In honor of Tax Day, and the debate that has been raging through the blogosphere, I've been thinking about our relative liberty today compared to the 19th century. The gist of the debate is whether Americans were more free in the 19th century, the apex of laissez-faire, given the fact that women, black people, and gays had little political freedom (by modern standards). Bryan Caplan leads the charge pro-Gilded Age, arguing that despite the lack of explicit political freedoms, women had more de facto liberty than they do today. His detractors abound.
It's undeniable that minorities (including women) today are more free qua minority than they were in the 19th century. But it's a moot point. The lack of political freedom for women, black people, gays, etc., was a fact of life across the globe before the 20th century. Sexism, racism, and homophobia were the standard, the status quo of human history. The 19th century was radical because it unfettered the economic activity of a huge portion of individuals (in this case, white males), whose subjugation was the norm throughout history. Yes, the 19th century was far from perfect. Still, name me a country from that era that exhibited our modern standards of equality.
The point that everyone seems to be missing is that America (and the U.K.) were the freest nations on earth, given that bigotry was the norm. Today, bigotry has largely been eliminated from the political sphere, but as a whole we are less free than the freest (straight white) men who existed in the Gilded Age.