Conservatives Want to Take America Back to the 1880s?

 It took the Republican Party sixty years of dedicated effort to make the word "liberal" radioactive in some parts of the United States. In less than half that time they've also done a pretty good job of making "Republican" just as disliked, associated as it is with the politics of wretched excess, fetishizing ignorance, bowing to K street lobbyists, and diaper-wearing-toe-tapping-lesbian-bondage sexual hypocrisy.

So lately conservatives, and especially the most hard right wing of conservatives, have been on the lookout for other terms they can use rather than the dreaded "R" word when describing themselves. Some of them have jumped on board the Glenn Beck self-promotion tour. Considering that it's an artificial movement generated around a cheap media persona, declaring yourself a supporter of the Tea Party is a bit like being a proud member of a Monkees Fan Club (and you don't even get to hear "Last Train to Clarksville"), but hey, it plays better than being a part of the George W. Bush legacy.

Other conservatives have jumped in a different direction and declared that they're really "small government Libertarians." Only they don't seem to understand what Libertarian actually means. Take for example this article in which Jacob Hornberger anoints 1880 as the peak of America's Libertarian golden age.

Let’s consider, say, the year 1880. Here was a society in which people were free to keep everything they earned, because there was no income tax. They were also free to decide what to do with their own money—spend it, save it, invest it, donate it, or whatever. People were generally free to engage in occupations and professions without a license or permit. There were few federal economic regulations and regulatory agencies. No Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, bailouts, or so-called stimulus plans. No IRS. No Departments of Education, Energy, Agriculture, Commerce, and Labor. No EPA and OSHA. No Federal Reserve. No drug laws. Few systems of public schooling. No immigration controls. No federal minimum-wage laws or price controls. A monetary system based on gold and silver coins rather than paper money. No slavery. No CIA. No FBI. No torture or cruel or unusual punishments. No renditions. No overseas military empire. No military-industrial complex.

As a libertarian, as far as I’m concerned, that’s a society that is pretty darned golden.

Ah, the 1880s. I can hear people getting wistful from here.

A golden age in which people kept all that they earned. Of course, what they earned in the absence of those debilitating minimum wage laws could be nothing more than worthless tokens from the company store. What they earned from twelve hours of work seven days a week could be actually be a bigger debt to the company that sent you into a mine or factory and made you pay for the wear on your tools, the water you drank, the fuel for your lamp, even the blasting powder you used.

Still, a lifetime of debt wasn't so bad in a golden age without OSHA and its safety laws, since lifetimes could be quite brief. Mining accidents didn't kill a piddling 29 men, they killed thousands every year. Over 3 miners out of every 1,000 died on the job each year (twice the rate of Great Britain with it's freedom-robbing concern for safety). But miners were pikers compared to folks on the railroad. Trainmen fell at a rate that made each year of work roughly equal to the risk of being among the troops on D-Day. Now that's freedom you can feel (well, briefly). It was an age where any construction project worth its salt could measure progress by body count and factory workers were privileged to know that they really were valued far less than the machines they tended. And death wasn't all that this golden age had to offer! It was an age when American workers could look forward to the liberation of being disabled for life, and know that they wouldn't be burdened by the crushing burden of worker's compensation or government aid.

Any laborer making it to to retirement would find... well, whatever they had laid aside for themselves, assuming they were paid in actual money and that they were cagey enough to hide it somewhere their employer couldn't "borrow" it. Meaning that a large percentage got to experience the invigorating freedom of starting a second career as a beggar after decades of crippling repetitive work, breathing toxic fumes, and exposure to corrosive chemicals made them unable to continue to hum hi-ho at their old tasks. Well over half of America's senior citizens basked in the autumnal liberty of living in poverty.

It was a golden age without labor laws in which only 5% of people faced the awful restriction of an 8 hour work day while 3 times that many were blessed with a workday that was 12 hours or longer. Many industries, breweries for example, had a standard workday of 15 hours. And with all the extra freedom of that age, many children were able to experience the blessings of back-breaking labor starting every day by the time they reached the age of 10, with more than a third generating freedom dollars before they turned 15.

Of course, that wasn't hard since this was a golden age of few public schools. Except it wasn't. Public education was common across the country, even in remote communities. Even the tiniest frontier village rarely went long without a school, many states had organized school districts, and in a good number of areas the ratio of teachers to students was actually higher than in our own socialistic era. Perhaps what Hornberger meant to say was that there were few schools available to minorities. In many areas minorities lived with "compulsory ignorance," as they were not only excluded from public schools, but discouraged (often violently) from seeking education. That accounts for a literacy rate of less than 40% among African-Americans in 1880. As laws changed and more schools became available for all, that rate grew by more than 30% over the next three decades. However, white literacy remained about the same -- not surprising since whites were already suffering from those socialistic public schools well before 1880.

It truly was a golden age. One in which, thanks to that lack of nasty safety requirements and the troublesome health organizations, the average lifespan was all the way up to 40! An age in which, unfettered by the shackles of regulations on clean water and Hitler-like restrictions on sewage, 50,000 Americans died of cholera. An age in which parents could experience the ultimate freedom endowed by watching 1 child in 5 die in infancy, and 1 out of 3 fail to reach adulthood. Those numbers are for white Americans. Minorities experienced even more of the freedom that comes from burying your children.

It truly was a golden age where there were "no immigration controls" as long as, you know, you were white and European. Oh, and wealthy. Otherwise, you were subject to laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act, or regulations that allowed anyone to be denied admission on the basis of poverty. Once you were in, you could love the freedom from Jim Crow laws, and the liberty that came with being denied to right to vote, or the ability to protect yourself from abuse. Of course Hispanic, Black, and Asian-Americans were all stimulated by the freedom that comes from having your home burned, your community ransacked, your wife and daughters raped, your belongings stolen, and your body left to turn as "strange fruit" in trees that sprouted across the country. All without un-American interference by the government. There's no freedom like the freedom that comes when you aren't forced to endure a trial by a jury of your peers and can get on with more expedited forms of justice.

It was a golden age when the last bands of Native Americans still struggling along under the illusion that they were free, were invited into the real liberty that is life on the reservation. And an age where they got to see the lands their ancestors had occupied for centuries or tens of centuries handed over for destruction. Imagine the liberty you get from seeing your lands taken away, your children beaten for speaking their own language, your religious practices used as an excuse for slaughter, and your entire culture erased.

A golden age, free from money-grubbing FEMA, where 400 people could die in a snow storm... then 400 more could die in the next. An age when Florida didn't need no stinking assistance in picking up the thousands who died in hurricanes and Midwestern states laughed off the hundreds who died in tornadoes -- all without warning from a communist government weather bureau.  An age where dams could be built without concern for any damn fish living in the water, or any damn people living downstream. An age where you were free to inhale the asbestos that wafted from factories and the mercury fumes that steamed from metal refineries. And free to see the interesting effects such exposures had on your offspring.

An age without communist limits on commerce or immoral government tests, where thousands of Americans each year died from tainted food. Where you didn't need no stinkin' license to hand out medicines. An age free from the horrors of the FDA where parents could feel good about using a childrens' cough remedy laced with opium, cocaine, formaldehyde, and wood alcohol. An age when nobody told us how much lead we could have in our water, or how much soot we could have in our air. An age where the injured and elderly had the God-given right to starve.

It was a golden age of rights for women in which... oh, wait. Sorry. I forgot for a moment that women don't count when measuring freedom. Good thing, since in 1880 they couldn't vote, were excluded from many occupations, faced restrictions on their ownership rights, and were often treated as the property of their husbands. Naturally, their reproductive rights consisted of the right to reproduce -- or die trying.

Of course, what Hornberger was likely envisioning was the flip side of all this liberty. The freedom of being a rich in a society where those with money enjoyed tremendous advantage. The freedom that factory owners and robber barons enjoyed in treating workers as they wanted, employing private armies to beat or kill those who opposed them, and indulging any whim in the sure knowledge that a large enough bribe could smooth things over.

The good news for Jacob is that it's not too late. It doesn't require a time machine and a trip to the 1880s to experience all the joys of this golden age he so longs for. You can reach this land of paradise with a couple of flights and a short boat ride. It's called Somalia.

The truth is, there are real Libertarians out there, people who place a very high value on individual rights and who believe this government -- like most every government -- too often interferes with those rights. Of course, actual Libertarians realize that for individual rights to have any meaning, they require the presence of a body that can ensure those rights.  They know that freedom can't be maintained in an absence of information, and that there must be agencies that create the transparency needed for effective individual action and ensure there are consequences to dishonesty. Real advocates of the free market realize that term has no meaning unless the market is free from coercion and the law is not defined by "might makes right." They know that individual freedoms are incompatible with a system where corporations are treated as super-citizens and that Libertarianism requires that workers be more valued that abstract entities that live only on paper.

The difference between actual Libertarians and Republicans hiding from their tarnished name is quite easy. Actual Libertarians are concerned about the freedom of individuals. Conservatives use Libertarian as a code word meaning "I want to continue to enjoy all the privileges I do now, but I don't want to share them with you and most of all I don't want to pay any taxes." Push come to shove, they're happy to abbreviate that to "Screw freedom. I just don't want to pay taxes."


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