What Have the Politicians Done to Make Us Freer?

Liberty is the right course, but what has the political class done to bring us more, rather than less? Every day, in every way, the political class is pushing more control, more empire, more impositions, more gouging and looting. It’s clockwork, and fully expected. To list them all, especially concerning the advances of the police state since Sept. 11, would result in the world’s longest book (it has a name: the U.S. Code).

Doug French and I were trying to think of great exceptions to the rule, times when there was a top-top change for the better. We were looking for politically driven events in the last half-century that have brought us a net increase in American liberty. It’s an interesting thought experiment. Here is a list we came up with, in chronological order.

  • Across-the-board tax cuts (1964)
  • Thawing of relations with China (1972)
  • Pullout from Vietnam (1973)
  • End of the draft (1973)
  • Private ownership of gold legalized (1974)
  • Airline deregulation (1978)
  • Appointment of tight-money Paul Volcker to the Fed (1979)
  • Oil price decontrol (1979)
  • Trucking deregulation (1980)
  • Marines pulled from Lebanon (1984)
  • End of federal speed limit (1995)
  • Privatization of the Internet (1995)
  • Welfare reform (1996).

And that’s about all. It’s a pretty skimpy list, and we had to dig pretty deep to come up with it at all. Maybe we left something out.

Some might quickly point to the tax cuts from Reagan’s first term, but people often forget that those were completely swamped by the increase in the payroll tax two years later. Also, some of these good changes were inadvertent. The government would never have privatized the Internet if the political class had known the results in advance!

To be sure, the world has a whole has become a vastly better place in the same period of time. In the last decade, global poverty has plummeted. Crime is down. Total states have collapsed. Trade has exploded. The essentials of life are more available than ever and at ever lower prices. The digital revolution is the greatest single technological advance in the history of the human race. We are more networked than ever before.

But here’s the thing to note about all this progress. None of it came from the top down. It came from the bottom up, from entrepreneurs and businesses and those much-hated corporations. It came from the private sector and the spontaneous actions of individuals working without approval or mandate from the central plan.

In today’s article, Isaac Morehouse of the Institute for Humane Studies runs with this theme and discusses its implications for your future. It is a brilliantly optimistic look at what lies ahead. But note that the progress does not depend on political outcomes. It depends on the ability of technology and markets — which is to say, the actions of people themselves — to outwit and outrun the planners.