Tuesday, August 25, 2015
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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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There never was a golden age of freedom

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.