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The History of Free Nations

by Richard O. Hammer

published March 2003*


How did the US come to be a free nation? Histories tell how. But I think most of these stories get it wrong. They give too much credit to the wrong origins of political liberty and overlook the real origins. Or at least that is what I invite you to consider, as I try to tell a view of history which derives in large part from the view expressed by Isabel Paterson.

Let me start by admitting that the history which I tell here contains more of my opinion than of hard data. It will not convince anyone who starts with suspicion of libertarian views. But, for those sympathetic with the free nation movement, I hope this will be a step in the right direction. I hope we can get closer to understanding what it takes to create and maintain a free nation. I welcome readers to correct my errors. Let us hope that better scholars will see, in this crude undertaking of mine, the need for seriously researched histories.

By "free nation" I mean a relatively free nation, as opposed to a perfectly free nation. In this sense the US is a free nation, relatively. But I acknowledge that the US is a long way from free, as we libertarians would like. My aim here is not to find perfection, but rather to find patterns from which we can extrapolate.

In this paper we will speculate about the history of free nations in general. But we start by reviewing the familiar example of US History from the novel viewpoint which I invite you to consider.

US History Important Threads

In the Old World, before Europeans started moving to North America, technology and civilization had advanced, far beyond the levels in North America at the same time. But the states reigning in the Old World had also advanced, growing and feeding upon the underlying prosperity. So the rate of economic growth in Europe was limited by parasitism of states. Whereas in North America at the same time there were no states at all, at least not in those areas which became English colonies.

After the discovery of the New World, Europeans began to trickle into the colonies that later became the US. They brought all that they could with them. Importantly, they brought advanced technology and cultural capital.

A Stateless Start

But they could not bring the state, or at least not a mature state such as existed back in Europe. Certainly the kings in Europe did try to regulate their colonies; they appointed governors and military commanders. And some of the early settlers wished they could bring state-enforced law along with them; having been raised in European states, these settlers' upbringings inculcated them with belief that law can only be provided by a state. But the early American ecology could barely sustain a state. Settlements were small because of the difficulty of travel to the frontiers. Settlements were far between because of the vastness of the new land. Most of the settlers were poor, compared with their cousins back in Europe. In such a situation a large state cannot feed itself.

So, for the most part, any law (or other public service) which was wanted by the settlers had to be improvised by the settlers themselves, either individually or in small networks and communities. The settlers succeeded in developing local institutions which proved adequate. (This is not surprising because this always happens. Small, stateless communities everywhere and throughout history have developed law before any state strutted onto the scene.) While the seed of state did exist from the outset in North America, for a long time it could barely grow; it remained relatively small.

Inertia in the Evolution of Law

After this zone with almost no coercive government received its initial population, then another common aspect of human communities started to act for the benefit of future generations. This common aspect is conservatism: if something works, why change it? The Americans who lived thinly scattered over the frontier built their lives, planning their affairs within the existing system of law. They invested their energies and their assets in schemes which assumed that the law would be the same in the future as it was in the present. As such, for almost any change to law which might have been suggested, some people would loose, and these people formed a constituency for maintaining the status quo. Conservatism, operating in an environment with very little state law, worked to preserve freedom.

The children raised in the New World grew up in a minimal-state environment. Their upbringings inculcated them with belief that law comes from local, predominately voluntary sources. They never had any reason to believe in any other kind of law. They took it as natural. They instinctively resisted change.

Now I am not saying that these early descendants of the first settlers were libertarians. I do not suppose that they consciously resented the state as a matter of principle, or that they would argue for a reduction of the size of the state. Rather, I assume that most of them were like most of our neighbors in the US at present. They took the government under which they lived for granted. They did not think about it much. If it seemed to be working they assumed it must have been set up that way for good reason. And since they had become invested in the status quo, they would be suspicious of anybody who argued for major change.

Blessings Which Allow the Economy to Grow Faster than the State

Thus the stage was set to grow the world's largest economy. North America had technology, culture, minimal government, and a population which took minimal government for granted. Whereas Europe at the same time had technology, culture, mature governments, and populations which took mature governments for granted.

Of course the seed of a state also existed in North America. From the inception the state did regulate and feed itself, as much as it could profitably do so. But this seed had to start its growth in an ecology in which it could barely feed at all. And later on, after the economy had grown to levels which could have fed a crippling state, the growth of the state was limited by the vested interests and conservatism of the inhabitants.

Over the centuries, later settlers from Europe brought the same statist expectations, learned in their upbringings, that the first settlers had brought with them. This influx of bad expectations could have damaged the relative freedom in the New World, if a large enough block of new settlers had arrived in a short enough time. But for the most part the voluntary systems of law discovered by the earliest settlers held. The new settlers fit in with the existing minimal government, and their children grew up believing in that minimal government.

Before concluding this happy tale, we must give explicit credit to the oceans. At the outset, the Atlantic played a crucial role by postponing settlement of North America until European technology and culture were relatively advanced. And later, as prosperity in America strengthened the temptation of foreign states to invade, the Pacific joined the Atlantic in providing defense. Given such natural defense, the state which was growing in the US was not given reason to grow rapidly for the sake of defense. This prolonged the era of relatively small government, during which the economy would be free to grow more rapidly than the state.

The US was not destined, however, to prosper forever. The state continued to grow gradually. Statist interests organized themselves wherever they could profit from new innovations in coercion. In small and marginal ways the state could often overcome voluntary interests, wherever the voluntary interests were not easily organized. At present it seems the relentlessly growing state must eventually cripple the underlying economy. No means has been found to stop its growth.

We have now covered what I suggest are the most important threads in American history. I believe these are the threads which teach the most important lessons for us who aspire to advance creation of another free nation. But I expect some readers to quibble that my history seems strange it omits a thread which dominates the view painted by other historians. So now, to avoid confusion, let me mention that other thread.

US History Secondary Thread

Somewhere in the middle of this history a revolution was fought. In the years leading up to the revolution, the British state tried to get away with a rapid expansion of its parasitism upon the colonies. But a large proportion of Americans knew they did not need a large and powerful state. Some of them risked rebellion.

Intellectual Developments Underpinning the American Revolution

Rebellion was encouraged by intellectual developments of that era such as the writings of Locke, Montesqui, and others. Intellectual developments also influenced the constitution which the rebels later wrote for their new state. That constitution provided a few checks and balances which the state could use to limit abuse of state power, whenever the state found itself in that rare mood. So intellectual developments, thus expressed, played a role in keeping the US relatively free. But I believe this role has been exaggerated. It has been portrayed at center stage in most histories, given more importance than it has earned.

After the success of the rebellion, Americans set up governments for themselves which were not very different, in scope and powers, from those with which they had grown familiar under remote colonial rule before the revolution, or at least that is the way I need to see it as I construct this view of history. I suppose they did not substantially decrease the size of the state under which they lived. They only replaced a foreign state, with a given degree of parasitism, with a local state, with a similar degree of parasitism.

At present, in the post-revolutionary era, the main force which counters the growth of government is the same force which countered that growth in the pre-revolutionary era, and this is the natural conservatism which exists in any population, the tendency for people to trust and keep on using the institutions which they and their parents have always used.

This ends my portrayal of US history. Now we will generalize, trying to sketch the bigger picture.

Review of the Elements: States, Populations

This history which I am offering builds upon some assumptions which I had better spell out.

First, a state, as I have argued before, is a living organization, an advanced form of life. Any living organization, in order to be able to feed itself in the thermodynamic flow of the universe, must contain components such as these four:

  1. a command center where decisions are made;
  2. sensing mechanisms, tuned in upon local circumstances;
  3. forcing mechanisms, adjusting local affairs as directed from the command center;
  4. media, information channels through which the command center communicates with the sensing and forcing mechanisms.

With components such as these, a state, or any living organization, may survive if it can imbibe more nourishment from its environment than it consumes.

Second, as we have already seen, populations tend to be conservative of their systems of law. By planning their affairs based upon the law which they know, they become invested in that law. And, to add a bit, it doesn't matter whether a nation is free or socialist.

Obviously, if a nation is free, a large proportion of the most influential people will have investments in private enterprises which they will defend from encroachments by the state. Perhaps not so obvious is the way that the people of a largely socialist nation become invested in the status quo: they become invested in the careers which they have built for themselves. People who work directly for the state, or in a business on a state contract, or in an industry shaped into its present form by the state (such as agriculture in the US), or in a profession licensed by the state all of these people work in roles which could vanish, or at least be reconstituted along new lines, if the state were suddenly removed. These people do not want to go to college again, or to start again in some new and differently shaped industry which they would have to learn from the ground up. Their conservatism will motivate them to defend a socialist state.

So, I suggest, no matter what degree of state intervention a population lives under, there will be forces in that population to maintain that degree of intervention. Typically those forces will be strong and controlling.

Now, assuming that you can accept my view of these elements (states and populations), let us speculate about where we might see free nations arise, as these elements and others churn together in Earth's flow of history.

Conditions that Give Birth to a Free Nation

I believe that free nations, or at least those free nations which have existed so far on Earth, arise when conditions happen to be just right. Here are some important conditions:

  1. there must exist a relatively advanced and wealthy civilization, out of which explorers travel;
  2. there must be found a habitable new frontier, which is
  3. not already populated by an advanced civilization, and
  4. separated from the mother civilization by a long and difficult journey.

When these conditions exist, a free nation may well be born in the new frontier, if events unfold in the following way. A few people from the motherland make the journey, settle in the new frontier, and start building lives for themselves. They squabble from time to time. They have difficulties. They need law. But they cannot hope to get law from any state. So they discover law for themselves, creating a system of stateless, voluntary institutions providing the law they need.

Now, to elaborate on why the settlers can not get law from any state, they will not be able to get law from the mother state because the command center is too far away. The communication channel back to the mother state just cannot carry enough information rapidly enough. Law from that source can not work.

Regarding the possibility that the settlers might get law from a local state, or a local governor appointed by the mother state, the new frontier will probably be too poor to support a state with more than a few trivial functions. It will be poor because, I assume, the initial population will be small. A small population cannot support much specialization. As I understand economics, specialization is a primary source of wealth. So the initial population, being both small and poor, cannot possibly feed a state with numerous departments, such as probably exists back in the motherland.

Thus, while wealth of opportunity may motivate settlers to move to the frontier, in moving the settlers leave wealth in present goods behind. For quite a long time the settlers have more opportunity than present goods. And, fortunately for the settlers' descendants, a state cannot feed upon wealth of opportunity. A state dies unless it can feed upon present goods. Having no other choice, the settlers build a free nation.

Conditions that Allow Survival of a Free Nation

With a free nation thus given a start on the new frontier, I believe that nation will be able to survive for a full lifetime, such as nations live, if certain conditions prevail. The natural conservatism of a population will stabilize the system of law, keeping that law mostly voluntary, so long as the nation is not overwhelmed from the outside. So the nation must not be overrun either by a foreign army or by rapid immigration of people from mature states.

A rapid immigration could pose a threat because, I assume, people who grow up in mature states tend to believe in the necessity of state-based law. But if immigration occurs slowly enough, then I assume that the minimal-state tradition of the population already settled in the frontier will hold.

I propose that it is also necessary, in the history of free nations such as they have existed thus far on Earth, that a free nation be defended by natural barriers, such as oceans or mountain ranges, at least while it is young and still vulnerable. With such natural barriers in place, arguments to expand the state for the sake of defense will be weak, and conservatism will tend to keep the state small.

The free nation must have some natural resources which enable its economy to develop. But natural resources should not be overvalued in this mix of necessary conditions. My point is to highlight other conditions which I believe are more important, the conditions that create and sustain a voluntary system of law.

When a free nation has been started, and when that nation enjoys those conditions aiding survival which I have mentioned thus far, then the economy will grow faster than the state. This is the final condition for the survival of a free nation which I propose for your consideration. The economy must grow faster than the state.

The growth of an economy creates new liberties, I suppose, in the sense that wealthy people generally have more choices than poor people. Thus a nation can remain "free" under my terminology here even if the state is growing gradually. If the economy grows faster than the state then, in some gross sense, new liberties are being added faster than the state is removing other liberties.

If a free nation survives beyond its youth, reaching a maturity in which it has a large and mighty economy, then the necessity for natural defenses such as oceans becomes less crucial. In such circumstances, the state will be able to finance sufficient military defenses without taxing away a large fraction of the national produce.

While the right conditions may allow a free nation to survive, perhaps for hundreds of years, there is no bulwark here to defend a free nation forever. Almost every state in history has grown relentlessly, taxing more, regulating more, and eventually collapsing under the weight of its own corruption and inefficiency. Free nations eventually loose their freedoms, and then later die.

Applying these Views to Other Histories

Notice with me that Rome was a distant hinterland during the heyday of Greece, France a distant hinterland during the heyday of Rome, and England a distant hinterland during the time of Charlemagne. I hope these observations add weight to the theories offered here, but of course a fleshed out account would help.

French and Russian Revolutions

A theory which I have presented here advances the conservatism of a population as a predominant force in the history of states. This conservatism, which is unconscious for the most part, plays a stronger role in determining the size of the state which will reign in any given time and place than any conscious deliberations about political structures, and it plays a stronger role than any revolutionary wars.

Assuming you join me in hoping that my theory has some truth in it, let us look briefly at the French and Russian revolutions. In each case, before the revolution there was a large and powerful state with numerous departments, a state which had been maturing for centuries. The populations under these states had never known anything else. In each case, after the revolution there was still a large and powerful state with numerous departments. The departments may have been reorganized, but, if my theory is correct, the list of functions performed ("services provided" as a statist would tell it) did not change suddenly, because the population expected their government to perform those functions.

The Russian revolution was different in that the revolutionaries were trying to establish socialism; they were trying not merely to change the rulers but also to bring about a large increase in the size of the state. But after gaining power Lenin backed off on points of socialist purity. And 1520 years later, when socialism was still not established in the farmlands, Stalin tried to complete the revolution by using genocide. They were not able to suddenly change the size of the state.

The Internet: a New Frontier Now Being Settled

In the development of the Internet, I see several parallels to the birth of a free nation. The Internet is a new frontier which opened rather suddenly. In the span of just a few decades people "settled" the Internet and started to work there.

As in any settlement of a new terrain, the first explorers promptly discovered that they needed standards and rules of conduct. Since the state was nowhere to be seen in this terrain, these people set up their own standards bodies and started to govern the terrain themselves through voluntary organizations such as the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). These organizations, while not perfect (law is never perfect), are achieving much of what they were established to achieve.

The state, which is only gradually beginning to wake up to the prospect of regulating and taxing the Internet, is arriving late, long after voluntary law has already been established. If my theory is correct, the people who have established interests in the Internet probably do not think much about the distinction between voluntary law and state law in the Internet. But I believe they sense where their interests lie, and they will conservatively resist attempts by the state to step in and usurp the law.

Thus a new realm of voluntary law grew and got entrenched in a new frontier before the state could arrive. I predict Internet law will stay voluntary, for the most part, for a long time. But the state will, of course, gradually edge its way in, regulating and taxing, bit by bit as it is able.


History seems to show that the free nations of a given era got started centuries earlier in regions which were remote hinterlands at that earlier time. To explain this, Isabel Paterson emphasized the length and thinness of the communication channel between a mother state and its colonies. I have added ideas about the ecology in which a state can survive and about the tendency for an established system of law to remain constant, to change only gradually.


*  This paper was presented under a different title, "Isabel Paterson and the Development of Free Nations", in March 2004 at the Austrian Scholars Conference of the Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama.



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