Wednesday, January 07, 2009

True or false?


America's constitutional republican framework ... has been increasing personal and civil liberties almost monotonically for two centuries ... -- Brian Holtz, in a comment appended to this post


Discuss.

Some opening notes:

- As recently as about 100 years ago, I could have walked into any apothecary and purchased any medicine I thought I needed in any quantity I chose to buy ... without anyone's permission.

- As recently as about 100 years ago, I could have visited any purveyor of arms, purchased any weapon I thought I needed, and walked down the street bearing that weapon (openly or concealed) ... without anyone's permission.1

- As recently as a little less than 100 years ago, the money I earned would have been mine and only taxed on certain expenditures (excises on alcohol, etc.). The income tax wasn't permanently imposed until 1913 (two earlier versions ran from 1862 to 1872, and then in 1894-95). Even when it was imposed, it started at a whopping 1% on income in excess of $3,000 ($64,371.21 in 2008 dollars) and topped out at 7% on income in excess of $500,000 ($10.7 million in 2008 dollars). Most Americans didn't pay income tax for decades after that, and it wasn't until WWII that the government started grabbing it from your paycheck in advance.

- Aside from the Civil War, conscription and/or registration for conscription was not a feature of American governance until World War I. By mid-century it was near-universal, it continued (targeted mostly to the underclass) through Vietnam, and (with one brief break) mandatory registration to facilitate its resumption remains in effect.

- The US federal government didn't outlaw polygamy in US territories until 1862, and didn't really threaten to open a can of whipass on Utah over it until 1887. While some states had marriage licensing requirements, the federal government did not establish the Uniform Marriage and Marriage License Act (presumably under the "constitutional republican framework" Holtz asserts) until 1923.

Some advances in personal and civil liberties? Sure -- especially in the area of recognizing those liberties as possessed by persons of both sexes and all races (although on the latter, there have been various retrenchments, such as the Anti-Chinese Acts and the internment of the Nisei). Almost monotonic advancement? Not.

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Notes

1. For that matter, I could have formed an organization, armed its members, and marched it up and down the square in uniform without creating any great flap, let alone risking imprisonment. Really -- I used to have an old (1898, I think) drill manual for "Home Rifle Clubs" that I picked up at a flea market. Try doing that now. I dare you.

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