Hi, Tom [Palmer]:
In your talk about liberty on the CD Cato sent out this month [October, 2004] you take some pleasure in ridiculing those who think liberty is a recent development in human history. Having heard you speak many many times and having never been a progressivist myself has put me on guard about this for a long time. Yet, I do believe that the Declaration of Independence had been a revolutionary political document, not because it invented liberty but because never before had the idea--which admittedly had lurked about for centuries--been incorporated into a full fledged political creed. That's probably because, as Stanley Cavell has put it, America was made by the Founders--it isn't something that slowly evolved. So there was a chance here to give expression, officially, to these heretical ideas and ideals. While the notions involved had percolated for centuries--starting probably with Lao Tzu and Alcibiades (as I chronicle in The Virtue of Liberty [FEE, 1994])--understandably it never got a good rap from leaders of countries. (Why should it have--it would have meant pretty much disenfranchising them!)
Also, some things needed to be known that had not been in order to gain full confidence in such notions that slavery sucks and women ought to have a place among the citizenry, as men do. I do not believe one needs to have a Whig notion of history to accept that even in ethics and politics there can be some advances made, never guaranteed. After all, while not exactly like medicine, ethics and politics do gain from greater understanding of, say, the merits of the division of labor or public choice theory.