One of the most exciting, but highly neglected areas of inquiry for those concerned with freedom is staked out by the persistent fact that liberty grows and remains prominent even in the absence of pronounced mass awareness of her need and requirements.
The time from 1850 onward is the era when (classical) liberalism declines precipitously (at least in Germany, but I suspect in other western countries including the USA, too). It is the age of the rise of Marxism and socialism, which gradually get reconciled with the needs of freedom in what might be called the social democratic alloy which reigns supreme to this day.
To the extent that deliberate human action plays a role, it seems that often, perhaps even predominantly the protagonists of liberty-producing institutions are not convinced classical liberals but highly pragmatic power-holders who more or less stumble into liberty-enhancing arrangements.
Certainly, like all of the larger patterns of history (feudalism, the modern age, capitalism etc.) the ascendancy of freedom is an unplanned event, an instance of emergent order. So what is the role of those who are conscious of the characteristics and the need of liberty in the unfolding genesis of freer societies? In what way does liberty force or convince her infidels to comply with her needs?
Over three-quarters of the overall progress in economic liberty [since 1850, G.T.] in the OECD up to 2007 had been achieved before World War I.
From the mid-nineteenth century to the eve of World War I steady advancement of economic liberty took place across the board, peaking in 1913 (although it is up to early 1880s when most of the action happened). Over three-quarters of the overall progress in economic liberty in the OECD up to 2007 had been achieved before World War I.
During the first half of the twentieth century economic freedom suffered a severe reversal. After a dramatic decline during the war and its aftermath, the recovery was fast and peaked in 1929, reaching the level of the late 1890s. The Great Depression pushed down economic freedom again and the post-Depression recovery did not imply a rebound of economic liberty so, by the eve of World War II, it had shrunk to the level of the early 1850s.
Economic freedom improved in the second half of the twentieth century and peaked in 2007. However, in between two expansionary phases – a quick recovery in the 1950s and a post-1980 expansion – economic freedom came to a halt, stabilising during the 1960s around the late 1920s level, and declining in the early 1970s. From the early 1980s to the eve of the current recession, a sustained expansion took place, overcoming the 1913 peak by 1989 and reducing the early 1980s shortfall to half by the mid-2000s. In the last two decades the highest levels of economic freedom have been reached.
Daniel Mitchell chanced on the same source and comments in his post Why Did Western Nations Continue to Prosper ...