As I said, today I got to hear Daniel Hannan speak as part of promoting his new book, Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World. I have my autographed copy in hand, and am look forward reading it. To the extent Hannan’s talk was a preview of his book, I know I’m going to like it, and then drive everyone crazy by quoting from it all the time.
For those who don’t know, Daniel Hannan is a British representative at the European Union. He shot to fame amongst conservatives in America thanks to this video:
Before I get to the substance of Hannan’s way-too-brief talk, let me say that the video does not lie. He is a slim, neat looking man, who is enormously articulate in a way only the British seem to be. His grammar and diction are perfect, his Biblical and historic references fluent, his fund of knowledge vast, and his narrative organized and impassioned in a polite, classy way. When I spoke with him briefly after the luncheon, he was endearingly thoughtful and charming. I was probably one of 75 people to whom he spoke, and yet I felt he was giving me his full attention and seriously considering my point.
In his talk, Hannan’s core issue was a surprisingly simple one: He asserts that the Rule of Law’s primacy in the Anglo-American sphere is the basis for the freedom and prosperity that led these two nations to dominate the world, seriatim, for centuries. More than asserting that, he made his case supporting this assertion. And yes, as a lawyer and a Jew, I was inclined to agree with him from the get-go.
The Anglo-American reverence for law goes back 799 years to Runnymede in England, 1215. That’s when the English barons, fed up with charmless King John’s monarchical excesses, forced him to sign the Magna Carta.
The Magna Carta is the first writing ever that holds that there are abstract legal principles inherent in the individual that transcend even the king himself. Even when one remembers that these inherent principles were written so as to apply only to a very small band of high lords, this was still the moment that led directly to America’s Bill of Rights. That document also states that there are inherent legal principles that protect against their government, the difference being that those rights extend to all people, not just the privileged few.
No wonder then, said Hannan,that Lord Denning described the Magna Carta as “the greatest constitutional document of all times – the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot.” It is this supreme achievement, Hannan added, that is the “shared patrimony” of English-speaking people. “This is our Torah.”
Because the law by its very existence frees people from tyranny, it is the foundation of everything else that has elevated the Anglo-American sphere (including former colonies) above the rest of the world. It leads to true democracy, the eventual end of slavery, free markets, equality, and, indeed, every right one can imagine in our world.
Unfortunately, too many people take the rule of law for granted. Indeed, many think it is the natural state of things. It’s not. The natural state of things is the autocrat, the tyrant, the oligarch, or (something striking increasingly close to home) the dictatorship of the administrative state.
Nor is it easy to spread these ideas. To the extent they exist at all, they have been spread by occupation or military conquest. It turns out that, in most places, an iron fist was necessary to put the tools of liberty in place. (As an aside, the value of the rule of law explains why, as Niall Ferguson argued in Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power, all of Britain’s former colonies are the most successful places in their region or on earth.)
Interestingly, Hannan says that Americans value the Magna Carta much more than do the Brits. In Runnymede (which is part of Hannan’s constituency), the first monument appeared only in 1957 — after the American Bar Association paid to erect it.
Amazingly, considering the document’s age, England has four original copies of the Magna Carta. No one, however, seems to care much. When Hannan took his children to see the one in Lincoln, it was just hanging on the wall, there were no lines, and it was easy to stand right in front of it, so as to admire the medieval parchment, writing, and seals.
By contrast, when that same copy of the Magna Carta came to New York in 1939 for the World’s Fair, almost 14.5 million Americans went to see it. Moreover, in a marvelously symbolic way, because the war started before the Americans could return Magna Carta to its home country, that seminal document spent the war safely stowed away in Fort Knox.
Showing a greater knowledge of California history and politics than most people, Hannan said that California could easily have gone another way, away from the Anglo-American sphere. It was, of course, part of Spain before America got it, but Russia also wanted it. In 1806, Count Nicolai Rezanov wooed and almost won the daughter of the Spanish garrison commander in Monterey, something that would have cemented a Russian-Spanish alliance in the Western half of the new world. It was only Rezanov’s failure to return from Russia to claim the maiden’s hand (he died en route in Siberia) that prevented this event.
Even that marriage, however, might not have been enough to stop the spread of the Anglo-American rule of law across the American continent. As England herself discovered in 1776, in a pre-industrial age it’s terribly difficult for a centralized power to exert supreme control over a far-flung empire. This is especially true when the people living in those far-flung parts are independent minded.
In some places, of course, conquerors simply substituted themselves at the top of an existing power structure. In the new world, however, Hannan pointed out that free-spirited, freedom-loving settlers set out on their own to claim territory. Once they settled in, they applied the rule of law, quickly creating strong, functioning communities. This proved to be the best way to build a society from the ground up: the organic growth of free people subject to the rule of law.
For a microcosm of the two different types of governance, Hannan contrasted Silicon Valley and Sacramento. One is a dynamic creative hub, the other a sclerotic administrative entity that exists to fund itself in perpetuity (something both political parties are guilty of doing). In other words, said Hannan, “governments are pension providers, not service providers.”
Hannan then focused on the nature of government itself: How is it that well-intentioned people go into government, but nothing changes? He said that what they discover once they get to the halls of power is that the buttons and levers assigned to them are illusory. The un-elected functionary is the real power.
Given this depressing state of things, with the Western world moving quickly to administrative autocracies, how, Hannan asked rhetorically, do we repair things? The first step, he said, is for us to remember who we are. We — the Anglo-American world built upon the rule of law — are a wonder and a miracle, and we need to recognize that in order to preserve it.
Because this is California, Hannan offered a wine analogy: When Europeans first came to America, they brought their grape cuttings with them and planted wonderful vineyards that grew and thrived. Then, in the 19th century, a terrible blight destroyed European vineyards. To recover them, the Europeans had to come to America and bring cuttings from those heritage plants back home.
England brought her cuttings to America in the form of ideas. She’s now lost many of those ideas at home, but can look to America to reclaim them. Moreover, she can recognize that they’ve gotten better here — just as we pay $5 for a bottle of wine better than Louis XIV could ever have imagined.
That last fact recognizes the spectacular achievement of the free market. When law is king, a society prospers and innovates. People have stability, reliability, rights in property, etc., and that encourages creation and innovation, not to mention more affordable things — all types of things — for all people.
Hannan had a very simple example of the miracle of the law-based free market: a can of baked beans for $1. That can represents the coming together of so many things: the farmer, the loggers who cut the wood used for the label, the paper makers, the label printers, the mine for the metal used in the can, the smelting plant that made the can, the factory that cooked and canned the beans, the transportation that brought all these items together and then brought them to market, and the retailer who eventually sells it to you . . . all for $1.
This can of beans is a miracle, and we need to appreciate it and value it in order to preserve it. Moreover, the Left has never, not even once, put forward an idea or a behavior that has benefited so many people as the ideas and behaviors that came together in that single can of tasty nutrition.
Hannan wrapped up his speech there and opened the floor to a few questions. The first question was about China. Hannan does not foresee a good outcome there. Demographically, not only does it lack girls, it lacks youth. Like Japan and most of Europe, it will soon be a top-heavy nation with millions of old people relying on a small number of young people for support. Moreover, since it’s not a free nation, there will be no debate about how to deal with this problem. The Party’s heavy-hand will do something, and it probably won’t be nice.
If China could be given a rule of law and true freedom, she’d be unstoppable. Look at Hong Kong and Singapore, said Hannan. Both of these former British colonies are spectacularly successful and economically free.
The next question went to Hannan’s own identity. It’s a little-known fact that he was born in Peru, and first went to England to attend boarding school. This meant that he got to see both cultures side by side. In the England of his youth (a youth during the Thatcher era), what wasn’t barred was allowed. What you owned you kept. The NHS notwithstanding, it was still a legal system for individuals, not the state.
In Peru, what’s not permitted is disallowed. You hold the land on sufferance from the government (sounds feudal, doesn’t it?).
On the subject of the UKIP, Hannan said the best way to think of it is to imagine that the Tea Party became a genuine third party. There are some extremists in it, but mostly it’s a party that wants to hew to free markets, individual liberty, etc. That’s why the Left hates it and the Conservatives (just like the GOP with respect to the Tea Party) want to destroy it.
Things can get very bad in England if the Conservatives refuse to embrace UKIP. This is so because, when a single party splits in two, rather than getting twice as many votes, each gets half as many, leaving power to the party on the opposite side of the aisle. In England, if Conservatives and UKIP combine, they have a clear majority; if they fight it out, the smaller Labour party sweeps the elections. (The GOP should, but won’t, pay attention to this.)
On the subject of energy, Hannan says that there is a vast shale reserve under his own constituency in south-eastern England. However, unlike America, which has vertical rights, the British did not own the land under their property. Since oil recovery can be a messy, noisy prospect, no one has an incentive to engage in it. Only with some ownership rights will they be willing to drill.
Finally, Hannan addressed how he, an individualist, can sit in the EU, the ultimate administrative, top-down, undemocratic body. For one thing, he explained, he is not simply defined by one thing. One can simultaneously be a member of the EU and work to limit its power. More than that, to the extent the EU is a representative body, he should represent those who don’t like the EU. He admitted, though, that this is an uncomfortable situation for him, especially given that the British still have a vestigial sense of law and individual freedom, while the Europeans fear individual decision-makers (after all, individuals elected Hitler and Mussolini) and have endless faith in the power of elite technocrats.
Lastly, as I mentioned at the top of this post, I had a brief word with Hannan when he signed the book. Interestingly enough, while driving into the City, Charles Martel and I had spoken about the Leftist march through institutions. One of my points was that conservatives made that march easy because, by definition, conservatives are suspicious of institutions. A person who values individualism and liberty is not about to embrace an institution that invariably leads to its opposite. By instinctively retreating from those institutions, however, conservatives created a vacuum that the Left gleefully filled.
Since Hannan had spoken about the reason a conservative would enter the EU, I suggested that, if he’s asked that question again, he should add that he’s countering the Leftist march through institutions by filling a seat that would otherwise have gone to someone hungering for even more technocratic, bureaucratic power. Hannan really listened to me, and explained that he agrees with me, but that the few conservatives in the EU all speak about the soul-searing difficulty of functioning in that organization. To counter it, every year he organizes a holiday for all of them during which they contribute labor to a charitable organization (building houses for the poor, etc.).
I went in to the luncheon speech expecting to be impressed, and I left . . . impressed. Daniel Hannan is doing what he can to resurrect in the American soul a reverence for the rule of Law and all the benefits that flow from that. It’s up to us to do what we can to spread that idea further.
And one other thing: Hannan’s talk gave me an insight into why Bush’s efforts to bring freedom to Iraq ultimately failed (with Obama simply adding to that failure when he created the power vacuum into which ISIS marched). Bush made the mistake of thinking that democracy equals freedom. In fact, democracy equals the right to vote. The Soviets all voted. I remember how the Soviet leadership always boasted that they were a true democracy, unlike America, because they had a 100% turnout in every election, unlike our puny two-digit numbers. But they were not free.
Giving Iraqis the right to vote was not the same as creating a stable Angl0-American legal system within which they could thrive. Of course, considering that sharia is a stable legal system, although a terribly repressive and punitive one, it’s doubtful if anyone, even someone with a better understanding of law’s relationship to freedom and stability, could have succeeded in Iraq. As we have all had reason to learn, the Anglo-American system, which is individual-centric, does not exist in the same universe as sharia, which subordinates the individual completely to the cruel and autocratic will of the long-dead Mohamed.