Were 1880's America a "libertarian golden age" for the country?

Relevant paragraphs here:

Were the 1880’s the best time to have libertarian beliefs in America? If not, when? Do the things the author mentions (or the actual conditions of 1880’s America) really reflect what libertarians value and want? IE when libertarians advance their beliefs, how well does 1880’s America reflect what they’re working towards?

Libertarians are, of course, encouraged to think and respond.

This issue was addressed in a Daily Kos diary today. The author shredded this argument by pointing out that the lack of governmental oversight meant that literally thousands upon thousands of workers died in horrible accidents each year. Also, people had to work 14 hour days just to avoid starving. Etc, etc, etc.

Seems like a golden age to me…

Well, that’s from a liberal POV. I really was curious what the average libertarian thinks of that era, and why I specifically asked if what was going on then really reflected the libertarian “dream society.”

As a SMALL-L libertarian and a LARGE-C SMALL-R Christian reconstructionist, I think that the only Golden Age lasted about a day- until “Adam and Eve could get a bite of the Forbidden Fruit” (aka “the first God-conscious hominids could break trust with Him”). Every other era of humanity had its virtues & vices.

The author of the OP’s link has some, er, unusual perspectives on some aspects of the 1880’s:

Where does he get the idea that there were “few systems of public schooling”? There may have been fewer different kinds of public school systems, but it’s certainly not true that there weren’t many public schools.

As for punishments, I guess Hornberger never heard, for example, of the “lease convict system” used particularly after the Civil War in the southern US, where thousands of prisoners (for whom whole garments and shoes were considered luxurious indulgences) labored in shackled gangs under conditions that killed many of them.

And when it comes to urban slums and working conditions…well, anybody seriously trying to make the case that the 1880s were any kind of “golden age” in the US has a lot of ‘splainin’ to do there.

For a libertarian rebuttal, see this article by Cato Institute Vice President David Boaz. The basic point: the massive gains in freedom from the civil rights movements far outweight the losses from increased government agencies.

To state the obvious blacks and women didn’t have much freedom at this time and certainly not the freedom to engage in professions of their choice. This alone was a massive denial of personal freedom for a majority of the population.

Aside from that, the lack of government intervention in other areas created serious problems at this time ranging from massive inequality to banking crises to increasing concentration of power by business trusts. The increase of government in the 20th century didn't happen by accident. It happened because there were real problems in the market economy that only government could solve.

I don’t know how anyone could seriously look at this time period and claim it’s some libertarian golden age. Here’s what we have:

  1. Reconstruction begins to shut down in 1877. That means that state/local governments start discriminating on the basis of race (either officially or unofficially). This becomes more and more overt and explicit until we finally get the infamous Plessy ruling in 1896. So, basically, the 1880s is the decade where state and local governments began ushering in the Jim Crow era.

  2. There was plenty of extra-legal violence aimed at minorities during this period, with either implicit or direct support of state/local governments. Now, it is true that the KKK was essentially defunct during the 1880s, but it’s not as if this sort of extra-legal violence disappeared during that era. If people can run around killing minorities with impunity, that’s hardly some libertarian society.

  3. Of course, all of this doesn’t deal with state-backed gender and religious discrimination. And remember, this type of discrimination included a lot of economic regulation. People were routinely shut out of particular sectors of the economy because of their race, gender or religion, and those shut outs were backed by force of law from the government. Again, I don’t see how this is remotely libertarian.

  4. Up until the 1880s, the US had been engaged in a massive wealth redistribution scheme whereby it either purchased or seized land and gave away rights to the land for free to homesteaders, farmers, ranchers and prospectors. By the 1880s, most of the seizure/purchase of land had died out (the Indian wars are essentially over by the 1880s, with a couple of notable hiccups), so I guess one could say that the taking part of the redistribution scheme was over, but the giving part of the redistribution scheme was still in effect. IIRC, various parts of the Midwest were still being given out for free during this period. I don’t see how this type of wealth redistribution qualifies as libertarian.

  5. Then we have the various industrial policy and corporate subsidies provided by both the state and local governments (railroads tended to be big beneficiaries of this). None of that qualifies as libertarian.

  6. Finally, I think it’s important to make a distinction between cities and rural/undeveloped areas. Of course, if you were out in the middle of some Western territory, you probably weren’t going to deal with the government a lot. But in the cities, it’s not as if you didn’t have to routinely bribe politicians or make payments to protection rackets, depending on the city. So, while you probably didn’t have to deal with a health department, you probably did have to deal with an ever changing set of whims and rules from corrupt officials and gangsters. Again, I don’t see how that qualifies as libertarian.

Ultimately, it seems to me that Hornberger considers his favored factors more relevant to libertarianism and other factors less relevant to libertarianism. That is, of course, his personal call to make, but there’s no particular reason I have to think that something like preventing women from working in certain fields is a less onerous regulation than having to cook your meat to a certain temperature before you serve it.

There seem to be an awful lot of libertarians who say “Golden Age of Libertarianism” and really mean “Golden Age for Rich, White, Christian Men”.

Who aren’t Irish.

Actually, Hornberger’s article posted in the original post is his rebuttal to the article that you linked.

FWIW, this era was called the “Gilded Age” in my high school history textbook…