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Life was more free in the past only for the elite — if at all

I will have a lot to say in The Rational Optimist about
golden-age nostalgia.

It’s an easy trap, to think that the past was better or more
free than the present. It’s not hard to show that the past was
poorer for most people, but was it more free?

Conservatives and libertarians often like to imply that life was
better in the old days, because the weight of bureaucratic
government rested lighter on people’s shoulders, but
even socialists like Rousseau, Engels or William Morris
used to hark back to noble savagery, egalitarian peasantry or
Merrie medieval England before the Norman yoke for their golden
age. Back in the golden age itself, Hesiod was complaining that
things were worse than they used to be.

And as the bureaucratic monster invents ever more ingenious ways
of telling me what I cannot do without asking it first, I too
succumb to the temptation from time to time to wish I were back in
a more free time.

But that’s because I make the mistake of thinking I would be in
the elite in the past. Just as people who think themselves to
be reincarnations from the past usually claim to be Napoleon, or
Jesus, never Bert Bloggs, peasant, so we tend to forget that
statistically you had far more chance of being a bonded servant, an
indentured apprentice, a chattel wife, or a slave at any time in
the past.

If you think you were free in, say 1700, try defying the customs
man, the press gang or the local priest or the debtor’s jail.

David Boaz of Cato reminds the mostly libertarian
readers of Reason magazine that 19% of Americans were slaves
in the 1700s.

Has there ever been a golden age of
liberty? No, and there never will be. There will always be
people who want to live their lives in peace, and there will always
be people who want to exploit them or impose their own ideas on
others. If we look at the long term-from a past that includes
despotism, feudalism, absolutism, fascism, and communism-we’re
clearly better off. When we look at our own country’s
history-contrasting 2010 with 1776 or 1910 or 1950 or whatever-the
story is less clear. We suffer under a lot of regulations and
restrictions that our ancestors didn’t face.

But in 1776 black Americans were held in
chattel slavery, and married women had no legal existence except as
agents of their husbands. In 1910 and even 1950, blacks still
suffered under the legal bonds of Jim Crow-and we all faced
confiscatory tax rates throughout the postwar period.

When the pessimists tell you that things are getting worse,
don’t even concede that liberty’s slipping away. Red tape may be
tiresome, but slavery’s worse.



By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist