COMMENTARY: Libertarians’ false historic narrative leads us to disaster
Americans don’t like to be misled, but we frequently are. Republicans, aided by a sizable amount of Democrats, mislead us into the Iraq War in the name of national security. We all know now is — some thousands of vets’ lives and a trillion dollars later — that there were never any weapons of mass destruction, and that Saddam had nothing to do with Sept. 11, 2001.
We’re being misled again, and I’m seeing it on campus every day. The deceivers use a wonderful name that connotes a belief in freedom and liberty. They call themselves “Libertarians,” and they’re peddling a false, dangerous narrative that is already leading the nation into a disastrous economy of the idle rich dominating the toiling middle classes and poor. This is because though they are a relatively small political party, the bulk of their economic philosophy, that being laissez-faire, is now the accepted doctrine of the Republican Party and many moderate Democrats.
Their overall belief goes something like this. All levels of our government, while justifiably taxing and spending to physically protect us, are primarily in a parasitic relationship with the overall majority of the American people. Talented, resourceful and dynamic Americans — clearly the minority — are stymied by a system of excessive taxation and regulations. Meanwhile the majority of Americans are being plied with unearned “free stuff” like welfare and Social Security, while being convinced that hard work, discipline and gumption are perhaps not the best values to embrace and keep people from achieving excellence. Therefore, libertarians stipulate, aside from basic law enforcement duties, the government should get out of the way of the dynamic private sector and allow it to bring universal prosperity to (almost) all. This includes, especially, the expensive sector of infrastructure and public transportation.
Historically, most Libertarians, especially in our Western states, point to a “golden era” in U.S. history when Americans were “truly free” of excessive governmental regulations: the time of the so-called “American Frontier.” It’s a false narrative but worth repeating, and so many people still honestly embrace it. Libertarians will tell you that in the decades after the Revolution and well into the late 1800s, Americans by the millions ventured West, “claimed” land, and by a combination of honest hard work and the freedom to trade without pesky regulations, brought humanity to some kind of lofty level of spiritual and economic perfection. Libertarians agree that while we might not want to live exactly like these pioneers, our laws today should reflect the laws they lived by, and that law was economic liberty.
It’s a lie. It’s just not true.
Allow me to cite one of the most important examples in American history that not only aided such settlers, but made their settlement possible and sustained and expanded their economic wealth. It’s not a particularly dramatic, fast moving example. It wasn't in the form of some titanic battle. There aren’t many monuments to it outside of upstate New York, and most Americans have not even heard of it. It was the Erie Canal, and it made western settlement not only possible, but profitable.
Yes, a canal. It was the marvel of its day, and it was publicly initiated, operated and backed by the full faith and credit of the people of New York State. It was a 363-mile canal — really a “water road” (not a short-cut, like the Panama or Suez Canals) that went from the Hudson River to the waters of Lake Erie. It was built over the course of several years in the early 1800’s by a New York State — not the federal government.
The Erie Canal, now mostly forgotten, was the economic lifeblood of the American frontier in the years before the Civil War. It enabled millions of western farmers, merchants and manufacturers to ship their goods cheaply eastbound and to the Port of New York and then out to the world. The Erie Canal gave birth to hundreds of towns and dozens of cities. Communities like Detroit, Chicago and even distant Milwaukee thrived on it. Much like the interstate highway system and internet of today — also public creations — individuals thrived from The Network. In the past, it was water. Today, it’s in the form of cement and fiber optic cables, but the idea remains the same.
So the next time you see Libertarians claiming that the government should just get out of the way of private business to let it thrive, remember: The American economic system of “private enterprise” was never private at all. It always ran on the back public money. It always depended on free (and government subsidized) stuff.
Daniel Kurz is a Class or 1998 Rutgers—Newark alumnus. He is a social science professor at Middlesex Community College.
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