David Boaz posts some interesting comments from a libertarian email list which discuss his article on whether a golden age of liberty ever existed. Here are a few worthwhile excerpts:

Glenn Reynolds: …If your narrative is one in which freedoms are always shrinking, and government always growing, it may tend to discourage people from working to make things better. I see a lot of that kind of thing from people on the Right, and it irritates me no end. I remember when the passage of the assault weapons ban was presented as just another downward ratchet in freedom, and yet now the gun issue is such that even lefty Dems are for the most part unwilling to touch it. That, it seems to me, is an example of how freedom can expand even in the comparatively short term.

Steven Horwitz: …One way to put it is… even if it’s true that we are collectively (per capita) more free, those gains have come at the weakening of the sacredness of certain principles that affect everyone’s freedom, especially in the long run. I too share the concern that the last two years have accelerated that process in very problematic ways.

Brad Smith: Even as we have expanded the blessings of freedom to more people, society’s concept of freedom seems to have narrowed tremendously, to where even many self described libertarians seem to think a 39% income tax bracket is pretty darn acceptable. The boundaries of what it means to be free seem to have retreated, and to have retreated enormously. Thus, even as more people have benefited from freedom, the long term outlook for freedom seems in many ways much more grim.

I think Brad elucidates the most sensible objection to Boaz’ piece and defense of the notion that we were freer in the past, and Horwitz highlights why that is such a concern going forward. On the other side of the ledger, Reynold’s response illustrates something that I think is a common cause of the visceral dislike of libertarians and libertarianism that otherwise moderate people have. In the end Steve Horwitz I think sums up the issue:

Steve Horwitz: I do think part of what’s going on here are two cross-cutting conversations. Or at least two distinct claims.

1. “Americans, on the whole, are freer than they were, say, 150 years ago.”

2. “Government is more obtrusive in a moment-to-moment or day-to-day way than 150 years ago.”

…We are collectively more free, I would argue, even though the underlying principles that assured the freedom of those who had such freedom 150 years ago have broken down significantly.

The trick then, as several discussants point out, is how do you aggregate the two points and decide whether the result is more or less net freedom? To me, the answer is commonsense that the universality of freedom outweighs the increasing day-to-day intrusiveness of government. Can you imagine the horror of what the laws of 1880 would look like imposed on today’s society? (I can guarantee that your freedom to not have to listen to protesters demanding a larger government would be severely restricted.) This is particularly true if you belief, as I do, that a bunch of the daily intrusiveness of today’s government is actually a legitimate provision of desirable public goods.

H/T Will Wilkinson