When Did the Trouble Start?

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In my early libertarian days, I used to think America was basically on the right track, until FDR’s New Deal screwed it all up. Before then, we had a basically libertarian country. But I gradually keep pushing back the date of when we got off track. As Hans-Hermann Hoppe has shown (more Hoppe), our entry into World War I elevated "an old-fashioned territorial dispute" into "a purely ideological conflict: of good against evil." Thus, "As an increasingly ideologically motivated conflict, the war quickly degenerated into a total war." As Hoppe argues,

What would have happened [...] if in accordance with his reelection promise, Woodrow Wilson had kept the U.S. out of World War I? [...] If the United States had followed a strict non-interventionist foreign policy, it is likely that the intra-European conflict would have ended in late 1916 or early 1917 as the result of several peace initiatives, most notably by the Austrian Emperor Charles I. Moreover, the war would have been concluded with a mutually acceptable and face-saving compromise peace rather than the actual dictate. Consequently, Austria-Hungary, Germany and Russia would have remained traditional monarchies instead of being turned into short-lived democratic republics. With a Russian Czar and a German and Austrian Kaiser in place, it would have been almost impossible for the Bolsheviks to seize power in Russia, and in reaction to a growing communist threat in Western Europe, for the Fascists and National Socialists to do the same in Italy and Germany. Millions of victims of communism, national socialism, and World War II would have been saved. The extent of government interference with and control of the private economy in the United States and in Western Europe would never have reached the heights seen today. And rather than Central and Eastern Europe (and consequently half of the globe) falling into communist hands and for more than forty years being plundered, devastated, and forcibly insulated from Western markets, all of Europe (and the entire globe) would have remained integrated economically (as in the nineteenth century) in a world-wide system of division of labor and cooperation. World living standards would have grown immensely higher than they actually have.

Okay. So, it was all Wilson’s fault. Before WW I, America was a shining city on a hill. Wilson really set us on the wrong course.

But wait. I think Lincoln is really the culprit here. For one, if the South had been allowed to secede, as was its right, or had won, World War I would not have turned out the way it did. So: no Lincoln, no War Between the States, no WWI, no WWII. (While we’re at it, let’s blame all the white slaveholders. They set in motion a chain of events that led to the War Between the States, just so they could have cheaper cotton.)

Okay, but before 1861, America was it. It was as close to minarchy as the world has seen (never mind ancient Ireland). Thank God for our liberty-minded forefathers, Jefferson, Madison and crew.

Hold on a second there. As Chantal Saucier has pointed out in these pages, the growth of the American Empire might be dated to Jefferson’s unconstitutional expansion of empire with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Had the unconstitutional Louisiana Purchase not taken place, we might have avoided the War Between the States, WWI, WWII, et seq. Maybe I should take down the prints of Jefferson paintings on my office wall, oui?

On second thought, I think the trouble started a little bit further back. The Constitution as ratified in 1789 was fine as it was. Boy, what a great achievement. But the Bill of Rights was added in 1791. If this had not been done, then the so-called "incorporation doctrine" — whereby the Fourteenth Amendment was held to "incorporate" most of the rights listed in the Bill of Rights and apply them to the states — probably would never have been invented. Thus, the erosion of federalism caused by this federal seizure of power might never have happened, and there would be stronger structural limits on federal action in place today.

Who am I kidding. The real trouble really started two years earlier. The Framers in 1789 had already agreed to add a Bill of Rights, as the price for ratification. I think I need to push it back a couple more years, just to be safe — since the real problem is that the federal convention called in 1787 merely to propose amendments to the Articles of Confederation exceeded its mandate by proposing a new Constitution. Which led, naturally, to the Bill of Rights, the War Between the States, WWI, WWII, and the erosion of federalism and hegemony of the central state. As Hoppe (Democracy, the God that Failed, p. 272) notes, the Americans "not only did not let the inherited royal institutions of colonies and colonial governments wither away into oblivion; they reconstituted them within the old political borders in the form of independent states, each equipped with its own coercive (unilateral) taxing and legislative powers. While this would have been bad enough, the new Americans made matters worse by adopting the American Constitution and replacing a loose confederation of independent states with the central (federal) government of the United States." We would have been much better off under the old Articles of Confederation. We were just fine, until then. Yes, that was America’s golden age: from 1776 to 1787.

Except … the transformation of the Union from confederation to federation, and ultimately to centralized, dominant state, was nothing but a natural result of the utopian idealism of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Why these guys thought they could cut the ties to the traditional, monarchical, constitutional order and set up a new political order imbued with the spirit of democracy in its stead, but limit its growth with mere paper documents and platitudes is beyond me. After all, it had never been done before. What was Jefferson thinking?

Let’s face it, the American experiment has been a failure. I’m starting to think the trouble with America is … the Americans. Why did we revolt, anyway? Because of an amount of taxation imposed from Britain that is miniscule by today’s standards? Yup, 1776 is where the trouble started. (Incidentally, Maybe Hamilton is not the arch-villain, and Jefferson not the libertarian hero, that we’ve thought all these years. After all, didn’t Hamilton prefer a limited monarchy, or at least an aristocratic republic? As monarchy is preferable to democracy in many respects, can’t we say that Hamilton was arguably better than Jefferson, at least in this respect?)

Thank goodness I don’t know more about European history, or I might keep pushing the envelope back ever further, maybe back to the Garden of Eden. But need I really stop at 1776? Come to think of it, if not for the domination of America by all those New England WASPs, would we have had all this mess? Would we have had the Constitution, the War Between the States (all Presidents save Kennedy have been WASPs, no?), all the slave-owning that led to the War Between the States? Would we have had Lincoln, and Wilson, and Roosevelt? No, certainly not. (See also on this, Hans-Hermann Hoppe, "The Western State as a Paradigm: Learning from History," Politics and Regimes. Religion & Public Life, Vol. 30, 1997.) So, the problem is not Americans per se, but Yankee WASPs.

Which leads me to think, the real trouble started in the sixteenth Century, with that pesky Protestant Reformation. Couldn’t just leave well enough alone, could you, guys?

Stephan Kinsella [send him mail] is an attorney in Houston. His website is www.StephanKinsella.com.

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