Happy July 4th
By David Henderson
Any revolution that brings about benefits for a large sector of the population faces serious free-rider problems. Revolutionary activity is extremely risky and, once the revolution succeeds, excluding from any general benefits those who did not participate is difficult if not impossible. This explains why revolutions are always so messy and produce mixed results. It also explains why so few revolutions actually bestow genuine benefits. Gordon Tullock, in a classic 1971 article, contended that “Historically, the common form of revolution has been a not-too-efficient despotism which is overthrown by another not-too-efficient despotism with little or no effect on the public good.”14 Nonetheless, sometimes people will eschew the free-rider incentive to bring about a better world, bearing costs that exceed any individual material gains. The anti-slavery movement, first sparked by the Revolution, is one clear case.
The American Revolution is another such case. The embattled farmers who stood at Lexington green and Concord bridge in April 1775 were only part-time soldiers, with daily cares and families to support. Their lives were hard. The British redcoats they faced were highly trained and disciplined professionals serving the world’s mightiest military power. Yet when they fired the “shot heard ’round the world” that touched off the American Revolution, they initiated a cascade of positive externalities that not only U.S. citizens but also people throughout the world continue to benefit from today, more than two centuries later. They had no hope—indeed no thought—of charging for these non-excludable benefits. Nonetheless, they took the risk. What better reason to celebrate the 4th of July?
These are the concluding two paragraphs of Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, “Benefits of the American Revolution: An Exploration of Positive Externalities,” Econlib, July 2, 2018.
Last year, I posted the opening paragraphs, this year the closing ones. Of the approximately 130 Econlib Feature Articles I lined up and edited during my 11 year tenure as the editor of the Econlib Feature Articles, this is my favorite.
Here is an excerpt from a comment that Jeff Hummel wrote last year in response to other commenters:
Even after military conflict broke out in April 1775, a majority of the Continental Congress did not favor independence until February 1776, and it was a slim majority. The first colony to actually instruct its delegates to vote for independence was North Carolina the following April. Thus we have nearly a year of hard fighting during which a majority of Patriots favored and expected to achieve reconciliation within the British Empire. It was Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, published in January 1776, that ultimately tipped the scales in favor of secession.
Also the difference between the French and American Revolutions can be overdrawn. The American Revolution admittedly had no reign of terror, but the treatment of Loyalists could be quite appalling, with disturbing instances of brutality and killing. Given that many Loyalists fought for the British, some historians have started referring to the Revolution as a civil war, a term neither of you [the two people he’s responding to] consider. At the end of the War for Independence, an estimated 50,000 Loyalists left the United States, out of total population of 2.5 million. The French Revolution generated as many as 130,000 émigrés and deportees, out of a total population of 25 million. Thus the American Revolution produced refugees at almost four times the rate of the French Revolution. And while many émigrés eventually returned to France, very few Loyalists returned to the U.S.
I still maintain that the American Revolution brought momentous benefits, but let us not overlook its costs and excesses.
Postscript: Rereading Jeff’s article has pumped me up for marching with the Libertarians for Peace banner later this morning in Monterey’s July 4th parade.