It’s easy to pick out the most unsavory aspects of our history and claim that if not for the benevolent efforts of the state, we would still be mired in our own version of the Dark Ages. This strategy, however, conveniently ignores the fact that there is much more to American history than slavery, corruption, and sixteen-hour workdays.
The next time you hear someone fuming about conservatives and libertarians who “want to set us back 100 years,” consider whether it would be so horrible to live in a United States where – for example – there was no federal income tax, wars had to be explicitly declared by Congress, and the government could not just print up and lend out as much money as it desired.
Or for a different perspective, consider whether Americans 100 years ago would want to live in a country where:
- The government can secretly assassinate American citizens.
- The national debt exceeds the gross national product.
- A handful of undeclared wars are ongoing at any time.
- Federal agents can search their mail and tap their phones without a warrant.
In other words, the United States we live in today. Which America sounds better now?
Such a snapshot is obviously an incomplete portrait of life as we know it, and it would be unfair to condemn the 2012 United States on the basis of a few (substantial) shortcomings while ignoring its many accomplishments. It is likewise incorrect to judge the United States of years past based only on its faults. The principles of freedom and self-reliance that it embodied were not only worth preserving, but were arguably what made the country great. We can rediscover that tradition while still embracing the moral, scientific, and cultural lessons we have learned since then.
Claiming that anyone who wants to turn back the tide of government expansion must also want to do away with the benefits of modern society is simply a dishonest argument. A desire to follow the rule of law and the Constitution does not equal a desire to live as eighteenth-century colonists. There is no reason to believe that if the direction of government policy was changed, we would suddenly abandon all the progress we have made. Assuming that government coercion is the sole engine driving our societal changes is a pessimistic view that does not give much credit to the American people.
There is no need to choose between a free society and a modern one, as the two go hand in hand. One of the most brilliant features of the Constitution is that it allows for evolving norms and customs without undermining its foundation as the supreme law of the land. There is plenty of room for racial tolerance, comfortable working conditions, and Facebook in a country that abides by that law.Published in