These are tough times for freedom lovers, and as the Fourth of July comes and goes, it may appear to the disenchanted among us that there really is little to celebrate. America is not quite an authoritarian country, but not the beacon of peace and liberty it once was. We still have somewhat open markets and some procedural civil liberties, but not the robust laissez faire capitalism and open society that this great country once featured in much fuller force.
The American Revolution was not just military and geopolitical in nature, but also ideological. The magnificent event of thirteen colonies overthrowing their foreign oppressors, to the embarrassment of the grandest imperial State in the world, sent ripples throughout the continuum of history. A shot around the world multiplied and culminated in a radical revolution of secession from a bloody mercantilist system and all of the disregard for economic freedom and the rule of law that it embodied. The balance between power and liberty would never be looked at the same way.
In his book The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, historian Bernard Bailyn describes one particularly wondrous phenomenon that accompanied the revolution as "the contagion of liberty": the revolution had sparked an unprecedented interest in the ideas of freedom, not just for a handful of colonies in North America pit against a European empire, but for humankind. The first antislavery organizations of significance took root. The notion of women’s equality before the law sprouted. Religious liberty got a new and fresh hearing.
The explosion of the American Revolution paved the way for improvements in all these areas: over the next hundred years, slavery would become abandoned throughout the Western Hemisphere, women would begin their elevation toward liberation, religious tolerance in the truest sense would blossom as never before. What began as mere ideas during the revolutionary generation germinated into real-world advances in human freedom.
Nineteenth century America, despite several unnecessary and horrific wars of mass butchery, the continued Old World legacy of racial oppression, and a handful of unfortunate experiments with central management, was a setting for growing prosperity, decentralization, and liberty, especially in the economic sphere. By the end of the nineteenth century, despite America’s many flaws and imperfections, what existed approximated a free country as never before seen. Government as a component of society was miniscule by historic and modern standards. The market, family, church and community prevailed as the major organizing forces in society.
The twentieth century, with the Progressive Era, First World War, New Deal, Second World War, Cold War and Great Society, cascaded with dramatic setbacks for American independence from the State. The federal government came to implement a permanent income tax, a central banking system, an ever-growing web of business regulations, and intrusive measures that assaulted the core of personal liberty like practically no domestic policies since slavery. Millions of Americans were drafted, and hundreds of thousands killed in the various wars to make the world safe for this lofty goal or that. A welfare-entitlement state, starting with FDR and flowering under LBJ and Nixon, fastened itself onto America. Federal gun control legislation, the steady nationalization of education, a hideous war on drugs and a plethora of quasi-governmental global organizations with loyalties to the American State and its preferred corporate interests exploded in scope and expense throughout the century.
By the end of the Cold War, however, regardless of the sheer size and intrusiveness of government, individualism, anti-authoritarianism and contempt for the federal government seemed to be on the increase. The notion that government alone could bring about prosperity had been discredited, thanks in large part to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Without the USSR, there was no paragon of central planning for the left to secretly admire, no demonized enemy for conservatives to rally blindly with their own central State against.
According to most polls taken throughout the nineties, a considerable majority did not trust the federal government to do what was right most of the time. Despite the high taxes, the continued federal usurpations, and the Clintonian designs of central planning, Americans appeared to view themselves as, if not libertarian in ideology, independent from the State in their daily lives and attitudes toward the world. Markets in telecommunications and computer industries ascended in importance, sophistication and grandeur. People became connected with one another in unprecedented ways, not by central arrangement, but according to personal preferences and mutual interests in the most illustrious example of spontaneous order the world had yet to see.
A home-schooling movement took shape, throwing off the shackles of nationalist education and demonstrating the naked anachronisms of the government public classroom. The vast majority of youngsters still trapped in the confines of the public schooling system came to lose their remaining respect for it, and increasingly attended it solely because they were coerced, not because they were expecting to learn much. Millions of young Americans discovered the Internet and realized one can learn about as much from a day of web surfing as from a month sitting in tortuous classroom chairs staring at a chalkboard. Particularly embarrassing was the spectacle of the typical government schoolteacher attempting to impart his or her students with lessons about computer technology, when almost invariably the students could run circles around their teachers in such areas of knowledge. Students of course would have their favorites among the system’s teachers, and would ask questions of the adults they trusted for an answer when they so desired. But never again would the illusion of public education persist the way it used to. The degree to which young Americans now feel that their government schools offer them nothing of value is not something to be mourned, but to be cheered, for they have found repositories of knowledge and wisdom outside of the State’s conventional indoctrination apparatus.
Also around the 1990s, alternative lifestyles and approaches to medical care and diet gained ground, giving traditionally leftist-oriented groups all the more reason to trust the market, and not the State, as the best means for pursuing happiness and celebrating their sub-cultural identities. Increasingly, the diversity that the left has long sought became seen as more attainable through the voluntary sector, coexisting peacefully with traditional bourgeois America, than through coercive social engineering. More and more individuals from all walks of life came to recognize that the most beautiful uniting factors in America spring from individuality and freedom of association, and that harmonious diversity and individualism indeed go hand in hand.
By the end of the 1990s, most Americans, any unfortunate and pervasive misunderstandings of economics and government policy notwithstanding, saw themselves as independent of the State. The State was huge. But the conservative movement absolutely hated the government and the liberals did not have the same gung-ho attitude toward socializing America as they once did.
September 11 did indeed change everything. Immediately the statist elements of the right became enthralled by the warfare state again, the resurrection of the Cold War or even World War II garrison state becoming their new perverse dream. The left saw it at first as an opportunity for rejuvenating a general affinity to government and civic duty among Americans at large, but by the buildup to the Iraq war, much of the left came to fear and despise its own government as it had not done so since even before Reagan, probably since the Vietnam War. Very few Americans, left or right, suggested and still favor the types of solutions as what might have been expected during the World Wars: mass internments, widespread censorship, and a totalistic warfare state.
The right is now coming around slowly to realizing the absurdity of supporting George W. Bush, right or wrong. The unmitigated bloodthirsty arrogance, fraudulent criminality and abject incompetence of this administration are downright surreal, and partisan loyalties can only go so far. Barring the potentiality of another 9/11, there seems little chance that the neoconservatives who just two years ago appeared to win every hand they played and who have piled on so much death, destruction and debt will be able to turn the Middle East into the playground they originally envisioned. Another war is certainly possible, but the U.S. will likely not conquer the whole region in the grandiose project of democratization for which the most hawkish and crazed members of the War Party have been salivating. Americans are more upset about Iraq than they have been about a war in decades. So while 9/11 changed everything, it only did so for public faith in government for a few years.
Of course, the fighting will continue for the foreseeable future. The debt will resume increasing at its usual and frightening pace. The government is larger than any has ever been in the history of the world, and it’s hard to imagine it collapsing over night. We still have a war on drugs wrecking the Bill of Rights at home, a number of entitlement programs sucking away at American savings, mountains of unfunded liabilities, regulatory oppression and daily violations of precious liberties from the right to bear arms to the right to operate a business freely. Taxes are still set at draconian rates.
But almost no young Americans are relying on Social Security for their futures anymore. People are less trusting of the police forces that bungle and terrorize their way through city life. Never before has the modern left been more skeptical of Democratic socialism, the modern right more disillusioned with a Republican war. People trust the market, their families, and each other vastly more than the State. Social tolerance in the true sense is winning out over reactionary enforced traditionalism from the right and authoritarian political correctness from the left. Pro-government environmental hysteria appears to be weakening. Everyone knows that there are a zillion ridiculous laws on the books that good people can’t help but break every day. Never before in recent times have people been less favorable toward gun laws, drug control, public schools, third-way economic proposals, the presidency, Congress and the Supreme Court. And now, with Iraq, even the beloved military State has taken a beating in popular perception. People simply don’t trust the State the way they used to, not even to protect them from foreign enemies, not even to be honest about its failures, and certainly not to play an instrumental role in creating a better world.
Amidst all the collectivist economic disasters, the bloodshed and the attacks on the Bill of Rights, there is reason to hope. Like the founding generation of this country, most Americans now see themselves as independent from the State. Perhaps this Fourth of July is no reason to celebrate too excitedly. But we need not despair altogether. Today’s disaffection with the State may indeed become tomorrow’s contagion of liberty. Some time down the line, five, ten or fifteen years from now, if not as early as a year or two from now, we just might have true cause to celebrate our Independence Day with as much exuberance as the day, marking the greatest revolution in history, deserves.
Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He is a research analyst at the Independent Institute. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.