It’s Called the Law of EQUAL Freedom, You Know.
The above is my contribution, in one sentence, to the extraordinarily embarrassing discussion now going on among libertarians (and those who enjoy mocking us) about how great the 1880s were. Simply put, the 1880s weren’t great at all. I can hardly believe that I’m having to argue the point.
Sure, by some definitions, white men had things pretty good — not many restrictions on their freedom. “Is this utopia?” some are tempted to ask. Which just really baffles me.
We can only think to ask such a question if we radically discount the experiences of nearly all other people in society. And this violates one of the fundamental formulations of libertarian political thought, the law of equal freedom:
Every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man.
Language issues aside, under a standard like this, it’s impossible to justify, for example, the fact that marital rape was never a crime in the nineteenth century. Or that women surrendered all of their property, present and future, to their husbands at marriage. Or that women at marriage couldn’t have a legal place of residence separate from their husbands. Or that children were presumed in law to belong solely to the husband, and never to the wife. Or that (contra Bryan Caplan) contracts between husband and wife were typically invalid under law, so one couldn’t escape the shackles by contracting around them with a well-intentioned husband. Or that cohabitation without marriage — another attempt to escape the bind — was plain illegal. Or that divorce was exceptionally hard to obtain.
To put it bluntly, the white men of 1880 were for the most part brutes and tyrants. Even if they didn’t want to be, the law forced them. They either claimed, or had foisted upon them, all kinds of “freedoms” that intrinsically infringed on other people. And I’m not even talking about what they did to blacks in the South or Asians in the West, though I easily could.
I certainly wouldn’t want everyone today to be in the same position that white men had in 1880. Putting them there would require that we find some rather large population for them to personally oppress, to rape, to steal property from, and to hold in permanent thrall.
Neither slave nor master has any place at all in utopia.