, which is of course good for liberty, then should we complain about the TSA, no-fly lists, body scanners, etc.?
Presumably part of the answer to these questions is that Boaz believes rights of minorities can be sufficiently protected, and crime prevented, detected, and punished, without an indefinitely large government — the things he likes about our vast tutelary state can be preserved and made more efficient, and the things he dislikes can be discarded without damaging the framework. I’d say his vision is close to what Ed Clark proudly called “low-tax liberalism.”
If that’s what Boaz and liberaltarians like Will Wilkinson want, what about people like Jacob Hornberger? They are not indifferent to or unaware of the evils of slavery and bigotry, rather they want to purge the older American model of government, with its emphasis on states’ rights and decentralization, of its defects — racial injustice, etc. — just as Boaz wants to purge the present tutelary state of its defects. Hornberger is no more forgetful of the evils of past forms of government than Boaz is unaware of modern government’s infringements of liberty. If Hornberger doesn’t reiterate those old evils at every opportunity, it’s because in the year 2010 everyone recognizes those evils for what they are.
Which model provides a better starting point? Should a libertarian prefer a decentralized republic along broadly Jeffersonian lines, but without slavery and government discrimination (though this may mean tolerating private discrimination) or a large and centralized rights-enforcing government akin to the New Deal state but with an emphasis on personal liberties instead of redistribution? And of these two models, is one more inclined than the other to decay into its illiberal form? That is, would slavery or segregation re-emerge in a restored Jeffersonian republic more readily than redistribution and other evils would arise in a purified New Deal state?
It seems to me that the tutelary ambit of the modern progressive state logically inclines toward providing for the basic material necessities of its wards as well as for the protection of their rights, and to ensure provision of needs and protection of rights a great educational apparatus may be desirable. The freedom of the tutelary state is the freedom of a free-range dairy cow: in exchange for care and protection, you pay your taxes and may frolic in the fields as much as you please. It’s a timid sort of freedom, but it is freedom of a kind.
An alternative based on the older American tradition, by contrast, need not logically lead to a slave-state; indeed, most of the Founders recognized that slavery was inconsistent with the principles of their system. That system, even in its most benign form, would not be purely libertarian, of course: there too state schools would be desired to inculcate proper values into republican citizens. Private discrimination would be permissible, and if states or localities adopted unfair or unjust laws, one would have little recourse to federal remedies. But you could move to a different jurisdiction more in keeping with your ideas of liberty. It’s an uneven but robust freedom.
This is what libertarians who laud the old America have in mind. Why slander them as being ignorant of slavery, when liberaltarians do not want to be slandered as social democrats? If the socio-political order that libertarians like Hornberger desire really does naturally incline toward the sorts of injustices Boaz names, then make that case and argue against the model on those grounds. But I don’t think Boaz even believes that, let alone that he can present a convincing argument for it. On the other hand, those who believe that the modern state naturally tilts toward social democracy or worse have frequently and cogently made their case –not least in that “great book” Boaz mentions in his first paragraph, The Road to Serfdom.