Postcard from the Gilded Age
By Bryan Caplan
Since there’s much misunderstanding of my argument about women’s liberty during the Gilded Age (here, here, and here), I thought I’d write a postcard version. The key premises are just that in the Gilded Age:
1. Taxes were much lower and economic regulation much more limited, so all else equal, men and women were much freer than they are today.
2. Unmarried women had virtually the same rights of property and contract as men, so they were much freer than they are today.
3. Marriage was voluntary, and voluntarily-accepted constraints do not infringe liberty, so appearances notwithstanding, married women were as free as unmarried women.
These three points by themselves strongly undercut libertarian complaints about women’s liberty. I then add the following additional premises:
4. While separation of marriage and state is the pure libertarian policy, government definition of marriage is much less objectionable if (a) it only sets a default rule; and (b) sets a default rule consistent with common definitions at the time.
5. Coverture was mostly, though not entirely, just a default rule, and this default probably fit common definitions of marriage at the time.
The concluding premises on the post card:
6. Other laws that might undercut (2)-(5), such as laws against cohabitation and fornication, were almost never enforced.
7. Even if you disagree with any of (2)-(5), the letter of the law rarely makes much difference within marriage.