Much depends therefore on getting history right.
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Libertarians naturally sense that their philosophy will be easier to sell to the public if they can root it in America's heritage. This is understandable. Finding common ground with someone you're trying to persuade is a good way to win a fair hearing for your case. Well-known aspects of early American history, at least as it is usually taught, fit nicely with the libertarian outlook; these include Thomas Paine's pamphlets, the opening passages of the Declaration of Independence, and popular animosity toward arbitrary British rule.
The problem arises when libertarians cherry-pick confirming historical anecdotes while distorting or ignoring deeper disconfirming evidence. The drawbacks to grounding the case for freedom in historical inaccuracies should be obvious. If a libertarian with a shaky historical story encounters someone with sounder historical knowledge, the libertarian is in for trouble. The point of discussing libertarianism with nonlibertarians is not to feel good but to persuade. If the history is wrong, why should anyone believe anything else the libertarian says?
The damage done to a young person new to libertarianism is particularly tragic. Discovery of the libertarian philosophy, especially when combined with the a priori approach of Austrian economics, can make young libertarians feel virtually omniscient and ready for argument on any relevant topic. When such libertarians venture into empirical areas—such as history—they are prone to use ideology or the a priori method as guides to the truth.
If libertarians with this frame of mind run into serious students of history, the results can be traumatic.
Common Sense in an Age of Unreason – Arpeegy
The disillusionment can be so great that a young libertarian might decide to keep quiet from then on or give up the philosophy entirely. A libertarian who might have become a powerful advocate is lost to the movement. Thus we owe young libertarians the most accurate historical interpretation possible. Gross oversimplification sets them up for disaster. It's like sending a sheep to the slaughter. Where are libertarians likely to go wrong when it comes to history? By and large, it's in presenting American history as an essentially libertarian story.
It's not that everything about this overview is wrong; it contains grains of truth. Americans were upset by British arbitrary rule which violated the accustomed "rights of Englishmen" , and Lockean ideas were in the air. But much of the rest of the libertarian template is more folklore than history.
For one thing, the early state governments were hardly strictly limited. Libertarians too readily confuse the desire for a relatively weak central government with the desire for strict limits on government generally. For many Americans a strong central government was seen as an intrusion on state and local government to which they gave their primary allegiance. But that is not a libertarian view; it depends on what people want state and local governments to do.
Libertarians also wish to believe that the early national government was fairly libertarian-ish. With the exception of slavery and tariffs, it is often explained, government was strictly limited by the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
Slavery of course was an egregious exception, which was enforced by the national government, and passionate opponents agitated against it. Tariffs were part of a larger system of government intervention, which many libertarians simply ignore. Nor were these the only serious exceptions to an otherwise libertarian program.
But before getting to that, we must say something about the Constitution. Libertarians of course know that the Constitution was not the first charter of the United States. But many of them rarely talk about the first one: the Articles of Confederation, which was adopted before the war with Britain ended.
Under the Articles the weak national quasi-government lacked, among other powers, the powers to tax and regulate trade, which is why I call it a quasi-government. It obtained its money from the states, which did have the power to tax.
The French Revolution
So while it could not steal money, it nonetheless subsisted on stolen money. Advocates of a unified nation under a powerful central government, such as James Madison, tried immediately to expand government power under the Articles but got nowhere. The centralists eventually arranged for the Federal Convention in Philadelphia, where the Constitution—the acknowledged purpose of which was to produce more, not less, government—was adopted. The libertarian Albert Jay Nock called the convention a coup d'etat because it was only supposed to amend the Articles. Eligible for Free Shipping.
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