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Libertarians and the 19th Century

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  • Libertarians and the 19th Century

    I was watching Stossel's program last night and it got me thinking about something I have noticed over the past few years: a libertarian obsession with the 19th century - and a very rose colored one at that.

    It seems like every libertarian I cross has this view of the 19th century as being one of the greatest times to be alive. They view it as an era of free market values when every man made his own way, the government never interfered, there was prosperity for all, and the economy was always booming.

    The reality is far from this of course and it has me wondering where exactly so many libertarians get this rosy view of the Victorian era. It can't have possibly been from history books.

    Last night Stossel was going on about how great private currency was, talking about how that's the way things used to be in the US and completely overlooking why we switched to a national currency. He seemed to think that when there was a variety of currency to choose from, inflation wasn't a thing. (He's wrong.) Currencies inflated, you lost value every time you had to change currency - BTW you had to change currency frequently - and sometimes the currency you had wasn't worth crap to the bank who was changing your bills.

    And that's the curious thing I've noticed about many libertarians. Not only do they have rose colored glasses about the 19th century, their rose colored glasses are often focused on the very worst parts of the 19th century. Multiple forms of currency, drug use, robber barons, all of the things that made this era suck are frequently the very things they idolize.

    And I keep wondering where they get it from. I have a large collection of Victorian era literature and if there's one thing I can tell you, it's that they were very snappy dressers, but I doubt I would want to live there. Because even contemporaries of the 19th century were of the opinion that things were crappy. Libertarians often look at the success stories of Vanderbilt and friends and forget that for every Vanderbilt who built himself up from nothing, there were millions more who lived and died mining coal their whole lives.

    And this whole notion of the 1800s being a time when big business and government stayed out of each other's business..... Seriously if people think crony capitalism is bad now, they should take a long hard look at how our rail systems were built.

    Now I will admit that I myself am quite fascinated with the Victorian era too. But I don't present it as a wonderland of prosperity (there were at least two major recessions I can think of that happened during that time period BTW) and it amuses and often baffles me how so many libertarians have managed to create this fictional narrative of the 19th century being a golden age - instead of what is was: an era of rapid technological progress that didn't come without a price tag.

    I suppose every libertarian thinks that if they lived back then, they would be Carnegie or Morgan. But the truth is that becoming successful in 19th century America, while not requiring "white privilege", did require exceedingly good timing, high quantities of luck, and more than a little ruthlessness. And even a prodigy might find himself digging coal for a living if the wheels of fortune didn't align just so.
    A new life awaits you in the off world colonies; the chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure!

  • #2
    One thing I know as a geneaolgist, is that it was a time of great immigration from Europe. One of my Swedish gr. Grs came in through New Orleans and up the Mississippi and settled in a small Swedish community in the Ozark foothills in the 1880s. Another of my families came from Germany right before the Civil War and settled in Ohio. My 19th century immigrant ancestors were farmers so they came for the land. My son-in-law’s families came in the 1880s and 1890s from Poland and Romania and Germany. They settled in Chicago and Wisconsin. They worked in the steel mills and wire companies as near as I can tell from census records, so they must have come for the opportunities to work in new industries. One of my brothers’ in law families came from Ireland and they appear to have worked for a couple of generations in the Brooklyn shipyards.

    There seems to have been a lot of the older ancestral lines who stayed on the land until after WWII, because you could still make a fairly good living off of the land. I think it was a still a time of material simplicity. After WWII and the era of modern conveniences came along it became harder for a man on the land to acquire electrical goodies.

    So do libertarians regard it as an era when a man could make a living off of the land as an ideal livelihood? I think in those days working in industry would not have been an easy life.
    Homo homini lupus


    • #3
      No age is perfect, but the 19th century was an age of exploration, invention and expansion, relative prosperity, and the birth of the railroad system. Certainly it was an age of far less government intervention in private affairs.

      However, it was also the age of our Civil War. slavery, and seizing of Native American lands after breaking every treaty we ever made.
      Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes? Who is watching the watchers?


      • #4
        Its the same phenomenon as people idealizing societies they've never visited. L.P Hartley was right, 'the past is another country'.

        When I was last in the US people would regularly gush at me about how wonderful Australia was. While that observation was itself 100% correct, their reasons were always fiction. They spanned the full range of the political spectrum, from people on the left who think we are some sort of worker's paradise to one conservative lady who told me that Australia 'knew how to deal with our minorities' (guess she didn't know multiculturalism has been official policy for 40+ years). With one exception none of these people had been to Australia, and the one exception had been there in 1970 for a week.

        No American Conservative talking now lived in the C19th, and few would ever have spent much time talking to anyone who could remember it clearly. They can never see it as people saw it at the time. They are picking & choosing bits that they can tick off their list & trying to pass it off as a coherent view of history. This, in turn, is used as proof that their ideas not only work in practice, but are beneficial. Its a dangerous fantasy.
        Human beings are the only creatures on Earth that claim a god and the only living thing that behaves like it hasn't got one - Hunter S. Thompson


        • #5
          Oh pooh pooh, BF69, you're an Aussie, how could you ever divine to know what American fantasies are? Much less 19th or 20th century American fantasies, please now....or even C21st mental noodling...


          • #6

            The rose-tinted glasses of the past vary in strength, dependent upon your own personnel prescription (aka agenda). Also are you short-sighted or long-sighted as each have there own strengths and weaknesses of argument.

            Many nations wax lyrical or idealize certain segments of their countries history and either ignore inconvenient truths and facts, or warping them to their own narrative. America is no different, be it 18th, 19th, 20th or 21st century history under the microscope.


            "You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life." Churchill

            "I'm no reactionary.Christ on the Mountain! I'm as idealistic as Hell" Eisenhower


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